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Showing posts from March 21, 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 L

First stabs at the theory of capital accumulation: the self-perpetuating cycle of wealth inequality

From Esther's Piano Since starting my Marx rush, I have overheard many interesting remarks exchanged among the coffee drinkers at the anti-union Whole Foods where I type things out. For instance, as I was typing up a post about competition, I was overhearing a young man being interviewed by some special events catering company – which involved the interviewer delicately approaching the fact that the man would fill out a W-9 tax form, or, in other words, would be a subcontractor. However, he was assured, if his subcontracting work met their expectations, they might actually hire him. I have no idea if the young man was secretly amused by this – I was. Marx would have been perfectly at home, listening to that conversation, in which commodifying one’s labor time became, itself, a reward for the piece worker. Last night, I tried to explain the force of the complex that links ever greater specialization with ever greater routinization of skills to a friend who has an interest in

Abstract labor II - real labor b

Postone writes, with admirable clarity: “ The category of abstract human labor refers to the social process that entails an abstraction from the specific qualities of the various concrete labors involved , as well as a reduction to their common denominator as human labor. Similarly, the category of the magnitude of value refers to an abstraction from the physical quantities of the products exchanged as well as a reduction to a nonmanifest common denominator – the labor time involved in their production.” [189] Marx, as I have said, was strongly aware that capitalism both freed labor and emptied it, as far as it could, of specificity. This correlate of the ideal interchangeability of the human is the quantity of time. The factory, to Marx, was in a sense the ideal palace of capitalism because there, interchangeability is crystallized, more clearly than in any other economic formation, in ‘putting in time.” They are the palaces of abstract time, and their ruin in the developed countr

Abstract labour II - real labor

“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.” - Sherlock Holmes Perhaps we should begin with a description from real labor. This is from McClure’s magazine’s visit to the great Nobel dynamite factory in Ardeer Scotland in August, 1897 by H.J.W. Dam. Dam’s photographer captured many of the workers – 200 girls, and 1,100 men. Dam makes much of the contrast between the tanks of nitroglycerin and the female sex, who are searched by matrons three times a day to make sure they have no pins, shoebuttons or any kind of metal fastener – as the admixture of metal in the dynamite making process creates huge problems. The problem with the men is their habit of sneaking in matches to have a good smoke. The employees from different sections where clothing color coded to reflect their sections – cartridge girls, for instance, wear dark blue. The cartridge houses are where all the materials – the charc

Approaching abstract labor I

Halbwachs, in his study of the life conditions of the worker (published in 1912), shrewdly pointed to the fuzzy boundary between agriculture and industry. Agriculture, we usually assume, deals directly with nature – but as Halbwachs points out, there is hardly a bit of nature in agriculture as we actually know it – from the soil that has been changed in its chemical and geological composition over generations of work, to the organic products that are themselves constantly being changed and adapted by human ingenuity, to finally finished products like cheese and bread, the making of which takes place in buildings, and through gestures that are essentially no different from those employed in making glue. [See Halbwachs 1913, Vol. 1, 26] Halbwachs’ emphasis on the “gestes” of labor is a welcome attempt to uncover what is partially mystified in Marx’s ‘materialism’. When Marx speaks of labor, he begins with a direct relationship with nature – although this is, in a sense, a fiction, as h

A confusing post about monopoly rents and the level of exploitation

I hear the sounds of the city and dispossessed Get down and get undressed. Since the 1970s in America, the radical economists have used the model of monopoly rents to critique capitalism – inheriting the progressive tradition of battling against the giant trusts and restoring competition as a way of cutting down the accumulated economic and political advantages of the capitalist class. This way of thinking cuts across the grain of the (intentionally) naïve Manicheanism of the conservative economists, who like to pit the private sector (which is productive) against the government sector (which is parasitic). The notion that production – say, of education – magically turns into its opposite when done by the state is one of the stranger tics of the economic school that comes out of Chicago. But, as the radical economists like to point out, their liberal opponents, too, hold on to some less mystical version of this story, and ultimately believe that the market is the most efficient way t

Competition: chose your level and make your bets

We don’t know what is preferable for us: to defeat them or to be defeated. The sons of Dhritarashtra are in front of us. In killing them, we will lose the will to live. – 6th verse, 2nd chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, from the French translation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “Within the social circumstances prevailing by way of capitalist production, even the not capitalistic are dominated by capitalist notions [Vorstellung]. In his last novel, the Peasants, Balzac, through a deep comprehension of real relationships, strikingly represents in general the small farmer who, in order to remain in the good graces of his moneylender, performs all kinds of labor gratuitously, not thinking that he is giving him anything, because his own labor doesn’t cost himself any ready money. The moneylender on his side thus kills two flies with one blow. He is spared spending money himself in wages and entangles the farmer, for whom the lack of working on his own field is more and more ruinous, deeper and