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.