Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Workers As An Exploiting Class?

Could workers become an exploiting class? The surprising answer is yes. Several years ago, I wrote a blog - Labour-Power v Horse Power - raising various questions that arise from Marx's theory of value. The questions surrounded Marx's analysis, which shows that slaves cannot produce surplus value, any more than can animals, or machines. Slaves, like these other categories constitute only the equivalent of “constant capital”. I was thinking about this again, the other day, and wondered, if it was possible for workers themselves to become an exploiting, ruling class. The answer is yes, despite everything that Marxists have previously believed. I'll explain why below.

The other conclusion Marx comes to is that surplus value cannot arise from an exchange of capital with capital, or revenue with revenue. The latter fact, is fairly well known. A capitalist that spends money as revenue, like a worker spends their wages, in other words not to buy productive-capital, but only to buy articles for personal consumption, clearly creates no new value as a result. A capitalist who employs a driver to drive taxis, thereby creates surplus value. If he employs the same driver as his personal chauffeur, he doesn't. This is an exchange of revenue with revenue, not capital with revenue.

The former is not quite so obvious. But, its just as true that an exchange of capital with capital produces no surplus value. The easiest way to understand that is to think about producers who own the means of production. A peasant producer who produces commodity X, which takes them 20 hours to produce, exchanges it with the producer of commodity Y, which also takes 20 hours to produce. Both exchange their products at their value. But, suppose both producers only need to work for 10 hours to produce the commodities they need to live? In that case, both have produced a surplus product equal to 10 hours, but neither have produced a surplus value. The producer of X “sells” it to the producer of Y, for 20 hours. But, it has cost the producer of X 20 hours to produce it. They can have made no surplus value, if their cost is the same as their income. The same is true for the producer of Y.

But, this is exactly the position that Capital is in. Capital exchanges with capital but produces no surplus value as a result. Capital can only produce surplus value, where it exchanges with revenue i.e. where it exchanges with wage labour. That is why, as Marx says, slaves do not produce surplus value, though they do produce a surplus product, just as does an animal used as productive-capital, or as does a machine. The reason wage workers produce a surplus value, and slaves do not, is that the wage worker, besides producing a surplus product, also appears in the market as a 'free' seller of their labour-power, and a free buyer of commodities. Why is this important?

The peasant producer will only buy commodities at their value, because they have the option of producing those goods themselves, or buying them from someone else. Marx demonstrates at length in Volume I, of Capital that surplus value cannot arise for the system as a whole by selling commodities above their value. But, the peasant likewise sells those commodities at their value. But, that value is what they have had to expend themselves in labour-time to produce.

The capitalist also sells commodities at their value, or at least we don't have to assume they don't to explain surplus value. They obtain surplus value, because the worker produces a new commodity with a value greater than the capitalist has paid for. The worker say works for 10 hours, but gets paid only the equivalent of 5 hours. It is still not a breach of the exchange of commodities at their value, because the worker's commodity, their labour-power, only has a value of 5 hours, enough to produce that commodity.

So how come then that this creates a surplus value, whereas employing a slave in the same way doesn't? It all comes down then to who buys what has been produced. A slave never buys commodities. They are bought for them by the slave owner, just as the owner of a pack animal, or a machine buys the things necessary to keep them functioning and producing. But, for that reason the slave owner will only exchange commodities at their value i.e. the labour-time cost to the slave owners.

Suppose Commodity X requires 10 hours work by a slave to produce, and another 10 hours to produce the materials required. It might seem that the cost in labour-time to produce X is 20 hours. But, for the slave owners, and certainly for the slave owners as a class, it isn't. If the slave only requires 5 hours to produce the necessities to live on, that is all the slave owner has to give them. The labour-time cost to the slave owner is only 15 hours. There is a surplus product, equal to 5 hours, but it is NOT a surplus value. If all the slave owners as a class are taken as the basis, they can appear in the market and exchange these goods between themselves, just as effectively with a price tag of 15 hours as with 20 hours. A price tag of 20 hours would simply represent inflation, it would mean that each slave owner cheated every other slave owner out of 5 hours, so it all cancelled out!

The only reason that wage labour produces a surplus value is that unlike the slave, or the pack animal, or the machine, the wage worker appears in the market as an independent buyer of commodities. Unlike an owner of the means of production, the worker has to buy commodities at their full value, whilst adding value for capital, only part of which they get paid for. The peasant producer gets paid the full value of the labour they perform in producing commodities. The capitalist gets paid the full value of the labour-time expended on producing the commodities they sell, but only pays a part of that cost.

Suppose, there were only capitalists. That would mean that everything was totally automated. Robots produce everything. The robots, like workers, produce the materials and machines needed to replace those that get worn out. They also produce what is needed to keep themselves maintained, and functioning. On top of that they keep working, and produce vast amounts available as a surplus to the capitalists that own them. Such a society would clearly be capable of creating a huge surplus product. But, it would produce no surplus value!

The only way the capitalists here could produce surplus value would be if there were a class of people – i.e. workers – who were prepared to pay more for these goods than they cost the capitalist to produce. In other words, if they were prepared to buy these commodities by doing more labour-time than they had cost the capitalist to produce.

The capitalists here would be exactly the same as peasant producers. They would exchange their products at their values, but those values would only be equal to the value of the constant capital used in production, and that would become an increasingly small amount the more remote the time when any wage labour was involved in its production. The robots would be equal to the position of a slave, or indeed that of a machine today.

However, its just as logical to consider the owners of the means of production here to be workers. If things came close to such a pass, its unlikely that workers would simply sit back and starve to death for lack of the means to feed themselves. So, we could envisage a society where it is workers that own the means of production, and robots do all the work. But, what if the robots then became sentient? On its own, this changes nothing. Slaves are sentient after all, but create no surplus value.

But, suppose then that workers set up a system, whereby the robots had to buy the commodities they needed to maintain themselves and to produce replacement robots? Then workers could sell these commodities to the robots at their full value i.e. the time a robot has to spend producing it, whilst paying the robot only the value required for their own reproduction. In that way, the worker would employ robots in the same way that today capital employs wage labour. Workers would then be an exploiting class extracting surplus value, and robots would be an exploited class, producing surplus value.

There again, if you have ever seen 'Bicentennial Man' its hard to feel too sorry for the robots!   


David Timoney said...

A more likely outcome is that robots, as capital, will be owned by an elite, just as they are today.

Workers (humans who don't own capital) would then move from being factors of production (i.e. labour / variable capital) to forms of consumption - i.e. the providers of personal services to the elite.

Boffy said...

Yes, that's quite right David, and a point I made in my previous analysis. In fact, you can see that happening already. One of the biggest areas of job growth is indeed already in personal services.

There is a large number of people now employed as nannies, domestic cleaners/housekeepers, and so on. Marx made a similar point about the effects of mechanisation in the 19th Century.

But, also the other point I made in the previous analysis in another blog entitled "Capital Consumes Itself" is that it leads to an increase in all forms of unproductive consumption by Capital, for example, arms production. That is not the same as the Permanent Arms Economy Thesis. There is no reason why it has to be arms, for instance.

There is an interesting question here though. For Marx the provision of those personal services does not constitute surplus value production. It is not productive labour, it is an exchange of revenue with revenue.

But, could it be here a means of Capital selling commodities above their value? That is the products produced by the robots would have little value, and no surplus value. But, if a cleaner needs 100 units of these commodities to live, which takes 1 hour to produce, but has to provide 10 hours of cleaning to obtain those 100 units, do we class this as a profit arising from unequal exchange? How exactly would this differ in practice from surplus value?

Its not such an esoteric discussion as it might seem. 3D printers are only the start. Nanotechnology is already on the foothills of a slope that leads to the kind of fabricators you get on Star Trek i.e. the fabricator takes atoms from the air, and builds up anything you like from an atomic level upwards.

With the pace of development in computing power fully automated factories are not too far away. I knew a comrade 20 years ago who worked for I_Cl, and even then was producing programmes that would produce the programmes that controlled CAD/CAM.