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Saturday, March 27, 2010

accumulation, alienation, and Touch 'n Crawl Minnie

In the last post, I made a first stab at explaining accumulation in Marx’s terms.

In this post, I want to begin with two long quotes. The first is from 2004.

“Li is the fastest worker on a long, U-shaped assembly line of about 130 women who put together Mini Touch 'n Crawl Minnie, a scampering version of the Disney character activated by a baby's nudge.
“Li moves with lightning speed — gluing the pink bottom, screwing it into place, getting the rest of the casing to adhere, tamping it down with a special hammer, pulling the battery cover through its slats, soldering where she glued, testing to make sure the leg joints on the other side still work, then sending it down the line.
The entire process takes 21 seconds.

She generally works 5½ days a week, as much as 10 hours at a time. Her monthly wage — about $65 — is typical for this part of China, enough for Li to send money back home to her poor farming family in Henan province and to afford a computer class in town.
But Li, 20, pays a heavy price: Her hands ache terribly, and she is always exhausted — a situation to which she seems resigned.

"People at my age should expect some hardship," said Li, clad in bluejeans and a pink factory blouse, which she left unbuttoned to reveal a white T-shirt emblazoned with the silhouette of Mickey Mouse. "I should taste bitterness while I'm young." – “Mattel struggles to balance profit with morality” by Abigail Goldman Nov. 28, 2004.


The second quote is a long one in which Marx does some summarizing work. Always the Leo, Marx’s summaries are like the MGM symbol that proceeded its movies: full throated roars:

“The law according to which, thanks to the progress in the productivity of social labor, the growing mass of the means of productivity can be put in a motion relation to the progressively decreasing expenditure of human power, this law expresses itself on a capitalist basis [auf kapitalistischer Grundlage] in which it is not the laborer who applies the instrument of labor, but the instrument of labor who applies the laborer - in the fact that the higher the productive power of labor, the greater the pressure of the laborer on the means of employment, the more precarious become his condition of existence: the sale of his own power to the multiplication of someone else’s wealth, or to the self-valorisation of capital. The quicker the growth of the means of production and the productivity of labor over the productive population capitalistically expresses itself in the inversion, that the working population always grows faster than the valorization needs of capital.


As we saw in the fourth section, the analysis of the production of surplus value: within the capitalistic system are realized all methods to the increase of the social productive power of labor, to the cost of the individual laborer. All means to the development of production are transformed into means of dominating and exploiting the producers, of crippling the laborer into a part-person, in devaluing him to an annex of the machine, in negating with the pain of his labor its content, in alienating from him the intellectual powers of the labor process in the same measure, wherein science has finally been incorporated in it as an independent power; it distorts the conditions, under which he works, subjects him during the working process to the most petty and hateful depotism, transforms his lifetime into his worktime, and throws his wife and child under the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all the methods of production are at the same time methods of accumulation and every extension of accumulation is, inversely, the means to the development of this method. It follows that in proportion as Capital accumulates, the position of the worker [Lage des Arbeiters], whether his pay be high or low, must worsen.” [610 my translation, 798 Fowkes]


This is a high riding bill of indictment. One notices – and I put this down against those who, as Duncan has pointed out, discount alienation as an idea Marx tucked away in his notebooks in the 1840s, never to bring it out again – that the same complex of textual figures [the worker as a living and intellectual being, alienation, and the machine as the image of his doom] – come into play here, in almost the same way they figure in the Economic and Philosophical notebooks. Alienation, far from being about the essence of man, is about an essential structure in the construction of capitalism.

This may seem like a petty debating point in the interminable squabbling among Marx’s interpreters. It is, however, useful to keep in mind – it is something I’ll return to later.

According to the classical and neo-classical criticism of Marx’s economics, it is in evaluating the price of labor that Marx shows that, underneath, the market is fundamental to his interpretation of capitalism after all. Because what does Marx tell us, with his marvelous phrase about the reserve industrial army and his remarks about the surplus labor population, except that it is ultimately supply and demand that determines the labor market?

Again, one must extract Marx from the dogmatic image of Marx. There is no question that for Marx, the realization of value in the market is done under the press of what I would call surface conditions. The competition between capitalists is one; another is the competition among workers. Those surface conditions, of course, can have more profound consequences – they set up incentives that operate up and down the system.

But ultimately, supply and demand come back to the structure of capital – to variable and constant capital, which together make up the organic composition of capital. Thus, Marx does not envision a labor market that tends towards an equilibrium between the demand for labor and its supply – ‘full employment’, in the bogus phrase of the economists. Rather, this is a market that expresses the profound disequilibrium between the power of the worker and the power of the capitalist, expressed in terms of dependence. The power of the capitalist is the power given by the accumulation of capital. When the laborer sells his labor power, he not only commodifies his labor time, but he adds to the accumulation process by which the capitalist acquires a number of powers- for instance, the power to change the organization of production. These powers, in the capitalist system, are considered the natural concomitants of growth. Looking at the workers themselves, they may be getting more prosperous every year. But looking at the position of labor – the Lage – we get quite a different picture, which is of the conditions of the bargaining power of labor. Galbraith’s useful phrase – countervailing power – nicely expresses the positional power of the players in the capitalist system.

Marx’s image of the industrial reserve army again turns us back to the place of alienation. Just as an army is united by its morale – its disposition to go into battle – so, too, is the industrial reserve army. Alienation is easy to spot in the workplace. It comes out in phrases like, well, I guess I’m lucky to have a job. Or Li’s infinitely sorrowful phrase: "I should taste bitterness while I'm young."
Inversely, the position of the capitalist class is structured by a continual effort to liquidate the supply and demand conditions that the classical economists think consider to be so healthy for the working class. The upper management in corporations in America have long formed a kind of guild, in which strange value laden criteria suddenly appear, approved by the economist/theologians of the system as the height of rationality. Thus we are told that x deserves some absurd compensation packet because, under x’s ‘leadership’, the company made a billion dollars in profits over the last ten years. The same economists who would be shocked if x’s secretary or the guys on the loading dock of x’s company demanded pay based on a similar principle find X’s demand almost saintlike in its humble reach for what X surely deserves. One could, of course, create an index of the compensation of the CEOs of the top 500 Fortune companies and tie the pay to the lowest paid – thus shifting the scale downward in a competitive, market-y friendly way – but it is pretty easy to predict that this will never happen. Supply and demand as a surface phenomena determining wages quickly turns into an ideology that is used like the law of gravity over those who lack the bargaining power to fight back – the workers – while it is simply tossed aside when determining the wages of those who own the capital.

PS. Duncan has put up a buncha posts over the last three months about the 25th chapter. Start here.

6 comments:

N. Pepperell said...

Hi roger - just a quick drive-by point, as I have a terrible cold at the moment, and so my thoughts are a bit clogged:

In terms of the architectonic of the text as a whole, the "alienation" being described is actually what constitutes a significant emancipatory potential - and this possibility does not consist in the potential for the labourer's re-incorporation, as an individual, of what has been "alientated". The alienation of personal capacities into machinery figures in the text as am ambivalent phenomenon: one whose consequences are geniunely horrific now, but one that creates a possibility to emancipate material reproduction from the requirement that human capacities be expended. This is a different notion of appropriation from what is often associated with the concept of alienation in most Marxist traditions that make use of that term as a critical category.

The industrial reserve army suggests the non-necessity for human labour to remain as central as it currently is to material reproduction - its existence implies an emancipatory possibility. In the mirror-image, topsy-turvy world of capitalist production, however, the existence of such a "surplus" population is a tragedy, rather than an opportunity to realise greater freedom...

These points aren't unrelated to the way supply and demand plays out in Marx's argument: he does make fairly heavy use of these concepts - he just rejects as mystical the notion that anything is "tending toward equilibrium" (while, at the same time, he suggests an explanation for why the concept of equilibrium might seem plausible, as a sort of bad metaphysical extrapolation from observable trends).

But the path through which Capital suggests it has become possible to appropriate human potentials that have been externalised, is a path that is not abstractly hostile to this externalisation (although it condemns the way, historically, this externalisation has been effected). Just as, in earlier sections of Capital, labour "realises" itself - first on an individual, and then on a collective level - and yet the narrative of the text shows that, in capitalism's inverted world, these "realisations" are not emancipatory achievements, but rather operate, in practice, to further labour's own structural domination, so in these passages the "alienation" of labour - horrific on its face - is shown to constitute genuine possibilities for emancipatory transformation. In capitalism's inverted world, what appears on the surface to be good, is shown under the surface to be bad; what appears bad on the surface constitutes a latent potential for emancipation...

roger said...

Nicole, your comment reminds me of the famous saying of Lincoln's, when somebody complained that General Grant was a drinker. Let's find out what he's drinking and order a case for my other generals! the sage of the penny said.

Similarly, if this is what you write when you have a cold, let's infect all Marx commentators with the cold germ!

Anyway, when Marx uses the machine image, just as when he uses the chains image, he is, of course, against neither machines nor chains, in their proper places. And surely the passage is written in the light of what is made made possible, as you say, by revolution. This is, it seems to me, exactly right:

"But the path through which Capital suggests it has become possible to appropriate human potentials that have been externalised, is a path that is not abstractly hostile to this externalisation (although it condemns the way, historically, this externalisation has been effected)."

roger said...

On the other hand, there are two points that complicate this picture.
a. Although the “Green Marx” is a matter of jots and tittles in the great man’s work, still, they are definitely there. Marx not only makes cogent remarks about resource problems, but the man experienced in his own body and in his family’s the world’s filthiest industrial city, London. He didn’t have to go far to experience an environmental problem, he could just walk outside. He could experience the smell and filth of the Thames, the perpetual smoke of the atmosphere, and of course all of the kind of environmental problems that come from an industrial conurbation. And because Marx was a scientific socialist, he didn’t believe that sweetening the relations between human beings magically sweetened the air or cleaned the water. In my reading around of secondary material on Marx, I decided to check out Castoriadas’s Carrefour dans la labyrinthe, but I was pretty disappointed with what seemed to me a superficial reading of Marx – and especially the idea that Marx was ulta-optimistic about technology. You didn’t have to be John Ruskin to notice the degradation of the environment. Thus, although Marx was almost Jules Verne-ish at times about the coming machines, he was not an unabashed fan of the mechanical system.
b. I believe that alienation is a useful and necessary category, in Marx, for studying the social practices that make up capitalism. I’ve particularly emphasized the complex of routinization, specialization and interchangeability as the great producers of alienation as misery. I think it is important to remember that the focus, here, is on the worker’s position – Lage- which is not given to us by the quantitative measure of how much his wages are. However, stepping outside the Marxist framework, it seems to me that alienation under capitalism is transformed into an even greater problem under communism – in fact, I’d call it the problem in communism. After all, in one reading, the technostructure that has unleashed human productive power, under capitalism, seals its victory in communism as machines are allowed to do the full extent of their work. This, to my mind, would heighten the crisis of what Steiner called, back in the day, the unique – that is, the crisis of believing, fundamentally, in what one is doing as the kind of thing that results from one's set of skills.

roger said...

Or, in other words, good work. To embrace the interchangeability of human beings would, it seems to me, create a huge crisis of alienation. For the feudal and reactionary critics of capitalism seem dead to rights to me in bemoaning the principle behind the destruction of craft. Marx's lack of a picture of communism is, I think, partly due to this problem. Lafargue, you once read, gets it right. But in fact that raises a question that is not answered very well in Marx: that the worker ceases to be a worker in the capitalist sense by smashing the system of wage labor might well lead to the worker simply embracing the system of the interchangeable human that would be based on an even greater emptying out of the person. And then the specter of alienation would truly come into its own.

roger said...

"Lafargue, you once wrote"

Oh, and a sidenote re living in London. Surely, if you did a word inventory of the Marx-Engels correspondence, "Dreck" would come near the top of the list. Marx is always having to clear off the filth, or is mired in filth, or shit. And when he gets money, the thing he seeks in getting out of the horrible Dean street apartment is light, and good air. Possibly, Marx's Edgar was a victim of London pollution.

N. Pepperell said...

Hey roger - Yes - my comment on Marx's analysis of machinery wasn't at all meant to be an anti-environmentalist one (I'll be writing a bit more on Marx and environmentalism later in the year, I hope) - in brief, I think Marx would argue that it is not machinery, per se, that is in any necessary way environmentally destructive, but machinery as caught up in the dynamic of accumulation - it's the endless expansion, rather than mechanisation per se, that erodes the ability to sustain the environment.

I was more trying to specify that Marx thinks it presents a historical potential that human capacities have been externalised - that the possibility of developing motive forces and reservoirs of knowledge and skill that are disembodied from specific people - and can therefore become part of a general human inheritance, to be drawn on - Marx hopes - by all humans. So the path through which "alienation" is overcome is not a romantic one (through the re-institution, for example, of some sort of artisanal labour where these capacities are re-embodied necessarily in individual people), but rather through an embrace of the potential for such capacities to be externalised and therefore potentially available to all.

Marx thinks this process will provide material possibilities for people then to develop their own individual capacities along lines that enable self-development, rather than along lines dictated by the requirements of meeting immediate material needs. There's nothing in Capital, of course, that can rule out a non-emancipatory appropriation of such potentials - we have a non-emancipatory appropriation now... Marx's question is more one of undermining claims that what we have now is all - or is the best - that we could have. It then becomes a political issue - with all the contingency that involves (and I think Marx's historical writings show that he's well aware of the fragility and contingency of political action)... For Marx, the absence of a concrete image of communism is not a problem - as in, Marx doesn't regard this as a problem (if we want to regard it as one, of course we can, but he would dispute it) - but a recognition of something like Darwin's "descent with modification" as the principle of historical change: we can make certain changes, certain appropriations - but when we do, something new will speciate, whose needs and ideals cannot be foretold in any specific way from our present time... Politics itself will develop - in ways we can't necessarily predict. We can open certain doors, realise certain possibilities - but what happens then, what those who inherit this new world will desire, shouldn't be foreclosed, Marx thinks, based on imaginations that are incubated in the horizons of the present time...

(I agree very much on Castoriadis, btw...)