Specialisation of labour

Reading Marx’s Capital – Volume 1 Class 7

Busy Bees Might Not be Happy Bees

With a limit to the hours of work and the works who can work them the only way to increase surplus value is to increase productivity.

Shrinking time and space by bringing all the functions together in a single factory allows the entire process to be seen as a whole, and reconfigured to be more efficient. Tasks that were the role of the skilled craftsmen are broken down into tasks capable of being performed by the unskilled labourer.

Tasks that were the role of the skilled craftsmen are broken down into tasks capable of being performed by the unskilled, but specialist labourer, with a corresponding loss of understanding and control.

The delights of honey-gathering in the fields is swapped for the the drone of the factory.

If Limits are the Illness, Productivity is the Doctor

The value of a commodity is “socially necessary labour time”. If the length of the working day is fixed, and the number of workers you can employ is fixed, the only way to increase surplus value is to increase productivity.

The Concept of Relative Surplus-Value

People are better off in terms of physical goods than they were even a few years ago, so are they really being exploited? Things seem to be improving for the labourer.

But increasing productivity produces such an increase in the amount of commodities that are available, some of that has to go to the working class by definition so there is a market to buy. Additionally, up until the 70s, union bargaining went along the lines of an agreement for an increase in wages in return for workers accepting changes to increase productivity – in other words, they are sharing in the gains.

Since then, wages in relative terms don’t show an increase in wages since that time. So there is no contradiction to an increase in wages and an increase in the rate of exploitation. Additionally, most of the gains in living standards have come from cheap imports and subsidies around food and agricultural products. These lower priced goods decrease inflation or the value of the “basket of commodities”, and with it reduce the increase in wages that might need to be paid to workers.

On the other hand, it makes it difficult for the collective working class to argue for protectionism to save jobs when the cheap imports are the things which are giving them the higher standard of living. Ironically (see below) it’s technological change rather than imports that has accounted for most unemployment, and technology is one thing that can’t be rolled back.

Once the price of a good is established, an increase in productivity means the cost of production comes down slightly and there is more surplus value in production. However, this also means there will be an increase in output, and, “other things being equal, the capitalist’s commodities can only command a more extensive value if their prices are reduced” (Capital, page 434). Additionally, in time any innovation is copied and the ground made up, so this advantage disappears, however, for a time it remains a source of surplus value which goes directly to the capitalist.

As a side note, this is the destructive creation of capitalism in action, starting out with hand work, then organisation of labour (bringing the components physically together in a factory), then machinery.

Innovation: The result of competition

Given the above, a capitalist society needs to be technologically dynamic, the need to keep innovating to find surplus value.


Co-operation increases scale, which can increase productivity.

A large number of workers working together at the same time…in order to produce  the same sort of commodity under the command of the same capitalist, constitutes the starting point of capitalist production.
Capital, page 438

People working together produce more than people working independently. there are a number of possible reasons for this, but two primary ones are it “contracts the field of production relative to the scale of production”, (page 447).

At this stage, co-operation is not necessarily a negative. This additional productive capability happens “when the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality and develops the capabilities of his species” (page 447).

When the labourer is brought into the factory environment, they are under the control of the capitalist. the capitalist orchestrates their production function like a conductor. But at the same time as the capitalist is trying to create the maximum amount of surplus value from the labourer, “as the number of the co-operating workers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital” (page 449).

An even more important for the worker, the capitalist is now their organising force. As workers, they cannot produce without his organising principle.

The unification into one single productive body, and the establishment of a connection between their individual functions, lies outside their competence.
Capital, page 449

As mentioned above, this aggregation of labour efforts results in extra surplus value, the many produce more than the single working alone, even if absolute numbers are the same. But the capitalist is treating them as individuals in terms of their employment, so this extra surplus value is essentially free.

The Division of Labour and Manufacture

With manufacturing brought together in a single place, the process of manufacturing becomes visible as a whole and it can start to be broken up into parts – specialisation. this makes for a more efficient (and productive) process, but the workers in it are again losing some of their autonomy.

The commodity, from being the individual product of an independent craftsman, becomes the social product of a union of craftsmen, each of whom performs one, and only one, of the constituent partial operations.
Capital, page 457.

So the worker gets better at something, but the cost is that “constant labour of one uniform kind disturbs the intensity and flow of a man’s vital forces, which find recreation and delight in the change of activity itself” (page 460).

So improvements to production come through the organisation of the labour process in time (speeding up activity by breaking it up into simple tasks repeated endlessly) and space (bringing things together saves on movement) to improve efficiency.

Man with a Plan

So planning is essential within a factory to improve productivity. But if you can plan production in the factory, why not plan the social as well? Marx notes that while keen for planning within the factory, the capitalist opposes every effort “to regulate the process of production socially, as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and the self-determining genius of the individual capitalist” (page 477). In other words, the world of the factory is a horrible one.

So, it seems, planning is only great when it suits.

The Capitalist Character of Manufacture

In breaking down what were whole tasks into discrete elements, the person performing those tasks is also broken down. They are unable to see the whole operation and their scope of vision is reduced, and with it, their understanding. For the specialist, and here Marx quotes Adam Smith, “His dexterity at his own particular trade seems to be in this manner acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social and martial virtues” (page 483).

The result is essentially making machines out of people. And the next step in this is replacing people with machines.



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