Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Many Fragments on the Centrality of Wage Labour

Too long – and too sketchy – therefore below the fold with everything but the first paragraph (with the warning for readers tempted to click through that the hidden content does not do justice to the apparent theme)…

Why does Marx maintain that wage labour is central to capitalism? Praxis points out in a recent post that there are at least a couple of potential ways that capitalism could be defined in dialogue with Marx’s work: as a runaway process of production become an end in itself; and as a process of production centred on wage labour. Marx seems to think these two definitions are mutually implicated – in historical factuality, if not in conceptual or practical necessity. How, though, does Marx understand this mutual implication?

One possibility is suggested by Marx’s claim that it was the introduction of the labour market that somehow unchained markets from their historical embeddedness in other kinds of social relations, making possible the dynamism that is often, in the capitalist era, read off into markets per se – but which, Marx suggests, was not characteristic of markets in other historical periods. Marx presents this analysis by first detailing a series of other preconditions for commodity production, aside from wage labour:

Definite historical conditions are involved in the existence of the product as a commodity. In order to become a commodity, the product must cease to be produced as the immediate means of subsistence of the producer himself. Had we gone further, and inquired under what circumstances all, or even the majority of products take the form of commodities, we should have found that this only happens on the basis of one particular mode of production, the capitalist one. Such an investigation, however, would have been foreign to the analysis of commodities. The production and consumption of commodities can still take place even though the great mass of the objects produced are intended for the immediate requirements of their producers, and are not turned into commodities, so that the process of social production is as yet by no means dominated in its length and breadth by exchange-value. The appearance of products as commodities requires a level of development of the division of labour within society such that the separation of use-value from exchange-value, a separation which begins with barter, has already been completed. But such a degree of development is common to many economic formations of society, with the most diverse historical characteristics.

If we go on to consider money, its existence implies that a definite stage in the development of commodity exchange has been reached. The various forms of money (money as the mere equivalent of commodities, money as means of circulation, money as means of payment, money as hoard, or money as world currency) indicate very different level of the process of social production, according to the relative preponderance of one function or the other. Yet we know by experience that a relatively feeble development of commodity circulation suffices for the creation of all these forms. (273-274)

Many components of commodity production and exchange therefore predate capitalism – without their existence generating capitalism’s characteristic breakaway dynamic. The emergence of the labour market, Marx suggests, provides the historically novel element that combines with these much older components to generate a new sort of social relation with unique qualitative characteristics:

It is otherwise with capital. The historical conditions of its existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. It arises only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence finds the free worker available, on the market, as the seller of his own labour-power. And this one historical pre-condition comprises a world’s history. Capital, therefore, announces from the outset a new epoch in the process of social production. (274)

When Marx first introduces the category of free labour, he has as yet only hinted at the dynamism and expansiveness of the production of capital. As the text develops, and Marx derives more detailed determinations of the process by which capital is produced, he becomes more explicit about the corrosive consequences of the development of free wage labour:

However long a series of periodic reproductions and preceding accumulations the capital functioning today may have passed through, it always preserves its original virginity. As long as the laws of exchange are observed in every single act of exchange – taken in isolation – the mode of appropriation can be completely revolutionized without in any way affecting the property rights which correspond to commodity production. The same rights remain in force both at the outset, when the product belongs to its producer, who, by exchanging equivalent for equivalent, can enrich himself only by his own labour, and in the period of capitalism, when social wealth becomes to an ever-increasing degree the property of those who are in a position to appropriate the unpaid labour of others over and over again.

This result becomes inevitable from the moment there is a free sale, by the worker himself, of labour-power as a commodity. But it is also only from then onwards that commodity production is generalized and becomes the typical form of production; it is only from then onwards that every product is produced for sale from the outset and all wealth produced goes through the sphere of circulation. Only where wage-labour is its basis does commodity production impose itself upon society as a whole; but it is also true that only there does it unfold all its hidden potentialities. To say that the intervention of wage-labour adulterates commodity production is to say that commodity production must not develop if it is to remain unadulterated. To the extent that commodity production, in accordance with its own immanent laws, undergoes a further development into capitalist production, the property laws of commodity production must undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become laws of capitalist appropriation. (733-734: note that Marx is still not, even in this passage, finished with his analysis: the section on “primitive accumulation” will further undermine the notion of some sort of originary process of commodity production and exchange based on the labour of some original set of commodity producers. Unfortunately, the structure of Marx’s presentation – in which later sections continue to qualify, situate, and limit earlier sections – makes it difficult to give a sense of his position through any one set of quotations)

In such passages, the suggestion is that labour markets – the sale of labour itself as a commodity – was an innovation that could seem intuitive and familiar enough in the context in which other sorts of exchanges of goods were routinely carried out. Where there are existing institutions for the exchange of other sorts of goods surplus of community needs, the innovation of the sale of labour power – and the development of a permanent population that meets its subsistence needs solely from the sale of its own labour power, and of a system of production dependent on such a population – could initially seem a minor historical variation on already-familiar social practices. Making history – not in conditions of our own choosing – working as bricoleurs with practices already intuitive and ready to hand: we can nevertheless adapt our inherited conditions in ways that open up radically unanticipated possibilities. Marx suggests here that the innovation of the labour market was one of these corrosive, explosive adaptations – a seemingly minor mutation with cancerous consequences devoured its incubating context from within.

By itself, however, this story could be limited to origins: the labour market could be the mutation that led to the development of a runaway form of production. Once established, however, this runaway form might no longer need the historical conditions from which it sprang. This sort of origin story would be like the one that Weber tells with his image of the iron cage – where capitalism, incubated in the charged psychodynamics generated by an ascetic, but worldly, Protestantism, develops to the point that it no longer requires the delicate fabric of beliefs and associated psychological pressures that were essential to its origins. Weber argues:

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.

What began as a structure of intersubjective beliefs, comes over time to be institutionalised in the production process – at which point belief is no longer required, and because the ascetic character of the production process has become objectively inscribed in the technical conditions of production:

This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

In Weber’s story, then, the historical conditions that incubated captalism’s distinctive dynamic, found expression in the technical fabric of capitalist production – at which point those originary intersubjective conditions were no longer required.

Since Marx’s theory is aimed at the possibility for emancipatory transformation, he must contest the claim that the problematic characteristics of capitalist production derive from the intrinsic technical requirements of large-scale production. This step, which renders Weber’s analysis intrinsically pessimistic, is one that Marx must avoid – by demonstrating that problematic characteristics of capitalist production have an immaterial base – a base in contingent – and therefore transformable – social practice, rather than in material or technical necessity.

Leaving this metatheoretical point to one side, Marx appears to be making a much stronger claim about wage labour, than simply the assertion that its emergence was crucial to the historical origins of capitalism: in Marx’s analysis, the labour market does not appear to figure as some sort of historical ladder that capitalism can kick away, once it becomes fully established. Instead, Marx argues that wage labour is not just the historical presupposition of capitalism, but also its historical product – a movement that is presented as beginning in a contingent, alleatory fashion that then develops over time an intrinsic feature of the reproduction of capital:

But what at first was merely a starting-point becomes, by means of nothing but the continuity of the process, by simple reproduction, the characteristic result of capitalist production, a result which is constantly renewed and perpetuated. On the one hand, the production process incessantly converts material wealth into capital, into the capitalist’s means of enjoyment and his means of valorization. On the other hand, the worker always leaves the process in the same state as he entered it – a personal source of wealth, but deprived of any means of making that wealth a reality for himself. Since, before he enters the process, his own labour has already been alienated from him, appropriated by the capitalist, and incorporated within capital, it now, in the course of the process, constantly objectifies itself so that it becomes a product alien to him. Since the process of production is also the process of the consumption of labour-power by the capitalist, the worker’s product is not only constantly converted into commodities, but also into capital, i.e., into value that sucks up the worker’s value-creating power, means of subsistence that actually purchase human beings, and means of production that employ the people who are doing the producing. Therefore the worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labour-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth that is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short, the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production. (716)

More succinctly:

The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e., a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer. (724)

It is this strange practical reflexivity of capitalism – as a social product that presupposes a social relation that it also produces – that reflexively generates its own “ground” – which leads Marx to treat Hegel as an unwitting philosopher of capitalism – to take Hegel’s work as an “apotheosis” of the “given relations” (as I have discussed previously) that Marx wants to trace out in Capital. As a number of authors have pointed out, the process of the reproduction of capital possesses – in practice – that characteristics that Hegel ascribes to the Geist – as Marx hints by flirting with his own crass, debauched variant of Hegelian imagery when he introduces the category of capital:

It is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject. If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus-value is its own movement, its valorization is therefore self-valorization. By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs. (255)

Marx’s “dialectical” method is therefore not imposed extrinsically on its object from outside, but is rather intended to express the peculiar qualitative characteristics of an object that possesses practically dialectical features. Once again leaving this metatheoretical point to one side – back to the main theme of how Marx understands the centrality of wage labour.

There is some sense, then, in which Marx takes wage labour to be important, not simply to the origin of capitalism, but also to its ongoing reproduction. Capitalism is a runaway form of production become an end in itself – and its end, in spite of appearances, is the production… of labour. Of labour generally – and of surplus labour specifically. That other things – “economic” things – material goods – are also produced along the way: that figures, in Marx’s analysis, as a structural side-effect – at least when capitalism is looked at from the standpoint of its long-term, system-wide, development over time.

Capitalism here figures as a strange anthropological construct – an exotic sort of collective life mysteriously dedicated to the flamboyant, ecstatic, excessive production of production. This process of the production of production often cloaks itself in a veil of material necessity – or presents itself as driven by technical requirements. The distinctively social character of this process, however, is periodically foregrounded within collective practice: not solely – but also not least – by crises.

Crises provide some of the practical, experiential resources for the reflexive social analysis that Marx mobilises in Capital – which is not the same as saying that crises make emancipatory social struggles more or less likely to take place at any specific historical juncture: a consideration of this question involves a very different sort of analysis. Remaining with the register Marx adopts in Capital, crises are among the immanently-generated phenomena that demonstrate – and therefore make available for reflection and for political strategisation – the immaterial – the contingent social – dimensions of the determinate way in which material reproduction is effected under capitalism. When a major crisis brings dimensions of material production to a standstill, it leaves standing, on the one side, labourers separated from their means of subsistence and, on the other side, means of production separated from their human motive forces: all the material ingredients of material reproduction thus stand visibly presented – but unable to function – unable to enact material reproduction – because the distinctively social preconditions for their operation have become suddenly and catastrophically disrupted. And, as Marx comments wryly when he introduces the category of free labour:

One thing, however, is clear: nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money and commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extermination of a whole series of other formations of social production. (273)

The analysis of how this could happen provides important insights into the nature of capitalism as a contingent and transient human creation – and Marx reflects on precisely this question in his analysis of “primitive” accumulation. Crises figure as one of the means by which this stark social (immaterial) opposition comes sharply into view.

But back to the main question: what does it mean, to argue that capitalism reproduces the capital-wage relation, in reproducing itself? It doesn’t seem to mean that all labour – even all “productive” labour (in the narrow sense in which Marx defines this term, meaning labour productive of surplus value) – takes the specific form of wage labour. Nate has written often and eloquently on the persistence and even the active production of forms of slavery, family-based exploitation, and other forms of nonwage labour – as well as on the dependence of wage labour itself on activities that take place outside the narrow sphere where capital consumes wage labour in the speculative hope of producing surplus value.

Marx appears to be well aware of such phenomena. He draws specific attention to how activities that appear to be “outside” the sphere of production are nevertheless bound together with it (717-718, 794-798), and to point out many different examples of how very literal forms of slavery and personal bondage become socially plausible – become practices that make an active, contextual sense – given pressures to generate surplus value (esp. ch. 15 & 25). I’ll try to take up these specific points, with more adequate citation, when I have more time to dig into the text more adequately on this issue. For the moment I just want to flag the point that Marx does not seem to believe that the reproduction of the capital-wage labour relation means the eradication of other forms of labour – even within the process of the production of surplus value. He also seems to be aware that capitalism drives the active creation of forms of material reproduction other than that mediated narrowly by wage labour. Why, then, does he focus on the category of wage labour as such a central analytic category?

To get at this question properly, one of the things I need to unpack much more carefully than I will be able to in this post, is Marx’s tendency to evaluate the “adequacy” or “appropriateness” of particular categories. The concept of “adequacy” in Marx is complex, because (as I understand it – and this must be regarded as provisional) the concept does not align in any straightforward sense with what might be a more intuitive, representational notion of how “correctly” a category reflects some particular aspect of direct empirical experience. Rather, the notion of adequacy seems – and here I must speak tentatively – to be a key speculative concept for Marx – something that relates to how well particular categories – and, interestingly, particular moments of other aspects of empirical experience, as well – express certain potentials.

Collective practices generate a sort of charged, uneven, contradictory web of potentials, for Marx. His speculative analysis – an attempt to flip a Hegelian notion of speculative philosophy into a social theoretic space – draws attention to a selection of these potentials – and shows how these potentials become available to experience, by drawing attention to how these potentials are suggested or expressed by elements of the context being analysed. When Marx criticises other forms of theory, this critique generally takes the form of a demonstration of the specific potentials that theory expresses best – thus identifying a particular sort of validity in the theory being criticised – but also setting up for the exposure of other potentials that particular forms of theory are unable to grasp.

In some cases, those other potentials actually undermine the viability of particular political ideals or theoretical claims – by demonstrating, for example, that “simple commodity production” is in fact not an alternative or historical precedent to capitalism, but instead an ideal suggested by a one-sided analysis of a moment of capitalism full-blown, Marx can criticise certain forms of socialist and mainstream political discourses as “utopian”, for example (Joe Clement has recently drawn attention to this sort of critical move in his own critique of Wolff). In other cases, alternative potentials provide critical resources by enriching the sense of what our practical experience suggests might be possible – thus making it possible to broaden the sense of what sort of history we might construct through the materials we have inherited, and providing the tools to criticise narrow and restrictive ideals that would close off desired possibilities.

My suggestion is that Marx focusses on the production and reproduction of wage labour in part due to the potentials that are suggested by this category. Note that these potentials are not necessarily positive – as Marx says in the famous passage:

Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is, by its very essence, the production of surplus-value. The worker produces not for himself, but for capital. It is no longer sufficient, therefore, for him simply to produce. He must produce surplus-value. The only worker who is productive is one who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or in other words contributes toward the self-valorization of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a school-master is a productive worker when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sauage factory, makes no difference to that relation. The concept of a productive worker therefore implies not merely a relation between the activity of work and its useful effect, between the worker and the product of his work, but also a specifically social relation of production, a relation with a historical origin which stamps the worker as capital’s direct means of valorization. To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune. (644)

It is important here to recognise that, in the context of this analysis, wage labour is not a category that refers in any straightforward sense to the individual members of a sociological demographic. The argument is not that wage labourers, as persons, necessarily express some specific potential – whether a positive potential, as in Lukács’ suggestion that the proletariat will constitute some sort of subject-object of history, or a dystopic potential, as a sociological group whose political actions could never point beyond capitalism. Marx placed his hopes in the mobilisation of the working classes (while also being extremely critical of certain kinds of mobilisation and of particular political ideals put forward by specific working class movements), but his theory – his analysis, as contrasted with his exhortations and calls to action – is not oriented to the analysis of a specific demographic group that would constitute a political Subject. Instead, it is oriented to digging out the materials we have constituted unawares, that can be turned to political use in struggles unfolding in more contingent circumstances.

Some of those materials derive from what Marx often refers to, in Capital, as economic roles – roles that are then played by actors who occupy or bear them. The familiarity of these terms – social actors, economic roles – gets in the way of understanding the literalness of the text: Marx means to invoke the metaphor of the stage in a very strong sense here, I think. Thinking through the implications of this metaphor more carefully can help to tease out some of the more peculiar implications of Marx’s analysis. In this post, I will no more than scratch the surface of this point.

Wage labour is one of the roles made available, structurally – in a form which is empirical – which possesses what Marx would call a social objectivity – but where this empirical reality transcends the objects of immediate sense perception – including, for example, directly perceptible members who comprise sociological groups. Economic roles explicitly transcend the persons who occupy them – it is precisely this transcendent quality that leads Marx to call them roles – which is to say, parts in a social script that is not consciously penned by any of the actors. Parts that have come to be disembedded from persons can transcend the persons who act out the part. Importantly, the actors can themselves transcend the roles, because the roles ultimately are not dependent on embodiment in any specific person.

If only for the nice contrast it provides to Weber’s narrative above, it might be useful to see how these concepts play out in Marx’s discussion of the economic role of the capitalist – a theme discussed a number of times in Capital, but here specifically in relation to the question so central to Weber: what happens to the ideal of personal asceticism over time? Marx argues:

Except as capital personified, the capitalist has no historical value, and no right to that historical existence which, to use Lichnowsky’s amusing expression, ‘ain’t got no date’. It is only to this extent that the necessity of the capitalist’s own transitory existence is implied in the transitory necessity of the capitalist mode of production. But, in so far as he is capital personified, his motivating force is not the acquisition and enjoyment of use-values, but the acquisition and augmentation of exchange-values. He is fanatically intent on the valorization of value; consequently he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake. In this way he spurs the development of society’s productive forces, and the creation of those material conditions of production which alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle. Only as a personification of capital is the capitalist respectable. As such, he shares with the miser an absolute drive towards self-enrichment. But what appears in the miser as the mania of an individual is in the capitalist the effect of a social mechanism in which he is merely a cog. (739)

The language of “social mechanism” and “cog” might suggest that Marx thinks that persons who happen to be capitalists are inexorably driven by economic forces into particular behaviours. Marx undermines this interpreation, however, by framing this discussion by saying that the capitalist only has “historical value” – only becomes “respectable” – to the extent that the person who fills this role actually personifies the social character of capital. The option of being a capitalist of little historical value – a capitalist who is not “respectable” – remains on the table. Marx this argues:

In so far, then, as his actions are a mere function of capital – endowed as capital is, in his person, with consciousness and a will – his own private consumption counts as a robbery committed against the accumulation of his capital, just as, in double-entry book-keeping, the private expenditure of the capitalist is placed on the debit side of his account against his capital. Accumulation is the conquest of the world of social wealth. It is the extension of the area of exploited human material and, at the same time, the extension of the direct and indirect sway of the capitalist. (739-740)

And then, with his inimitable sarcasm, Marx signals the possibility for the person of the capitalist to fall from the grace that enables him to participate fully in the social mysteries of the transubstantiation of capital:

But original sin is at work everywhere. With the development of the capitalist mode of production, with the growth of accumulation and wealth, the capitalist ceases to be merely the incarnation of capital. He begins to feel a human warmth toward his own Adam, and his education gradually enables him to smile at his former enthusiasm for asceticism, as an old-fashioned miser’s prejudice. While the capitalist of the classical type brands his individual consumption as a sin against his function, as ‘abstinence’ from accumulating, the modernized capitalist is capable of viewing accumulation as ‘renunciation’ of pleasure. (740-741)

Given the peculiar competitive dynamics of capitalism, even the luxury consumption of the capitalist can come to have its coercive side – in this case, a guilded compulsion to maintain socially average displays of luxury:

At the historical dawn of the capitalist mode of production – and every capitalist upstart has to go through this historical stage individually – avarice, and the drive for self-enrichment, are the passions which are entirely predominant. But the progress of capitalist production not only creates a world of delights; it lays open, in the form of speculation and the credit system, a thousand sources of sudden enrichment. When a certain stage of development has been reached, a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also an exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity to the ‘unfortunate’ capitalist. Luxury enters into capital’s expenses of representation. Moreover, the capitalist gets rich, not, like the miser, in proportion to his personal labour and restricted consumption, but at the same rate as he squeezes out labour-power from others, and compels the worker to renounce all enjoyments of life. Thus although the expenditure of the capitalist never possesses the bona fide character of the dashing feudal lord’s prodigality, but, on the contrary, is always restrained by the sordid avarice and anxious calculation lurking in the background, this expenditure nevertheless grows with his accumulation, without the one necessarily restricting the other. At the same time, however, there develops in the breast of the capitalist a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation and the desire for enjoyment. (741)

Note the logic of this analysis: Marx is not speaking here about economic forces causing individuals to behave in any particular way. Rather, the process of the reproduction of capital makes available certain roles that, defintionally and practically, can be filled only to the extent that individuals who fill them express certain dispositions and perform certain kinds of actions. Individuals can and do remain potentially autonomous from these roles – this is what, Marx argues, capitalists are doing, when they decide to indulge themselves in the enjoyment of use-values, rather than reinvesting all returns to secure the further growth of their capitals. Sufficiently aberrant individual behaviour will cast the individual out of a particular performance, but the social availability of the role does not, by itself, prevent such aberrations before the fact. As well, the social availability of multiple roles exerts its own influence – priming and rendering plausible certain characteristic sorts of personal and collective conflicts.

This impersonal quality of the roles themselves is important in Marx’s analysis: it is one of the factors that makes possible particular kinds of critical reflection and political contestation – in ways that, Marx seems to believe, would not have been possible in forms of collective life that were more exclusively dependent on personal, intersubjective relations for their reproduction. Once again, this metatheoretical point deserves a much fuller development than I can provide in this post – another point for a later time.

Moving back to the category of wage labour. I have suggested – if not fully developed or supported – the claim that wage labour figures in Marx’s analysis as a presupposition and product of capitalism that is “adequate” to the expression of certain potentials to which Marx wants to draw attention. These potentials – and I cannot fully develop this point here – are ambivalent. On the one hand, wage labour seems to expose in a particularly pristine way, for Marx, what it means for a system to produce production. In this sense wage labour is an “adequate” category to capture a distinctive form of domination – and thus to specify what needs to be abolished in order for capitalism to be overcome. Marx also seems to be critical of certain political ideals that he associates with the realisation of wage labour as wage labour – even if he regards the political mobilisation itself with evident sympathy and pride. It is in this sense that the chapter on the Working Day documents a process of political self-assertion that is overtly and explicitly presented as grounded in the “laws of commodity exchange”. Marx first presents this from the capitalist’s point of view:

As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labour. Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has bought from him. If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.

The capitalist therefore takes his stand on the law of commodity-exchange. Like all other buyers, he seeks to extract the maximum possible benefit from the use-value of his commodity. (342)

In this contest over the working day, however, the capitalist faces off against another commodity owner – wage labour:

Suddenly, however, there arises the voice of the worker, which had previously been stifled in the sound and fury of the production process:

‘The commodity I have sold you differs from the ordinary crowd of commodities in that its use creates value, a greater value than it costs. That is why you bought it. What appears on your side as the valorization of capital is on my side an excess expenditure of labour-power. You and I know on the market only one law, that of the exchange of commodities. And the consumption of the commodity belongs not to the seller who parts with it, but to the buyer who acquires it. The use of my daily labour-power therefore belongs to you. But by means of the price you pay for it every day, I must be able to reproduce it every day, thus allowing myself to sell it again….You are constantly preaching to me the gospel of “saving” and “abstinence”. Very well! Like a sensible, thrifty owner of property I will husband my sole wealth, my labour-power, and abstain from wasting it foolishly. Every day I will spend, set in motion, transfer into labour only as much of it as is compatible with its normal duration and healthy development. By an unlimited extension of the working day, you may in one day use up a quantity of labour-power greater than I can restore in three…. That is against our contract and the law of commodity exchange. I therefore demand a working day of normal length, and I demand it without any appeal to your heart, for in money matters sentiment is out of place…. I demand a normal working day because, like every other seller, I demand the value of my commodity. (343)

The conflict over the working day is therefore structured as a conflict between two commodity owners, both asserting rights grounded in the laws of commodity exchange. As Marx notes:

There is here therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides. (344)

The remainder of the chapter then details the play of forces that adjudicates between these competing rights claims – and the way in which this play “presents itself” as “a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class” (344). The culmination of the chapter is the political achievement of a normal working day, established in law and imposed with increasing universality by the coercive power of the state. The political struggle that achieves this result involves a hard-fought humanisation of capitalism, which Marx celebrates with the famous lines:

It must be acknowledged that our worker emerges from the process of production looking different from when he entered it. In the market, as owner of the commodity ‘labour-power’, he stood face to face with other owners of commodities, one owner against another owner. The contract by which he sold his labour-power to the capitalist proved in black and white, so to speak, that he was free to dispose of himself. But when the transaction was concluded, it was discovered he was no ‘free agent’, that the period of time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the period of time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited’. For ‘protection’ against the serpent of their agonies, the workers have to put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital. In the place of the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man’ there steps the modest Magna Carta of the legally limited working day, which at last makes clear ‘when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins’. Quantum mutatus ab illo! [What a great change from that time!] (415-416)

In the narrative arc of the text, however, the “great change” that follows this political achievement is unleashing of the quest for relative surplus-value through the development of machinery and large-scale industry. As is often the case, Marx first suggests this point through the organisation and order of presentation of the chapters – the topics that follow one another providing an overarching narrative arc for the text – and then states the point more explicitly only once this narrative has reached a stage where he believes the point has already been immanently derived. It is therefore relatively late in the text that Marx explicitly links the political struggle for the normal working day, to the unleashing of capitalism’s potential as a means for revolutionising the means of production – most directly when he reflects back on the structure of the text from the standpoint provided by the chapter on the General Law of Capitalist Accumulation:

In the chapters on the ‘Working Day’ and ‘Machinery’ the reader has seen the circumstances under which the British working class created an ‘intoxicating augmentation of wealth and power’ for the possessing classes. (807)

This passage acts as though readers would have already drawn the conclusion that these chapters were designed to show how working class political struggles unintentionally generated a windfall for capital – but this conclusion is not the dominant affective impression created by an initial reading of the Working Day chapter. For most readers, Marx’s evident pride in the struggles documented in this chapter, works to obscure the strategic thrust of this chapter, as it is situated within the overarching plot of Capital.

Once Marx has drawn attention to this issue, however, it becomes (like so much else in Capital) retrospectively clear that the subsequent movement of the text makes available a different systemic perspective, from which it becomes easier to perceive an unintended side effect of these political victories – an acceleration and intensification of the dynamic, corrosive potentials of the production of capital that was inadvertently unleashed by the political success of the struggle for state regulation of the working day:

This industrial revolution, which advances naturally and spontaneously, is also helped on artificially by the extension of the Factory Acts to all industries in which women, young persons and children are employed. The compulsory regulation of the working day, as regards its length, pauses, beginning and end, the introduction of the relay system for children, the exclusion from the factory of all children under a certain age, etc., necessitate on the one hand more machinery and the substitution of steam as a motive power in the place of muscles. On the other hand, in order to make up for the loss of time, an expansion occurs of the means of production used in common, of the furnaces, buildings, etc., in one word, a greater concentration of the means of production and a corresponding increase in the number of workers conglomerated in one place. The chief objection, raised repeatedly and passionately on behalf of each manufacture threatened with the Factory Act, is in fact this, that in order to continue the business on the old scale a greater outlay of capital will be necessary. But, as regards labour in the so-called domestic industries and the intermediate forms between them and manufacture, as soon as limits are set to the working day and to the employment of children, those industries go to the wall. Unlimited exploitation of cheap labour-power is the sole foundation of their ability to compete. (604-605)

In other words: regulation that secured the humanisation of working conditions under capitalism, also encouraged the process of the consolidation and expansion of capital on an ever-increasing scale. Nothing is one-sided in this analysis – the antinomies Marx begins to unfold from the opening discussion of use-value and exchange-value continue to ricochet like a fractal pattern through every layer of the text.

At the same time, there is emancipatory potential unleashed by the struggle for the normal working day – it’s just that the logic of the unleashing of this potential, and the relationship of this potential to the direct goals and achievements of working class political movements, is very indirect. Technical innovation, as the plot develops, will generate emancipatory potentials – but only at the immediate cost of rendering the labour process more meaningless and more oppressive than ever before:

On the basis of capitalism, a system in which the worker does not employ the means of production, but the means of production employ the worker, the law by which a constantly increasing quantity of the means of production may be set in motion by a progressively diminishing expenditure of human labour power, thanks to the advance in the productivity of social labour, undergoes a complete inversion, and is expressed thus: the higher the productivity of labour, the greater is the pressure of the workers on the means of employment, the more precarious therefore becomes the conditions for their existence, namely the sale of their own labour-power for the increase of alien wealth, or in other words the self-valorization of capital. The fact that the means of production and the productivity of labour increase more rapidly than the productive population expresses itself, therefore, under capitalism, in the inverse form that the working population always increases more rapidly than the valorization requirements of capital.

We saw in Part IV, when analysing the production of relative surplus-value, that within the capitalist system all methods raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital. But all the methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation, and every extension of accumulation becomes, conversely, a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. Finally, the law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock. It makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital. (798-799)

This sort of contrast – between aims and consequences, and also between empirically-perceptible consequences and speculative potentials – is central to Marx’s characterisation of capitalism as an “inverted world” – a world in which a range of pivotal social phenomena are “represented” by their apparent opposites. The concept of the inverted world is itself closely bound to how Marx grasps the standpoint of critique for his social theory. But here I think I’ve exhausted what I can write about, even in the very sketchy form in which I’ve been writing in this post.

There is just… infinitely more to say… And a great deal inadequate about what I’ve said above… So many qualifications and clarifications needed. But I’m up to twelve pages of text, all splurted out in a day, amidst frantic flipping through the bulk of Capital – I’ve reached my limit, I think, and will have to let the problems in this account wait for future correction… Hopefully very soon…

14 responses to “Many Fragments on the Centrality of Wage Labour

  1. Nick October 23, 2008 at 6:32 am

    Really great post, NP. If this is rough and unfinished, I can’t wait to read the polished stuff. I have a question that’s omewhat off-topic, but perhaps relating what you’ve written here with the current crisis. (And feel free to ignore the question if you’re deep into other topics.) What sort of role does wage labour have in a global economy dominated (I’m thinking in quantitative terms, but also, perhaps, in the sense of controlling) by finance capital? Unless wage labour has a wider scope than I’m thinking, it seems like the profits from finance capital are qualitatively different from the profits from the ‘real’ economy of commodities. And if that’s the case I like the idea you briefly raise (before denying it) of capitalism relying on wage labour for its emergence, but ultimately being able to cut it loose – at least as a necessary factor. It seems, in some sense, that that’s what has occurred with the current dominance of finance. The centrality of wage labour would then be overtaken. But I might be overlooking something obvious… One counter-argument I’ve heard is that the post-crisis period typically involves the diminishing of finance’s power, and the return of industrialists’ power – so the recent growth of finance’s power is only a temporary power-shift. But it seems that finance has become so central to our economy now – it’s sheer size, but also its ability to lead the way for industrial capital (e.g. it finances large-scale projects, making them possible in the first place). It’s hard to imagine that that role will change, even in the coming recession. (The state taking on debt to finance stimulus projects, for example.)

    Also, I really like this:

    “When a major crisis brings dimensions of material production to a standstill, it leaves standing, on the one side, labourers separated from their means of subsistence and, on the other side, means of production separated from their human motive forces: all the material ingredients of material reproduction thus stand visibly presented – but unable to function – unable to enact material reproduction – because the distinctively social preconditions for their operation have become suddenly and catastrophically disrupted.”

    I think that highlights the social nature of capitalism exceptionally well. If I ever have to teach Marx, I’m using your example. 🙂

    Lastly, the section on potentials is really fascinating, so I hope you get time in the future to write more about that!

  2. Joseph Kugelmass October 23, 2008 at 10:51 am

    All hands worked on in silence for some minutes, until the church clock began to strike six. Before the first stroke had died away, Sandy Jim had loosed his plane and was reaching his jacket […] Adam alone had gone on with his work as if nothing had happened. But observing the cessation of the tools, he looked up, and said, in a tone of indignation—

    “Look there, now! I can’t abide to see men throw away their tools i’ that way, the minute the clock begins to strike, as if they took no pleasure i’ their work, and was afraid o’ doing a stroke too much.”

    –George Eliot, Adam Bede

    I begin with this quote because of the sad running-together of the performance of the role, and the heroism of the deviant: Adam is marked out from his fellows because he is able to take pleasure in his work, and because he re-creates the capacity for spontaneity by working past the end of the “Working Day.”

    At the same time, he is forced by the system he inhabits to be something of a fool for doing so, since his legacy is the fluid working day, the “exempt” worker, as they are sometimes called in the United States. That means no beginning or end to her obligations. Thus the very capacity for pleasure and extravagance that defines straying from a performable role within the economy becomes — for the white-collar worker at least — finally a polite obligation of sorts, one that obliges her to show even greater passion for she job after the clock has struck six, and before it strikes eight, than she does during the length of the day.

  3. N Pepperell October 24, 2008 at 4:26 am

    Hey folks – thank for this – fantastic comments. I’ll have to apologise for massively limited time at the moment, so I won’t do justice.

    Joe – very nice discussion (reminds me in some ways of Marcuse). I want to write more on Marx’s stage imagery – his evocations of performances and roles – it’s been nagging me for a long time, the sense that he is just vastly more literal with these terms than he is often taken to be – that he is trying to draw attention to the fabricated, artificial character of what he’s describing – but also that he is specifically interested in the ways in which roles come to be externalised from the actors who contingently play them – a situation that both constrains and generates the possibility for particular kinds of agency. I need to compile a more comprehensive list of all of Marx’s references to stage imagery in the first volume (I’ve been thinking of dumping the text of the first volume into NVivo and coding passages 🙂 ). Hopefully I’ll write more on all this soon.

    Nick – Beautiful questions. Some of what you ask I have in mind as topics for upcoming posts (although in some cases a bit obliquely) – so I’ll leave some things aside because they can be treated more adequately, I think, in that context.

    In terms of the scope of the category of wage labour: first, just a somewhat pedantic point 🙂 One of the recurrent themes in Capital is the ability of various “forms” to encompass contents that violate the “laws” Marx is attempting to analyse – so, for example, the generalisation of the commodity “form” leads to a situation where things can come to be sold – can come to have a price – without having a value (cf. 197) – Marx makes sardonic reference to people selling things like conscience, honour, etc.

    Marx’s “dialectical” analysis treats certain forms as existing at the level of appearances – appearances that are both, in his analysis, necessarily connected to specific essences, and yet also conceal the existence of those essences by contradicting them in specific ways. In less Hegelian terminology, Marx is trying to make an argument that non-random long-term trends (which is what Marx means by “essence”) can be generated by a range of social practices (“appearances”) that are not directly or immediately aimed at generating those trends. He is trying to explain how trends can be systematically generated as an unintentional side effect of the aggregate of social practices directly oriented to other ends. Since the immediate aim of the social practices Marx analyses is not to generate some sort of underlying trend, social practices will deviate in all sorts of ways from the trend – they will, in Marx’s Hegelian terminology, “contradict” the trend. Nevertheless, this contradictory flux (the argument goes) generates non-random consequences – which retroactively suggest that what appears to be “flux” already possesses its own non-random character.

    All of this is by way of saying that – and unfortunately I can’t get into this at all adequately here, because I need to keep my head in the first volume right now, and Marx does most with this issue in the second volume – one of the forms Marx will analyse in great detail is credit. The nucleus of this analysis is already presented in the first volume, when Marx begins to talk about hoarding, and the ways in which the development of large-scale production, the different time scales for production and sale, as well as the proletarianisation of labour, generates various complex sorts of systemic pressures for money hoards – pressures that are met, in part, by the development of a complex system of credit. This system then adds its own possibilities – both for crisis and for growth. Among other things, it makes possible a sort of… kiting of value – a set of short-term trends that contradict the “essences” Marx will argue are nevertheless generated in the long-term, precisely through these sorts of contradictory “appearances”.

    Marx’s argument is that, in the long run, capitalism is dependent on growth to avoid crisis. Since – as Marx memorably puts it – a society cannot grow richer in aggregate by collectively stealing from itself, somewhere along the line actual increased production must take place. (Note that it figures in Marx’s account as essentially irrational – as a contingent, immaterial, social requirement – that capitalism can only achieve material reproduction on the condition of constant expansion: he does not regard this as a normal condition for material reproduction in all human societies, but as a very peculiar structural requirement of capitalism.) This increased production does not have to take any particular form – Marx memorably introduces the concept of “productive labour” (which is to say, labour productive of surplus value) by deliberately choosing an activity most people would not think of as “productive” of anything material:

    The only worker who is productive is one who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or in other words contributes toward the self-valorization of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a school-master is a productive worker when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sauage factory, makes no difference to that relation. (644)

    Which is to say, among other things, that Marx’s notion of the “real” economy may be more expansive than in some contemporary theoretical accounts…

    Leaving that to one side: Marx argues that growth requires the generation of a surplus – and that this surplus cannot ultimately (and this is simply a logical, tautological point) emerge from just redistributing whatever currently exists. (things like interest, rent, and profits all figure, for Marx, as paths along which surplus travels as it is distributed amongst various beneficiaries – as forms of distribution.) The credit system that facilitates and is in fact required for the expansion of production (and consumption) can, however, temporarily mask the fact that sufficient expansion in production and consumption is not taking place. At some point, this sort of kiting reaches limits, bubbles burst, and things come crashing down. Vast amounts of apparent value disappear. The crisis manifests the (contingent social) requirement for expansion as the condition of possibility for reproduction.

    As written, this is really massively inadequate – deepest apologies. I may not be able to write usefully on this for a while, since it requires unpacking different elements of Marx’s text from what I’ve been writing on… So, as stated… not so… convincing 🙂 or, most likely, accurate… 🙂 Apologies…

  4. Joseph Kugelmass October 28, 2008 at 7:23 am

    I was working on some related issues around performance and role-playing when I was working on self-fashioning for my exams; you may already know it, but I found Erving Goffman’s The Performance of Everyday Life immensely interesting and useful.

  5. Nick October 29, 2008 at 9:01 am

    Thanks NP, that’s really helpful, particularly Marx’s example of wage labour. In part, what I’m trying to do is experiment with the idea of finance capital being the determining force in capitalism – and to see how far that idea can be taken. The hunch being that the size of the finance sector has turned it into the cutting edge of capitalism in a historically unprecedented way. So, on a basic level: where it invests, it imposes both a temporal limit (make enough surplus, to pay back the debt in time), and a spatial distribution of productive activities. It determines both the space and time of productive activities, providing the basic background against which they need to continually function. Granted, there’s some autonomy to determine precisely which activities will be productive enough to pay back the debt, but these are within the limits already imposed by finance capital.

    I think that’s fairly standard Marxism (I’ve taken a lot of the basics from David Harvey). But I have little clue as to whether the idea of finance capital’s central power is common or discredited already in the Marxist literature. So much to read, so little time! Regardless, it seems like an interesting proposal to test out at the moment.

    But it also seems to me that one of the major hurdles for arguing that finance capital has become the determining force of capitalism as a whole, is – as you say – the centrality of wage labour. If the financial sector is unproductive in a Marxist sense, then ultimately, everything has to come back to productive labour. Speculative bubbles can arise, and finance can even temporarily take on a determining force, but they ultimately rely on a ‘real’ productive basis. What it seems like to me, though, is that the financial sector has become, to use the catch phrase, ‘too big to fail’. It needs to be kept functioning in all its speculative irrationalism – which means the crisis must be perpetually deferred. Finance has taken on a life of its own, and even now, with all the bailout and rescue measures, what is of the utmost importance to those in power is to save the financial sector. Anyways, just an idea I’m playing with at the moment… underdeveloped and only half thought out, but there might be a nugget of something interesting there!

  6. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is the role of waged labor in Capital? :: October :: 2008

  7. Joe Clement October 30, 2008 at 4:12 am


    Just a few fleeting comments.

    First of all, thanks for mentioning my post about Wolff. I think that when you say, “In other words: regulation that secured the humanisation of working conditions under capitalism, also encouraged the process of the consolidation and expansion of capital on an ever-increasing scale,” you touch on one of the highlights of the first part of Wolff’s talk. He criticizes regulation along these lines, which leads him to position his “socialist” alternative as distinct from both the liberal and conservative responses to these sorts of economic problems. I think he gets this right, but doesn’t really offer a proletarian socialist response.

    Secondly, I’m glad you bring up the distinction between the miser and the capitalist, in terms of their greed or asceticism. I have realized that pinning “greed” on the excess of Capitalism usually comes from a sense of miserly or as I put it “subjective greed.” This eschews the social role that the Capitalist and his profit-driven motives serve, and makes it difficult if not impossible to address “the problem of Capitalism” as systemic.

    Just so it’s clear though, when you say “…even the luxury consumption of the capitalist can come to have its coercive side – in this case, a guilded compulsion to maintain socially average displays of luxury,” do you mean that as Capitalism advances/expands that the socially performative role of the Capitalist (and the petty-bourgeois in their shadow) is invested in just as much as the material means of production? The rise of “corporate Zen” or the 1950s & ’60s “keeping up with the Jones” are what I have in mind.

  8. Carl November 3, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Placeholding tangential question here. How much of this analysis has analogies in feminism? I’m thinking in particular if the apparent victories of liberal feminism can be seen as intensifying the essential dominance of patriarchy. I know there’s a large socialist feminist literature, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about.

    At one point I happened to be fiddling with my Lukacs chapter at the same time I was reading a lot of feminism, and by mistake it suddenly occurred to me that since patriarchy is to feminism as capitalism is to marxism, Catherine MacKinnon is to patriarchy as Lukacs is to capitalism. The similarity being that for both, the oppressive system is speculatively totalized and then reinserted as such into the practical analysis.

    Is patriarchy a historical enough notion to get dialectical, even contingent? If patriarchy, like class struggle, has always already existed in some form or another as the essence of social relations, how does analysis of it not become a procrustean bed?

  9. Carl November 3, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Oh, p.s. wanted to second Joseph on Goffman, and also mention Judith Butler on performativity. But for mercy’s sake not now, wait until your second book.

  10. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is the analogy between marxism and feminism? :: November :: 2008

  11. 01010100 November 18, 2008 at 5:57 am

    Economic roles explicitly transcend the persons who occupy them – it is precisely this transcendent quality that leads Marx to call them roles – which is to say, parts in a social script that is not consciously penned by any of the actors.

    That’s Pepperell; not Marx. Marx discusses the division of labor issue at some length (along with the wage labor issue). While we may or may not agree, transcendence has little to do with it: the market creates certain demands for particular types of labor, and people meet them (or not).

    The social script conditions people–X becomes a janitor, and Y a philosopher–but we don’t recall any mention of transcendence. At least in the German Ideology, Marx suggests they can’t escape or transcend that social-economic-script (Capital continues that). They are scripted to be wage laborers; then further scripted by market forces into whatever sort of laborers owners value. Really, many Postmodernists tend to idealize (in philosophical sense, if not political as well) Marxism, when it’s quite more deterministic than many realize.

  12. N Pepperell November 18, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Hey folks – apologies for the long absence.

    Hey 01010100 – Welcome to the site. We may be thinking of slightly different moments in Marx: Marx does explicitly discuss particular roles – and persons as “bearers” of roles, and as important to his analysis only as such bearers, and the economic “stage”, with its “dramatis personae” – quite often in Capital. When he talks this way, though, he’s speaking at a different level of generality than that of some particular kind of employment – the role of a plumber, or a CEO, for example – he’s talking instead about, e.g., the role of a capitalist. When he uses this kind of language, he will often then make distinctions between the subjective dispositions or practices of the individual who might occupy a role, and the role itself – and often say that, in the analysis he is presenting, he is only interested in the role, not the individual deviations from it.

    The term transcendence as used above isn’t intended to implicate anything mystical – just to capture something about the distinctive qualitative character of how certain forms of sociality become available in a capitalist context. Where the context makes available – at the level of everyday practice – a certain kind of practical disjoint between individuals and socially-available roles and dispositions, this makes certain possibilities available within our particular social script: the point here isn’t to talk about some sort of abstract leap outside the context, but to talk about what sorts of materials the context itself makes available, from which we will then make whatever sort of history we make.

    In terms of the specific example you mention above – X becomes a janitor, and Y a philosopher – one of the sorts of practical resources that we have managed to demonstrate to ourselves in collective practice – in a quite coercive way, but the practical demonstration can still be useful, for thinking about possibilities for future transformation – for thinking about what potentials could be appropriated into alternative forms of collective life – is that people can fill these sorts of tasks as “jobs” – as positions that can be moved into, and out of – generationally or personally. The potential severing of personal identity from the identity of a particular sort of work – the possibility for the person to “transcend” or not be completely identified with some particular sort of labour – is one of the practical resources Marx begins to find interesting very early, as an insight that, however coercively gained, can be repurposed to more emancipatory ends:

    Where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing to-day and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

    Hey Carl – I like this:

    The similarity being that for both, the oppressive system is speculatively totalized and then reinserted as such into the practical analysis.

    Which then forces the notion of what would be required, in order to effect some sort of transformative change, into a totalised direction itself… Not all critiques need to be immanent critiques, of course, so someone could be untroubled by the ahistoricity of an expansive category of patriarchy, if they thought the possibility for transformation didn’t need to rely on potentials generated immanently within patriarchy itself – but the totalising move is more of a problem…

    Hi Joe – I think what you’ve written above captures the thrust of the passage I was quoting. Marx doesn’t spare too much pity for the folks coerced into such displays – a bit like his sarcastic discussions of the capitalist’s “abstinence” that are scattered all through Capital – but it’s a dimension of social practice that he analyses in places.

    Hey Nick – A discussion of this would probably require some fairly careful definition of terms, to make sure we’re talking about the same things. I’ve suggested above that Marx’s concept of what now gets called the “real economy” is potentially quite expansive – so at least some, and possibly a great deal, of what’s contained within the category of finance capital, as you’re using the phrase above, could potentially slip outside the net of activities that just generate interest (which Marx would tend to regard as a sort of spreading around of surplus value constituted in other ways), and into the net of activities that generate “value” – this needs to be looked at somewhat concretely, I think, to see how it would, or wouldn’t, map onto various claims Marx makes.

    The finance sector tosses into motion quite a lot of wage labour – e.g., it’s not as though the sector is comprised of day traders… – and seems to have been subject, over the last many decades, to similar sorts of trends – pressures for productivity increases, tendencies to deskilling, deployment of new technologies, etc. – that are the sorts of trends Marx would analyse in any other area of production. These points capture a slightly different image of the finance sector than the one evoked when we talk about bubbles, etc. – but this is why I suggest that it’s important to define terms, and then to work out exactly what we’re saying has become dominant, when we want to talk about the dominance of the finance sector, and assess whether this has any bearing on whatever Marx is trying to say about wage labour and its importance within capitalism.

    As a side point, I should perhaps mention, since I haven’t done much on this on the blog, that Marx writes quite a bit on credit (which he regards as integral to capitalist production). I should write more on that theme, but really need to slog through some material more driven by the thesis, than by the crisis, first… 🙂

    Take care all…

  13. neoanchorite December 5, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    A slow reader who has only just chanced upon this amazing hotbed of Marx exegesis wants express his support. It is heartening to see that all is not lost.


    A point though (which has doubtless been dealt with elsewhere on this site – and I will try to read lots more): You say that wage labour, which was one of the preconditions for the emergence of capitalism, is also a category that specifies what needs to be abolished in order for capitalism to be overcome, but does it? Could there be no post-capitalist (in an age when the economy is no longer this ethically blind process of appropriation and accumulation) wage labour? I ask that as a teacher in a little private school who feels some affinity with the school in the Marx quote you use, but who doesn’t feel (and here I take it that appearances really count – that the feeling matters) that the wage-labour relation is what really hurts, what really matters. I am happy to sign a contract and work for a wage, but I am not happy supporting a system in which some independent notion of what counts as a good education is now virtually impossible.

    If people are to be allowed to choose the work that they do, isn’t wage labour (in some form) necessary regardless of the ultimate ends of the economic system?

    But I am sure if I keep scrolling down the posts I will find that this little chestnut has already been well roasted. (So apologies for being too hasty.)

    Keep up the amazing work.

  14. Chuckie K December 10, 2008 at 11:46 am

    The Goffman that would serve you best is Frame Analysis and more particularly Forms of Talk. He distinguishes a set of participant roles and of participant relationships to utterance that pertain directly to the kinds pf projections of perspective you are trying to identify in Marx’ writing.

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