Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Capital I, Chapter 25 - Part 4

4) Different Forms of the Relative surplus population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation

Marx describes the three forms of reserve army; the floating, latent and stagnant reserves.

In the centres of modern industry — factories, manufactures, ironworks, mines, &c. — the labourers are sometimes repelled, sometimes attracted again in greater masses, the number of those employed increasing on the whole, although in a constantly decreasing proportion to the scale of production. Here the surplus population exists in the floating form.” (p 600)

Another part of the floating reserve are those young people thrown out of machine industry once they become adults. One consequence was that young male workers often emigrated “following in fact capital that has emigrated” (p 600). This meant there were more young females than males. It also means that although the supply of labour is always in excess of the demand, yet it was still not enough to meet the needs of capital. Then as now, large scale unemployment goes along with labour shortages.

It wants larger numbers of youthful labourers, a smaller number of adults. The contradiction is not more glaring than that other one that there is a complaint of the want of hands, while at the same time many thousands are out of work, because the division of labour chains them to a particular branch of industry.” (p 600)

In addition, particularly in the early stages, the length and intensity of work is such that workers were worn out only half way through their lives.

He falls into the ranks of the supernumeraries, or is thrust down from a higher to a lower step in the scale. It is precisely among the work-people of modern industry that we meet with the shortest duration of life. Dr. Lee, Medical Officer of Health for Manchester, stated

that the average age at death of the Manchester ... upper middle class was 38 years, while the average age at death of the labouring class was 17; while at Liverpool those figures were represented as 35 against 15. It thus appeared that the well-to-do classes had a lease of life which was more than double the value of that which fell to the lot of the less favoured citizens.” [Opening address to the Sanitary Conference, Birmingham, January 15th, 1875, by J. Chamberlain, Mayor of the town, now (1883) President of the Board of Trade.] (p 601)

The only way the low age of death could be compensated was through a high birth rate, which could only be achieved through early marriages frequently as young as age 12 or 13.

In agriculture, the introduction of capitalism brings about a reduction of employment. Capital replaces labour, but unlike in industry, this is not compensated by the expansion of total capital on a sufficient scale to lead to an absolute increase in employment. The consequence is that the agricultural population is continually being transformed into an urban and industrial proletariat.

781 towns given in the census for 1861 for England and Wales “contained 10,960,998 inhabitants, while the villages and country parishes contained 9,105,226. In 1851, 580 towns were distinguished, and the population in them and in the surrounding country was nearly equal. But while in the subsequent ten years the population in the villages and the country increased half a million, the population in the 580 towns increased by a million and a half (1,554,067). The increase of the population of the country parishes is 6.5 per cent., and of the towns 17.3 per cent. The difference in the rates of increase is due to the migration from country to town. Three-fourths of the total increase of population has taken place in the towns.” (“Census. &c.,” pp. 11 and 12.)” (Note 2, p 601)

This relative surplus population in the countryside is continually flowing towards the towns. It constitutes a Latent Reserve. This can be observed in every process of industrialisation including that occurring in China today.

The third category of the relative surplus population, the stagnant, forms a part of the active labour army, but with extremely irregular employment. Hence it furnishes to capital an inexhaustible reservoir of disposable labour power. Its conditions of life sink below the average normal level of the working class; this makes it at once the broad basis of special branches of capitalist exploitation. It is characterised by maximum of working-time, and minimum of wages.” (p 602)

Marx refers to the working class in “domestic industry” as part of this group. They are those employed in sweatshops, home working and today all those aspects of the black economy. In fact, it is an indictment of British capitalism today that, since the 1980's, its increasingly zombified economy has cast millions of workers into the kind of casual, peripheral employment that Marx refers to in the 19th Century as providing workers with the worst conditions.

It recruits itself constantly from the supernumerary forces of modern industry and agriculture, and specially from those decaying branches of industry where handicraft is yielding to manufacture, manufacture to machinery.” (p 602)

Today, in Britain, it is from all those who, since the 1980's, have lost stable employment from former staple industries, and those who have not been able to obtain sufficient education and skills to obtain employment in higher value production. And, its condition today, partly encouraged by Welfarism, is little different from Marx’s description.

But it forms at the same time a self-reproducing and self-perpetuating element of the working class, taking a proportionally greater part in the general increase of that class than the other elements. In fact, not only the number of births and deaths, but the absolute size of the families stand in inverse proportion to the height of wages, and therefore to the amount of means of subsistence of which the different categories of labourers dispose. This law of capitalistic society would sound absurd to savages, or even civilised colonists. It calls to mind the boundless reproduction of animals individually weak and constantly hunted down.” (p 602)

And below the reserve army of labour resides what Marx calls the “dangerous classes”. They compose three different groups.

First, those able to work. One need only glance superficially at the statistics of English pauperism to find that the quantity of paupers increases with every crisis, and diminishes with every revival of trade. Second, orphans and pauper children. These are candidates for the industrial reserve army, and are, in times of great prosperity, as 1860, e.g., speedily and in large numbers enrolled in the active army of labourers. Third, the demoralised and ragged, and those unable to work, chiefly people who succumb to their incapacity for adaptation, due to the division of labour; people who have passed the normal age of the labourer; the victims of industry, whose number increases with the increase of dangerous machinery, of mines, chemical works, &c., the mutilated, the sickly, the widows, &c. Pauperism is the hospital of the active labour-army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army. Its production is included in that of the relative surplus population, its necessity in theirs; along with the surplus population, pauperism forms a condition of capitalist production, and of the capitalist development of wealth. It enters into the faux frais of capitalist production; but capital knows how to throw these, for the most part, from its own shoulders on to those of the working class and the lower middle class.” (p 602-3)

In other words, the existence of these elements is inescapable for Capitalism. The cost of their subsistence has to be met in the same way that workers have to be compensated, not just for their immediate needs for reproduction, but for things such as old age. All of these costs have to be covered in the Wage Fund. But, the subsistence of the paupers etc. is not part of the reproduction of labour power. It forms a cost for Capital. But, as Marx says, Capital finds ways of mostly transferring this cost to other workers. One way in which this is done is via the kinds of activities these dangerous classes engage in - “vagabonds, criminals, prostitutes”. The prostitutes make their money largely from male workers, whilst the petty criminals main targets are themselves other workers, and workers communities. In the 19th Century one way it did this was via Poor Relief, which workers contributed to in Parish contributions. Today, the same thing is done via Welfarism, which takes taxes from most workers on the one hand to give out in benefits to other workers, and the “dangerous classes” on the other.

Marx then sets out an “absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.” (p 603) which is, however, he says, “modified in its working by many circumstances” (p 603). The law is:

The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism.” (p 603)

In fact, as stated previously, the empirical evidence has falsified this law, or at least, we can say that circumstances in most developed economies have modified it so as to make it largely inoperable. One reason for that, as stated previously, is that the same forces alluded to by Marx in relation to productivity, have also led to such a massive expansion of capital that it has been able to soak up most of the relative surplus population outside particular periods of prolonged downturn such as the 1930's or 1980's. Capital has expanded both by deepening and widening. It has sunk its roots deeper where it was already established, and widened its activities across more and more aspects of life, and of the globe. The development of ever increasing relative surplus populations seems to be more a feature of capitalism in its industrialising phase rather than its more developed stage. Wherever, capitalism has industrialised, including China today, it has brought a paradoxical combination of both rapidly rising employment, with a large rise also in unemployment, particularly in the countryside.

Part of the reason that there has not been a continual rise in the size of the reserve army in developed economies also seems to be due to the fact that absolutely rising living standards have reduced the need for large families, whilst family planning has provided workers with the ability to limit the size of their families. The latter does not prevent an over supply of labour compared to demand for it, for all the reasons previously described, but it does act to limit the degree of over supply. Another reason is that the nature of Capital has changed, becoming more planned and regulated. Part of the planning process for capital is the use of the Welfare State to provide adequate supplies of more educated and skilled workers, so that more valuable labour can be exploited, in higher value production where the composition of capital is lower. The form of regulation for that during much of the 20th Century was Fordism at the level of the enterprise and its equivalent, Keynesianism and Welfarism at the level of the State.

Previously, Marx described how all the methods of raising productivity are at the cost of the worker who is turned into an appendage of the machine etc. But, all these methods of creating relative surplus value also lead to increased accumulation, which in turn makes the workers position even more tenuous, because, as has been described, this process means that increasingly less labour-power is required to process the means of production. But, this also means that the power of capital to impose those same methods of increasing surplus value, on the worker increase.

It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. The law, finally, that always equilibrates the relative surplus population, or industrial reserve army, to the extent and energy of accumulation, this law rivets the labourer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.” (p 605)

Its important to read these words carefully so as not to fall into the trap of the Lassalleans and the “Iron law of Wages”. Marx makes the point here that all this misery etc. persists whether the workers wages are high or low. It is the difference between wealth and affluence, he describes in the  Grundrisse,

Labour as absolute poverty: poverty not as shortage, but as total exclusion of objective wealth.”

You can be affluent i.e. have a high income without being wealthy i.e. have a large amount of stored assets in the form of capital. In fact, you can be more tied to capital, have a more tenuous position if you are affluent. A worker on high wages will suffer a larger fall in living standards if they lose their job.

It is not low wages that causes the misery that Marx describes, but the lack of wealth, the non-ownership of capital, and consequently the lack of control over the labour process, and all that goes with it, that leaves the proletariat as a slave class.

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