Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragment on the Working Day

To celebrate Labor’s victory in Saturday’s election, I thought it might be appropriate to post some rough thoughts on Capital, volume one, chapter 10 – The Working-Day.

Note that, since I haven’t worked up to this chapter in the systematic reading I’ve been trundling through recently, these comments will be much more provisional than my other recent posts on Capital. Corrections, as always, are welcome.

This chapter always reminds me of the William Morris quotation that I probably reproduce a bit too often:

men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

The main line of political drama that plays out in this chapter involves a story of strange reversals: apparent working class victories are thwarted, or provoke rapid political reversals, or unexpectedly rebound to the benefit of capital – until what appears initially as a “decisive” victory of capital brings about its in own reversal, in the form of the effective mobilisation of the working classes and the final achievement of a legislated normal working day. Only after the discussion of this working class victory does Capital open up to the discussion of relative surplus value and to the development of machinery and modern industry – suggesting yet another complex consequence of political struggle anticipated by none of the participants: the strengthening and routinisation of the drive of capital for ever-increasing levels of productivity.

At some point, I hope to return to this narrative of unintended consequences more adequately, on the basis of a more thorough exposition of the chapters leading up to and out of this section of Capital. For present purposes, I want instead to draw attention to some of the interstitial metatheory that peeks through long quotations from the factory inspectors and accounts of the popular press. This chapter contains some of the more surprising and unexpected metatheoretical material in the first volume of Capital – specifically opening questions of the determinate limits of what can be predicted by this theory of capitalism – what the theory can say, and cannot say, about the sorts of struggles likely to arise, and how those struggles might play out. At the same time, this chapter begins to thematise the relationship between capital, state regulation, and the journalistic public sphere. This chapter’s particular “immanent voice” – captured in long quotations, interspersed by Marx’s own sardonic commentary – is that of state bureaucrats (factory inspectors) and journalists – as well as the voices of capital as played out in these emergent public spheres.

First some brief background – with the caveat that, as I’ll need to summarise this argument quickly here, the broader strategic intent of this economistic-sounding argument won’t be clear – I’ll hopefully be able to come back to all of this more adequately at another time.

Previous chapters have already established that there is something strange about commodities of the human sort. Somehow, such commodities manage to be sold for their full value – and yet, somehow, surplus value emerges from this transaction. Marx is aware, of course, that all sorts of swindles and abuses may prevent labour power from being sold at its full value, but he brackets these potentials because, as he puts it somewhere, an entire society cannot grow materially richer by stealing from itself: somewhere, somehow, a kind of surplus is produced and, on the level of society as a whole, such a surplus does not arise solely from unequal distribution, however unequally distributed wealth might be: a surplus must somehow be generated. But where could a surplus come from, if labour-power is bought and sold at its full value?

Marx answers this question by introducing a distinction between the costs of the reproduction of labour power, and the value derived from capital’s use of labour-power for a specific duration. Labour’s exchange value, then, is its cost of reproduction (speaking here, although it may not yet be quite clear in the text, across capitalist society as a whole – individual labour powers, like individual commodities of all kinds, may be purchased for prices above and below the actual cost of reproducing those empirical labours – a clinical-sounding point with devastating human implications). Labour’s use value, however, is the role it plays in generating surplus value. Thus it becomes structurally possible for labour (again, across the whole of capitalist society) to be bought and sold at its full value, while still also generating surplus value.

Continuing to skip superficially through the previous chapters, surplus value production takes place, according to Marx’s argument, in that period during which labour works in excess of whatever time would have been necessary merely to reproduce labour power. The sum of the time spent on both necessary and surplus labour constitutes the working day.

Marx voices this as though he is speaking of individual labourers, the wage required for their personal subsistence, and the length of their personal working day. It becomes clearer in chapter 11, on the Rate and Mass of Surplus Value, that Marx – as I’ve been noting above – intends these categories (like all his others) to be indiscernible at the level of immediate empirical experience at levels of abstraction below that of capitalist society as a whole, as its dynamic unfolds over time:

The labour which is set in motion by the total capital of a society, day in, day out, may be regarded as a single collective working-day.

More on all of this at some other time. For the moment, I intend these flashbacks and flashforwards simply to provide a bit of context to understand how the chapter on the working day slots into the text. With this out of the way, just a few brief points on the chapter itself.

The chapter on the working day explores the consequences of a structural variability or intrinsic indeterminacy at the heart of capitalist production. On the one hand, previous chapters have established that the rate of surplus value production hinges on the proportion of the working day devoted to necessary labour vs. the production of surplus value. On the other hand, no intrinsic structural determination governs the absolute length of the working day. This combination – the structural importance of the rate of surplus value production within the working day, absent a structural determination of the duration of the working day – defines a space of conflict. Marx initially describes this conflict from the perspectives immanently available to the process of commodity exchange, in which labourers and capitalists face off as sellers and buyers of the commodity labour-power, each determined to receive the full value of the exchange:

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides.

Here, where the forms of subjectivity that inhabit the sphere of commodity exchange reach their limit – where equal rights claims offer no basis for selecting one right above the other – Marx opens up the space for force. The “free” sphere of commodity exchange is presented here as immanently generating an impasse that points to the existence of further perspectives that lie beyond the sphere of commodity exchange, but are nevertheless connected immanently to that sphere. Marx says here:

Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class. (italics mine)

Class conflict is the mode in which the determination of the working day presents itself – expressing the perspectives available with the sphere of commodity exchange, which divides capital as buyer, and labour as seller, or the commodity labour power. This presentation (remembering that Marx tends to use this term for how some particular dimension of capitalist society “gives” itself, but where this particular “given” is not the only possible perspective that can cast meaningful light on what the “given” perspective describes) expresses a socially meaningful binary relationship generated within the sphere of commodity exchange. This presentation is not, however, identical with the empirical actors whose skirmishes play out in practice over the long process of political struggle that results in the eventual determination of the normal working day. Instead, the complex and nuanced stories Marx presents in this chapter are filled with diverse social actors combined into complex collective arrays whose allegiances frequently shift in response to circumstances that are clearly presented in the text as contingent – as something the theory of capital does not attempt to predict or regard as foreordained. The binary categories of class conflict therefore do not seem to be intended to grasp the immediate empirical identities of collective actors, but rather to capture a genuinely bifurcated set of structural consequences that arise from a much more diverse set of empirical conflicts.

Of course, as with any other immanently-available perspective unfolded in Capital, class categories can also become the nucleus around which subjective self-experiences of social actors can crystalise. And, as with other immanent-available perspectives unfolded in Capital, class categories can be confused as naturally inhering in some particular empirical group – can be confused, that is, for categories of immediate empirical experience – instead of being seen as real abstractions expressing the collective enactment of a particular structural relationship.

The consequences of this confusion are ambivalent: marking a site for creative political potential, but also for misrecognition.

On the one hand, the availability of forms of subjectivity associated with class identity makes it possible to create movements of empirical social actors united around a resonant class identity – to seize potentials latent in a real abstraction, and create a transformative movement of empirical social actors who mobilise around these potentials and this identity.

On the other hand, the assumption that some particular identity will necessarily or naturalistically inhere in the members of specific empirical groups – like the assumption that some given commodity will sell at its value – can be mistaken: the practical, empirical affiliations and responses of social actors can be expected to be much more diverse and fluid than the binary class categories suggest. On another level, a “naturalistic” misunderstanding of class categories can render more likely a politics oriented to the realisation of the working class as a working class – a form of politics that is vital in the contest to humanise capitalism, but that by itself does not point beyond capitalism. (Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, for example, polemicises against this kind of vision of working class politics in the beautifully titled The Right to Be Lazy, arguing that the working class should not assert its “right to work” – its rights as sellers of labour power in the labour market – but rather assert its “right to be lazy”, its collective potential to contest the endless productivist drive characteristic of capitalist accumulation.) All of this, however, deserves a much more elaborate treatment than I can provide here – I’ll leave these points inadequately developed for now, and move a bit further along in the text.

In the development of this evocative chapter, Marx explores the historically unique boundlessness of capitalism’s drive for surplus value. The language in these sections – of were-wolves, vampires, and other animated creatures preying on living labour – deserves an analysis in its own right (I have made previous gestures at this here), as does the analysis of decentred and diverse small-scale conflicts, reminiscent in many respects of Foucault. For present purposes, I’ll leave these issues aside, and draw attention to the voices that speak in this portion of the text: state officials and journalists (even the voices of capital, in this section, are addressed to or through one of these). Marx has unfolded the possibility for such voices immanently from within his discussion of the conflict of equal rights that remains irreconcilable within the categories available within the sphere of commodity exchange alone: between equal rights, force decides – the force, in this case, of legislation and the public sphere. The story Marx unfolds in this chapter describes these forms of force as responses to capital’s own boundless drive for surplus extraction – a drive that is coercive on individual capitals, and that therefore requires a countervailing universal force. He thus describes the gradual emergence of enforced limits on the working day as the “negative expression” of the boundlessness of capital’s own drive for surplus value:

If the Règlement organique of the Danubian provinces was a positive expression of the greed for surplus-labour which every paragraph legalised, the English Factory Acts are the negative expression of the same greed. These acts curb the passion of capital for a limitless draining of labour-power, by forcibly limiting the working-day by state regulations, made by a state that is ruled by capitalist-and landlord. Apart from the working-class movement that daily grew more threatening, the limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity which spread guano over the English fields. The same blind eagerness for plunder that in the one case exhausted the soil, had, in the other, torn up by the roots the living force of the nation.

He further recounts the ways in which such constraints were initially exceptionalised (enacted for certain categories of workers – children, then women, then men in some industries but not all) – and, in this form, were initially largely unsuccessful – until, with periodic reversals and surges, constraints grew more and more universal, and thus more “adequate” to capital. A tipping point in the English story comes when large industry’s own need for predictability in the production process, combined with the fear of social unrest from the working classes, drives the development of a legislated normal working day. Marx makes clear, however, that this sequence of events was by no means uniform across different countries – that local circumstances and random events fundamentally shaped the course of the political contestation. The text suggests that the theory of capitalism Marx is outlining can make sense of the emergence of a particular kind of defused contestation, of key political ideals that would resonate during such contestations, of some of the complex consequences – many of these initially unintended by the social actors engaged in political contestation, but nevertheless plausible and intelligible with reference to the theory – that flow from various moments in this contestation, and of the form of political resolution “adequate” to prevent capital’s own boundless drive from undermining the reproduction of labour-power on which capitalist production itself relies. Yet the text also treats an enormous amount as contingent: this chapter does not suggest that a theory of capitalism will provide a vision of predictable, linear, theorisable historical outcomes from a process of political contestation, such that the theory can specify structural conditions that drive in one direction alone, and that will outweigh the effects of local situations and contingent events in determining the success or failure of specific political initiatives.

Much more needs to be said, and I’m conscious that much of what I’ve already written is extraordinarily underdeveloped and, in this form, deeply problematic – this is an intensely rich chapter, and I am not doing justice to its argument. But it’s getting very late here, and I need to call it a night. Unfortunately, I probably won’t get back to Capital for the next few weeks – many other things on my plate right now. Apologies for these various forms of truncation – at some point, I intend to get back to this. But it will be a while…

2 responses to “Fragment on the Working Day

  1. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is immanent, reflexive critique? :: November :: 2007

  2. Pingback: » The Ambivalence of Organisation

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