Thursday, 15 November 2012

Capital I, Chapter 15 - Part 7


The struggle between wage labour and capital takes place from the beginning of capitalist relations. However, its only with the introduction of machinery that this struggle takes the form of a struggle with the instruments of labour themselves. This is not just because the machinery is seen as replacing workers and depriving them of their livelihood. The introduction of machinery, along with all of the other deterioration of the workers' conditions, also brought a large increase in deaths, accidents and industrial diseases that did not exist with handicraft production, or manufacture. In its flush of youth, Capital rushes forward without any concern for the effects this has on the longer term consequences for the value creating substance – Labour – and, therefore, its own longer term interests. This is illustrated by Marx’s quote from Leonard Horner,

I have heard some mill-owners speak with inexcusable levity of some of the accidents; such, for instance, as the loss of a finger being a trifling matter. A working-man’s living and prospects depend so much upon his fingers, that any loss of them is a very serious matter to him. When I have heard such inconsiderate remarks made, I have usually put this question: Suppose you were in want of an additional workman, and two were to apply, both equally well qualified in other respects, but one had lost a thumb or a forefinger, which would you engage? There never was a hesitation as to the answer....” (Note 1, p 402)

But, it should not be assumed from this that Capital did not learn the lessons of its longer term interests. Marx gives a further quote,

In those factories that have been longest subject to the Factory Acts, with their compulsory limitation of the hours of labour, and other regulations, many of the older abuses have vanished. The very improvement of the machinery demands to a certain extent “improved construction of the buildings,” and this is an advantage to the workpeople. (See “Rep. of Insp. of Fact. for 31st Oct., 1863,” p. 109.)” (Note 2, p 402)

In Lenin's The Development Of Capitalism In Russia, which is a brilliant application of Marx’s analysis and method in Capital, he argues vehemently against the Narodniks, who could only see the negative aspects of Capitalism. In it, Lenin demonstrates that, in fact, in Russia, the conditions of workers, in general, were better in manufacture than in handicraft production, and were better in the larger capitalist machine industry than in manufacture.

Once capital is able to extract relative surplus value, this is a much more effective means of raising the rate of exploitation than is absolute surplus value. Moreover, the conditions required to effectively extract relative surplus value, frequently conflict with attempts to extract absolute surplus value. That does not mean capital abandons the latter. It always seeks to exploit more labour-time and, at certain times, - high, persistent unemployment, periods when increases in productivity decline – its focus returns to absolute surplus value.

Protests against machinery begin in Europe as early as the 17th Century, with widespread action against the ribbon loom, invented in Germany. Marx details other such protests including those of the Luddites.

It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” (p 404)

Marx highlights the difference of the change from handicraft industry to manufacture compared to the change of the latter to machine industry.

The contests about wages in Manufacture, pre-suppose manufacture, and are in no sense directed against its existence. The opposition against the establishment of new manufactures, proceeds from the guilds and privileged towns, not from the workpeople.” (p 404)

Under manufacture, it was handicraft labour that still formed the basis of production, though its productivity is raised by the division of labour.

Hence the writers of the manufacturing period treat the division of labour chiefly as a means of virtually supplying a deficiency of labourers, and not as a means of actually displacing those in work.” (p 404)

As demand rose from Britain's colonial markets, there were not enough workers to meet it, and as Marx demonstrated previously, in this early period, capital had difficulty getting workers to work more than three or four days a week anyway. The division of labour, plus employing more workers from the countryside, as the feudal system broke down, was a means of satisfying this demand.

At that time, therefore, division of labour and co-operation in the workshops, were viewed more from the positive aspect, that they made the workpeople more productive.” (p 405)

By contrast the introduction of machinery has different consequences.

If it be said that 100 millions of people would be required in England to spin with the old spinning-wheel the cotton that is now spun with mules by 500,000 people, this does not mean that the mules took the place of those millions who never existed. It means only this, that many millions of workpeople would be required to replace the spinning machinery. If, on the other hand, we say, that in England the power-loom threw 800,000 weavers on the streets, we do not refer to existing machinery, that would have to be replaced by a definite number of workpeople, but to a number of weavers in existence who were actually replaced or displaced by the looms.” (p 404)

In agriculture, the concentration of the means of production in a few hands, along with the introduction of principles of co-operation and division of labour, creates a revolution in production. But, this leads not to conflict between wage labour and capital, but between the larger landholders, able to introduce these methods, and the smaller ones, who cannot. It creates the conditions for trying to establish larger farms via land grabs, as happened with the Enclosure Acts in Britain, not to mention outright theft, by members of the landed aristocracy.

Hence this subversion of agriculture puts on, at first, more the appearance of a political revolution.” (p 405)

It is machinery which really creates the conditions for the conflict between wage workers and capital. As Ricardo says,

Machinery and labour are in constant competition; Ricardo l.c. P 479” (Note 3, p 405)

Marx describes the consequence.

The whole system of capitalist production is based on the fact that the workman sells his labour-power as a commodity. Division of labour specialises this labour-power, by reducing it to skill in handling a particular tool. So soon as the handling of this tool becomes the work of a machine, then, with the use-value, the exchange-value too, of the workman’s labour-power vanishes; the workman becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. That portion of the working-class, thus by machinery rendered superfluous, i.e., no longer immediately necessary for the self-expansion of capital, either goes to the wall in the unequal contest of the old handicrafts and manufactures with machinery, or else floods all the more easily accessible branches of industry, swamps the labour-market, and sinks the price of labour-power below its value. It is impressed upon the workpeople, as a great consolation, first, that their sufferings are only temporary (“a temporary inconvenience"), secondly, that machinery acquires the mastery over the whole of a given field of production, only by degrees, so that the extent and intensity of its destructive effect is diminished. The first consolation neutralises the second. When machinery seizes on an industry by degrees, it produces chronic misery among the operatives who compete with it. Where the transition is rapid, the effect is acute and felt by great masses. History discloses no tragedy more horrible than the gradual extinction of the English hand-loom weavers, an extinction that was spread over several decades, and finally sealed in 1838. Many of them died of starvation, many with families vegetated for a long time on 2½ d. a day.” (p 405-6)

Marx’s description here also has important lessons for today, at a micro and macro level. Marx describes the way the hand-loom workers' misery was perpetuated, because they continued to be employed in competition with the power loom. It meant a terrible reduction in their wages below what was necessary for their subsistence. A part of the difference was made up by payments of Poor Relief out of Parish funds. That just prolonged the agony of the workers, whilst allowing a form of production whose time had passed to continue. It also drained resources from other workers and producers, who had to pay Poor Rates, to the Parish, to cover the relief which became an increasing burden.

We see the same thing today in the way various forms of Welfarism allow low-paying employers to keep going, usually also providing their workers with poor and unstable working conditions, because their workers wages are supplemented by transfers from other workers via the tax and benefits system. This drain from workers wages means a drain on funds that could go to creating demand in some other industry able to employ workers at a higher rate of pay. It would then force the low paying, inefficient producers to modernise their production. As with the Poor Law, Welfarism gives the impression of providing subsidies to workers, but in reality is a subsidy from better paid workers to bad employers, who as a consequence can continue to pay low wages. A good example of that is Wal-Mart in the US, which refuses to negotiate a health insurance scheme with its workers, preferring instead to force them to use Medicare and Medicaid provided by the State and funded by other workers taxes.

The same thing applies at a macro level in the current Eurozone Debt Crisis, where entire economies that are, overall, uncompetitive, impose prolonged misery and austerity on their workers, which is facilitated by a similar kind of Welfarism paid for by workers elsewhere in Europe. What these economies require is not a long slow death like that suffered by the hand loom weavers, but the injection of large amounts of new capital to create new competitive industries, which can provide the workers with decent stable jobs, at decent wages, and with decent conditions. If Capital cannot do that, then workers have to organise to bring it about themselves.

Marx, describing the effects of machinery, in this respect, also provides a damning indictment of the kind of Welfarist attitudes many on the Left today promote or defend. That Welfarism, offers no solution to the workers problems, merely prolongs their misery and at the same time degrades and debases them, as well as undermining their independence from capital.

Welfarism degrades and debases workers turning them
into a version of Oliver Twist, pleading with the Capitalist
State for a bit more gruel.  It undermines their indpendence
from that State, and undermines what Marx and Engels
argued was fundamental, the collective self-activity of
the working-class to resolve its problems, and liberate
The competition between hand-weaving and power-weaving in England, before the passing of the Poor Law of 1833, was prolonged by supplementing the wages, which had fallen considerably below the minimum, with parish relief. “The Rev. Mr. Turner was, in 1827, rector of Wilmslow in Cheshire, a manufacturing district. The questions of the Committee of Emigration, and Mr. Turner’s answers, show how the competition of human labour is maintained against machinery. ‘Question: Has not the use of the power-loom superseded the use of the hand-loom? Answer: Undoubtedly; it would have superseded them much more than it has done, if the hand-loom weavers were not enabled to submit to a reduction of wages.’ ‘Question: But in submitting he has accepted wages which are insufficient to support him, and looks to parochial contribution as the remainder of his support? Answer: Yes, and in fact the competition between the hand-loom and the power-loom is maintained out of the poor-rates.’ Thus degrading pauperism or expatriation, is the benefit which the industrious receive from the introduction of machinery, to be reduced from the respectable and in some degree independent mechanic, to the cringing wretch who lives on the debasing bread of charity. This they call a temporary inconvenience.” (“A Prize Essay on the Comparative Merits of Competition and Co-operation.” Lond., 1834, p. 29.) (Note 1, p 406)

The conflict between the machine and the worker is most acute where machines are introduced to replace existing handicraft or manufacture, rather than where an improved machine merely replaces an existing one. But, it is a perpetual struggle. Capital continually seeks to replace human labour wherever its peculiarities allow the worker to exercise any kind of power, or to be able to bargain for higher wages.

We see that today in the form of computerised “expert systems” whose sole function is to replace expert workers, as well as with the introduction of robots into areas such as surgery. In the Financial Services Industry, extremely highly paid workers operating as traders are increasingly being replaced by computer systems based on neural nets, which learn with each trade. Just as machines elsewhere have revolutionised the mode of production, so too here. These computer traders have led to what is called “High Frequency Trading”. The computers can now buy billions of shares, or other financial assets, and sell them again many times a second, making gains by rapidly trading huge volumes with tiny changes in prices.

Also, part of the reason that elements of State Capitalism are being privatised is precisely for the reasons identified by Aglietta and others nearly thirty years ago. That is developments in computing and technology mean that various services like education and healthcare, which previously capital could only provide efficiently by Fordist techniques, based on State owned, mass production education and health factories, can now be more efficiently delivered in the private sector by Neo-Fordist, more flexible provision. Its now possible to obtain very expensive Harvard and other University courses over the Internet, for much less than enrolling on the course. In places like Singapore, with ultra high speed broadband, a lot of education for school students is now provided for students in their own homes rather than in schools.

Whenever a process requires peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand, it is withdrawn, as soon as possible, from the cunning workman, who is prone to irregularities of many kinds, and it is placed in charge of a peculiar mechanism, so self-regulating that a child can superintend it.” (Quoted from Ure, p 407)

The old, state owned, Fordist Education and
 Health Factories are no longer efficient, necessary
or appropriate now that technological developments
make possible, more flexible provision.
In fact, computer scientists have found that it is many of these expert functions that are the most easily computerised. A doctor is no different from a TV repairman. The diagnosis of both is essentially done by going through a check list, and comparing the answers to a database of possible faults, that can be refined until a likely problem is identified. In fact, a computer containing a patient's full medical history is technically more capable of doing that faster, and more reliably. But, also, just as new cars now have computer chips in them, which constantly monitor their operation for faults, so similar chips are now available to constantly monitor humans for high blood pressure, blood sugar levels and so on, and to warn of likely health problems. These developments, along with other technological innovations, in health, mean that the old Fordist model is no longer necessary or appropriate.

““On the automatic plan skilled labour gets progressively superseded.” “The effect of improvements in machinery, not merely in superseding the necessity for the employment of the same quantity of adult labour as before, in order to produce a given result, but in substituting one description of human labour for another, the less skilled for the more skilled, juvenile for adult, female for male, causes a fresh disturbance in the rate of wages.”” (Quoted from Ure, p 407-8)

As Marx set out against Weston in Value, Price and Profit, capital always has the whip hand against wage labour, and whenever the latter is able to take advantage of a temporary situation to improve its position, capital responds to reverse it. Machinery has been one of the main ways it has achieved that.

In the 1980's, the print workers
were not really defeated by Thatcher
and the anti-union laws.  They were
 defeated by the introduction of new
technology, that allowed newspaper
owners like Eddie Shah to set up
new papers with unskilled, un-unionised
workers, as well as the establishment of
thousands of "Instant Print" shops on high streets
across the country.
But machinery not only acts as a competitor who gets the better of the workman, and is constantly on the point of making him superfluous. It is also a power inimical to him, and as such capital proclaims it from the roof tops and as such makes use of it. It is the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes, those periodical revolts of the working-class against the autocracy of capital. According to Gaskell, the steam-engine was from the very first an antagonist of human power, an antagonist that enabled the capitalist to tread under foot the growing claims of the workmen, who threatened the newly born factory system with a crisis. It would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working-class. At the head of these in importance, stands the self-acting mule, because it opened up a new epoch in the automatic system." (p 410-11)

Whenever workers' position has allowed, them any kind of leverage, capital has responded by replacing labour with machines. It did so in the print industry, it has done so in mining, and is doing so now with the introduction of automatic trains.

No comments: