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Three hours south of Montreal by car is Black Mountain, the tallest of the Adirondack Mountains overlooking Lake George. I arrived there yesterday at 10 a.m., parked at the trailhead and embarked on the Black Mountain trail loop, a walk of seven miles. The initial climb through the woods gets steeper and steeper until you burst into the blazing light of a midsummer day and you can see the enormity of the landscape stretching into the distance. The lake is 2000 feet fellow, etched with the white trails of boats, whose movement at first glance is imperceptible; further afield, you see the mountains of Vermont – each successive ridge turned ever more shadowy by the haze of humidity.
At the peak of Black Mountain, a hundred or more dragonflies are dancing on gentle eddies of wind. There is a now disused fire ranger’s tower, adding about another 20 feet to the mountain. It looks like an oil derrick. Did that tiny grey cabin made of wood at one time serve as the ranger’s living quarters? Beside the tower is a much newer addition – a wind turbine. As the breeze ebbs and flows, the turbine’s blades make either a loud slapping sound or turn quiet and sometimes even stop silent.
On the way down there are a few ponds – Black Mountain Pond, Round Pond, and Lapland Pond – as well as patches of marsh, a couple of old wooden bridges, and the reassuring plastic trail markers hammered into the trees at regular intervals. At one point those markers ran out; I spent about 20 minutes by one of the ponds wondering where on earth my trail was supposed to go next. Fortunately there were two young men fishing from a boat in the pond who were able to tell me I’d made the wrong turn about a quarter mile previously and I’d need to go back there and take a different trail. I did this and found the rest of the way unaided.
A particular highlight of the descent was an encounter with a lizard. He/she was merely an inch and a half in length, ambling along as if on a Sunday stroll. My presence was, happily, no cause for alarm. The lizard stopped for a breather and we contemplated each other’s respective existences for a couple of minutes.
By two in the afternoon I had returned to my car. Many more hikers were parked there than in the morning and I didn’t envy them because they’d picked the hottest time for the climb. It must have been over 30 degrees, and very humid. During my walk I had drunk one and a half litres of water – everything I had – and could easily have drunk more.
I took zero photos. Had my camera but the batteries were dead. Typical me. I don’t care. It was pretty much unforgettable with or without photos.
Over here there is a short article about American psychologist and philosopher William James’ wanderings in the Adirondacks over a century ago. He tackled Mount Marcy, which is 5,343 feet to Black Mountain’s 2,646 feet. At the time, James was reportedly seeking a brief reprieve from academic life. He was about to deliver a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh, with which, according to the article “he hoped to cement his reputation — and that of American philosophy — and demonstrate his belief that the psychological and philosophical study of religion should focus on the direct personal experience of numinousness…”
That night, after summiting Mount Marcy, he could not sleep, and he went outdoors and looked at the stars and the moon, and had – you know – one of those moments that only Nature can provide. After that “he understood spiritual reality not as a concept, or as something privileged, but as an unexceptional property of human consciousness and a fact of life.”
I’ve not read a single page of William James (but I sure like The Turn of the Screw by his equally famous brother, Henry!), nevertheless, this is one of those nuggets of revelation that stands out like an epigram to me, from which in my quintessentially pretentious way I can find all sorts of meanings for my own life.
Whenever I spend months and months – even years now – living apart from any sort of experience of the sublime, something troubling is going on in the soul, but I find I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is until I’m there again, on Black Mountain, experiencing things that are not just sublime but surprising (who knew there’d be a small swarm of dragonflies; who knew lizards don’t always run away) and I become aware that no matter what I’ve learned over the years, my mind still labours in predictable ways, and its labours become burdensome to me. Only that assault on my senses (and I mean assault non-violently) achieved by Nature can wrench me out of the trap of my own self.
What if the spiritual really were “unexceptional” and a “fact of life”? What if it were just as important and as central to my existence as breakfast cereal, my apartment, and a day in the office? Leftists like me have a highly ambivalent relationship with spirituality – despising the bigotry and cruelty seen too often in dogma, and equally reviling New Age mysticism, and hugging trees and similar bullshit – and so often spirituality seems like something to phase out of life altogether, or to just be indifferent about. But what if I could be seeking something that is not some affirmation of myself – “I am one with the tree, hence a more advanced being” – nor a prescribed moral code, per se – but rather the oxygen of outside forces? I knew in my soul yesterday that I needed to go up Black Mountain alone; I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Talking and reading and writing – which I do all my goddam life! – are sometimes so tiresome. You find yourself predicting your own next sentence sometimes. And the Metro is predictable, even when it breaks down, and the city streets in their grid constantly corral us left and right. All of these things are well and good – we need them – but speaking only personally here, I still end up feeling trapped. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the countryside. Whatever spirituality is, surely there is an aspect to it that resides only at the tops of mountains or in the vastness of oceans, and defies comprehension. And that is exactly what is so freeing. At the top of Black Mountain, here is something I do not have to understand, I do not have to solve; I do not even have to converse with it.
No wonder there is a fellow who chose to be buried there. A wooden sign tells passersby that Black Mountain is where his heart belongs.
This was not an easy chapter for the little hamsters that power the cogs in my brain. Poor things were winded by the end of it… Entitled, “The Labour Process and the Valorization Process,” Marx’s journey here takes him inside the locus of production – which could be the factory, the office, the farm, the coalmine.
It was the “valorization” part of this chapter that I found the most difficult to understand. But thankfully, Marx eases his audience into this part, starting out instead with the labour process.
Dedicated readers of Capital will recall that in the previous chapter, Marx identified labour-power as a very unique commodity – it is the only commodity with the power to create surplus-value. And as we all know, surplus-value is essential to capitalism. Capitalists need to take their money and turn it into even more money. That is what they live for! That, and fat stogies pressed between their appetitive lips.
In his series of lectures, David Harvey lingers a while over Marx’s assertion that while most things in a capitalist economy are a product of the dominant social order, labour transcends the social order. Labour is obviously the cornerstone of capitalism but it’s also the cornerstone of all previous forms of social organization. There is something a little zen-like in Marx’s thought here. As he notes:
Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature… Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. (p283)
Zen-like indeed. Labour is our means of interacting with Nature in order to procure the means of our survival. Each of us is a “force of nature” – and so we are an integral part of the forces that we attempt to manipulate – and in our labour, we change not only Nature but also ourselves. Although Marx has been accused of largely ignoring the environment, there seems to be a glimpse here of what an ecological reading of Marx might expand upon – a glimpse at a worldview that does not at all presume a separation between humanity and the environment, but rather, a symbiotic relationship between the two.
As a labourer, man is like other species that procure their means for their survival through Nature – eg. a spider with its web, a bee with its hive – with a critical difference. Only we humans conceptualize the fruits of our labour before the labour begins. Before I break an egg, I have an omelette in mind. I am not blindly fumbling around with no clue where I’m headed – well, not usually.
The labour process, then, is composed of three elements, says Marx: 1) purposeful activity… the work itself 2) the object upon which the work is performed, i.e. clay, which is turned into a pot, and 3) the instruments of that work, i.e. the pottery wheel.
David Harvey emphasizes here the point that work is NOT play. I would elaborate in my own way to say that given this is so, no matter what kind of emancipation is ever achieved in the workplace, work will always be, well, work. It could be a lot more meaningful given a different social order, but Harvey’s evocation of the cliché that most work is “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration” is indeed one with which I am in total agreement. Speaking strictly personally here, even the kind of work I apply myself to strictly voluntarily, writing, with no clock, no boss, no whip of coercion, is nevertheless very seldom fun. I don’t find it to be play; I do consider it work. Nevertheless, it’s always been about the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever applied myself to.
Marx continues to flesh out the labour process in more detail, discussing the raw materials and the instruments of labour that clearly are part and parcel of creating a commodity. These things have been with us for an awfully long time. As he notes, briefly wearing his anthropologist’s hat, “we find stone implements and weapons in the oldest caves” (p285). So it would follow that raw materials and the use of tools are not manifestations of a capitalist mode of production, per se.
It is not what is made but how, and by what instruments of labour, that distinguishes different economic epochs. Instruments of labour not only supply a standard of the degree of development which human labour has attained, but they also indicate the social relations within which men work (p286).
It appears here that we must be very mindful of a particular process, then, because the labour process pre-dates capitalism in myriad different forms. It’s only because of how these elements are uniquely organized under capitalism that we can call a certain form of production a genuinely capitalist mode of production.
The next few pages are very, very dense indeed. They’re like a thicket of brambles that you need a scythe to get through. Or you can use the clever noggin of David Harvey to get you through! The general gist here is a discussion of use-values, and how use-values show up in the labour process in a number of ways. Raw materials are use-values, instruments of labour are use-values, products of labour are use-values. In applying use-values in the labour process, let’s say burning coal to fuel a factory furnace, some use-values are extinguished and new ones are born. If the coal is all used up in a furnace that generates sufficient heat to create steel, what we have now is a new use-value. The previous use-value of coal – to provide energy – has been spent in the production of a new use-value, the use-value of steel (as a building block of a skyscraper).
Readers who’ve followed the journey with Marx from Chapter 1 are forced to confront a new idea about use-values, then. Previously, use-values had been tied to the notion of individual consumption. I create a golf tee, which has a use-value to a golfer. Because I hate golf, I can trade my golf tee with the golfer for something he possesses that is of use to me – let’s say a golf shirt. Yes, I do hate golf, but I will, if I have to blend into a certain kind of society, wear a golf shirt. Hence it has a use-value for me. We’ve exchanged use-values in a mutually advantageous way. Three cheers for commodity exchange!
But now Marx supplements this conception of use-value with a new one. We have not only use-value in individual consumption, but also use-value in the production process. What complicates an analysis of the production process is the requirement to take into account not only the visible production of new use-values but also the reliance in that new production on the products of past labour – that is to say, on the previous production of use-values. This analysis is difficult, because as we’ve seen with the example of coal, previously-produced use-values are often extinguished when used in a new production process.
Marx calls the consumption of previously produced use-values productive consumption.
…the product of individual consumption is the consumer himself; the result of productive consumption is a product distinct from the consumer. (p290)
Indeed. I like jam. When I eat it, I am consuming in a way that merely sustains me. That’s greedy individual consumption for you. But as a labourer, I would consume jam in an entirely different way; I would consume it in a way that would produce a Jammy Dodger – that tasty biscuit so beloved of the English. In so doing, I am creating a consumer product separate from myself. And bringing cheer to millions of children who can now further rot their rotten English teeth.
The labour process in a capitalist mode of production thus corrals these productive forces in a way that has two very necessary pre-conditions:
1) “The worker works under the control of the capitalist to whom his labour belongs” (p291)
2) “The product is the property of the capitalist and not that of the worker” (p292)
So you can’t flip the bird at your foreman and tell him to suck eggs and walk off the site. No sir! And you can’t take with you that wheelbarrow of cement you just mixed. Your work belongs to the foreman’s boss, the developer, and the product of your work belongs to him too.
This, remember, is freedom. This is freedom as capitalists would have it.
The Valorization Process
So now we get to the bit that really hurt my head. In this section, we return to the same vexing question that plagued us in Chapter 5, essentially, how is surplus-value (a.k.a. profit) generated? Marx had started answering this question by saying that it is labour-power that creates surplus value. But how exactly does labour-power achieve that?
Marx looks at it from the perspective of the capitalist, who buys labour-power. Very logically, he asserts that the capitalist has two aims in the start of the production process: 1) “he wants to create a use-value which has exchange value, i.e. an article destined to be sold” (p293) and 2) “he wants to produce a commodity greater in value than the sum of the values of the commodities used to produce it” (p293). Achieving #1 ensures that the capitalist actually has something people want to buy; achieving #2 ensures he makes a profit on that sale.
Briefly Marx digresses to tell us that just as the commodity is a unity, formed of use-value and value, so too is the production process a unity, which is composed of the labour process and the process of creating value.
This seemingly important point made, he then provides a very lengthy analysis of a production process involving yarn and spinning and spindles and whatnot. Perhaps the antiquated terminology is what makes this section such tough going. What the heck is a spindle? Do I really have to go consult a dictionary? Maybe there are people who still have first-hand experience of spindles, but I’ll wager that most of them live in Vietnam, Cambodia, or China.
Back to the unbridled joy of reading this section of Marx. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but what Marx seems to be doing between pages 293 and 297 is explaining all the inputs that go into a particular production process, including labour power. Very painstakingly, everything that goes into the production process must be counted, including such things as the wear and tear of that hapless spindle. Why? Because the use-values of such things as spindles are slowly used up as they manufacture finished goods. So if a spindle lasts about 10 years – not a bad innings for a spindle, eh what? – then we must consider how many thingamabobs that spindle has helped manufacture in that time – let’s say hipster T-shirts from H&M for the sake of argument – and then we must calculate how much of the spindle’s use-value is extinguished in each T-shirt. Maybe a spindle expends one millionth of its life span on making me a fancy-ass T-shirt that I can lark about in to impress my friends. Whatever the calculation – and believe me, I goddam hate calculating things so I don’t plan on doing any further calculations – the essential rule is that every single use-value that goes into the production process is expended in whole or in part. If it’s a spindle, eventually, it’s going to have to be replaced when it no longer works. And the capitalist, of course, in order to own the means of production, must purchase all of these necessary use-values (which we could alternately call commodities, of course, since every one of the things under discussion here is a commodity, including labour-power itself).
Phew, now we’ve gotten this far. But now it’s going to get even trickier.
The capitalist now adds up everything that he has had to invest in the production process and then calculates the value of the result of that production process, in terms of the finished goods he now possesses that he can sell. Something very fishy is up. “Our capitalist stares in astonishment,” Marx declares dramatically (p297). “The value of the product is equal to the value of the capital advanced.”
What does that mean? It means that if the product happens to be, say, 100 H&M T-shirts, which is the result of the labour of one hard-working worker over the course of, say, six hours, selling those H&M T-shirts is not going to make the capitalist any profit whatsoever. He paid the required rate for everything involved in the production process, including to the labourer, but the value of what he’s created is exactly equivalent to what he invested.
As in Chapter 5, Marx does not countenance the idea of treachery and overcharging or underpaying or what-have-you. This is, if you will, a version of capitalism that is as pure as the driven snow.
So what’s the big fuss about?
What has happened is that the capital advanced “has not been valorized” (p297). The capitalist remains vexed over this shambolic state of affairs, all the way from the bottom of page 297 to page 301. And then, suddenly, he starts to laugh. Why? Because the solution has been so self-evident all along! Doh!
The answer – the mystery of how to valorize capital – lies of course in the hands of the labourer. If the capitalist invests whatever is necessary for each element of the production process – for the spindle and the spinning machine and what-have-you – the labourer is, of course, included in these calculations. And as has been previously determined, the amount of labour time that is socially necessary to produce labour-power is the equivalent of whatever it takes to sustain the labourer – i.e. the amount invested in food, shelter, etc. for the labourer to be able to renew his or her energies every day.
But now the canny capitalist sees that while he has given the labourer sufficient funds to produce six hours worth of labour-power, which is also equivalent to what the labourer requires to live, the labourer is still standing there, fully able to KEEP WORKING! He’s taken a licking but he’ll keep on ticking!
“So get back to work for another six hours, prole!” the capitalist hereby yells triumphantly. And therein is the secret of valorization, and by extension, the creation of surplus-value. A worker will work X number of hours for his own sustenance, the trick is to then get him or her to work for an additional X number of hours for the sake of creating value. All without paying him too much more, of course – if a dime.
Now the labourer can make an additional 100 H&M T-shirts, and the capitalist can whistle all the way to the Swiss bank with the profits.
Tax Freedom Day (a purposeful digression)
A little light went off in my head about Marx’s calculations above when I considered the concept of Tax Freedom Day, a popular notion espoused by numerous right-wing demagogues. The basic idea of “tax freedom” is that you add up all the taxes that an individual must pay, let’s say it’s $10,000 in a year, you then figure out how many months it would take to pay these taxes with a given income – let’s say you earn $40,000 a year – and you arrive at the conclusion that because your tax load is one quarter of your salary, it’s going to take a quarter of the year to pay your taxes. January, February, March. Only as of April are you “free.”
Tax Freedom Day is generally based on a similar calculation to the one above except that it’s for an entire country. And every year, tax-hating right-wing ideologues – who in addition to many other flaws also happen to be crashing bores (imagine writing basically the same story every year all your life) – these dunderheads then come out and declare, say, May 1 as Tax Freedom Day. Why? Because after this day, the average American/Canadian/Brit will have stopped working for the government(s) and will have started working for himself. Hallelujah!
Of course, there are a gazillion errors with this conception of taxes. University of Toronto professor, Joseph Heath, has ripped it apart, and a brief summary of his thinking can be found in this brief Wikipedia profile here.
I’m more interested here in how Tax Freedom Day actually helps illuminate something very different. By very similar logic, we could add up all the hours we spend working for our own sustenance versus working on generating surplus value for some rich capitalist. What are the chances that for the average hapless labourer toiling away to make H&M T-shirts that Capitalist-Free Day arrives much later in the year than Tax Freedom Day? In other words, how much longer does the average worker have to toil away making profits for a capitalist versus creating a living for himself?
One thing is for sure. Freedom is a very slippery word indeed and capitalists don’t deserve any enduring claim to it.
There is a great post at Truthout from Henry Giroux which talks at length about the incorporation of the intellectual into the prevailing market capitalist order. The Academy, which Giroux asserts should “speak truth to power,” is increasingly subsumed by power itself. The result, which is not difficult to see, is intellectuals doing little more than helping prepare students to take their place in the job market, or indeed, developing theories or products that themselves are incorporated into the current economic order — schools of management are ideal examples of factories of this kind of commodifiable thought… marketable thought.
When it comes to the role of students in the Academy, Giroux expands on his ideas in this interview.
They [students] often come to the university with no language for defining themselves or citizenship itself outside of the demands of a consumerist society, making it all the more difficult for them to challenge the university as an adjunct of corporate values and interests. This means that those of us teaching in the humanities not only inhabit classrooms with dwindling resources, but increasingly face students who do not value knowledge that does not immediately translate into a job opportunity or seems at odds with simple translations offered by an utterly commodified popular culture.
This is what is most unsettling about the current era that we live in. After the largest failure of global capital in 70 years, not to mention the largest ecological catastrophe in United States history in the form of Big Oil’s assault on the Gulf of Mexico, very few of us are asking, “How could things be different?” Not only do we fail to ask what could be different, we come to school as if programmed to accept the status quo as inevitable, and our role within it seems inevitable too. As Giroux notes in his article about the disappearing intellectual, according to the current discourse, “the economic order is either sanctioned by God or exists simply as an extension of nature.”
When I read this, I had just reached the chapter in Capital where Marx explicitly says that relations between workers and capitalists are not a product of nature. But as Giroux is saying, that’s not what you’d think by looking at popular culture or even the academy. Neo-liberalism has been so triumphant that capitalism now seems as inevitable as the passing of the seasons. The logic has been internalized by rich and poor alike. In a certain respect, one can see why it’s so effective. At essence, the message is a very, very simple one. “Allow individuals maximum freedom to pursue their own self-interest, and prosperity and happiness will follow.” This appeals to people’s sense of inherent worth. They’ll say “I’m canny and enterprising… I could be rich and happy… if I could just get ahead.” Then the bigoted among them, which might include many in the Tea Party, would add, “I could be rich and happy, just if government could get out of my way… or if those lazy blacks weren’t stealing all my money for their social programs… or if those Mexicans weren’t taking all the jobs” etc.
Politics then gets reduced to the dynamic of individual on one side and all the freedom-menacing forces on the other. Meanwhile, we overlook how we historically developed into the system we live in today. And the system, as it’s currently constructed, does not actually permit a whole lot of freedom, unless we’re talking about the amazing freedom of being able to consume a nearly infinite number of consumer products. Our lack of freedom is not down to some statist, socialist plot. It’s because capitalists own and control the game.
You can almost palpably feel the shackles. It isn’t that we cannot protest or voice dissent. It isn’t that we can’t write books or blogs that question the system. It’s that we cannot see dissent leading to meaningful change. The existing order has only intensified in its power. Without a critical mass of dissenters, individuals start to question the merit of their own actions. We might cohere for a while in a small group, but to be dedicated to round-the-clock dissent is very difficult, because there is no space where the rules of capitalism don’t apply; you can’t throw yourself into uncompromising rebellion because you’re going to end up unemployed, broke, on the streets, or worse, in jail. And in the West, there are no squats or communes or alternate forms of living that pose a genuine threat to the state — with the possible exception of Indian reserves — so alternate means of living these days are essentially a retreat and a form of escapism, rather than a means of starting the transition to another social and economic order.
Nevertheless, as Giroux and others have noted, there is still a lot of work ahead in the realm of theory, and so there is no reason to give up. At the moment, I am not convinced that there actually is a viable alternative to capitalism; not one that takes into account the exact conditions we find ourselves in here and now. Efforts are being made to conceptualize an alternate form of economics, to define value differently, and many are embarking on ways of understanding how we return to a peaceable form of agriculture — including my own cousin and his wife. Others are occupied with figuring out more equitable forms of social relations — hence feminism and post-colonial discourse — and exploding the narrow confines of mass culture-imposed identity. At some point, hopefully, many of these efforts will come together in a unifying vision that offers to the public en masse a path out of our current quagmire.
If this is indeed the task ahead, the importance of what Giroux is talking about is accentuated only more. At the moment, the Academy appears to be one of the major places where an expansive theory capable of transforming the prevailing destructive ethos could have its productive birth.
It is precisely over the creation of alternative democratic public spheres that such a struggle against neoliberal, economic Darwinism can and should be waged by academics, intellectuals, artists, and other cultural workers. Higher education, labor unions, the alternative media and progressive social movements offer important sites for academics and other intellectuals to form alliances, reach out to a broader public and align with larger social movements. Critical intellectuals must do whatever they can to nurture formative critical cultures and social movements that can dream beyond the “mad-agency that is power in a new form, death-in-life.” At the same time, they must challenge all aspects of the neoliberal disciplinary apparatus – from its institutions of power to its pedagogical modes of rationality – in order to make its politics, pedagogy and hidden registers of power visible. Only then will the struggle for the renewal of peace and justice become possible.
So it’s hardly a time for the intellectual to disappear. On the contrary. It’s time for the intellectual to roll up the sleeves of his wrinkly shirt, beat his fist upon the dusty chalkboard, and roar to his students, “Let’s build the new socio-economic order!”
Henry Giroux is the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. (The title seems a little ironic; I’m sure I’m not the only one to have noticed.)
In Chapter 5, Karl Marx left his readers in a state of considerable suspense. Where on earth does profit come from if commodities are bought at their value and sold at their value? So far it remained a mystery. Marx had concluded that profit did not come from ripping people off or from lying about commodity values (although we know that such things certainly can and do happen in the real world. Remember the famous Bre-X scandal – i.e. the gold mine that turned out not to exist?!)
No beating about the bush, Marx comes galloping out of the gates in Chapter 6 of Capital and tells us that profit comes to the capitalist by using his money to purchase the one commodity that is a use-value as well as a value. That is to say, he must find a commodity that has a utility but also embodies socially necessary labour time (which is the source of all value, as Marx has explained in previous chapters); and he must be able to extract value out of this commodity in the consuming of it.
What commodity possesses these properties? Labour-power, that’s what!
I had a rather hard time twisting my head around Marx’s reasoning here, but I suppose in thinking concretely about consumption and value, it makes sense that he arrives at labour as a unique commodity. As hard as I try, I can’t think of anything else that you consume – i.e. get a use out of – that directly leads to increasing its value. If I eat a cupcake, the crumbs that spill from my greedy, salivating maw are worth less than the original. If I buy a car and drive it for ten years, generally speaking, its value goes down continuously from the moment it leaves the sales lot. And so on and so on. Granted, there are certain artifacts that appear as commodities – paintings, for example – that gain value with use over time. I wonder how to explain that in Marxist terms?
Anyway, for the sake of being agreeable, let’s agree that labour is a pretty unique commodity, because it is almost indisputable that by putting labour to use, added value is going to be realized (unless the labourer is a bumbling buffoon and sticks his arm in the wrong part of the machine and splatters the factory floor with blood, breaks the machine, and thus stops production for the whole day… or if he pulls a whole stack of boxes onto himself, like the unhappy labourer in this photo I just swiped from Google Images).
Now, two conditions must be met in order that a money-owner (a.k.a. a current or aspiring capitalist) can find labour-power available to buy as a commodity on the market. 1) The labourer must be free to sell his/her labour. He/she can’t be an indentured serf. Or a slave. 2) The labourer must be free of all other commodities to sell besides his/her own labour. Or to put it the other way around, labour-power must be the only thing the labourer possesses that he/she can sell.
These are the terms of freedom under capitalism. Tantalizing, innit?
Interestingly, this analysis splits into two groups almost everyone in society: owners of money versus owners of labour-power. Marx takes pains to tell us that, contrary to generally received wisdom, this division is not the natural order of things, rather “It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production” (p273).
There follows on the next page an argument that seems almost like a tautology. Marx inquires into how much labour-time is required to produce labour-power. Hmmmm what? This sort of sounds like “How much do I have to work in order to work?” But Marx here is applying his system very, well, systematically. Labour-power like any commodity has a certain value. And so it follows that, like all other commodities, value is the socially necessary labour time that goes into its production. So, again, how much labour-time is required to produce labour-power? Answer:
…the labour time necessary for the production of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner (p274).
In other words, if you’re going to expend a certain amount of muscle and brain power in producing something, you need that amount of energy to be replenished. This is labour-time, which must be equal to the necessary requirements of survival –“themselves products of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country…” (p275). In case this is sounding abstruse, we’re talking food and shelter here!
In his edifying lectures on Capital, David Harvey dwells at length on this point, examining the basket of goods that is commonly used in North America to measure the minimum requirements of subsistence, X dollars for shelter, food, education, etc. And we can see that measures of minimum subsistence levels are socially constructed. Should the market basket include a cell phone or Internet? Are these now part of the standard requirements of survival… or of social participation?
A lot to mull over.
Marx also points out that the means of subsistence must not only be sufficient to sustain the worker but also his family – i.e. children, since capitalism cannot have the current generation of workers simply expire with no young blood to replace it. Their kiddies must be press-ganged into service too!
Moreover, there are various costs that go into forming a worker – the acquisition of skills and suchlike. Marx outlines some of these. I prefer to breeze through this section. Marx will make some other perfunctory observations in passing. For example, payment for labour-power pretty much always occurs after the labour-power has been expended. Hey, I’ve noticed that too! When you think of it, this is another rather unique property of labour-power as a commodity. Most other commodities – beef steaks, lucky bamboo, cat litter – need to be purchased prior to their use. But not labour-power, which is advanced by labourers to the capitalist as if on credit.
Aren’t labourers generous?
To conclude this chapter, Marx has one of his ironic phases. He’s a bit of a smart-ass sometimes!
The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange… is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham. (p280)
The freedom is down to the fact that capitalists and labourers are free to buy and sell to each other. Equality because they exchange equivalents, that is to say, commodities of equivalent value. (I admit that this part puzzled me, since in earlier chapters, Marx called money the most powerful commodity, but perhaps here he is just making the more straight-forward point that the amount of money exchanged is equivalent to the labour-power that is sold…) Property, of course, because both sides are exchanging what belongs to them. And Bentham, well, because the famous utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, would look fondly at exchange between capitalist and labourer, seeing both sides acting in their own self-interest, which, as we know, is how we build a perfect society!
But having said all these seemingly nice things about capitalism – can we tell he doesn’t mean it? – Marx then ends with a firecracker of a closing line, oh yes. Here he compares the demeanour of the capitalist in relation to the labourer:
The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing else to expect but – a tanning. (p280)
Zing! Turns out not everything is as hunky-dory in the capitalist utopia as we thought.
Uruguay, who famously fought their way to the semis thanks to the “hand of God” – or rather, the hand of Suarez – that kept the ball out of their net in the last minute of play?
The Netherlands, who quietly and efficiently disposed of all comers, including, to everyone’s amazement, Brazil?
Spain, those fancy-passing superstars?
Or Germany, who have now thrashed overconfident England and Argentina and sent them back home with their tails between their legs?
If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Germany. Their clinical finishing and youthful exuberance appear at this point unstoppable. They are creative and cohesive and very team-like. Yay Germany.
But it’s not so bad for England!
Amidst the handwringing over England’s woefully poor performance, one bright ray of light seldom is mentioned. The hooligans didn’t rip apart South Africa! It used to be that England fans would travel to the host country, spend a week or so drinking themselves collectively into a surly stupor, stumble about smashing things, picking fights with locals, and getting themselves arrested or stabbed.
This year it didn’t happen! Has a new era of peace dawned over the white cliffs of Dover? Or are the hooligans not affluent enough to travel to the southern tip of Africa? Or were they all kept under police surveillance and refused permission to leave old Blighty?
Whatever it is, England had no fight either on or off the pitch. That’s unprecedented!
And speaking of England, wots goin’ on ‘ere?
Worshippers at the Church of Neo-Liberalism cling to the belief that if you simply let free markets do their job, we will live in the best of all possible worlds. These ideologues say, “Keep government out of business! Respect property rights. Let free trade rule, let capitalists do what they want, and everything will be hunky dory!” (Until they need a bank bail-out, that is, and then they will gladly accept government interference, provided it comes in the form of billion-dollar no-strings-attached gifts!)
Of course, in the real world, free markets are more of a concept than a reality. Commodity production and commodity exchange are rendered dizzyingly complex by all sorts of political and regulatory considerations. Would the ecological catastrophe known as the Alberta tar sands even exist if the Canadian and Alberta governments hadn’t been prepared to massively subsidize their development with royalty holidays? Would the North American auto industry have boomed the way it did without Eisenhower’s massive investment in the Interstate highway system and the concurrent suppression of alternate means of transportation?
Then sometimes, along comes a bizarre and sickening story like this one to remind you just how twisted and criminal the real world of capitalism really is sometimes: British company Octel bribed Iraqi officials with millions of pounds to keep buying a toxic fuel additive that is linked to brain damage in children.
Is bribery part of the rugged free market ideology so beloved of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and company? Probably not.
The real point of this rather long digression to start Chapter 5 of Capital is this: many apologists for capitalism will say, “Well, our system is failing because it’s not working the way it’s supposed to.” Then they might mumble about Adam Smith and the way markets should work. Aside from the obvious question – how exactly are we supposed to remove the usual human foibles and frailties from a market system – this line of argument opens itself up to another attack. As David Harvey points out in his lectures, Karl Marx doesn’t critique capitalism based on the notion that capitalism has been implemented improperly or because its adherents are a bunch of unscrupulous bastards. Marx’s critique of capitalism is based on the notion of the system operating exactly as it should: free exchange occurring exactly as Adam Smith would want. In other words, even if capitalism were to function perfectly, Marx still believes it would enrich only a few while impoverishing many more. Most damningly, he believes perfectly functioning capitalism results in routine failures and eventually its own destruction.
Now on with the show!
Marx starts out Chapter 5 with the observation that the exchange of commodities as use-values is the exchange of equivalents. If I trade you a hamburger for a hotdog, we are basically exchanging food commodities that we both agree have approximately the same worth. Indeed, we enter into such contracts exactly because we believe the trade to be an equal one.
So the question arises, given that capitalism is all about making a profit, where does the profit come from? Or to use the Marxian term, where does the surplus-value come from? The capitalist is like a magician who pulls the rabbit of surplus-value out of his hat. Where does the rabbit come from?
Marx cautions us to not confuse use-value (i.e. the actual utility we get out of a commodity – eating it, drinking it, sitting on it and taking a poopsie) with exchange-value (what it can be traded for on the market). It becomes quite clear that when it comes to exchange-value, in order to make a surplus-value (profit), the commodity owner must be able to exchange his commodity for more money than he invested in it.
Again, where does this surplus-value come from? Marx starts by answering this question in the negative. He explains what surplus-value is NOT:
The formation of surplus-value… can consequently be explained neither by assuming that commodities are sold above their value, or by assuming that they are bought at less than their value. (p263)
In other words, surplus-value is not created by some form of uneven trade – such as my paying you only $100 for your Dodge Aries, which is actually worth $1000! (Of course, such trades can indeed happen, but as per the introductory note, Marx deals with a sort of pure, conceptual form of capitalism, and in this pure, conceptual world, profit is not inherently based on outright treachery.)
Marx proceeds to explain, quite straight-forwardly, how outright treachery does not actually create increase value in exchange. He uses the following example: let’s suppose I have some wine that is worth $40, but I trade it for $50 worth of corn. I now have $50 worth of corn but my trading partner only has $40 worth of wine. Ha ha, sucker!
But as Marx inquires very sensibly, what is the total value of both commodities before and after the trade? All that has happened is that the $40 of wine and the$50 of corn have changed hands. The grand total value, $90, is identical before and after the trade. So no surplus-value has been created.
That’s not capitalism, that’s just a rotten deal for one particular corn trader!
Marx concludes here that circulation – the exchange of commodities – itself creates no value.
After this, Marx makes a bit of an aside about usury, in which the famous formula that’s been under discussion for the last few chapters – M-C-M (Money is exchanged for a Commodity which is then exchanged for an increased amount of Money – i.e. a profit) is subtly simplified to M-M. In other words you lend money and ask for that money back with interest, and skip the commodity purchase altogether. Marx finds that this particular form of increasing value is, in essence, pre-capitalist. He sort of compares it to fraud – and says that an entire “capitalist class of a given country cannot..defraud itself” (p266).
In other words, not everyone can be in the usury racket! A capitalist system cannot thrive this way. (It would have been nice had this advice been heeded prior to the recent financial bubble burst which crippled economies worldwide.)
Marx ends Chapter 5 with a bit of a cliffhanger. Having heretofore raised the question, “Where does profit come from?” he then exhausts all possible answers, and right on the last page, raises the question again and still does not answer it!
The money-owner, who is as yet only a capitalist in larval form, must buy his commodities at their value, and sell them at their value, and yet at the end of the process withdraw more value from circulation than he threw into it at the beginning…. These are the conditions of the problem. (p269)
How on earth will this problem be resolved by the canny capitalist?
Stay tuned for Chapter 6 to find out!