Thursday, April 04, 2024

A History Of Production Processes In Volume 1 Of Capital

1.0 Introduction

I have written many posts on formal results related to my favorite interpretations of the theory of value and distribution in Marx's Capital. But Marx's work is not solely about formalism. One aspect of volume 1 is a history of production processes up to Marx's day. Much opportunity exists to build on this history. Some have done this in works I have not read much of. I have been reading Soren Mau, and many years ago I read much of Charles Babbage's On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. Ian Wright, too, has had something to say about the impersonal force of capital at the level of a totality. I found Harry Cleaver's study guide useful in writing this post, even though I read Capital more analytically than politically.

This post provides a brief overview of aspects of Capital I have not mentioned before. Much more can be be found in volume 1. For instance, I say nothing about business cycles here.

2.0 Primitive Accumulation

Marx does not proceed in chronological order. He concludes volume 1 with a section on primitive accumulation. He describes the enclosure movement, which led to many peasants becoming vagabonds and beggars. And he describes strict laws against such. This leads to a labor force of workers with the double freedom of being free to sell their labor power and of being free from ownership of the means of production. I do not recall much about the transformation of natural economies, in overseas colonies, to capitalist economies. For example, the imposition of money taxes on colonial subjects constrained those subjects to seek waged labor so as to obtain the needed money.

3.0 (Re)producing the Presuppositions of Capitalism

But Marx starts his exposition, more or less, with a system in which production units are coordinated by selling commodities on markets for money. His book is about, from one perspective, how capitalism produces and reproduces its own presuppositions on an expanded scale.

According to Marx, capitalism initially takes over existing processes. He calls this formal subsumption. In the putting-out system, also called the domestic system, a merchant provides handicraft workers in their homes with raw materials to work up. The merchant collects their products and sells them on the market. Even though the workers are physically isolated, this system is the beginning of the aggregation of workers into a labor force.

Chapter 13 describes co-operation, and chapter 14 describes what Marx calls manufacture. Many handicraft workers are brought together under one roof. They might all be executing the same tasks, each transforming raw materials, through several steps, into a single commodity. Or they might be producing different products, perhaps with some vertical integration. The outputs of some workers are semi-finished products used as inputs by other workers.

In chapter 10, Marx writes about struggles over the length of the working day. In the formalism, absolute surplus value is increased if workers can be made to work longer, while requiring the same length of time needed to produce the commodities that they purchase from their wages. Some of this chapter seems to be still relevant in the United States today, where many low-pay workers have more than one job. Can their employers send them home and then call them back in the same day? Do the working days for these jobs sometimes add up to 24 hours? Computer and communication technology allow your employer to call on you at any time.

Marx has an interesting story about how mill owners might have found it in their own interest for laws to be passed regulating hours and working conditions. Each mill owner in Manchester would like to hire healthy workers, overwork them, and then discard them. But if all mill owners are doing this, where are healthy workers to be found? This story could be modeled with game theory, I guess.

Once so many workers are gathered in one place, the production processes which they operate can be 'rationalized'. This redivision and reallocation of tasks is advanced along with the introduction of machinery, as Marx discusses in chapter 15, Machinery and Modern Industry.

When I was young, the Rochester Museum and Science Center had a diorama - probably on the same floor as this one - showing the inside of a mill. A wheel was turned by a waterfall, and a system of gears and pulleys delivered the power to several rows of machines. For Marx, a machine is combination of tools, such as a lever, an inclined plane, a screw, etc., where the motive power might not be a human. The motive power could be water or steam, for example.

The result of this introduction of machinery and the re-organization of tasks is what Marx calls the real subsumption of capital. The pace at which laborers work is regulated by the machine. Automation is such that workers serve the machine, not vice versa. Laborers can no longer competitively duplicate their activities outside of employment bhy capitalists.

The increase in productivity brought about by real subsumption results in the increase of relative surplus value. The length of the working day required to produce the commodities purchased by wages decreases. Even with the same length of the working day and the same basket of wage goods, surplus labor time increases. The increase in relative surplus value is even compatible with a somewhat decreased working day and a somewhat larger basket of wage goods. This increase in relative surplus value is about forces operating behind the back of capitalists. They do not fund innovation so as to decrease the necessary labor embodied in wage goods.

4.0 Extensions and Conclusion

This history can be continued. Peter Drucker is of some importance in the development of the idea of management as a profession. Taylorism, named after Frederick Taylor, the author of Principles of Scientific Management, provides analytical tools for breaking tasks down further and regimenting them. Operations Research (OR) and Command, Control, Communications, and Information (C3I) are some disciplines building on the work of Babbage. For reasons of Information Assurance (IA), even relatively privileged computer programmers do not own the means of production; in the modern corporation, almost insurmountable hoops prevent you from hooking your own devices up to the corporate intranet or sharing files between your work and personnal computer. The history extends to office work and service jobs; it is not confined to factory work.

The result of this history is a division within the workshop and other entities organized in private firms, as well as among many productive enterprises in many industries scattered over a country or many countries. For the most part, no one worker oversees the entire production of a commodity. Rather, each becomes a detail worker. I tend to assume that a Leontief input-output matrix shows the interactions of all industries, but this structure is the result of a historical process. Furthermore, every capitalist is constrained by competition. The domination of capital is not solely about the relationship between individual employers and employees. It is also about an overarching dominating logic. By the way, I know some who take pride, probably rightfully, in their work in this setting.

The question for the socialist is whether this increased productivity can be maintained, with an increased population and developed social relationships among all, while somehow abolishing this domination. Can something like this division of labor be made transparent? If so, how do we get there?

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