Thursday, 23 August 2012

Capital I Chapter 6 - Part 2

Marx then begins his crucial analysis of Labour-Power.

The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special article. So far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labour of society incorporated in it. Labour-power exists only as a capacity, or power of the living individual. Its production consequently pre-supposes his existence. Given the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a given quantity of the means of subsistence. Therefore the labour-time requisite for the production of labour-power reduces itself to that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer.” (p 167)

In the process of working, the vessel in which this Labour-Power is contained i.e. the human body, undergoes wear and tear of “muscle, nerve and brain”, which need to be restored. The more the worker works – either longer hours or more intense activity – the more this wear and tear, and the more it needs to be restored, meaning a higher price must be paid for it.

If the owner of labour-power works to-day, to-morrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a labouring individual. His natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel, and housing, vary according to the climatic and other physical conditions of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary wants, as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development, and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilisation of a country, more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently on the habits and degree of comfort in which, the class of free labourers has been formed.” (p 168)

The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear and death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer’s substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market.” (p 168)

But, in addition,

In order to modify the human organism, so that it may acquire skill and handiness in a given branch of industry, and become labour-power of a special kind, a special education or training is requisite, and this, on its part, costs an equivalent in commodities of a greater or less amount. This amount varies according to the more or less complicated character of the labour-power. The expenses of this education (excessively small in the case of ordinary labour-power), enter pro tanto into the total value spent in its production.” (p 168)

It is obvious from these statements why these particular commodities of health and education play a vital role for Capital in ensuring the reproduction of Labour-Power, and why Capital has developed the Welfare State in order to facilitate the reproduction of Labour-Power at the lowest possible Value.

Because these means of subsistence have to be bought over varying durations (daily, weekly, monthly etc.) the daily wage must cover the daily average of the annual total cost of subsistence. That can be assessed in money terms, sufficient to cover the costs of buying those means of subsistence, or it can be viewed in physical terms that workers require a certain number of calories, a certain amount of shelter, clothing, education and so on.

If we take this average bundle of wage goods, then Marx says, that we might suppose that it requires say 6 hours of social labour-time to produce. In other words, 6 hours labour-time is enough to produce 1 day's Labour-Power, which then also equals the Value of 1 day's Labour-Power. In a money economy, 6 hours labour-time might be equal to three shillings (15p). In other words, the Value of 1 day's Labour Power is 15p. Put another way, as we are assuming that all commodities exchange at their Values, the price of 1 day's Labour Power, i.e. the daily wage is 15p.

At this price/wage, the worker has not been cheated. They have sold their commodity, at its Value, in exactly the same way that every other commodity owner sells theirs, i.e. at its Value, determined by the Labour-time required for its production.

And, as Marx emphasises,

The minimum limit of the value of labour-power is determined by the value of the commodities, without the daily supply of which the labourer cannot renew his vital energy, consequently by the value of those means of subsistence that are physically indispensable. If the price of labour-power fall to this minimum, it falls below its value, since under such circumstances it can be maintained and developed only in a crippled state. But the value of every commodity is determined by the labour-time requisite to turn it out so as to be of normal quality.” (p 169)

If capitalists then try to reduce wages (including what today we term the social wage) they will end up with sub-standard Labour-Power, as useless to them as buying a defective machine, or sub-standard materials. Similarly, if the prices of the commodities the workers require rise, then the Value of Labour-Power also rises. Capital has to pay this higher Value or else again it will only be able to buy sub-standard Labour-Power. It can be seen why Capital has an incentive in trying to produce the commodities workers need more efficiently. By doing so it reduces the Value of Labour Power.

The capitalist buys Labour-Power from the worker at its Value, 15p. The worker then works for the capitalist for the time stipulated in the contract. The capitalist has bought the Labour-Power for its Use Value, in the Labour performed, whose Value is now represented in the product of that Labour. The product of the Labour does not now belong to the worker even though they have produced it. The worker does not sell this product to the capitalist. It already belongs to the capitalist because the capitalist had already bought the Labour-Power that created it.

In fact, it is usual that the worker performs this Labour prior to even being paid for it, by the capitalist, a fact, as Marx points out, made clear by the number of workers who fail to be paid for the Labour-Power they have provided, as a consequence of the capitalist going bust.

Marx describes the other consequence of the time of this credit given by the worker to the capitalists in advancing their Labour-Power, especially where they were not paid for up to a month in arrears. Having to live in the meantime, they were reduced to buying cheap food such as bread adulterated with “alum, soap, pearl ashes, chalk, Derbyshire stone-dust, and such like agreeable nourishing and wholesome ingredients” (Note 2, p 171) The Co-op identified as late as the 1940's that tea was being adulterated with lead filings, and it was only the work of the Co-op, after WWII, that resulted in legislation to ensure safe milk to prevent brucellosis etc.

The Co-operative Consumer Research Dept. was
responsible for highlighting many of the abuses
of production by Capitalist producers and retailers.
But, there is an element of contradiction in Marx's argument here. He has set out the objective laws, which mean that Capital has to pay the Value of Labour-Power, or else, it either does not ensure the quantity of Labour-Power required, or else receives Labour-Power of sub-standard quality. A considerable amount of the explanation for the things described lies with the ability of employers to foist sub-standard products on workers via the Truck System. As with the overworking of workers, which Marx also describes later, it is an example of the immediate interests of individual Capitals conflicting with the interest of Capital in General. It is a situation that Capital collectively resolves later in its own interests. Also, when workers began to develop their own Co-operative stores, the potential for these kinds of practices was undermined – one reason the Co-op grew so rapidly, and dominated the retail space by the end of the 19th Century.

The Truck System was not in the interests of Capital in general, particularly the bigger Capitals, and as Engels sets out in his later Prefaces to “The Condition of the Working-Class in England”, by the second half of the 19th century, the bigger capitalists had concluded that these kinds of penny-pinching methods were counter-productive.

The consumption of the Labour-Power bought by the capitalist takes place like the consumption of all commodities outside the sphere of circulation. Consumption is at the same time Production. The consumption of necessities by the workers is at the same time an act of production of the worker, and his Labour-Power. The consumption of the workers' Labour-Power by Capital is at the same time an act of production of new commodities.

It is in this sphere Marx says,

Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.” (p 172)

But, we shall have to wait until the next Chapter for that secret to be revealed.

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