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Monday, March 29, 2010

Upon the iron wheel: circulation work, moving toward crisis.


[I edited this post because I had originally pieced it together out of two different themes, making it an unruly, Gemini kind of thing. Now it flows like water, almost - all the curents are folded into one stream. I hope]

“Marxian theory aims not to resolve “economic problems” of bourgeois society, but to show them to be unsolvable. Marx was a socialist, not an economist – Paul Mattick, Marxism, the last refuge of the bourgeoisie? P.87

Paul Mattick poured as much cold water as he could on the project of normalizing Marx. This project consists in finding problems in Capital that can be rephrased in terms of Walrasian equilibriums – and proceeding from this point to translate the whole system. Thus, according to Mattick, an industry has devoted itself to ‘transforming’ value into price, in response to the critiques of the bourgeois economists, without thinking of the fact that Marx continually advocates the revolutionary overthrow of wage labor – and thus of the price system as we know it. This should alert us to two things: for Marx, value as he is using the term in Capital is a historical construct of a particular mode of production – capitalism. And secondly, that Marx is not concerned with finding a way to successfully translate values into prices in such a way as to establish some grounding equilibrium from which to understand and control crises in the economic system. That is, he is not working on the parameters assumed by the bourgeois economist.

“Not searching for an equilibrium in terms of prices, Marx’s mixture of value and price relations suffices to illustrate the statement that prices and values will be altered through the competitive establishment of an average rate of profit. Whereas Marx’s example of the transformation process has only an explanatory function, Bortkiewicz [one of Marx’s critics] approaches value relations as if they were actually ascertainable in price relations. Like Ricardo, he conceives of labor-time value in terms of physical commodity units, and not, like Marx, in terms of socially necessary abstract labor time. He therefore thinks it is possible for analysis to proceed directly from technically determined observable production prices with a uniform rate of profit. But it this were so, there would be no need for value theory, for it would yield no more than can be found in price relations.” (49)


Marx, in the 1840s, the first period in which he turned to the study of the political economy as the master key to the social transformations he saw happening all around him, quickly became certain that capitalism produced its own undertakers – the proletariat- and that it was a system that was internally bound to experience crises. Revolution, as I have argued in these posts, is the truth procedure in Marx’s work. It is from the standpoint of the overthrow of the form of the class relations upon which capitalism is founded that we understand the truth of capitalism, just as we understand feudalism from the point of view of its overthrow by the bourgeoisie. That, of course, is the standpoint unconsciously adopted by the mainstream historian today – for whom feudalism is always leading to something else.

However, while revolution was one way to envision the end of the capitalist system, crisis was another. The idea of the crisis is, of course, not Marx’s alone – indeed, the cycles of the business crisis have been lamented since the 16th century. Crisis, then, there will definitely be – yet Marx wanted to understand crisis in terms of the overall structure of capitalism. Crisis has a certain similarity to revolution in that, theoretically, it could put an end to the whole system – and in fact, after Marx died, the idea of the inevitable crisis served as a sort of tool by which the reformist socialist parties could reconcile themselves to capitalism. By mitigating the causes of class struggle through regulation and the provision of public goods, the liberal state could both ensure that the working class would not struggle with the capitalists too aggressively and that the tendency of the capitalist to increase the level of exploitation as the rate of profit fell would be buffered.

Marx, in a letter to Kugelmann in 1857, sarcastically saw that all laissez faire doctrine would be laid aside when the investing class felt threatened. In that year, bank failures had initiated bank runs that had their usual effect of freezing credit and thus bringing industry to a standstill. The same Victorian respectables who had, ten years before, condemned a million Irish to starve to death because state support would weaken their will to work and encourage an inefficient agricultural sector had no problem immediately reacting to the trouble of a handful of financiers.

“It is beautiful that the capitalists, who scream so much against the right to employment, now everywhere demand public assistance from their governments in Hamburg, Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, even England [in the form of the suspension of bills], thus seeking to enforce a “right to profit” at the public’s expense.”


Why, though, did crises originate in the speculative sector? And how do we distinguish crisis, anyway, from the usual degradation of the position of labor?
Talk about crisis tends to float to the top level – we tend to look at crises as they effect the financial system. Marx’s idea, that the rate of profit, collectively, tends to fall is, in fact, placed squarely in the sphere of circulation. Crisis effects the capitalists, who react to it by trying to shift the cost of the crisis on the backs of the working class by mass layoffs, cuts in pay, making jobs temporary, shifting to piecework, etc. On the largest scale, the capitalists depend on the state.

Thus, Marx needs a theory of the sphere of circulation. One way of approaching this is to ask – what kind of labor is involved in the movement that transforms commodities into money and money back into commodities?

In the sixth chapter of Capital, 2, Marx makes a start at outlining a theory of rentseeking. This theory has problems. He starts out wrongfooting himself by decreeing that the work of transforming commodities into money is not work in the proletariat sense as it does not add value. This, one has to say, threatens to fetishize value as a property of creating some physical object only. Marx begins badly, with a complicated analogy to the work of making heat – which in itself does not add to the heat. Thus, the work of the salesman who tries to sell the dynamite the Ardeer girls make does not add to the value of the dynamite, nor the work of the secretary who takes calls for the salesman.

“The dimensions, which the transformation of commodities assume in the hands of the capitalists, could naturally not be those of value creating labor, but instead only the mediating work of changing the form of value. Even so little can the miracle of this transubstation occur through a transposition, that is, through the fact that the industrial capitalists instead of themselves completing this burning labor, make it the exclusive business of third persons paid to do the task. These third persons will naturally not out of love for their beaux yeux put their labor power to this task. To the rent collector of a landlord or the slavey of a bank it is completely indifferent, that their labor does not add a jot to the value quantity of the rent nor to the goldpieces that the latter drags to another bank.”


This, it seems to me, simply can’t be the case if value theory is to have any coherence. Here it takes on a double determination, on the one hand as a property of the making of a thing, and ally stuff the components that make up the explosive charge of dynamite into the cartridge are not making is dynamite - they are part of the chain by which dynamite is assembled. Marx mostly sees this very clearly - it is only from the point of view of abstraction that we separate production and circulation.

This is what is meant by integrating the work flow. Take a thing like beef. When, in 1866, the Packers Association of Chicago, along with some local boosters, hired Octave Chanute to lay out a massive stockyard on the Chicago River’s South Branch, he directed the building of sewers for discharge, holding pens, railroad docks, etc. which in affect made connected Chicago to ranchers in Texas. The chain that was built, using drover trails, stockyards, railroads, vast slaughterhouses, and refrigerated cars to send the meat out to clients – all of it could be thought of as making meat. True, there were salesmen going out to find clients, there were packagers, there were truckers, there were clerks at the end in the store that rang up the charges for the consumer – but they were all more conveniently regarded as part of the entire meat network, than divided between those who ‘added’ value and those who only moved the meat. And the meat did keep moving:

It was a long narrow room with a gallery along it for visitors. At the head there was a great iron wheel about twenty feet in circumference with rings here and there along its edge. Upon both sides of this wheel there was a narrow space into which came the hogs at the end of their journey; in the midst of them stood a great burly negro, bare armed and bare chested. He was resting for the moment for the wheel had stopped while men were cleaning up. In a minute or two however it began slowly to revolve and then the men upon each side of it sprang to work. They had chains which they fastened about the leg of the nearest hog and the other end of the chain they hooked into one of the rings upon the wheel. So as the wheel turned a hog was suddenly jerked off his feet and borne aloft. At the same instant the ear was assailed by a most terrifying shriek; the visitors started in alarm the women turned pale and shrank back. The shriek was followed by another louder and yet more agonizing, for once started upon that journey the hog never came back; at the top of the wheel he was shunted off upon a trolley and went sailing down the room. And meantime another was swung up and then another and another until there was a double line of them each dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy and squealing. The uproar was appalling perilous to the ear drums; one feared there was too much sound for the room to hold, that the walls must give way or the ceiling crack. There were high squeals and low squeals grunts and wails of agony there would come a momentary lull and then a fresh outburst louder than ever surging up to a deafening climax. It was too much for some of the visitors -- the men would look at each other laughing nervously and the women would stand with hands clenched and the blood rushing to their faces and the tears starting in their eyes.

Meantime, heedless of all these things the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats. There was a long line of hogs with squeals aud life blood ebbing away together until at last each started again and vanished with a splash into a huge vat of boiling water. [Sinclair Lewis, The Jungle 1920, 39]

Value would be too thinly bladed if we decide who, here, adds value and who does not.

And yet, there is a socially valid reason to separate the circulation work from the production work, if we don't hypostatize that separation too much. The bookkeeper, the floor boss, the salesman, the clerk - they may all, as a matter of fact, be as inexorably chained to wage labor as the pigs are chained to Sinclair's iron wheel. But unlike pigs, human cries are much more diverse as they are jerked up into the air and their throats slit. Some cry that they are individualists, and that any burden upon the owner of the slaughterhouse is a potential burden to them, as they, too, will one day own slaughterhouses. As the circulation worker gets more distant from the making of the product, the same ideological hierarchy to which Marx, obscurely, responds by separating out productive labor as thingmaking from non-productive labor as merely movement making works, in reverse, to make the petit bourgeois identify with the owners and investors.

Thus, even though Marx writes that the proletarianization of the circulation workers is ongoing and inevitable, their understanding of this is spotty and aspirational. In fact, so much do they employ their time in distancing themselves from classic proleterian labor that they hardly have time to think about the conditions under which they do labor. Rather, they substitute the notion that they have achieved a certain skill upon which the reward for their labor depends. This is half true. But, as we have seen, any skillset also gets chained, figuratively speaking, to the iron wheel - to the level of routinization to which all work is heir.

Marx himself backs away from his grand gesture, by moving on to explaining circulation work in terms of time - which of course gets us back to valorisation:

For the capitalists, who let others work for them, buying and selling are central functions. Since he adapts the product of many to the great social measure, so he must also sell it as such and later again transform it again out of money into the elements of production. Yet the buying and selling time, as we have said, creates no value. An illusion comes in here through the function of the businessman’s capital. But, without going into this here, so much is clear: when a function, which is itself unproductive, is, through the division of labor, a necessary moment of reproduction, and from an auxiliary operation of the many is transformed into the exclusive operation of the few, in its particular business, yet does this not transform the character of the function itself. One businessman (here treated as a mere agent of the transformation of commodities, as a mere seller or buyer) may through his operation abbreviate the buying and selling time for many producers. He is then to be treated as a machine, that shortens the useless expenditure of power or helps set free production time.”

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