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some rambling thoughts on choice, value, and the subjugation of labour under capitalism

November 28, 2013

It’s often argued that capitalism values choice and equality, and that demand yields value, not labour. But that may not be the whole story, and things may not be as equitable as they appear.

According to the labour theory of value, for example, value in the context of capitalism is primarily determined by the socially necessary labour time required for a commodity’s production, which is then sold by the average or market value. So a commodity’s value, which is qualitatively expressed by its use-value, is quantitatively expressed via its exchange-value, its price being a measure of its value against a particular money-form. Demand for a commodity, its degree of usefulness in fulfilling a want or need, is only one aspect of its value.

From this perspective, what a person receives in payment isn’t the full value of their labour power due to an inherent inequality in capitalist social relations between capital and labour. This seed of inequality, however, is easily obscured, as are capitalist social relations and the origin of profit, which from the Marxist perspective arises out of the division of the workday into necessary labour and surplus labour. But since all labour appears as paid labour, it’s easy to argue that capital’s role in the production process and demand’s role in the process of exchange is the source of value (essentially separating capital as an independent and autonomous factor of production) despite the actual complexity of capitalist production and distribution, completely obscuring labour’s contribution in the creation and realization of profit.

But as David Harvey illustrates in Limits to Capital, part of Marx’s critique in Capital details precisely how the contradictions inherent within the capitalist mode of production produces a fundamental contradiction between the equality presupposed by exchange and the inequality via the exploitation of labour required to gain profit. So from the very onset, the kernel of inequality is already present within our political-economic system. And that inequality is the basis for much of the struggle between capital and labour and how surplus value is distributed.

On the one hand, workers are, in principle, “free to sell their labour under whatever conditions of contract (for whatever length of working day) they please” (30), which highlights the equality, freedom, and individuality characterizing exchange relations, recalling both Aristotle’s argument that “exchange cannot take place without equality” and Marx’s argument that “the circulation of commodities requires the exchange of equivalents” (19).

However, workers must also compete against one another in the labour market, where capitalists who are forced to internalize the profit-seeking motive due to the coercive laws of competition purchase workers’ labour time with the sole purpose being the accumulation of profit (accumulation for accumulation’s sake), and who more often than not dictate the duration and conditions of labour workers must accept or else risk privation while seeking something better, putting workers at a disadvantage on an individual level. (28-30) (One of the main reasons I favour some kind of universal basic income is that it has the potential to empower workers, decommodify labour-power by helping free workers from absolute dependence on wage labour for subsistence, and enlarge the nonmarket social economy.)

The expansion of value in this process occurs via the production of surplus value by capitalists who employ wage labour, a social relation in which the worker — who gives up their rights to control over the production process, the product of their labour, and the added value incorporated in production — receives the value of their labour power and nothing else (42-3). And this is important because this is the point where the surplus value created in the labour process is appropriated by capitalists who are forced, due to the coercive laws of competition, to internalize the profit-seeking motive to purchase workers’ labour time with the sole purpose being the accumulation of profit (accumulation for accumulation’s sake), i.e., how they transform money (M) into commodities (C) and then back into money plus a surplus (M + ∆M), the added value being the result of the additional amount of labour time capitalists can extract/contract out of the worker in excess of what it takes for them to produce the value of the wages they receive.

More broadly speaking, however, workers generally seek (and one could rightly even say are compelled) to purchase commodities with the money they earn through their role in the production of commodities (C-M-C); and through the maintenance and reproduction of the working class (primarily through their role as consumers of commodities), the reproduction of capital is created. Surplus value, then, is produced via the production process and realized via market exchange, where workers as producers and consumers give of themselves twice to capital—first as what’s conventionally viewed as unpaid labour and second as wages for commodities (as well as things like rent, etc.) (56).

One of the practical as well as philosophical issues I have with the capitalist mode of production, then, is the potential exploitation inherent within the system itself, which in its most extreme (and therefore most visible) forms can be found in things like prison labour and sweatshops, but according to the LTV is a characteristic of all forms of wage labour under capitalism.

In the Marxist sense, at least, exploitation refers to the worker’s lack of ownership and/or distributive control over the surplus created by their labour. (That’s why Marx defined slavery, feudalism, and capitalism as exploitative systems of production, i.e., in each, the producers/workers have no ownership and/or distributive control over the surplus created by their labour). In this sense, exploitation is an inherent part of the capitalist mode of production, which in turn, ties into Marx’s theory of alienation.

It’s rather complicated, and I don’t fully understand everything Marx wrote on the subject as much of it is very abstract, but in short, exploitation is the idea that the capitalist profits far more from a worker’s labour than the worker does, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s voluntary or not. Moreover, this type of social relationship ultimate debases labour and impedes our positive development as a species.

Adam Smith et al. assumed that labour creates wealth (surplus value). But according to Marx, in a capitalist system, labour itself becomes a commodity, an object that’s bought and sold on the market. Moreover, due to private ownership of the means of production, the product of the worker’s labour doesn’t legally belong to them (alienation), nor does the surplus value their labour creates (unpaid labour), which is kept by the capitalist. Consequently, the product of the worker’s labour becomes a commodity that’s divorced from the labour expended on its production, thereby obscuring the social relationship between producer and consumer (commodity fetishism).

Furthermore, the employer has the ability to increase their profit exponentially by reinvesting the surplus value extracted from the worker’s labour into their company while the labourer is forced to spend their (more often than not) meager wages on the necessities of life such as food, clothing, shelter, etc.

For Marx, our ability to produce things, especially our means of subsistence, is what sets us apart from other animals. In his view, this ability to produce objects is a part of our essence as a human being. Put another way, Marx viewed human beings as productive creatures that, in the words of Jonathan Wolff, “are able to create according to our will and consciousness in a very elaborate way.” But, as Wolff continues, “workers under capitalism, Marx thinks, very rarely have the opportunity to express these powers. So, Marx says, from a human being, the worker is reduced to an abstract activity and a stomach. So rather than being a human being able to express our essence, we are like little machines ourselves.”

And I think understanding this point of view is integral to understanding an important part of Marx’s critique of production under the capitalist system, which he argues not only estranges and alienates the worker’s relationship to the products of their labour, but estranges and alienates the worker’s relationship to the act of production itself.

In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argues that under the capitalist system of production, the worker’s labour becomes “external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” As a consequence, the worker “only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor.”

And when viewed from this perspective, it may become easier to understand why Marx saw labour within the context of capitalism as something debasing, particularly for the worker, and why it’s ultimately an impediment to achieving self-realization as a species in the sense of resolving “the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species” that’s characterized by the “positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement.”

From an ethical standpoint, this inherently disparate relationship between capital and labour reminds me of a line from a letter written by Abigail Adams in the spring of 1776 to her husband: “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow-creatures of theirs [referring to slave-holding Virginians]. Of this I am certain, that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principle of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.”

And I think the same sentiment can easily be applied to capital in relation to the wage labourer, at least in the sense of how the latter is coerced under the capitalist mode of production to surrender their labour-power to the former in exchange for their means of subsistence, which is always less than what they actually produce, as well as all rights over the product of their labour.

In essence, from one point of view, both slavery and wage labour can be seen to infringe upon individual autonomy in their respective ways, with former more obviously so, but the latter no less potentially oppressive from the standpoint of labour. Friedrich Engels, in The Principles of Communism, compared the two social relations, writing: “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence, however miserable it may be, because of the master’s interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labor only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence.”

Moreover, the logic of the system, via what Marx termed the ‘coercive laws of competition,’ forces the hand of capital to exploit labour as much as it can; and at the same time, labour is coerced into the position of working for a wage and fighting for gains that capital quickly counter in an endless struggle punctuated by regular economic crises (these days better known as the ‘business cycle’), creating continuous class antagonisms between capital and labour.

Hence much of what’s historically been labelled as Marxism and/or socialism has been a search for practical as well as philosophical resolutions to these issues, which isn’t to be found in things like equality of wealth or outcomes so much as the de-privatization (i.e., socialization) of opportunity and the weakening of class antagonisms and hierarchies arising out of social relations unique to capitalism and other predominately exploitative systems.

As Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy, “Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” And Marx’s focus, along with socialist movements in general, is in attempting to answer the question of how to liberate society from the suffering and alienation engendered by these political-economic contradictions and inequalities by changing the material conditions that support it.

In the words of Erich Fromm, “[Marx’s] concept of socialism is the emancipation from alienation, the return of man to himself, his self-realization,” a goal that’s ultimately achievable via “the liberation of man from a kind of work which destroys his individuality, which transforms him into a thing, and which makes him into the slave of things” (Marx’s Concept of Man). And to do that, to realize this form of socio-economic liberation, the working class needs to theoretically “unravel the constraints to the free application of human labour” (to steal a phrase from Harvey) in an effort to practically “‘expropriate the expropriators’ and so to achieve the conscious reconstruction of the value form through collective action” (38).


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