Friday, 31 July 2015

Marx and Machines - Part 4 of 7

In describing the effects of machines in relation to unemployment, the dichotomous attitude of Marx once more manifests itself. He wants to oppose the bourgeois apologists who can see no downside to the introduction of machines, for workers, and who argued, for example, that the workers “freed” from production, by the introduction of machines, would simply be employed by the capital that was released by this process, for example, in producing the machines themselves.

Ricardo, who had originally held that position, was later to recognise the devastating role that machines could have on workers. In his presentation of this case, however, Marx makes a number of errors, particularly in Theories of Surplus Value, Part 1, that are hard to explain. Moreover, both in Capital I, and in Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, having made this case, Marx goes on immediately to set out the extent to which, rather than contracting, employment expands significantly.

As I set out in my new book Marx, in Chapter 15, writes,

“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.”

As he makes clear here, there are two aspects to the role of the machine. On the one hand, a machine may be introduced which actually replaces existing workers, who are thereby made redundant. On the other hand, a machine may be introduced, which does the work that x number of workers would have previously been required to undertake, but this does not at all mean that this number of workers are thereby made redundant, if they were not so employed in the first place.

Suppose, for example, it would take 500 workers, using hand tools and horses, to excavate a canal. The cost of employing these workers, for this task, might make it too costly to undertake. However, if a steam powered excavator is introduced, it may be able to undertake this work at a fraction of the cost. It then becomes possible to dig the canal, and in addition to the excavator driver, workers are now employed in other activities such as building locks, canal barges, and so on, who otherwise would not have been employed.

Although, therefore, the machine theoretically replaced labour, in practice, it led to more workers being employed. Marx gives a similar set of examples in Capital I, of the range of jobs that were created in the 19th century, as capital expanded rapidly, for example, in building railways, roads, canals, ports and so on. And, even where capital replaces existing labour, the additional profits it creates by higher productivity, enable such an expansion of capital that employment can increase above what it was previously.

“This first period, during which machinery conquers its field of action, is of decisive importance owing to the extraordinary profits that it helps to produce. These profits not only form a source of accelerated accumulation, but also attract into the favoured sphere of production a large part of the additional social capital that is being constantly created, and is ever on the look-out for new investments. The special advantages of this first period of fast and furious activity are felt in every branch of production that machinery invades. So soon, however, as the factory system has gained a certain breadth of footing and a definite degree of maturity, and, especially, so soon as its technical basis, machinery, is itself produced by machinery; so soon as coal mining and iron mining, the metal industries, and the means of transport have been revolutionised; so soon, in short, as the general conditions requisite for production by the modern industrial system have been established, this mode of production acquires an elasticity, a capacity for sudden extension by leaps and bounds that finds no hindrance except in the supply of raw material and in the disposal of the produce.”

(Capital I, Chapter 15, p 424)

Back To Part 3

Part 5 Will Appear Tomorrow

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