Friday, February 28, 2014

We're obviously moving on with the readings, but I suggest that you keep bringing Capital, if possible, with you. It might be worthwhile going back to it here and there....

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Article on the Invisible Worker

I ran across this New Yorker blog post by George Packer today via the Bill Moyers site:

Of course, in some ways the invisibility of the worker that Packer describes is similar to that of the factory worker. When we buy a car, for example, we don't see the factory worker who made the car any more than we see an Amazon warehouse worker when we order books (or whatever). But what was interesting to me is his description of how the image of the worker has evolved in the past hundred years - from "toiler" to Walmart greeter to Internet worker.  There seems to be an added layer of invisibility in Internet commerce. I have to admit that I love Amazon. I usually get my stuff in two days and I don't have to haul myself off to the bookstore (or wherever). But in that, I lose a level of physical, in-person interaction on a social level.

I would also add that this invisibility also extends to our money as individual consumers. I don't "see" my money anymore. I don't get a paper check, I get an electronic transaction. I don't pay with a check or with cash, I pay with an online transaction. The level of abstraction gets more and more...abstract.

Thoughts anyone?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Marx and Bataille

I keep finding myself thinking about Georges Bataille’s relation to Marx, even though this would not directly relate to my current projects. Would the diminished potential for surplus value make this blog entry more likely to fall under the category of “unproductive labor” for Marx? At the risk of becoming tangential here, perhaps I can use this to begin to work out some of these ideas and then move on.

Last week’s revelation that the commodification of human labor that Marx discusses would be more closely translated as “thing-ification” recalled Bataille to my mind in full force. For Bataille, the master/slave relationship of possession entails a sort of thing-ification of both master and slave insofar as once this relationship is established, both live in a world in which people are things. Bataille refers to this as “the order of things.”

In The Accursed Share, Bataille refers to the thing as a commodity. He seems to suggest that the most important application of Marx’s work lies beyond “the solution of the material problem.”
The fundamental proposition of Marxism is to free the world of things (of the economy) entirely from every element that is extraneous to things (to the economy): It was by going to the limit of the possibilities implied in things … by carrying to its ultimate consequences the movement that reduces man to the conditions of a thing, that Marx was determined to reduce things to the condition of man, and man to the free disposition of himself. (135)

At this point, it seems that while Marx writes about the thing-ification, or commodification of human labor, Bataille may take this further by positing the thing-ification of people not only in the slave society but also in industrial, capitalist society. The order of things reduces people from living in a sort of immanent state. Bataille seems to answer Marx’s “surplus value” with the “surplus energy” of “the accursed share,” even arguing that an answer to capitalism may lie in unproductive labor/expenditure.  

My thoughts are still somewhat nascent and fragmentary, so I’m not sure where this is going, if anywhere.

Marx and Education

In his "Critique of the Gotha Programme," section IV part B, in response to the wording: "The German Workers' party demand as the intellectual and ethical basis of the state: 1. Universal and equal elementary education by the state. Universal compulsory school attendance. Free instruction."

Marx challenges the notion that education can be equal for all classes.  In addition, he asserts that free theoretical and practical technical schools ought to be included along with elementary schools.

Marx points out that compulsory elementary education already existed in Germany, Switzerland and the United States. He then makes the statement: "if in some states of the latter country (U.S.) higher education institutions are also "free," that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the upper classes from the general text receipts."  In other words, free higher education benefits the upper classes by having that education paid for with public money. He also points out that there's a difference between government expenditures on schools and government as educator, asserting that both religious and government institutions be "equally excluded from any influence on the school," saying that the government needed "a very stern education from the people."

In The Communist Manifesto, we are offered a general statement on education. Marx writes:

And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention direct or indirect, of society, by means of schools, &c.? The Communists have not invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class (Chapter II. Proletarians and Communists).


His statement in the Manifesto certainly rings true to our current educational system in a number of ways when considering core curriculum and public schools as well as access to higher education. I'd be interested in a discussion exploring this subject, connecting it perhaps with Marx's ideas about the education and role of the intelligentsia in a communist society.

The Fictitious Existance and Capitalisation

                While I think that chapter 29 of Volume 3 explains many of the implications capitalism has for the banking industry, I found myself a bit confused when relating this section back to our earlier readings. Like all of Marx’s writings, that we have seen so far, he begins this chapter with a succinct statement of what will come: “money-capital is being confused here with moneyed capital in the sense of interest-bearing capital, while in the former sense, money capital is always merely a transient form of capital.” If money-capital is “transient,” a quick movement – momentary representation- of capital, than how is moneyed capital a distinct, or represented?  Marx does not maintain these particular terms throughout his chapter here, so it is possible that I am expecting a clear-cut difference when there is not, indeed, something so easily cut.

                Marx’s subsequent explanation of collecting of interest by the banks is in fact, to show that the interest is not, exactly, collect rather, assigned to an already designated value in the form of money. When the bank accrues interest on that money, by loaning it to another party, that interest is – in essence – imaginary, it does not represent any money actually being deposited or an exchange. The bank has created the ability to add value to something previously less valuable. Only, this more valuable state is not, necessarily, intended to be converted back into a money form. It has taken on a life of its own a numeric value separate from actual money. Marx describes this as “illusory” or “fictitious capital.” Indeed, the numeric value does live a fictional existence as it is traded from bank to bank, perhaps at times representing a piece of stock or interest value. Its life, its “independent movement of the value of these titles of ownership, not only of government bonds but also of stocks, adds weight to the illusion that they constitute real capital . . . for they become commodities, whose price has its own characteristic movements and is established in its own way.” The numeric value is now assigned a dollar amount by its “anticipated income . . . calculated in advance.” This potential value becomes more important, more powerful, than the original money form – and, indeed, when that numeric value is converted back into a dollar form it loses value.

                This fictional existence of the “independent movement” of “anticipated income” can only be articulated, it seems, as a form of life personified into a transient being that moves between actors/bankers. It is a transient "phantom of the imagination." Perhaps, a very rich phantom living in a penthouse apartment. The phantom is not tangible, and if it were to become tangible, it would be reduced to a lesser value/entity. Marx is clear, though that this is an illusion. Actual “things” are not lost in this process, saying, “Unless this depreciation reflects an actual stoppage of production and of traffic on canals and railways, or a suspension of already initiated enterprises . . . the nation did not grow one cent poorer by the bursting of this soap bubble of nominal money capital.”  Tangible things that have a use value are stull valued for that use. Yet the bubbling illusion of other wealth, in which some individuals/ banks name as their fortune can fall as fictionally as it arose.

                My question from Marx’s observation in this chapter, which is something that he hints to but does not explicitly say; is the fictional existence of the “independent movement” of “anticipated income” a reflection of the social contract needed to represent to money commodity in the first place? Mid-way through this chapter Marx hints more directly at this social contract, saying, “a loan is but a transfer from one person to another without the mediation of a purchase.” Yet, what is distinguishes a loan from a purchase is that once the loan is made interest grows the numeric value of that loan, essentially making it worth more. It is, potentially, the opposite of buying a thing – in which, once something is purchased it tends to lose value. Is “money capital” the best term we have for the fictional existence, and moneyed capital a term for actual/tangible money commodity? I resist using the term commodity here as Marx explains that the “money capital” becomes a commodity, as it is strengthened the more and more that capitol is traded and negotiated through. Have the banks replicated the invention of capital past the first social contract into fetishism and essentially created a higher, perhaps second tier capitalism for their use only? Does it make sense that the money commodity is the intermediary of these two tiers of exchange?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The so-called "free" worker's captivity

Marx’s discussion of the disinterestedness that the slave possesses struck me as the very attitude (however inconceivable) that one would need to reject the capitalist mentality.  Marx’s sharply notes that “the slave works only under the spur of external fear but not for his existence which is guaranteed even though it does not belong to him” (1031).  Thus, from the slave’s point of view, “minimal wage appears to be a constant quantity, independent of his work” (1031).  The free worker, on the other hand, “must maintain his own position, since his existence and that of his family depends on his ability continuously to renew the sale of his labour-power to the capitalist” (1031).  This constant renewal—the inescapable necessity in the so-called “free” worker’s position—encapsulates the driving force of capital.  In capitalist labor force, as Marx suggest, we find a “great variations in the wages paid, depending on whether a particular type of work requires a more highly developed labour-power at greater cost or not”  (1032).  The system thus contrives to offer the free worker an “incentive to develop his own labour-power” (1032).  Of course, it is up to the individual to seek what Marx refers to as “higher spheres by exhibiting a particular talent or energy” (1032).  But I have come to recognize this incentive in its various forms: the free worker seeks a promotion, when a promotion is not available, working overtime will do.  In other words, the proverbial ideal that is operating here is that of more-hours-equals-more-money mentality, which may indeed have merit, but mostly to feed the capitalist’s needs and pockets.  It is only ironic that this incentive is the very driving force of the capitalist, to borrow Marx’s formulation, “in the same way there is an abstract possibility that this or that worker might conceivably become a capitalist and the exploiter of the labour of others” (1032).  One can hardly imagine our jobs/career to have nearly as much insignificance as the slave is said to regard his labor.  The best part of my day starts right before I step into the classroom to teach.  But as genuine a sentiment as this may be, I must admit that an economic incentive accompanies the desire to elevate that “particular talent or energy.”

Individual vs. Capitalist Private Property

As short as it is, I found myself spending a good amount of time unpacking Chapter 32. It seems that he argues that it is not necessarily all private property, but rather capitalist private property in particular.  

At the beginning of the chapter, Marx offers the seeming admission that limited personal private property existed in earlier social systems.

Marx, however, draws a clear distinction between this individual private property and capitalist private property. Like all dialectics, the consumer goods and services defining individual private property and the ownership of means the means of productions delineating capitalist private property are antagonistic, coexisting in practice, but contradictory in theory.

It is the “first negation”—the destruction of individual private property by the capitalist mode of production that is particularly troubling. The rise of capitalist mode of production rises out of the destruction of earlier modes of private property. As in any dialectic, remnants of the old remain—in this case, notions of individual private property.  

Justifications of private property tend to stem from Modern understandings of fairness. A person should have say over how his or her labor is expended. A weaver should somehow “own” the resulting cloth, having final say over what happens to it. People buy items they pay for with wages earned through their own labor.

Capitalism, however, goes past this. Justice for the individual does not look like justice on a larger level. Capitalists own and control commodities produced by other people. Yes, the capitalists own the machines and materials, but workers own (and lease) their labor. Regardless, capitalist modes of production perpetuate a system radically different from the logic used to argue for (individual) private property.
Culminating in recent Supreme Court cases and international economic bodies, capitalist enterprises have been reconceptualized as individuals, with all of the rights thereof. However, as the mere name “limited liability” corporation might reveal—the accountability required of these entities leaves something to be desired.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the chapter comes in its brief, concluding paragraphs. The “negation of the negation” offers the barest glimmers of revolution leading to the end of capitalist private property. This evolution will “not re-establish private property, but it does indeed establish individual property on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era: namely cooperation and the possession in

common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself’ (p. 929). As there are more workers than capitalists, the negation of  negation will be less violent than the first negation. How such an overthrow may take place is another matter altogether. 

Buying local: anti or proto capitalist?

In many communities efforts to direct consumers towards local business by “buying local” have become popular.   While most notable in the idea of buying locally produced food, calls are made to support local, rather than national or global, business whenever possible.    These movements are often justified by some ration of two arguments 1) it keeps money local – bolstering local economics and 2) such products are often more ethically or sustainably developed.   While these are certainly admirable goals, while reading for this week I also noticed that these local business seem to exist on the boundary between merchant/guild economics and capitalist modes of production, and as such I want to explore them a bit more. 
                Let me begin by exploring how such business seem to be – at least partially –outside the capitalist mode of production.  In Capital, Marx notes one of the separating features between guild/merchant production and capitalist production is scale (1022). And while many consumers may have fetishized the specialty of this small scale, many of these small businesses are family endeavors, with maybe a few employees.   Additionally, because of their small scale, these business are often more about sustaining the owners and/or their families, as such they seem to be engaged more in the C-M-C mode of exchange; they produce their goods to get other commodities which have use value to them.  In this way, the producers of the commodities are still largely connected means of production – lacking the alienation present in the industrial worker.   
                If it is true that these businesses are less capitalistic, it would suggest that continued patronage of such business could work against large industrial capital – slowly driving society back towards a more guild/merchant economic system. Similarly, small yeoman farmers could slowly replace mega farms (although if such farms would have the capacity to feed global populations is an interesting question).   If this possibility exists, it would seem that buying local, while not a profound revolution might be a small move against capital.
                However, this move seems to be problematized in many ways – both from Marx and others.
First, do they really help us escape the psychology of capitalism? Marx notes that even if businesses exist in residual modes of production, they are largely understood in the terms of the capitalist mode of production (1042).   Because of this, the self-employed worker will likely see themselves as a waged employee working for the company they own – recreating the alienating problems of wage labor.
Additionally, because the merchants would be largely in a capitalist psychology, those businesses that thrived would likely expand.  While workers can be added in a way that does not generate capital (1041), the likelihood is that these workers would be paid something less than the value they added to these companies.  At this point, the merchant becomes a capitalist, and any anti-capitalists gains made are slowly undone.   This seems to suggest that at least two social shifts would have to accompany such a move.  First, consumption would need to be reduced, so as to remove some incentive for expansion of business.  Second, business would have to be content to produce goods only to exchange for what they need (and maybe some excess not capitalized income) and let competing C-M-C merchants fill excess demand. 
Third, due to the scale of these productions, their products are almost certainly more expensive.  Meaning that while we can ask for this move, as long as cheaper goods are available wage rate will remain too low to let many workers engage in this type of consumption.    Because this move would largely be a middle, rather than working class, movement, it  at best creates parallel economic systems, allowing many to ignore the larger capitalist presence in their lives because they are helping support something less overtly capitalistic.   

So I think buying local is probably better than buying from big firms, but it takes more than just a change in consumption habits to really start to deconstruct capital. 

Labor and Appearance

            In keeping with the suggestion to carefully analyze passages of “appearance” within Marx’s writing, I am struck by own naivety in terms of the appearance of my labor. The relationship that Marx (with the help of others) portrays between wage laborers and slave laborers resulted in a bout of self-loathing.
            The combination of Marx’s thought with quotes from T.R Edmonds and J. Steuart reveal the persuasiveness of appearance in regards to labor—a concept which, in my mind, should have received greater attention and space. While Edmonds provides a distinction between “free” laborers and slaves by pointing out the ability of “changing [the free labourer’s] master,” it is when he comments on the “erroneous” tendency of the free labourer to “think himself free” that Edmonds enters the discourse of appearance (1027). Though Edmond goes on to point out other distinctions, it is Steuart that provides another key factor in this discussion by suggesting “Men were then forced to labour, because they were slaves to others; men are now forced to labour because they are slaves of their own wants” (1028). The idea is rather obvious when taking these points into consideration, yet labor (at least in my opinion) is masked by “sticking it to the Man” or working for a boss who you flip off when they exit the room. This concept, then, seems to contribute to the “mysterious” element of capital by creating this illusionary scapegoat for our angst, while the whole time we were simply imagining ourselves to have freely chosen to work.   
            Marx’s contribution comes in the form of the social question, which raises more differences between free laborers and slaves while simultaneously complicating the distinction. According to Marx, though the slave is kept in his situation by “direct compulsion,” the “free worker” must stay in his role due to the dependence of his family (1031). By continuously requiring the sale of his labor power, the laborer becomes a slave to his own wants and needs in accordance with the social relationships surrounding him. Marx goes on to suggest that “the capitalist relationship appears to be an improvement in one’s position in the social scale”, but “it is otherwise when the independent peasant or artisan becomes a wage-labourer” (1033). Once again we encounter an easily understood relationship—that of a serf/slave to a wage labourer—and realize the hidden, negative elements that are overlooked. By transitioning to a wage-labourer, Marx argues, the artisan becomes indifferent to his work; an idea that could be read as a nod to Hegel, where the self-consciousness of the slave exists due to the realization that he shapes the world around him through his work. If the slave ceases to care about his work, does this alter the dialectic? While wages, “versatility,” etc. may create a disparate understanding between the two forms of labor, Marx and co. create a similar turn to that of Hegel by presented an obviously skewed reality before understanding a negative conception of it through analysis.
             I was wondering if anyone else had thoughts on this segment of Capital in terms of contesting how we might typically view our own labor, or if we can understand our reasons for working beyond commodity fetishism as a middle ground between wage labor and slavery.

Marx as Public Intellectual

A recent flurry of opinion pieces and blog entries, some accompanied by the State of the Union, spent significant amounts of time lamenting the declining role of the public intellectual this past month. Accusations of uselessness floated around popular discourse with greater intensity. Kristof in a recent New York Times op-ed piece accused
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away. (Kristof, 2014)
While I think there are a number of assertion made by Kristof that bare a good academic shredding, I am loathe to admit a modicum of truth in his analysis. That is to say, as he continues with his polemic he notes how academics associated with universities are  often not credited for appeals and writings to the masses. Marxist analysis of why this is the case have already been posted on this blog. As much as Marx’s content is illustrative and gives tools for criticism, I think his form also sheds light on the role and function of a public intellectual.  Marx’s role as a public intellectual is due in large part to his ability and willingness to translate and communicate through both writings and speeches. My blog entry intends to highlight some other stylistic differences between Marx’s appeal to the wider masses with his more abstract ruminations in Capital Vol. I.
Consider an appeal by Marx to the wider public where he explains among other things his reflections on wages and currency.  Seeking to educate the audience about the changeability of prices, Marx notes , “There is nothing necessary in it. It may be changed by the will of the capitalist, and may, therefore, be changed against his will,” (Marx, 1865).  Where Capital Vol. I seeks an immanent critique of political economists and theoreticians. In his appeal to the the wider public, Marx shifts gears  and chooses a critic (Weston) closer in proximity for his intended audience.  In this case, it is not a simple dumbing down of either his method or content. Instead, Marx engages similar ideas and content only recasting as opponent. A necessary concession considering familiarity empowers  critiques of this nature.
Marx’s use of metaphor in his Value, Price, and Profit speech similarly helps convey complicated ideas and concepts.  Consider the following,
Citizen Weston, on his part, has forgotten that the bowl from which the workmen eat is filled with the whole produce of national labour, and that what prevents them from fetching more out of it neither the narrowness of the bowl nor the scantiness of its contents, but only the smallness of their spoons. (Marx, 1865)
Within this metaphor of the workman and his spoon, Marx enfolded a critique  Weston, asserted the changeability of the status quo, and potential agency of the working men.  Certainly, Capital Volume I  is not void of metaphors. However, it speaks to Marx’s credit as a rhetor that complicated material is communicated in a way that his audience may internalize. Throughout the rest of the speech, Marx takes care in his history lesson and the ledge style of writing common in Capital Volume I is not lost.  We might say instead, the severity  of such long passages  are whittled down in this specific appeal.
In his La Liberté Speech(1872), Marx employees a powerful rhetorical device, the assimilationist ‘we.’ It is not that Marx avoids the word completely in Capital Vol. 1, but the increase in frequency and incorporation of the audience with himself into a single unit is more obvious and unique in the public speeches. Careers have been made discussing the rhetorical and persuasive import of the assimilationist ‘we.’ For now, it is enough to contrast this with Marx’s other more erudite elaborations.
In the end, the material conditions and realities of most academics to their schools prevents such ardent solidarity with more radical forces.  For those who labor in ivory towers with only a promise of tenure questions of radicalism are always relevant. Marx himself suffered conditions of poverty. Public intellectualism is a risky game. But, for those brave enough to pursue such a path, Marx’s stylistic variation provides some guidance.


Marx, ‘Value, Price, and Profit’ (1865)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hello everyone,
As you know, one of our last texts this semester is Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism. Here's a book that might interest you (and especially but maybe not exclusively the literature students amongst you):

Reading Capitalist Realism

Monday, February 17, 2014

Humans, Animals, Nature, and Production

A  particularly striking moment for me in this batch of reading is the way in which Marx loops his outline of the labor process back into his discussion of what humans/humanity is, from Feuerbach. The definition of human beings “coincides with their production, both what they produce and with how they produce . . . what individuals are depends on the material condition of their production” (Feuerbach 37). In chapter seven of Capitol, the method of production is expanded but still completely contained in this earlier statement. Marx argues that labor is “a process between man and nature, a process by which man through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature” (234). While on one hand, it is clear that humans naturally need to produce things from nature to survive, in many ways Marx seems to allow man the power position of this “process.” Man “mediates, regulates and controls.” Yet, equally present is the fact that man’s process (in which he later described as the “sovereign power”) is still contained within a somewhat organic, or natural, system; man “controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” This metaphor of the human-to-nature production relationship is inherently contradictory. How can nature both be controlled by man yet man is controlled by nature? – In the same way that we feed our bodies, but our body must be alive in order for us to feed it.

            In this sense, the sovereignty of any particular subject in the metabolic process of labor is silent. Production is a force that simply occurs at a rapid and pressing rate. Man is subject to the need to produce to survive in the same way that all living beings produce or manage the earth to survive. This reminds me, of course, of the very basic ecological statement, “there is no such thing as a free lunch” or rather, the earth must always be used to produce any meal that anyone/thing consumes to live – it comes, in essence, at a cost for the planet. Even the production of homes and food for spiders and bees (the examples used here) must be produced using the natural materials.

            Yet, it seems that Marx sees a distinction between these living creatures manipulating the earth to live and human beings manipulating the earth – and that distinction is that “Man not only effects a change in form in the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials” (284). The premeditation of human beings in their production, it seems, separates them from the animals. This premeditation, too, becomes an essential part of the labor process. While this distinction of mediated use of nature and non-mediated/ automatic use of nature by creatures like bees or spiders or other relatively limited brain activity of whatever species is compelling, it does still somewhat contradict the fact that humans are equally subject to nature and driven by nature to produce a means of living. The metabolic relationship of nature and humans (and animals) is, I think, more convincing than Marx’s argument that humans can think through their production in a way that animals cannot. If this is true, it seems that Descartes was correct and it is “I think therefore I am” rather than Marx’s implied “I create therefore I am.

            While I find the setup of the labor process troubling, I must admit that while I want to argue that humans are subject to nature in their metabolic relationship  I do think that Marx was maybe on to something in terms of where we as humans stand in that relationship. He makes us controllers, mediators, regulars, and this is true in the fact that we can – and do – create harm to the earth in way in which no other invasive species does. While wolves may outgrow one territory, move into another, and alter its ecosystem, humans have moved to every continent on the planet, manipulated that ecosystem to produce in excess. It seems that we are not necessarily different from our animal counterparts, just perhaps more aggressive. Does this give us the right to call ourselves “controllers” of the planet? It is perhaps that very idea that lead the degradation of the earth in the first place.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Walmart and Necessary Labor Time

I have been thinking lately about the rhetoric around Walmart workers, their wages, and the argument that the government is subsidizing Walmart by providing food stamps to the workers because they are not getting paid enough to live on. It’s an argument worth exploring, and reading Capital lends dimension to it.

When Marx writes about the exploitation of labor power (320), he uses the term “necessary labor-time” to refer to the labor time needed for a worker to earn enough to subsist, or for the capitalist, the labor-time needed for the continued existence of the labor (325).  The assumption is that the employed worker is making enough to meet his/her needs.   Later Marx writes that one of the features of Capitalism is that the constant annihilation of the workers’ means of subsistence provides their continued reappearance on the labor marker (719).

So it seems, in the case of Walmart employees, the annihilation of their means of subsistence happens when they are employed, not when they are “on the market.” One could argue that, because their labor power is not enough to produce even their means of subsistence, they are in a sense unemployed. This also illustrates the tendency of capitalists to push the cost of labor closer to “absolute zero” (748). It seems that Walmart pushes the wages of its workers to less than absolute zero. Not to pick on Walmart, though, any minimum wage job is going to put a worker in similar circumstances.

So, the government steps in to provide “subsistence” on behalf of the corporation. It gives a whole new dimension to the practice of corporate subsidies. In the current economy, many workers are forced to depend on government assistance whether or not they are employed. The difference is in degree.

The Commodities We Purchase

I understand that most of Marx’s formulations are necessarily generic and that apparent exceptions, contradictions or otherwise complications are part of the problem he is trying to address in Capital.  Think of Robert’s example of the tipped employee and the complexity of labour-power he highlights.  (I never liked the service industry for the very reasons that wages were never clear to me).
Even as I avoid the service industry, I cannot escape other critical questions concerning the value of labour-power.  Jonathan, for instance, is sharp to ask whether “services have different value because of the training” it takes to achieve its labor, and if in such case we are also paying “for all of the value of accumulated medical school?”  Your inference that “we consume [labor] like other commodities” seems spot on, Jonathan.  I refer to chapter 6 where Marx treats labor as a commodity.  According to Marx, what determines the value of “labour-power” is, “as in the case of every other commodity… the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this specific article” (274).  How is it, we might ask, that the cost of an hour consultation at the doctor’s office (or a law firm) is not so indicative of its “labour-time” necessary for its production?   What we must also take into account is that the value of labour-power is also dependent of “reproduction,” not of the labor itself (the hour consultation) but of doctor or lawyer himself.

In Marx’s formulation, “the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance” (274).  The value of labour-power is based on “the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner”—one that will vary with each individual.  (I assume that when we speak of high paying careers such as lawyers and doctors, we are thinking of the more prestigious positions held.  “Not all lawyers make a lot of money” seems the obvious observation here, but the distribution of wages or purchase of these as labor/commodities has other variants).  Still, our purchase of that labor/commodity does seem to take into account the time of training and its tuition cost, as well other expenses that fit the category of owner-maintenance prescribed here (274).

Rational Misers, Valor, and other Marxisms

Marx's use of language always interests me. Last week, we discussed Marx's description of the commodity as a "fetish."  In this week's reading, he talks about the "valorization process" and capitalists as "rational misers."  Using the term valor for "valuation," or setting a price for a commodity designed to achieve a profit, is especially fascinating to me. I don't know the exact German, translation, but here is my point: If valor also means courage and bravery in battle, then what's the inference? Does capitalism = war? Should making money in business (i.e., making a profit from a good or service) be considered an act of courage and bravery?  For the entrepreneur and small-business owner, I'm inclined to say yes. After all, it's tough to make a buck on your own, without leverage, volume, or special interests. But for major companies that use their leverage and power to further "squeeze" their competitors and labor force, I think it's the opposite of brave or courageous. Thus, I think we should be careful not to apply all of Marx's ideas to every segment of the private sector in today's world.

On the other hand, Marx's analysis of the M-C-M seemed oddly current and postmodern. For example, when he claims that the real goal of the capitalist is not the use-value of a commodity, and not even making a profit on a single transaction, but somehow repeating the process of these profit-making transactions, i.e. "keeping the money rolling in."  That kind of logic hooks me in and makes say: Yes, Karl, I agree!  And you're right to call them "rational misers!" 

Still, the exponential increase in profit is not the aim of many businesses and business owners. My family was involved in a commercial farming operation for several kids. As a kid, I saw how hard my father and grandfather worked each year to make a return on their investment, but they didn't do it y cutting wages or laying off half their workforce. Instead, by treating their employees well, they created a positive working environment, which led to the making of higher-quality products. But eventually, the business was undercut by the pressure of competing firms that set lower and lower prices, and paid lower wages to their employees. And Marx alludes to this trend. In order to make money from a product, the manufacturer will find a way of reducing the cost of production, either by paying lower wages or making labor more efficient (more machines than workers.)  Some business owners and investors, especially if they spent a lot of money on start-up capital, will tolerate losing money or breaking even for the first 3-5 years. But if they don't start making a dime on their business, they cut their losses and get out. Unfortunately, the dirty underbelly of capitalism is how some of these businesses start becoming profitable.

Surplus Value in Coffee and the University

Having read further in Capital I now see how much of Joshua Clover’s lecture was a simple recapitulation of Marx’s theory of surplus value. M-C-M’ as explained by Clover was chapters 5 & 6. Here, Marx explains the contradictions inherent in presumptions of the origin of surplus value. It cannot come simply from exchange, which only changes the distribution of wealth (see 265). My thought experiment for this encompasses products that are historically worth voyaging to get. Value being socially and materially flexible and money as a universal commodity allowing for the exploitation of this flexibility would allow for products of one area to be produced cheaply and sold dearly in another area. For instance, I could grow corn or soybeans in the little tree lawn here in Nebraska—but no one is going to buy them because those giant capital-intensive combines depress the socially necessary labor time for such local products. But no matter how much I labor here I won’t be growing coffee, tea, black pepper or cinnamon. Those commodities sell for a bit more per pound than the Nebraska staples. It appears that motion across space has conjured value out of thin air: “something must take place in the background which is not visible in circulation itself.” But it must be in fact the labor of the person who works to transport those exotic products here to Nebraska that valorizes them. Is this the essence of “merchant’s capital”? I suppose that Marx’s analysis would answer yes. 

So then how does this surplus value theory apply to the labor that I am currently doing? Is the socially necessary labor time required to teach college writing really so much lower in value than…oh I don’t know…drafting interstate designs or fracking natural gas out of NoDak? I suppose that I am selling my labor power to the university—which then maintains me by paying me enough for my means of subsistence. My labor power is consumed in the classroom and office when I grade papers (which activity definitely draws down my physical resources). I don’t really know how I am mediating the metabolism between myself and nature (283)—maybe by increasing the value of my students to capital (they will be able to write better ad copy or more effective bank memos). I do particularly like the idea of my unrest becoming being through the activities of my teaching and writing but that’s probably the overactive ontologist in me getting excited about words. But isn’t my labor “of a higher, or more complicated character than average labor” given all the labor that has been invested in the ability? Shouldn’t my labor be of a “more costly kind” (305)? Anyone else want to elaborate on the exploitation of our workplace, and the ways and degrees in which “capitalists” (Harvey) are exploiting our labor? Is it even fair to ask that; am I in the position of a proletarian worker in this analysis?