Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Capital III, Chapter 14 - Part 8

7) The Effect Of Technology On Complex Labour

There is another countervailing force to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, which Marx does not deal with, which is not surprising given the time he was writing. But it is important. It is the effect that technology has on labour itself, in transforming it from simple labour into complex labour. The point was only touched on earlier in discussing the role of relative over-population. According to Marx, in Capital I, the value of the product of complex labour as a multiple of simple labour can only be determined post facto, in the market. In other words, if we take two concrete labours A and B, where A is complex and B is simple, we can only establish the relation between them on the basis of what consumers are prepared to pay – after the deduction of the respective amounts of constant capital – for the product of one hour of one compared to the other.

This may be fairly straightforward where these products are indivisible. In other words, if a carpenter produces a chair, it is bought by one consumer. But, some commodities are not of this nature. They are divisible. That is they can be bought and consumed by numerous consumers simultaneously without any individual consumer suffering a diminution of what they have bought. In fact, in some cases, the utility may be increased by the fact that more people have bought it. For example, the fact that 20,000 other people have bought tickets for a football match may make the experience more enjoyable than sitting in an empty stadium watching it on your own! Another example would be a telephone system. It would be pretty useless unless lots of other people subscribed to it.

These types of commodities are what orthodox economics calls public goods.  Similar examples would be the value of the product of the labour of a teacher.  Another is the value of the labour which produces say a bridge.  The value of the product can only be determined on the basis of the total consumption, at a given price.  The product cannot be viewed solely as an individual commodity supplied to an individual consumer, but only as a single product supplied to a totality of consumers. Education, provided by a welfare state is a good example of that.  The consumers of this commodity buy it via deductions from their wages collectively - whether, in fact, they consume the product themselves or not - rather than by individual payments, as happens, for example, with private tuition. The value of the commodity is then determined by this collective payment for it, in this case, independent of the number of consumers of the commodity.  State capital extracts surplus value from the labour of teachers, as a consequence of the difference between this value of the product, and the value of the labour-power of the teachers, and paid to them as wages.

The example of the football match is, however, the best to describe the point about the role of technology, in this respect. I hasten to point out that this has nothing to do with the wages paid to footballers, but is only a question of the value produced by their labour. That value is the same whether the footballer is paid wages of millions or only hundreds of pounds.

Fifty years ago, 20,000 people, on average, attended First Division (now Premier League) football matches. Using constant prices, and ignoring the value of constant capital, in the form of the stadium etc., in the value of the commodity, assume that each spectator pays £1 for their ticket, so that the total value of the commodity is £20,000. That is then the value of the product of this labour.

But, its clearly the case that this value is here a function of the number of spectators, and how much each is charged for their ticket (which as Marx says, simply shows that this comes down to how much this number of consumers are prepared to pay for this complex labour). If only 10,000 people attended, the quantity and quality of the labour provided would remain the same (though we could assume that the lower attendance was due to poorer performance which causes lower demand) but, at £1 per ticket, the value of the product of that labour would have fallen by 50% to just £10,000. If demand had fallen, because the price of a ticket had been increased to £2, then the value of the product of the labour would remain £20,000, so we can assume that the ticket price is set to maximise revenue.

But, the potential for maximising the value of the product of this labour is limited by the practicalities of stadium size and so on. However, technology changes this. Once football matches are televised, there are millions of people who can watch any particular match. If those TV spectators amount to 20 million, and by one means or another pay just £0.10 to watch, the value of the product of this labour rises to £2 million. Yet, the actual labour may be no different. On the other hand, it may be the case that the fact that this much larger audience is attracted, and the value of the product is so much greater, causes demand for this labour to rise so that the demands of the football clubs for a higher quality of player also increases.

But, the further development of technology enhances this even more. The development of satellite TV, global telecommunications and the Internet etc. means that football matches can be sold to a global audience. Tens of millions of people in China alone watch English Premier League matches every week.

A similar situation exists for other forms of entertainment. But, here also the effect of technology might also be seen to have an effect on the quality and nature of the labour itself. Take, for example, a comedian. A hundred years ago, comedians performed in music halls, up and down the country. They might perform every night of the week, in a single town, to a different audience, for a week, before moving on to another town the following week. On this basis, the same material could be used for a year, and in the process, its repetition would make its delivery easier to accomplish. But, today, although comedians still perform at live venues, TV means that the top performers deliver their material to the whole nation in one go. They would soon be off the air if they simply repeated the same material night after night for a year. That also means they have to have the ability to learn their material quickly, and still be able to deliver it effectively, as well as to be able to deal with all the other requirements of this changed form.

The value of the product of the labour of a top comedian is then, many times, today, what it was 100 years ago, simply because technology has created a larger market, but that technology also means that the comedian's labour is different today to what it was 100 years ago.

But, technology transforms the nature of labour in other ways too, from the labour of the bus driver to the labour of the typesetter. As Marx himself points out, the process is contradictory. On the one hand, it de-skills some forms of labour, whilst creating new skilled forms of labour. But, also because as Marx points out, modern labour is social labour, which must function within the overall context of a modern technologically driven, capitalist economy, the nature of this labour, in general, has to change, and in this sense becomes complex compared to the labour of the past.

In the 19th century, it was not necessary for most workers even to be literate and numerate, which is why capital was loathe to include even elementary education in the basket of wage goods that made up the value of labour-power. Today, capital requires workers even for the most mundane tasks to be educated to a high level, even to the extent of seeking to have 50% go to University!

Forward To Chapter 15

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