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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.
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.
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.