Labor v Labor Power

I presented on labor and labor-power today, after reading Capital Volume 1. Here’s my panel:

1. Labor as Life Activity

Labor in itself is simply our way of interacting with the world around us. As we interact with the world around us, we act upon it and it acts upon us. Through the satisfaction of one need, new needs emerge and we create the basis for further creation. We continue to learn how to work on the world and it continues to present new ways of interacting with it. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we create the world around us instead of simply using it as a means of survival.  In Estranged Labor, Marx explains that this interaction is what constitutes our species being. That through our conscious activity we make labor the object of our will.  Marx says, “In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being.” And while he says other animals also produce, what sets us apart is we produce universally, not just to satisfy a need, but as an expression of our humanity, as conscious activity.


2. Labor as estranged labor

But through the development of the capitalist mode of production, our relationship with production changes. We are stripped from our species being when we lose access to the means of production.

First, through a dofl we no longer create all the things we need, nor in a way that is true to our creative capabilities, instead our labor is as one sided as our needs are many sided, so in order to have access to the things that we need, we must produce commodities, privately and independently, which then can be exchanged for other commodities. Now the objects that fill up the world around us are alien to us, they are used against us as our living labor is appropriated for the expansion of dead labor. “Capital, is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more the more labor it sucks.” p342

The gives commodities the dual characteristic of being both useful things and exchange values, which also means labor itself is split between being concrete and abstract. Although commodities are only products of labor, they are now treated as things outside of ourselves, as if they possess value inherently. This value is actually just congealed labor time, or snlt, which disregards the specific types of useful labor expended upon them. They are used against us because we no longer have access to the means to create for ourselves but need to have access to them somehow.

Through this process of separation from the means of production what we are left with is the ability to labor, but with nothing of our own to labor on, we must labor in the manner in which capitalists set out for us. This ability to labor, is what Marx calls labor-power, and is what we sell to capitalists in exchange for access to the means of subsistence. We no longer labor to express our humanity, but like animals, we labor for our immediate needs. Marx calls this process alienation, “in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.” (estranged labor)

We are now set out into the world as “free workers” who sell our labor-power to capitalists who in turn put us into action however they please. This is because when we lost control over the means of production, we also lost all control over the labor process itself, as well as the products of our labor.

This split between labor as labor-power and labor as activity means that in return for our labor-power, we receive a wage. This wage represents the amount of time socially necessary that it takes to reproduce the worker. During the time we labor, however, we are creating new values more than what we need to reproduce ourselves., and therefore more than we get in return. Through this process we are reproducing ourselves as commodities. We are creating the things that negate our own activity and reproduce us as labor-power. They are the material form of our alienation.

Marx says, “the process of the consumption of labour-power is at the same time the production process of commodities and of surplus-value” (279).

So as we labor, we are reproducing our relationship to capital. Labor is our means to a wage, and capital is simply our labor estranged from ourselves (someone else owns and controls the products of our labor). The more we create, the more estranged we become from these things.

As we work our day is split then between the time it takes to reproduce ourselves, called NLT, and everything else that the capitalists gets in the form of SV, during SLT.

Marx says, “What distinguishes the various economic formations of society — the distinction between for example a society based on slave-labour and a society based on wage-labour — is the form in which this surplus labour is in each case extorted from the immediate producer, the worker.” p. 325

The wage is that form because it is based on the worker being separated from the means of production. Yet, the wage hides this split between SL/NL: Both NL and SL take place simultaneously so all labor appears as paid labor.


3. Manufacture and Machinery

Now stepping back into the historical development of labor and labor power we can look to two periods of capitalist development in order to see how labor and labor-power are changed materially through a change in production itself. The first is manufacture, where we will see a development of a division of labor that creates the “specialized worker” and relegates the worker to one aspect of production instead of participating in all. The next development is machinery in which human bodies become extensions of machine driven production. Marx explains, “In manufacture the transformation of the mode of production takes labour-power as its starting-point.  In large-scale industry, on the other hand, the instruments of labour are the starting point” (492).

a. Manufacture/dofl

Prior to manufacture each stage in the development toward capitalism finds the production process as it is. In manufacture, however, we see a rearranging of the production process, through creating or expanding a division of labor in order to speed up and expand production. This happens in two ways, yet we see the same consequences.

i. two ways of dofl

The first way this happens is when several handicrafts are combined under the roof of one capitalist. One example Marx gives us is the production of carriages. Different handicrafts previously participated in this production processes. A wheel maker made wheels, a carpenter made a frame, a tailor the upholstery, etc. In manufacture however, all these different craftsmen work in one building, moving the product from one worker to the next, speeding up production and allowing for a growth in the number of commodities produced.

One of the main consequences of this is the following: “The tailor, the locksmith and the other craftsmen are now exclusively occupied in the making of carriages; they therefore gradually lose the habit, and therefore the ability, of carrying on their old trade in all its ramifications.” p453 This is the specialized worker, but we will return to this in a moment.

Another way manufacture develops is breaking up work that used to be done by one workshop. This could be something simple like needles or paper, where the workers involved carry out all aspects of production. Under manufacture the production of these things are split up into “isolated functions carried out side by side” 456. This happens over and over until “it becomes the exclusive function of a particular worker.” p457


iii. specialized worker/collective worker/cooperation

Marx says, “In manufacture, as well as in simple cooperation, the collective working organism is a form of existence of capital.  The social mechanism of production, made up of many individual specialized workers, belongs to the capitalist.  Hence the productive power resulting from this appears as a power of capital.  Manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent worker to the discipline and command of capital, but creates in addition a hierarchical structure amongst the workers themselves. While simple cooperation leaves the mode of the individual’s labor for the most part unchanged, manufacture revolutionizes it, and seizes labor-power by its roots… Not only is the specialized work distributed among different individuals but the individual is divided up and transformed into the automatic motor of a detail operation.” 481

As we can see, both processes mean this creation of the “specialized worker” who performs one aspect of production repeatedly. These workers have been divided up, now they are relegated to certain body parts and the functions of those parts. This has allowed production to expand under one capitalist due to the deskilling of the labor force. This means production can take place much quicker and at a much larger scale than ever before. On top of that, the collective worker now working together under one roof unleashes new productive forces given to the capitalists for free. This productive power, marx says,” developed by the worker socially is the productive power of capital. The socially productive power of labour develops as a free gift to capital whenever the workers are placed under certain conditions, and it is capital which places them under these conditions.” p451

Yet production is still limited to the skill and pace of the workers themselves, and manufacture comes up against these limits.


b. machinery

Then with the introduction of machinery, productive forces are taken to a whole new level. Instead of the worker and the division of labor being at the center of production, workers become appendages of the machines they work with and the machines set the pace and organization for production. Raya in Marxism and freedom, “the perverse nature of capitalist production is such that man is not master of the machine; the machine is master of the man. Through the instrumentality of the machine, which expresses itself in the ticking of a factory clock, it has indeed become immaterial what the skill of man is so long as he produces a given quantity of products in a given time.” p105 [?]

Machinery takes the expansion of capital and the subsumption of labor further than manufacture could have. This is because, Marx says, “The concept of the productive worker therefore implies not merely a relation between activity of work and its effect [labor and product] but also a specifically social relation of production, a relation of historical origin stamping the worker as capital’s direct means of valorization.” (p? appendix) In other words, it is not because production itself changes, nor the products of labor, but more specifically the relationship between labor and capital.


c. absolute/relative sv&real/formal subsumption

In order to understand the real subsumption of labor to capital we must discuss the development in terms of relative and absolute SV. Prior to the machinery, subsumption was only formal. The relation between labor and capital was still that labor was the driving force of production because,

“the only way capitalism can continue is by seizing the industries that weren’t previously capitalist, where hcrafts predominate, and through the production of absolute SV (the absolute lengthening of the working day (WD)).  The other is through revolutionizing the Instruments of Labor in order to produce relative SV.” 646

This is where real subsumption comes in. With the introduction of machinery, labor is no longer the starting point for production, machines are. This meant more and more labor could be squeezed from the worker as the machines set the pace and skill for production. Relative SV can now be achieved.


“From one standpoint the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value appears to be illusory. Relative surplus-value is absolute, because it requires the absolute prolongation of the working day beyond the labour-time necessary to the existence of the worker himself. Absolute surplus-value is relative, because it requires a development of the productivity of labour which will allow the necessary labour-time to be restricted to a portion of the working day. But if we keep in mind the movement of surplus-value, this semblance of identity vanishes. Once the capitalist mode of production has become the established and universal mode of production, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value.” p. 646


4. Political economists, Ricardo, Utopian socialists understanding of L/LP

Before Marx had introduced the split between labor as activity on the one hand, and labor-power as exchange value on the other, Socialists at the time used Ricardo’s theory of labor to investigate the world and how to overcome capitalism. Ricardo could not see that when we get a wage we are not actually paid for our activity, but for the potential to create value by laboring. Since we are divorced from the means of production it has meant the development of this separation in order to get the things we need to live, which are also products of other people’s labor.

Without having the split between labor and labor-power they were unable to see why the more the worker created the poorer they became.

If we were paid for our actual labor as the activity, as Ricardo saw it, the value we create while we work means the capitalists get nothing. He thought that instead value was created through the means of production, which we know is not true, but lead USs and PEs to think that the exchange between workers and capitalists was an equal exchange. For socialists it meant bargaining with capitalists, instead of rebelling, it meant an increase in productivity appeared to give the worker more free time since she could now create more in less time. Instead we know that an increase in productivity actually lowers the value of LP meaning the more we create the poorer we become.


5. Versus Marxism

What is important about the split between labor and labor power isn’t just that Marx gives us a new idea of capitalism. Capital is not just about giving us a look behind the curtain, so to speak, or shattering the appearances that capitalism tries to uphold, but a look at the possibility of what production and thus humanity could be like. This is entrenched in his method, and this method is exactly what he provides to us here that is so special about Capital. It is a look at how to reunite us with the means of production, and thus our species being.

Yet there is no master plan. Marx is not a utopian socialist, and instead made a very significant break from them. At the time that Marx comes out of, utopian socialists were limited to Ricardo’s theory of labor which saw the activity of labor and its exchange-value, labor-power, as one. This lead to contradictory understandings of how value was created and the relationship between workers and capitalists. What Marx did was unite labor and revolutionaries, intellectual work with the activity. He saw in the labor movement the negation of capitalism, and tells us that capitalist production creates its own negation in the working class. With this, Marx has given socialism a footing in class struggle.

In the German Ideology he tells us, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”


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