Socially Ambivalent Labour Time X (part one): Chapters 15 and 25 Capital, volume one.

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time X (part one): Chapters 15 and 25 Capital, volume one.

I started this series with the intention of comparing Dilke’s “plain leveling principle” consumption-based conception of socially necessary labour time with Marx’s theory of value founded on a production-based concept of socially necessary labour time. Two episodes and a digression later, that original plan was upended by my encounter with the section in the Grundrisse titled Necessary labour. Surplus labour. Surplus population. Surplus capital, which made me rethink the scope and span of Marx’s concept.

The text of Capital would seem to offer evidence against my hypothesis that relative surplus population is already implicated in the concept of socially necessary labour time. Nowhere in the three volumes of Capital do the terms socially necessary labour time and relative surplus population (or industrial reserve army) appear in close proximity to each other. Chapters 15 and 25 of volume one are exemplary in their discussion of relative surplus population without mentioning socially necessary labour time — or even the abbreviated form of social labour. But then Friedrich Engels, in Anti-Dühring, concisely confirmed that the industrial reserve army is already contained, in embryo, in the value form of commodities.

There are several passages in chapters 15 and 25 that hint at the SNLT/RSP relationship but do not explicitly cite it.

…the application of machinery to the production of surplus-value implies a contradiction which is immanent in it, since of the two factors of the surplus-value created by a given amount of capital, one, the rate of surplus-value, cannot be increased, except by diminishing the other, the number of workmen. This contradiction comes to light, as soon as by the general employment of machinery in a given industry, the value of the machine-produced commodity regulates the value of all commodities of the same sort; and it is this contradiction, that in its turn, drives the capitalist, without his being conscious of the fact, to excessive lengthening of the working-day, in order that he may compensate the decrease in the relative number of labourers exploited, by an increase not only of the relative, but of the absolute surplus-labour. p 383-4

Regulation of all the commodities of the same type by the value of the commodities produced by machine is a function of the latter establishing the social necessary labour time for all commodities of the type.

The whole system of capitalist production is based on the fact that the workman sells his labour-power as a commodity. Division of labour specialises this labour-power, by reducing it to skill in handling a particular tool. So soon as the handling of this tool becomes the work of a machine, then, with the use-value, the exchange-value too, of the workman’s labour-power vanishes; the workman becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. That portion of the working-class, thus by machinery rendered superfluous, i.e., no longer immediately necessary for the self-expansion of capital, either goes to the wall in the unequal contest of the old handicrafts and manufactures with machinery, or else floods all the more easily accessible branches of industry, swamps the labour-market, and sinks the price of labour-power below its value. p 405-6

Because it is treated as a commodity, like any other commodity, labour power’s exchange value vanishes when machine production sets a new standard of socially necessary labour time and thus devalues the worker’s now obsolete labour power.  

But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. Independently of the limits of the actual increase of population, it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation. p. 592

Here is the first of three instances of “disposable” in three pages: disposable industrial reserve army, disposable human material, and disposable labour power. The sense is not primarily that the workers can be discarded but that they become available for some other purpose. But the connotation lingers that they can be dispensed with.

The expansion by fits and starts of the scale of production is the preliminary to its equally sudden contraction; the latter again evokes the former, but the former is impossible without disposable human material, without an increase, in the number of labourers independently of the absolute growth of the population. This increase is effected by the simple process that constantly “sets free” a part of the labourers; by methods which lessen the number of labourers employed in proportion to the increased production. p. 593

Capitalist production can by no means content itself with the quantity of disposable labour power which the natural increase of population yields. It requires for its free play an industrial reserve army independent of these natural limits. p. 594

It goes without saying — literally — that this disposable labour power has been made redundant (superfluous, disposable, surplus) by the operation of the law of value.

If the means of production, as they increase in extent and effective power, become to a less extent means of employment of labourers, this state of things is again modified by the fact that in proportion as the productiveness of labour increases, capital increases its supply of labour more quickly than its demand for labourers. The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. p. 595-6

The explanation for this disproportion of labour supply and demand is, to restate the obvious, that labour power is a commodity and like any other commodity is subject to having its value depreciated by an increase in the productivity of labour power (decrease in socially necessary labour time) and faces the possibility of even that reduced value not being realized in exchange. 

The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labour-army; during the periods of over-production and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check. Relative surplus population is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works. It confines the field of action of this law within the limits absolutely convenient to the activity of exploitation and to the domination of capital. p. 598

I have divided up what was beoming a very long post into two moderately long posts. I will schedule part two to publish 24 hours after part one.