Hats and men: Marx's faulty symmetry
By Michael A. Lebowitz May 11, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Socialist Project — Was Marx a superman or a human being? Joan Robinson once asked a Soviet professor this very question. Of course, Marx was human, he answered. ‘Then he could make mistakes?’ Yes. ‘Would you mind mentioning a mistake that he made?’ The Soviet professor changed the subject. However, 150 years after the publication of Volume I of Capital, it is long past time for revolutionaries not to change the subject but to talk seriously about mistakes Marx made in Capital and their implications. This article is about one such mistake and how it infected Capital and subsequent practice. Consider the centrality of the argument by analogy at the core of Capital. Since labour-power is bought and sold as a commodity, Marx explained, its value is ‘determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this specific article.’ Accordingly, as in the case of every other commodity, its value will fall with reductions in the labour-time necessary for its production – i.e., with increases in productivity. In setting out this principle of the symmetry of labour-power and other commodities, Marx here was following the path of Ricardo, who Marx credited as the first to formulate accurately the relations (‘laws’) he elaborated in Capital. Ricardo expressed it this way in his Principles of Political Economy:
‘Diminish the cost of production of hats, and their price will ultimately fall to their new natural price, although the demand should be doubled, tripled or quadrupled. Diminish the cost of subsistence of men, by diminishing the natural price of the food and clothing by which life is sustained, and wages will ultimately fall, notwithstanding that the demand for labourers may very greatly increase.’‘The cynical Ricardo,’ Marx called him in 1844. But he was not commenting upon a personal characteristic of Ricardo; rather, Ricardo's teaching was the perspective of ‘English political economy, i.e., the scientific reflection of English economic conditions.’ This was a perspective that viewed ‘man as worker, as a commodity,’ as the product of those economic conditions but that also was indifferent to the production of man as ‘a mentally and physically dehumanized being.’ Outside of their direct relation to capital, workers were not recognised by political economy. But, the cynicism of political economy, Marx explained in his Poverty of Philosophy, was simply a statement of ‘the facts’ in capitalism. Quoting the above passage from Ricardo, Marx commented:
‘Doubtless, Ricardo's language is as cynical as can be. To put the cost of manufacture of hats and the cost of maintenance of men on the same plane is to turn men into hats. But do not make an outcry at the cynicism of it. The cynicism is in the facts and not in the words which express, the facts.’But, what was that ‘cost of subsistence of men’ that determined the value of labour-power? It ‘can be resolved,’ as Marx explained in Capital, ‘into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence,’ and we can assume that set of use-values to be constant: ‘the quantity of the means of subsistence required is given at any particular epoch in any particular society, and can therefore be treated as a constant magnitude.’ What precisely was that definite quantity of means of subsistence? Irrelevant, Marx explained: ‘whether one assumes the level of workers’ needs to be higher or lower is completely irrelevant to the end result. The only thing of importance is that it should be viewed as given, determinate.’
The Ricardian defaultThis assumption of a given standard of necessity was the foundation for the direct link between productivity and surplus value present in Ricardo and also underlies the explanation of relative surplus value in Capital. The argument of the ‘Ricardian Default’ is simple. If we assume a given set of necessities, productivity increases for those use-values mean that less labour is required to produce the worker and thus, the value of labour-power ‘varies with the value of the means of subsistence.’ Further, as Marx explained in Chapter 16, since ‘the value of labour-power and surplus-value vary in opposite directions,’ an increase or decrease in the productivity of labour means that ‘surplus-value moves in the same direction’ as productivity. From Marx's assumption of the given set of necessities followed not only his theoretical explanation of the generation of relative surplus value but also his stress upon capital's ‘immanent drive, and a constant tendency, toward increasing the productivity of labour.’ Similarly, the Ricardian Default was at the core of Ricardo's central tendency – his falling rate of profit tendency (more accurately, a falling rate of surplus value). In the latter case, though, the change moved in the opposite direction: the reduction in productivity (as the result of diminishing returns in agriculture) generated an increase in necessary labour, reduced surplus labour and thus his explanation of a falling rate of profit. Characteristic of the Ricardian Default is that any link between productivity and the standard of life of workers is precluded by assumption. As the result of the assumption of a given standard of necessity, in the one case workers cannot gain as the result of increases in productivity and, in the other case, workers cannot lose as the result of decreases in productivity. In both cases, it is by assumption and only by assumption that capital alone benefits or loses as productivity changes. Marx traced that assumption (and, with it, classical political economy) to the Physiocrats. Precisely because they had made the ‘strict necessaire,’ the ‘minimum of wages,’ ‘the equivalent of the necessary means of subsistence,’ the pivotal point in their theory, Marx declared them to be ‘the true fathers of modern political economy.’ By treating the minimum of wages as fixed and as a given magnitude, ‘the Physiocrats transferred the inquiry into the origin of surplus-value from the sphere of circulation into the sphere of direct production, and thereby laid the foundation for the analysis of capitalist production.’ And, this assumption of a fixed set of necessities, of that given subsistence wage, he commented, was followed by Adam Smith ‘like all economists worth speaking of.’ Shouldn’t we wonder, though, about Marx's acceptance of this classical premise for his discussion of relative surplus value?
The assumption and ‘the facts’Despite his acceptance of the classical assumption for his theoretical presentation of the concept of relative surplus value, outside of Chapter 12 of Volume I, Marx consistently stressed in Capital the ability of workers to expand their consumption of means of subsistence under the appropriate conditions. The fixed character of workers’ needs, he indicated in Volume III, ‘is mere illusion. If means of subsistence were cheaper or money-wages higher, the workers would buy more of them.’ Similarly, in Volume II, he explained that with rising real wages, ‘the demand of the workers for necessary means of subsistence will grow. Their demand for luxury articles will increase to a smaller degree, or else a demand will arise for articles that previously did not enter the area of their consumption.’ Further, he pointed out in Volume I that, with higher wages, workers ‘can extend the circle of their enjoyments, make additions to their consumption fund of clothes, furniture, etc., and lay by a small reserve fund of money.’ Not only was Marx clear that there is not in practice a fixed set of necessities for workers but he also indicated in Chapter 16 of Volume I of Capital that rising productivity did not necessarily lead to the development of relative surplus value. This was more than a passing observation. As he pointed out explicitly in his Economic Manuscripts 1861-63, the scenario offered in his discussion of the concept of relative surplus value in Capital was only one of several possibilities. Assuming an increase in productivity, there were three possible cases. In the first case, the worker ‘receives same quantity of use values as before. In this case there is a fall in the value of his labour capacity or his wage. For there has been a fall in the value of this quantity, which has remained constant.’ In the second case, ‘there is a rise in the amount, the quantity, of the means of subsistence... but not in the same proportion as in the worker's productivity.’ Accordingly, the real wage rises but its value falls – i.e., there is both rising real wages and relative surplus value. ‘Finally the third CASE,’ Marx continued, where productivity and the standard of necessity rise at the same rate:
‘The worker continues to receive the same value – or the objectification of the same part of the working day – as before. In this case, because the productivity of labour has risen, the quantity of use values he receives, his real wage, has risen, but its value has remained constant, since it continues to represent the same quantity of realised labour time as before. In this case, however, the surplus value too remains unchanged, there is no change in the ratio between the wage and the surplus value, hence the proportion [of surplus value] to the wage remains unchanged.’In this third case, Marx explained, ‘there would be no CHANGE in surplus value, although the latter would represent, just as wages would, a greater quantity of use values than before.’ Thus, despite his clear understanding that rising productivity could lead to increasing real wages and no relative surplus value at all, only the first case where workers were limited to a fixed set of use-values informed Marx's explanation of the concept of relative surplus value. Marx's assumption of the given standard of necessity was contrary to ‘the facts’ that he knew so well – that workers within capitalism can obtain more means of subsistence and thus can be the beneficiaries of productivity increases. So, why did Marx employ a critical assumption in Capital contrary to the facts? Very simply, he always understood it as an assumption – one that must be removed. He explained this to Engels at the very point that he formulated his projected six-book plan for his Economics. Throughout the section on capital in general, Marx indicated, ‘wages are invariably assumed to be at their minimum.’ Similarly, he was explicit in the Grundrisse: ‘For the time being, necessary labour supposed as such; i.e., that the worker always obtains only the minimum of wages.’ As he indicated in his letter to Engels, this was a temporary assumption: ‘the rise or fall of that minimum will be considered under wage labour.’ Further, in the Grundrisse he explained that the standard of necessary labour, while treated as fixed, may change and that ‘to consider those changes themselves belongs altogether to the chapter treating of wage labour.’ Nor was Marx's intention to explore such matters subsequently in a separate study a passing fancy (as is often suggested by some). For example, in his Economic Manuscript of 1861-63, Marx indicated that the question of ‘movements in the level of the workers’ needs’ was not to be explored here ‘but in the doctrine of the wages of labour.’ For now, he insisted that it was essential that the level of workers’ needs be viewed as ‘given, determinate. All questions relating to it as not a given but a variable magnitude belong to the investigation of wage labour in particular.’ Further in that manuscript, Marx noted that his investigation proceeded from the assumption that wages are ‘only reduced by the DEPRECIATION of that labour capacity, or what is the same thing, by the cheapening of the means of subsistence entering into the workers’ consumption’ and that any other reason for a reduction in wages was ‘not part of our task’ and ‘belongs to the theory of wages.’ A few years later, Marx repeated the same point. In ‘The Results of the Immediate Process of Production,’ he explained that ‘The level of the necessaries of life whose total value constitutes the value of labour-power can itself rise or fall. The analysis of these variations, however, belongs not here but in the theory of wages.’ Nor was this his last reference to the book on wage labour. In Chapter 20 of Volume I of Capital, Marx noted that ‘the special study of wage-labour, and not, therefore, to this work’ is where an exposition of the forms of the wage belonged. But why did he postpone his ‘special study of wage-labour’? Because the ‘general capital-relation’ first had to be developed. Variations in the standard of necessity, he indicated in his Economic Manuscript of 1861-63, ‘do not touch its general relationship to capital.’ To understand the nature of capital and the capital-relation, determining the value of labour-power was essential and ‘the only thing of importance’ for this was to treat the standard of necessity ‘as given, determinate’ since its variations do not ‘alter anything in the general relationship.’ As he had indicated in the Grundrisse, in his letter to Engels and in his comments on the Physiocrats, all that was needed for the study of capital was to assume that ‘the worker always obtains only the minimum of wages’; changes in the standard of necessity are not part of the study of capital and ‘belong to the investigation of wage labour in particular.’ Certainly, Marx was not following classical political economy by continuing to stress the importance of that special study of wage labour. Rather, acceptance of that fixed set of necessities as the starting point reflected his dialectical methodology. ‘Only by this procedure,’ he explained to Engels, ‘is it possible to discuss one relation without discussing all the rest.’ And, he elaborated his approach in the Grundrisse: ‘all of these fixed suppositions themselves become fluid in the further course of development. But only by holding them fast at the beginning is their development possible without confounding everything.’ What appears fixed and static, in short, is revealed in a dialectical presentation to be fluid and changing. Only ‘for the time being’ was it assumed that ‘the worker always obtains only the minimum of wages’; and this fixed supposition was only held ‘fast at the beginning.’ Characteristic of a dialectical presentation is that all sides are not (indeed, cannot be) introduced immediately, and the deficiency and one-sidedness of the starting points only are revealed in the further course of development. In this sense, we may understand Marx's decision to retain the classical assumption as a conscious methodological decision, a moment that would be superseded logically as he proceeded. However, what were the consequences of Marx's assumption for Capital? For classical political economy, this assumption was the foundation for the symmetry of hats and men articulated by Ricardo. But did that symmetry belong in Marx's analysis of capitalism?
A fearful symmetry?How can we treat symmetrically the process of producing hats and labour-power? The first is a vertically integrated process of production extending from primary products (which contingently may be interrupted by the equivalent exchange of intermediary inputs). The second, in contrast, is a complex sequence containing (a) the moment of production of articles of consumption, (b) a moment of circulation in which money is exchanged for those articles of consumption and (c) a second moment of production in which those use-values (as well as concrete, uncounted labour) are consumed in order to prepare labour-power for exchange. By treating the two processes symmetrically, only the first of these moments in the production of labour-power is considered: the production of the worker is a footnote to the production of the consumption bundle; the worker disappears and is represented by things. As labelled by a disciple of Ricardo, it is the production of commodities by commodities. What happens with an increase in productivity? In the case of hats, an increase in productivity at any stage will disrupt the equivalence of embodied social labour and money and will to lead to a fall in value of hats (‘Diminish the cost of production of hats, and their price will ultimately fall to their new natural price’). In the case of labour-power, similarly, increased productivity in the production of articles of consumption leads directly to a reduction in their value. And then? ‘Diminish the cost of subsistence of men,’ and the immediate effect is not a fall in the value of labour-power. Rather, it is a rise in real wages. How, then, do we go from the fall in the value of articles of consumption to a fall in the value of labour-power? As we have seen, Capital did so by assuming the premise inherited from classical political economy that the standard of necessity is a constant magnitude. However, by doing so, Marx brought with him the baggage of classical political economy – in particular, the treatment of money as a veil. Abstracting from money allowed him to move directly from productivity gains to increased surplus value but it also abstracts from the moment of circulation in which workers purchase the use-values they want and thus it obscures specific characteristics of a wage-labourer. In particular, it obscures the difference between a wage-labourer and an instrument of production or a slave. The slave, Marx explained in the ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production,’ receives the means of subsistence he requires ‘which are fixed both in kind and quantity – i.e. he receives use-value.’ In contrast, the wage-labourer receives means of subsistence in the shape of money, and ‘it is the worker himself who converts the money into whatever use-values he desires; it is he who buys commodities as he wishes and, as the owner of money, as the buyer of goods, he stands in precisely the same relationship to the sellers of goods as any other buyer.’ Rather than the product of a fixed set of use-values, the wage-labourer here appears as a subject with money and with her own goals. Accordingly, if productivity gains lower the value of articles of consumption and thereby increase the real value of the quantity of money that workers possess, what will workers do? Will they choose to purchase more or different use-values or will they be indifferent? One would not ask this question, of course, in relation to the slave. With its assumption of a fixed set of use-values, rather than turning men into hats, the discussion of relative surplus value in Capital turns wage-labourers into slaves. But the ‘facts’ of capitalism are that workers are not slaves. They struggle over wages, the money they receive for the sale of their labour-power. Indeed, in 1853 Marx condemned workers not engaged in the struggle over wages as ‘apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production.’ A working class that did not struggle ‘would be a heart-broken, a weak-minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass.’ And, he made the same point in 1865: workers who do not struggle over wages are ‘degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation.’ They thereby ‘disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.’ These clearly are not the working class that will be the gravediggers of capital. Rather, those apathetic instruments of production are the products of capital – deformed as well as exploited within capitalist relations of production. Marx understood quite well that not only is capital produced within those relations but that there is as well a second product, a crippled human product. ‘All means for the development of production’ under capitalism, Marx insisted, ‘distort the worker into a fragment of a man,’ degrade him and ‘alienate him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour process.’ And, that was especially true with the development of machinery which, under capitalist relations, completes the ‘separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour.’ Thinking and doing become separate and hostile, and ‘every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity’ is lost. A particular type of person is produced by capital. Producing within capitalist relations is what Marx called a process of a ‘complete emptying-out,’ ‘total alienation,’ the ‘sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end.’ How else then but with money, the true need that capitalism creates, can we fill the vacuum? Capital constantly generates new needs for workers and it is upon this, Marx noted, that ‘the contemporary power of capital rests’; in short, every new need for capitalist commodities is a new link in the golden chain that links workers to capital. Is it likely that those people can spontaneously grasp the nature of this destructive system, the precondition for overthrowing it? On the contrary, the workers produced by capital believe that there is no alternative. Capital tends to produce the working class it needs, workers who treat capitalism as common sense. As Marx explained in Capital:
‘The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance.’To this, he added that capital's generation of a reserve army of the unemployed ‘sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker.’ The constant generation of a relative surplus population of workers means that wages are ‘confined within limits satisfactory to capitalist exploitation, and lastly, the social dependence of the worker on the capitalist, which is indispensable, is secured.’ Accordingly, Marx concluded that the capitalist can rely upon the worker's ‘dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them.’ Guaranteed in perpetuity to be ‘a heart-broken, a weak-minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass’? Marx's description of capital's tendency to produce a working class that looks upon capital's requirements as self-evident natural laws and his conclusion with respect to the perpetual reproduction of the worker's social dependence upon capital are entirely consistent with the disappearance of the worker as subject from Marx's theoretical discussion of relative surplus value.
The missing second productAs I concluded in Beyond Capital: Marx's Political Economy of the Working Class, missing from Capital is what Marx called ‘the worker's own need for development.’ Missing too is the key link of human development and practice – that workers produce themselves through their own activity, through that ‘coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change’ that Marx articulated so clearly in the ‘Theses on Feuerbach.’ That insight is a red thread that runs throughout Marx's work. From his stress upon the way the struggles of workers against capital transform ‘circumstances and men,’ expanding their capabilities and making them fit to create a new world to his explanation in the Grundrisse that in the very act of producing, ‘the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and new ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language,’ Marx was aware that every human activity generates a double product. There are always two products of human activity – the change in circumstances and the change in human beings. In Marx's introduction of the concept of relative surplus value, however, we have seen that workers there are treated as ‘more or less well-fed instruments of production,’ as slaves who receive means of subsistence ‘which are fixed both in kind and quantity.’ Compare that to ‘the facts’ – that workers are subjects, that they are wage-labourers with their own needs who struggle to realise those needs and produce themselves in that process. What do workers produce in that process? For success in their struggle to reduce the capitalist workday in length and intensity (in order to have time and energy for themselves) and their struggle for higher wages (in order to satisfy more of their socially generated needs) – and certainly, to succeed in defeating capital's efforts pressing in the opposite direction – workers must fight against their separation, their competition as sellers of labour-power. The General Council of the First International understood this fact, declaring that ‘what the lot of the labouring population would be if everything were left to isolated, individual bargaining, may be easily foreseen. The iron rule of supply and demand, if left unchecked, would speedily reduce the producers of all wealth to a starvation level...’ Workers, in short, must organize. In ‘trades without organization of the work-people,’ Engels similarly argued, ‘wages tend constantly to fall and the working hours tend constantly to increase... While the length of working day more and more approaches the possible maximum, the wages come nearer and nearer to their absolute minimum.’ Marx made the same point in Capital: the struggle over the workday proves that ‘the isolated worker, the worker as ‘free’ seller of his labour-power, succumbs without resistance once capitalist production has reached a certain stage of maturity.’ Workers, in short, succeed in achieving their goals only to the extent that they are able to negate competition amongst them, only by infringing upon the ‘sacred’ law of supply and demand and engaging in ‘planned co-operation.’ Indeed, commenting in 1868 about the struggles of workers in New York over the 8 hour day, Marx observed that ‘all serious success of the proletariat depends upon an organization that unites and concentrates its forces,’ and he stressed as well the need to struggle against international competition of workers: ‘Nothing but an international bond of the working classes can ever ensure their definitive triumph.’ Insofar as workers do struggle for themselves and break down the divisions amongst them, they are not simply the products of capital. Class struggle is a process of production; and that process is necessary, Marx told workers, ‘not only in order to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power...’ Human beings are the outcome of their own activity – none more so than workers in struggle. Even though they had lost the battle over the Ten Hours Bill, Engels argued, workers had changed significantly in the course of that struggle:
‘The working classes, in this agitation, found a mighty means to get acquainted with each other, to come to a knowledge of their social position and interests, to organize themselves and to know their strength. The working man, who has passed through such an agitation, is no longer the same as he was before; and the whole working class, after passing through it, is a hundred times stronger, more enlightened, and better organized than it was at the outset.’This is the second product of workers’ struggles, and it is a working class obviously different from capital's second product, that unresisting mass presumed in the discussion of relative surplus value. But this working class is not entirely absent from Capital: we do see it briefly in Capital's chapter on the workday, where Marx allowed us to hear ‘the voice of the worker which had previously been stifled.’ There we see workers as subjects, struggling against capital for their own goals; and, it is that struggle that determines ‘the normal working day.’ Unfortunately, those workers disappear when it comes to the subsequent chapter on relative surplus value. Indeed, the ‘protracted and more or less concealed civil war between the capitalist class and the working class’ over the workday disappears when it comes to the determination of wages. When it comes to introducing the concept of relative surplus value, the worker's voice is stifled, not by the power of capital but by assumption. In place of the worker-as-subject, in place of class struggle over wages, Capital employs the assumption inherited from classical political economy that treats the worker as an instrument of production without a voice, indeed, as a more or less well-fed instrument of production. After having introduced workers as subjects in his discussion of the struggle over the workday, though, why did Marx's succeeding chapter on the concept of relative surplus value silence the voice of the worker? What was the effect of not framing this chapter by the same ‘antinomy, of right against right,’ that struggle between collective capital and collective labour that produced the norm for the workday?