Sunday, January 11, 2009


By the end of chapter 7, “The labor process and the valorization process,” I had lost the train of Marx’s argument on the crucial ground of the creation of surplus-value. I went back, and believe that I have got it back. I will try to explain. Specifically, the following passage from chapter 6 made no sense to me, and then the crucial move of the next chapter, also reproduced here, relied upon it.

Suppose that [the] mass of commodities required for the average day contains six hours of social labor, then every day half a day of average social labor is objectified in labor-power, or in other words half a day of labor is required for the daily production of labor-power. This quantity of labor forms the value of a day’s labor-power, or the value of the labor-power produced every day. If half a day of average social labor is present in 3 shillings, then 3 shillings is the price corresponding to the value of a day’s labor-power. If its owner therefore offers it for sale at 3 shillings a day, its selling price is equal to its value, and according to our original assumption the owner of money, who is intent on transforming his 3 shillings into capital, pays this value. 276

The value of a day’s labor-power amounts to 3 shillings, because on our assumption half a day’s labor is objectified in that quantity of labor-power, i.e. because the means of subsistence required every day for the production of labor-power cost half a day’s labor. But the pas labor embodied in the labor-power and the living labor it can perform, and the daily cost of maintaining labor-power and its daily expenditure in work, are two totally different things. The former determines the exchange-value of the labor-power, the latter is its use-value. The fact that half a day’s labor is necessary to keep the worker alive during 24 hours does not in any way prevent him from working a whole day. Therefore the value of labor-power, and the value which that labor-power valorizes [verwertet] in the labor-process, are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference was what the capitalist had in mind when he was purchasing the labor-power. 300

And yet more clearly:

The owner of the money has paid the value of a day’s labor-power; he therefore has the use of it for a day, a day’s labor belongs to him. On the one hand the daily sustenance of labor-power costs only half a day’s labor, while on the other hand the very same labor-power can remain effective, can work, during a whole day, and consequently the value which its use during that day creates is double what the capitalist pays for that use; this circumstance is a piece of good luck for the buyer, but by no means an injustice towards the seller. 301

The shillings, I think, confused me a little, as did the 6-hour half-day. The point of this passage and the next chapter is that the exchange-value of the commodity ‘12 hours of social labor’ (and by this is meant the mythic socially-average-labor of any given instance of production) is 6 hours of labor. Why, I thought, would the worker work a whole day if the cost of living for a whole day was half a day of labor? But we aren’t talking about 6 hours of substance farm labor in order to sustain life for the remaining 6 hours of a given 12 hour period. The worker possesses a commodity, labor-power over time, the exchange-value of which can be expressed in the labor-time necessary for its production, just like any other commodity. The special nature of labor-power as a commodity is that its use-value falls in the same qualitative category as its exchange-value, and is greater than this exchange-value. So it valorizes itself.

The total value that goes into the production of any given commodity is measurable in labor-time. But (at the arbitrary 1:2 subsistence ratio) each hour of labor-time purchased at its exchange-value on the market in the form of labor-power (as opposed to the congealed form of leather, or yarn, or any other physical commodity) yields, when it is consumed in use-value, 2 hours of labor-power. That is the source, as far as I can tell, of surplus-value, and therefore of capital. The general formula for capital, M-C-M’, expanded into M-C-M+ΔM, expresses just this fundamental result of the treatment of labor-power as a commodity, measured in time, but expressible in money. So surplus-value itself rests, just as value does, on time measured and chopped up into bits.

Some weeks ago there was a much-reported factory occupation in Chicago. My understanding is that the conflict was over, in part, delayed compensation. Or put differently, the necessity for the worker to lend their labor-power to the capitalist over short periods of time. Another way of saying this is that workers are always paid after the work is done. Marx says,

In every country where the capitalist mode of production prevails, it is the custom not to pay for labor-power until it has been exercised for the period fixed by the contract, for example at the end of each week. In all cases, therefore, the worker advances the use-value of his labor-power to the capitalist. He lets the buyer consume it before he received payment of the price. Everywhere the worker allows credit to the capitalist. That this credit is no mere fiction is shown not only by the occasional loss of wages the worker has already advanced, when a capitalist goes bankrupt, but also by a series of more long-lasting consequences. 278

The footnote to this passage describes, among other things, the system of factory-shops, in which workers who are paid only at long intervals are obliged, between paychecks, to buy necessities on credit at high prices. The very idea of this ‘company shop’ is scandalous now, but the practice of carrying significant credit card debt is really no different. Marx insists that value be measured in social time—necessity is also social. This is to say that Marx’s basic schema still makes a certain amount of sense in an ‘affluent’ society, because necessities for the reproduction of ‘the worker’ are socially, rather than physiologically, determined. Much more value is required to produce a stock-broker who will operate at ‘normal’ levels than is required to feed a human being. As Balzac makes quite clear, much more is required to make a successful journalist than a pen and coffee—there are social, but none the less real, costs to doing this kind of commodity production. Marx also insists on the physicality of labor, the metabolic relationship between man and nature that it incarnates. Although I haven’t worked it all out, it seems to me that most of what I have so far read could stand without this strong (dare I say metaphysical?) distinction between nature and man.

This man/nature distinction is related, I think, to another distinction, that between the two kinds of consumption. There is productive consumption, which is social—leather is consumed in producing a boot, for instance, but the value of the leather is transformed and carried on in the exchange-value of the boot. Then there is individual consumption, which is to say the non-productive realization of the use-value of any given commodity. The boots are purchased, and then worn, until they are used up. The distinction seems to be essentially between production which is then rolled into a new commodity, and production which leaves the field of commodity exchange. But what if a worker buys the boots, and wears them to the factory, as a necessary part of his working equipment? Or, to extend my contentious counter-example, what if a stock-broker, or an investment banker, buys the fancy leather shoes, and wears them to work where they become part of the image of success that is, often, what is in fact being sold. In both cases the individual consumption is folded back into the reproduction or production (is there, regarding labor-power, any distinction there at all?) of the labor-power commodity. How are we to draw the line between commodities that an individual buys to consume individually, and those that are purchased and folded into the labor-power sold by this individual? The more we expand the concept of labor-power, the more problematic this becomes. How, in the end, are we to retain the socially constituted aspect of necessity while distinguishing it from that which is not necessary? If we are no longer considering necessity in terms of calories (which Marx is quite clear that we do not), then do we turn to the empirically observed fact of success in any given area of production as the only possible measure of necessity? This is perhaps the relativism of which Marx is sometimes accused.

No doubt at least some of this will become clearer as I read on.

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