Machines and large scale production

Reading Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Class 8

Machinery and Large-Scale Industry

Machines free up time, but not for leisure. Capitalism has other plans for the worker.

speed things up, standardise and control. More gets produced at an ever-accelerating rate, but increasing that rate is the end goal. Machines are not a liberator of workers from labour. Instead, they draw ever more people into the capitalist mode.

The Development of Machinery

Like every other instrument for increasing the productivity of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities and by shortening the part of the working day in which the worker works for himself, to lengthen the part which he gives to the capitalist for nothing. Machinery is a means for producing surplus-value.
Capital, page 492

The value of labour power varies with the value of subsistence (the “bundle of commodities” the labourer needs to survive. 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.

A Segway to Darwin

An interesting footnote on page 493 as Marx looks at the history of technology and compares the development of technology to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Going back to the start when he was talking about process, things are constantly evolving, there is no such thing as a static society.

Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.
Capital, page 493

Marx is setting up for these categories for those moments where dynamic change can occur. If you say tech is the prime cause, then you’re a tech determinist. But Marx isn’t using causal language. Marx is interested in the evolution of society, so this isn’t deterministic, it’s relationship based but open-ended. There is no defined end point here, and more importantly, any analysis which freezes anything into a “point” rather than taking it as a process will be incomplete.

The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesperson whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.
Capital, page 494

No Break in the Process

The mechanisation of a process means breaking down a process and reconstituting it in a way to be best done by a machine. This reconception (the first step in which was bringing it under a single roof allowing what was previously discrete steps to be brought into a single whole. As it goes through production, the manufactured item

Is constantly in a state of transition from one phase of production to another… the collective working machine, which is now an articulated system composed of various kinds of single machine, becomes all the more perfect the more the process as a whole becomes a continuous one.
Capital, page 502

In the beginning, machines were made by skilled artisans, but this posed a limitation, so it needed to be automated as well. Additionally, as the scale and speed of machines sped up, tolerances went down; a machine can work a lathe to a finer tolerance than even the most skilled worker. More importantly, a machine, operated by an unskilled worker, can work “with a degree of ease, accuracy and speed that no accumulated experience of the hand of the most skilled workman could give” (page 507).

So now there are machines creating machines. As the “artisanal” aspect of production are removed, things become more scientific.

Machines as a Source of Value

Machines are comprised of past, dead labour and cannot produce new labour. There’s a quote by JS Mill wondering why machines have never made life easier, the Marx response would be that they were never designed to make life easier, but rather to produce additional surplus value (at least in the form of relative surplus value).

This is calculated through a depreciation model, “machinery, like every other component of constant capital, creates no new value, but yields up its own value to the product it serves to beget” (page 509).

What machines do do is to enable production to happen at a faster rate. What is necessary is that the productivity of the machine is measured by the amount of labour it replaces.

The Family Wage

As machines become easier to operate, this has the effect of making it possible to employ women and children. In turn, it raised the possibility of the family wage – where it used to be that the capitalist needed to pay enough to the worker to support their family, there is the opportunity to employ all the family for that same amount.

This has the potential to reconfigure all sorts of social relations. “Compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place, not only of children’s play, but also of independent labour at home, within customary limits, for the family itself” (page 517).

This has the effect of increasing demand (an unholy trinity of more workers, more income, more spending), as “Domestic work, such as sewing and mending, must be replaced by the purchase of ready-made articles. Hence the diminished expenditure of labour in the house is accompanied by increased expenditure of money outside” (page 518).

We see something similar in the task-based economy now, with more people than ever having cleaners, or employing people to do things we are too busy to do ourselves.

Back to Time

Machines allow greater continuity of the production process, and the capitalist wants to get their money’s worth out of it, which involves running it as much as possible. In addition to wanting to get the best possible use out of the capital

In addition to wanting to get the best possible use out of the capital outlayed in the machine, three is also moral depreciation. In other words, because of technological improvements, the machine has a limited lifespan because machines that do the same thing are either being produced more cheaply or made more efficient. “The shorter the period taken to reproduce its total value, the less the danger of moral depreciation; and the longer the working day, the shorter in fact that period is” (page 528).

Where the Worker?

There is only a limited amount of production that anyone can make or consumers absorb. As machines make this more efficient or increase production there is a natural fall in the requirement of labour.

But this doesn’t mean people are freed from the need to work. Going back to the JS Mill quote at the start about machinery not making people’s lives better, these people, now unemployed, are open to being re employed at a lower rate.

Hence the economic paradox that the most powerful instrument for reducing labour-time suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorization.
Capital, page 532

The section finishes with a nice dig at Christianity, citing historical figures such as Aristotle who dreamed of machines freeing up labour for humans. The Greeks lived on the work of slaves, the slavery of one person enabling the freedom of another. Marx agrees, but points out they “lacked the specifically Christian qualities which would have enabled them to preach the slavery of the masses in order that a few crude and half-educated parvenus might become ’eminent spinners’, extensive sausage makers’, and ‘influential shoe black dealers'” (page 533).

The Intensification of Labour

The final section deals with te intensification of labour. This intensification happens in a number of ways. Firstly as the time in the working day is shortened, people can be made to work harder in the time they have. Secondly, and more importantly, once machines are in place, they can start to control the rate of production. Machines can be sped up and any slowdown monitored. It’s the machines that are in control, not the workers.

Summing it Up

Machines make things go faster. More importantly, they leave the capitalist no choice but to go faster as they need to keep ahead of continuous advances in technology that would make the machines obsolete.

But society is dynamic, and changing one thing changes many others. As machines go faster, machine makers must also become better. As machines become easier to use, whole families can be employed to use them. As families become employed, the nature of the living wage changes.

Everything is linked and in constant motion and improvement. The one thing it is not headed towards is a life of ease, and poignantly there is one question is never asked in capitalism, what’s it all for? Like the old story of the consultant approaching a fisherman and explaining how he could build a business by scaling, exporting etc so that, with enough time, he could retire to fish as he liked, capitalism misses that point.

Or rather it never attempts to address that point. It has as its goal the profit motive, and with profit, all else falls to the sidelines.


One thought on “Reading Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Class 8

  1. Pingback: Reading Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Class 9 | Another five foot shelf

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