If, thus far, Marx seemed like something of an angry accountant, meticulously adding up all the ways in which capitalism extracts value from workers, in Chapter 10, “The Working Day,” he succumbs almost entirely to his romantic, metaphorical and highly moral side. This was one of the most readable and enjoyable chapters of Capital so far.
We start with the assertion that that the value of labour power is based on the amount of labour-time necessary to produce it. How much does a worker need to live? $30 for room and board and a six pack of beer at the end of the day? Well, then, that is the minimum value of his labour power. Of course, the value of labour power is socially constructed. If we consider a telephone, or even the Internet, to be among the minimum requirements of survival for a normal worker – then his labour time must be sufficiently remunerated to procure those things.
In the working day, then, a given amount of time will be taken up by the worker creating the value of his own labour – earning his own keep, one could say. Everything above that is surplus labour, which is dedicated, of course, to creating surplus value… i.e. creating profit for The Man!
The central question at this juncture is how long should the working day extend beyond those hours required for generating the worker’s livelihood? If the worker can earn his keep in six hours, should then his working day be extended to 10 hours, 12 hours, or 15 hours so he can engage in surplus labour?
Marx employs a fitting metaphor to describe the capitalist’s disposition toward such questions:
Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. (p342)
Ergo, the simple answer is that the capitalist would like the working day to be as long as possible. If your life source is “living labour” – in the same way that Dracula’s life source was blood – surely you’d depend on devouring as much of it as possible?
But the worker, selling his labour like any other commodity on the market, demands the full value of his sweat and toil, and knows that to consent to an 18-hour working day, ad infinitum, is to sign up for a premature death, which has the result of cheapening the one and only thing he has for sale. If a “normal worker” has 30 years of productive life, but the capitalist uses up that productive life in 10 years by over-working him, then this is a rotten deal for the worker.
David Harvey’s enlightening series of lectures again summarizes things nicely here. The NYU prof evokes these duelling “rights” – the right of the worker to extract maximum value for the labour that he is selling versus the right of the capitalist to extract maximum value out of the labour that he is buying. This is, in part, the essence of class struggle. Marx depicts this as an historical battle:
There is here therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides. Hence, in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class. (p344)
And yet, still in historical mode, Marx reminds us that “capital did not invent surplus labour” (p344). Indeed, the ruling class had been claiming a good part of lowly workers’ labour time for centuries – even millennia. And let’s not forget the outright theft of labour power from workers that occurred under slavery. Rulers were exploiting workers before capitalism was even a glimmer in Adam Smith’s eye.
What differentiates the extraction of surplus labour under capitalism is that it’s potentially limitless, because the proceeds of surplus labour go toward the accumulation of money. (And money, is itself, open to nearly infinite accumulation.) Back when serfs were merely toiling for a day or two a week on the lord’s land, that toil was tied to creating use-values, and unlike money, use-values reach limits. How much corn, after all, could the lord ever eat or give to his family or trade? Only so much. But as is apparent every day in our globalized world, company profits know no bounds. Exxon routinely makes profits in the tens of billions of dollars. I don’t know if it’s even possible to contemplate exactly what the heck that kind of money can buy.
One thing is for sure – it can buy a whole lot of social power, which is, of course, as Marx points out frequently, one of money’s main advantages!
Another historical differentiation worth noting is that under capitalism, unlike in previous epochs, the capitalists’ ultimate goal is the extraction of surplus-value, which is not exactly the same as surplus labour. Unlike a lord surveying his serfs and figuring how many productive hours he can get out of them, a factory owner surveys his workers and his ultimate aim is figuring out how to get surplus-value out of them. Surplus labour is simply a means to that end.
Chapter 10 proceeds to relate many historical events in the pitched battle over the working day between factory owners and workers. These are clear, well-documented and factual accounts, drawn in many cases straight from the reports of factory inspectors in the employ of the British government, who were charged with investigating conditions of the labouring classes. What stands out, time and time again, is the ingenuity of the capitalist class for the “petty pilfering of minutes” or the “nibbling and cribbling at meal times.” So if the capitalist can get away with insisting on a worker taking his lunch while still working, he will do it. If the capitalist can argue that an hour mealtime occur before and/or after a 10-hour work day, rather than actually grant a break during the working day, he will do that too.
What also stands out in this historical account is the vital and ongoing role played by child labour. Whenever anyone points to a supposed Golden Era of capitalism, when markets were supposedly properly regulated and benefits trickled more equitably to all, that person had better try to explain why it was, in order for so much wealth to be generated by capitalism, that children as young as nine and ten had to be press-ganged into ten or twelve-hour work days in front of dangerous, noisy machines. There is ample evidence to suggest that many industries would have hardly flourished the way they did without child labour.
Bertrand Russell wrote that:
The industrial revolution caused unspeakable misery both in England and in America. … In the Lancashire cotton mills … children worked from 12 to 16 hours a day; they often began working at the age of six or seven. Children had to be beaten to keep them from falling asleep while at work; in spite of this, many failed to keep awake and were mutilated or killed. Parents had to submit to the infliction of these atrocities upon their children, because they themselves were in a desperate plight. Craftsmen had been thrown out of work by the machines; rural labourers were compelled to migrate to the towns by the Enclosure Acts, which used Parliament to make landowners richer by making peasants destitute; trade unions were illegal until 1824; the government employed agents provocateurs to try to get revolutionary sentiments out of wage-earners, who were then deported or hanged. Such was the first effect of machinery in England.
Happily, with the exception of the abomination of slavery – which actually provided the ruling class with an incentive to work people to death, safe in the knowledge that there was always a fresh crop of human victims to take the place of the slaves that had died – the working day has, for various reasons, found at least some sort of limits… usually. Those limits have in many cases been stipulated out of mere self-interest on behalf of the capitalists. It can be counterproductive to drive all your workers to work themselves to death. Also, the prospect of sun-starved and sleep-deprived children (and maybe also their parents) knowing nothing much of life except the sweat and grinding roar of the factory floor – well, that offends some people’s notions of a civilized society.
Governments, also, have stepped in to curb the excessive appetite of capital for labour because workers are generally on the frontlines of any warring that needs to be done. A famished, exhausted, half-dead labour force is generally easy prey on the battlefield. The Germans owed their victory over the French in 1870, in large part, to a better-rested, better-fed army.
Which leads nicely to this Salon article from just this year, which speculates thusly: if the American elite, in particular, no longer really needs the working class for, well, working (since most labour is outsourced to Asia), nor do they much need the working class for fighting (since the military is increasingly privatized and waged by foreign mercenaries) – well, why would the American elite have any need of ordinary Americans at all? Have capitalists in America achieved the ultimate victory: rendering their domestic working class obsolete?
Of course, the author exaggerates for satirical effect, but if current trends continue, it pays to speculate whether — at least in the west — the struggle over the working day will ultimately be concluded in a rather strange fashion: there will be no working day at all. Indeed, this is the plight already of far too many Americans. Or perhaps we’ll just continue to suffer the effects of excess population (Marx’s term) in proportion to the jobs available… Maybe we’ll return to the disgusting spectacle — immortalized in the film On the Waterfront — in which the capitalists throw tokens into a hungry horde of workers, each token being redeemable for a day’s labour, and workers will actually fight each other for the privilege of a day of backbreaking, exploitative employment.
Hey, it could happen! Under capitalism, be prepared to countenance any indignity against the the human soul.