A type of labour force jiu jitsu

Reading Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Class 9

A type of labour force jiu-jitsu

Things can’t be uninvented, and that includes capitalism and the manufacturing system. So Marx looks for solutions from within the capitalist mode.

While wanting workers who just follow orders, in order to advance, capitalism needs educated scientists and engineers to maintain and develop its systems.

So there might be a way in here, using the systems that already exist, to develop them in a way that is positive for the worker. A type of labour force jiu-jitsu.


As machines develop, the tool becomes the instrument of the labourer and the skill of the worker is transferred to the machine. The impact is to move the labourer from a lifetime of being involved in a particular skill to a lifetime of being attached to the same machine. The result is that “in place of a hierarchy of specialised workers …  there appears … a tendency to equalise and reduce to an identical level every kind of work that has to be done by the minders of the machines” (page 545).

Again, the increased productivity goes to the capitalist, not to reduce the amount of work the labourer has to do. Machines are stronger than people, so can do heavy work, but “even the lightening of the labour becomes an instrument of torture since the machine does not free the worker from the work, but rather deprives the work of all content” (page 548).

Capitalist Appropriation

So the capitalist has taken

  • skill – incorporated into the machine
  • intellectual power – utilised these to its own advantage
  • science – into the mechanisation of production

On top of this, there is discipline. Technological change becomes a part of this.

At first, this creeps in through the mechanisation of the process which takes away the room for human interactions other than as they are related to production, but then it is more blatantly applied. For example, capitalists setting the clocks wrong (making them faster, so workers have to start earlier, then slowing them so workers work later). In addition, fines are applied, for lateness, poor work quality (even when the quality of the materials is at the same time being reduced to save money elsewhere). This can happen to the extent that it’s sometimes more profitable to have the fines applied than to have people working correctly.

So are Machines Neutral?

Machines as employed by capitalists, lead to deskilling and horrible jobs. But are machines of themselves neutral?

Regardless, Marx believed there wasn’t really a choice here. You cannot change a society without using all of the elements that are already there, things can’t be “uninvented”. instead, the issue can be moved to the social relations. Unfortunately, these systems are more “command and control” than social.

Machinery cheapens and increases production in the branch it seizes on, and at first leaves unaltered the quantity of the means of subsistence produced in other branches. Hence, after the introduction of machinery, society possesses as much of the necessities of life as before, if not more.
Capital, page 569

It’s not the machinery at fault, it’s the capitalist application of it that creates the problem

  • machines  shortens the labour required, but the capitalist mode  lengthens it
  • machines make labour easier, but the capitalist application heightens its intensity
  • machinery is a victory of man over nature, but in capitalist hands, it makes slaves of some men
  • machinery increases the wealth of producers, but under capitalism it makes those producers creates paupers

The Impacts of Increased Productivity

While it can throw people out of work, machinery can also create new jobs. The more that is produced, the more inputs that are needed, which creates more jobs around, demanding more fuel, transport, etc.

The new products must also be sold, and this gives rise to exports, increasing the spacial effect of production. This influx of cheap goods has the effect of “ruining handicraft production of finished articles in other countries” (page 579). What it then does, according to Marx, is turn what was a “finishing” market into a source of raw materials, sending them back to the mechanised country for the finishing.


All of this expansion makes for instability, the growing and crashing of markets. “This qualitative change in machine production continually removes workers from factories, or closes their doors to the fresh stream of recruits, while the purely quantitative extension of the factories absorbs not only the men thrown out of work, but also fresh contingents of workers” (page 583). In other words, for the worker there is constant instability, which makes life very difficult, but this is inherent in capitalism.

The speed of this is so much greater than in the handicraft industry, where things move a lot slower and the power of the worker is proportionately so much greater.

“Modern industry never views or treats the existing form of the production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative” (page 617).

The Servant Class

While people may be put out of productive work, the service sector provides opportunities. Marx gives numbers of workers in which the servants outnumber the agricultural labourers, or almost the combined total of factory workers and miners (page 574).

There is some parallel with this today, with two-fold effect.

Firstly more and more households today are dual income (in the previous chapter, Marx highlighted one of the advantages of machinery was it made work more accessible, meaning women and children could be brought into the factory. this had the effect of changing a “man’s wage” (insofar as it had to support a family) into a “family wage” (insofar as the family all had to work to support the family unit)).

Secondly, more and more households today have a cleaner or helper. Some of this also relates to the need for childcare as work and school have different hours. But in either case, work that was being done at home by a wife for “free” has now been converted into the social sphere, into paid labour. Something else for people to work harder for so they can spend money on.


There is a whole section here on the abuses of the labourer. Children as young as four being forced to work 10 plus hours. Conditions being terrible and ruining people’s health, leading to early death. People dying and no recompense (and in some cases no sympathy,  a collapsed mine, says one report, is bad for the capitalist too. Yes, workers might die, which is sad, but the capitalist owns the mine and is losing money too. Just not enough, it seems to put in place the safety precautions necessary to prevent it.

But as capital extends its threads, it requires a lot from the domestic industries as well, and forces them into change. Mainly increasing production and reducing costs. So abuses are not restricted to factories, and in some cases are even worse” because the worker’s power of resistance declines with their dispersal” (page 591).

Society Fights Back

Regulation Kills as it Cures

In some ways, the factory system is actually a remedy for this, though it kills as well as cures because as its demands for inputs outstrip the supply available from domestic industries, mechanisation of those industries happens as well. At the same time as they are mechanised, the capitalists start to complain about fair dealings. In other words, they start to demand the rules of the factories, previously ignored by the domestic industries as they struggle to keep up, apply to domestic industry as well. In the interests, of course, of “fairness”. This has the effect of hastening the end of domestic industry.

We hear the same cries about regulation today. there is a lot of M&A in the markets as small and medium players are bought up by larger players who have economies of scale, but also the ability to handle compliance and regulation. In Marx’s time, the effect was the same.

But though the Factory Acts thus artificially ripen the material elements necessary for the conversion of the manufacturing system into the factory system, yet at the same time, because they make it necessary to lay out a greater amount of capital, they hasten the decline of the small masters, and the concentration of capital.
Capital, page 607

So despite being fought at every step by businesses who say they can’t afford it and it’s impossible to abide by it, they do find a way around it.

Health and Education

There is a contradiction in capitalism. On the one hand, capitalism wants untrained workers, it doesn’t want people who think. On the other hand, things are in constant change and employers need employees who can adapt.

In the same way that previously Marx was saying things can’t be uninvented, he s looking for solutions inside the capitalist mode. In order to advance, capitalism needs some form of education. it needs scientists, engineers, etc to maintain and develop its systems. So there might be a way in here, using the systems that already exist, to develop them in a way that is positive for the worker. A type of labour force jiu-jitsu.

There can be no doubt, that with the inevitable conquest of political power by the working class, technological education, both theoretical and practical will take its proper place in the schools of the workers.
Capital, page 619.

Summing it Up – Overthrow from Within

The extension of the factory system causes a lot of misery, including the destruction of traditional ways of working, but it also offers hope. It brings people together and highlights the effect of capitalism. The monotony of machine-based jobs heightens the attractions of anarchy. It is inherently unstable.

Or in slightly longer words

By maturing the material conditions and the social combination of the means of production, it matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of that process and thereby ripens both the elements for forming a new society and the forces tending to the overthrow of the old one.
Capital page 635


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