The length of the working day

Reading Marx’s Capital – Volume 1 Class 6

“Moments are elements of profit” (page 353)

The history of labour is one of exploitation. The attempt to capture other people’s time as surplus value and the attempt to get as much of it as possible for as little as possible is the essence of capitalism. essential to capitalism.

But though capitalism might want limitlessness (and to some extent, capitalists are victims of this as much as they are drivers), people have limits and can only be worked so hard and for so long. Ironically, it’s the successful attempt to limit the working day that might have stopped capital from destroying itself.

The Working Day

The first thing that hits me reading this is the change in writing style. This is a much more documentary or reporting style of writing and despite the uncomfortable nature of the subject, exhaustive efforts to catalogue the list of abuses against the worker, it was relatively easy reading.

There is a clear, exploitable difference between the value of labour power (ie how much a capitalist will pay someone) and the value of that labour, if it goes on long enough. Labour power has a fixed value, the longer it goes on, the more valuable it is, so time is essential here.

How long is a working day?

This is not something negotiable in normal market practices. So the question is, what is a normal working day has a variable answer. For both parties, it’s “fair” that it be at least as long as necessary to cover the value of the worker’s labour. From there, for the labourer, it should be as short as possible, for the capitalist, as long as possible, “if the worker consumes his disposable time himself, he is robbing the capitalist” (page 342).

Shades of the Goldman Sachs vampire squid here as Marx personifies capital:

Capital is dead labour which, vampire like, lives only by sucking labour, and lives the more, the more it sucks.
Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics S.), page 342

So there is an immediate conflict here between worker and labourer.

In its initial form, labour for hire, everything is fair, so Marx does not make an argument about “rights”. No one is “right” or “wrong” here, they are both trying to maximise things for themselves within a framework and the result is class struggle, to be resolved by force.

There is here an antinomy or right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides.  Hence, in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between collective capital, ie the class of capitalists, and collective labour, ie the working class.
Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics S.), page 344

There is nothing unique about the extraction of surplus labour, but the capitalist society makes it hard to identify what is truly surplus. Slavery makes the generation of use values obvious, some of the other systems (the corvee), where someone works certain days communally, again makes it obvious. But for the labourer in a capitalist society, it’s never clear when they are working for themselves (to “earn” their daily rate) and when they are working to generate surplus value for the capitalist.

The alternative to a limitless working day was “the English factory Acts…these laws curb capital’s drive towards a limitless draining away of labour-power by forcibly limiting the working day on the authority of the state, but a state ruled by capitalist and landlord (page 348). The capitalists are forced to check themselves so as not to drain the wealth -labour has to be renewed somehow and if all its time is in creating surplus value, that cannot go on forever but runs up against natural limits, physical if nothing else.

The State plays an important role here as it has an interest in having a working class that is healthy, not through altruism, but to ensure it is capable of fighting in wars. Not the most disinterested role, but sometimes the reason is less important than the effect.

The factory inspectors were another key part of this and they kept some amazing records of opinions and abuse. One thing they kept coming back to was the theft of worker’s (or capitalist’s) time. In a world where “moments are elements of profit” (page 352), time management is essential to extract the most surplus value.

A Trap for Both Parties

Capital … takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork is this: Should that trouble us since it increases our pleasure (profit)?


Looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that these things do not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.
Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics S.) page 381

So the individual capitalist has no choice. If they want to compete, they have to use this model.

Back to the Length of the Working Day

The length of the working day at first had to be forced by the State. People didn’t initially like the idea, which is why vagabonds, etc had to be whipped and sent to workhouses. It took a long time to be “normalised”, Marx traces the roots to the14th century. As an aside, when the British became administrators of colonial territories, one of their chief complaints was that local populations did not have time discipline, they had not normalised the idea of working day. A lot of this appears in Foucault.

Now we accept the idea of time discipline.

One of the other issues was to be careful of paying too much; if you pay too much, people will not want to work as much, they will start to enjoy their free time. Free time can be dangerous as the more people have, the less inclined to work they will be, so “the cure will not be perfect, till our manufacturing poor are content to labour for six days in order to earn the same sum as they now do in four days” (page 388).

The Factory Act was an attempt to standardise these things, but again, the factory inspectors have a record of abuses. The fact that these things have to be so absolutely defined (a clock being the railway station clock as the factory owners were setting their’s early and having it run slow etc to extract extra labour, and even things such as the definition of a child (how old before it’s child labour), something that often seems strange when you have the unions saying one person can’t unhook a truck because it;s not their job, etc ., all stem from a perfectly rational attempt to execute the laws as they were written and not leave any room for the capitalist to wriggle out of it.

Forced into Something Not Against Your Interest

As the capitalists were pushed further and further back in their claim over the long working day of the worker (as it gained momentum, they went from strongly opposing to gleefully pointing out areas that hadn’t accepted the reform as a favourable contrast to themselves), a couple of things softened the blow.

First was that this shortened working day was not necessarily against the capitalist interest. Capitalists need surplus labour, and by working their workers to death, they were destroying the means of wealth. That working them so hard was part of the capitalist system and they were to a large extent forced to do it is part of this problem.

The second was that there was something else called “relative value” that was becoming more important to augment “surplus value”.

A Working Day Written in Stone

So, in the end, we have a legally defined working day, one that seems to be over defined in many ways, but with good reason because of so many attempts to read around it and go against the spirit of the law, not its letter.

In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” there steps the modest Magna Carta of the legally limited working day, which at last makes it clear when the time which the worker sells is ended and when his own begins.
Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics S.), page 46

One of the ironies here is the actions of the workers in effect stabilised the system rather than overthrowing it.

The Rate and Mass of Surplus Capital


There is a limit to the rate of surplus value – we can only work people so hard.

There is also a limit to the amount of amount of variable capital you can invest in (the total population)

How do you have a limitless way of accumulating in a world with limits – find out next week!


One thought on “Reading Marx’s Capital – Volume 1 Class 6

  1. Pingback: New Work and Old Time Labour | Another five foot shelf

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