Sunday, 9 July 2017

Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, Chapter 5

Necker [Attempt to Present the Antagonism of Classes in Capitalism as the Antithesis Between Poverty and Wealth]

Jacques Necker, Marx says, demonstrated that increases in social productivity result in the worker requiring less time to reproduce their labour-power, thereby leaving more of the working day as surplus production, appropriated by the employer.

“What he is mainly concerned with, however, is not the transformation of labour itself into capital and the accumulation of capital through this process, but rather the general development of the antithesis between poverty and wealth, between poverty and luxury, because, to the extent that a smaller quantity of labour suffices to produce the necessary means of subsistence, part of the labour becomes more and more superfluous and can therefore be used in the production of luxury articles, in a different sphere of production. Some of these luxury articles are durable; and so they accumulate from century to century in the possession of those who have surplus-labour at their disposal, making the contrast ever deeper.” (p 305)

Necker recognises that the wealth of the exploiting classes comes from the appropriation of surplus labour, in the form of profit and rent. The surplus value here is relative surplus value, obtained via higher productivity, rather than absolute surplus value, resulting from a lengthening or intensification of the working day.

The rise in productivity that creates this additional surplus value is the productivity of labour, and yet because this productivity rises with the introduction of new machines etc., it appears to be a rise in productivity brought about by capital.

“The productive power of labour becomes the productive power of the owner of the conditions of labour. And productive power itself is equivalent to the shortening of the labour-time that is necessary to produce a certain result.” (p 305-6)

Necker understands the value of labour-power in terms of the minimum required for its reproduction. That this should be understood in pretty absolute terms is not surprising, for the time. But, as Marx sets out later, the idea of some Iron Law of Wages, which leads to an immiseration of workers is false. It is false, in part, for the very reason Necker describes here, rising social productivity. As the part of the day required to reproduce labour-power continually falls, so it becomes possible to raise real wages, i.e. living standards, whilst still increasing profits. Moreover, for the same reason, and as the number of workers grows, so capital must be able to sell an ever wider range of commodities to workers in greater quantities, in order to realise the produced surplus value.

Necker writes,

““I see one of the classes of society whose wealth must always be pretty nearly the same; I see another of these classes whose wealth necessarily increases: thus luxury, which arises from a relation and a comparison, has had to follow the growth of this disproportion and become more evident as time went on” (l.c., pp. 285-86). (The contrast between the two classes as classes has already been clearly noticed.) “The class of society whose lot is as it were fixed by the effect of social laws is composed of all those who, living by the labour of their hands, are subject to the imperative law of the owners” (owners of the conditions of production) “and are compelled to content themselves with a wage proportionate to the simple necessities of life; competition between them and the urgency of their needs bring about their state of dependence; these conditions cannot change” (l.c., p. 286).” (p 306)

The consequence of technological development, therefore, had been to raise agricultural productivity, and another had revolutionised industrial production, so that workers,

“... “have been able, in an equal length of time, and for the same reward, to produce a greater quantity of products of all kinds” (p. 287).” (p 306)

If these developments had released 20,000 out of 100,000 workers, he says, then these 20,000 could now be employed producing luxury goods, to be consumed by the rich. For all workers who require no special talent their wages,

“... are always proportionate to the necessary price of subsistence for each labourer; thus the speed of production, when the knowledge required has become common, does not accrue to the advantage of the labouring men, and the result is only an augmentation of the means for the satisfaction of the tastes and vanities of those who have at their disposal the products of the land” (l.c., p. 288).” (p 306)

And echoing Marx's previous argument against the Monetary School, Necker points to the fact that, over time this process leads to an accumulation of value, (as Marx says, here, he does not mean an accumulation of fixed capital, but of the consumption fund. In other words, production is able to expand and sustain a larger number of workers) and this does not arise because of any increase in the quantity of money.

“Hence “the quickening pace of industrial production, which has multiplied the things of pomp and luxury on earth, the length of time in which accumulation has grown from this, and the laws of property, which have brought these good things into the hands of one class of society alone…these great sources of luxury would in any case have existed, whatever had been the quantity of coined money” (p. 291).” (p 306-7) 

Necker sets out the relation between the worker and the owner of capital, which as Marx has previously described establishes the conditions under which the worker must provide unpaid labour.

““When the artisan or the husbandman have no reserves left, they can no longer argue; they must work today on pain of dying tomorrow, and in this conflict of interest between the Owner and Labourer, the one stakes his life and that of his family, and the other a mere delay in the growth of his luxury” (l.c., p. 63).” (p 307)

Marx paraphrases an idea he uses in the Grundrisse, where he defines Labour as “not capital”, and Capital as “not Labour”.

“This contrast between wealth that does not labour and poverty that labours in order to live also gives rise to a contrast of knowledge. Knowledge and labour become separated. The former confronts the latter as capital, or as a luxury article for the rich.” (p 307)

If “properties” were equal, Necker says, then everyone would labour moderately, and have available free time. This is similar to Marx's point in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, where he writes that distribution is a consequence of production and productive relations, i.e. the ownership of property. If everyone had this free time, Necker says, then everyone could obtain education and knowledge.

“... but with the inequality of fortunes, resulting from the social order, education is prohibited for all who are born without property; because all sustenance being in the hands of that part of the nation which possesses money or land, and no one giving anything for nothing , the man born without any other resource but his strength is obliged to devote it to the service of the Owners from the first moment when his strength develops, and to continue thus all his life, from the moment when the sun rises to the moment when this strength has been worn down and needs to be renewed by sleep” (p. 112).” (p 307)

Necker points out that the confusion of the Physiocrats, and the same thing could be said of many modern economists, who confuse the owner of means of production for the means of production themselves.

““They begin by confusing the importance of the owner (a function so easy to perform) with the importance of the land” (l.c., p. 126).” (p 307)

In other words, its not the landlord who creates value, which they extract as rent. It is the fact that land is a use value required in production, and the monopoly ownership of land enables a rent to be obtained from it.

Similarly, it is not the owner of a machine that enables production to occur, but the machine itself.

Back To Chapter 4

Forward To Chapter 6

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