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.