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Karl Marx–Capital

Robert Synopsis   (I apologize in advance if this oversimplifies Marx’s work; I really tried to condense this)

In the selected sections from Capital, Karl Marx asserts that machines, as the conduit of industrial capitalist expansion, reveal the evolutionary exploitation of men, women and children as they simultaneously nurture capitalistic greed. Marx employs a number of sub-claims to support his stance–among them are the following:

  • The machine does more in less time, which increases the capitalist’s greed and presses workers to meet greater demands in less time (work intensity).
  • Machines simplify tasks, which increases the use of child labor and women’s labor and lowers the overall cost of labor (I could smell the underlying patriarchy & rigid gender roles, but we can save that for another discussion).
  • Machines, though meant to serve humans, have come to determine human production (and replace workers), which incites rebellion against the machines first and lead capitalists second.
  • The capitalist metrics of time, value, labor, and intensity are further complicated with the advancement of technology
  • The machine’s evolution over time under the capitalist framework presents an interesting paradox: humans created the machines that would eventually replace their jobs.
  • Machines, like the capitalist, embody a system of self-preservation–just as the capitalist mitigates the use of time, labor, and value to optimize profit for his/her own preservation, the machines eventually create the machines that will preserve the factory model.

Professor David Harvey explains the underlying analytical framework that Marx employs throughout the entire text, Chapter 15 included. According to Harvey’s analysis, technology does not determine, but rather reveals humans’ complex interactions with nature, labor, reproduction of daily life, social relations, and mental conceptions. Even when we apply Harvey’s framework, we still see technology as an integrated, fetishized tool of the capitalist superstructure. Marx, sharing a similar trajectory with his good friend Darwin, essentially argues that technology is an extension of the very evolution of capitalism. The model goes as follows: handicrafts  stage to manufacturing stage, and manufacturing stage to factory stage. But Harvey cautions against a deterministic conceptualization of machines and capitalism; he contends that Marx’s purpose is to elucidate the ongoing dialectic between the capitalist and the laborer. Machines are merely an element in this ongoing dialectical struggle.

Provocation:

The recurring conversation of the growth and development of machines  and their connection with increased exploitation is a critical one, carrying implications of class, gender, age, & racial oppression. Even in the early factory stages, we see fights for reductions of work hours, followed by a subsequent increase in labor intensity that marked the need for more productivity in less time–the new machine’s efficiency as justificaiton for such. With this reduction in physically complex labor came the employment of women and children. Education yielded to the capitalist superstructure, and entire families were now factory employees who, in the eyes of the capitalist, represented one uniform payout.  Marx, more than once, references the U.S. and Transatlantic slave trades as powerful parallels to this factory power dynamic. While the face of both technology and western society have changed significantly since Marx, the thread of exploitation remains constant. With this in mind, I would like to ask the following:

1) To what extent does current exploitation–within the realm of technological production and use–mirror the conditions expressed in Marx’s work? Explain.

2) How has the face of this particular brand of exploitation changed?

3) Considering previous conversations in class regarding contemporary humans’ current relationships with technology and Marx’s key points, what are some predictions you have about the future relationship between humans and technology?

4) Am I the only one who thought about the Matrix trilogy while reading?

Citations

Harvey, D. (2011, January 16). Reading Marx’s Capital Vol 1 with David Harvey. Lecture presented at Class 08 in The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York.

Marx, K. (1968). XV. In Capital. New York: Dutton.

–Robert Robinson

7 thoughts on “Karl Marx–Capital

  1. Achim Koh

    Some links regarding the topic of time and its value:
    http://www.technologyreview.com/review/529961/in-praise-of-efficient-price-gouging
    https://www.propublica.org/article/asians-nearly-twice-as-likely-to-get-higher-price-from-princeton-review

    Data-related technology has come to a point where it not only affects the intensity and/or quality of the worker’s labor time and the consumer’s commodities, but it can actually determine their monetary value. Of course, stating that technology determines any value is misleading. The who, where and how’s relating to this matter seem fascinating to think about.

  2. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh

    Robert,

    I want to thank you for so clearly laying out your reading of Marx and offering such pointed questions. I think it’s especially important to think of how there’s a tendency to read Marx with a steampunk type vibe, to image factories in sepia with a bunch of gears and levers and Victorian lace. At the same time, as Sakina points out in the global manufacturing economy, and as Sara discusses with Amazon, the type of labor relations that Marx describes in all their terror are definitely alive. And as we discussed in class, we just don’t really see them all that much–even with the Thompsonian collapsing of space-time with travel technologies.

    One of the principles of Marx is alienated labor, which if I’m reading right, entails a situation in which the means of production are obscured for the consumer. Derrida, in Specters of Marx, also plays with this idea as ‘ghosted labor,’ suggesting the haunting element that comes with participating in these global economies of exploitation in labor practices. What is haunted, though–perhaps the object?

    Marx importantly focuses on the relationship between the capitalist and the laborer, but it seems interesting to focus on how his readings inform our experience of the commodity, too. Touch-screens (mentioned in class!), technological intimacy, and more…but how do we reconcile our experience of objects that can be quite pleasurable with the experience of those who make them?

  3. Sakina Laksimi Morrow

    – At the time in which Marx wrote, with Capitalism in its early conception,change centered around modes of production. When he penned the human as an appendage to the machine, this was primarily to the industrial machine of which a person (or feeder) was a mere tool to the complex assemblage of sophisticated machinery. But the logic of production cannot be complete without consumption picking up its game.
    We live in a consumer culture of unprecedented power. The development of advertising has intimately tied our feelings about ourselves, our value, our identity etc to stuff. Branding has become another level at which mass-produced products become personal expressions of X.

    However, I am only saying this because I live in the United States. Great parts of the globe are industrial societies of which child labor is still very much a reality. While consumer culture reigns in many developed (First World?!) nations, that is only possible through the vast exploitation of under-developed and developing countries.
    – This is a round-about way of saying that we have not evolved in the ways in which people are exploited, but have employed a global network of labor and consumption to come up with more sophisticated ways of exploitation.

  4. Sara Vogel

    Teresa says: “I think that there is too much potential for good things to arise from technological innovations, in particular with implications for sustainability.”

    I see where you’re headed with this point: we can invent technologies that help us determine the amount of goods to supply, given predicted demand, so that “enough” of an item is produced AND we don’t harm the planet more than we need to.

    I wonder if something about the nature of capitalism, as described by Marx, makes that kind of planning impossible: “…all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility…capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer” (End of section 10, chapter 15). He outlines in other sections how this comes to happen: capitalists try to squeeze the most value out of every machine they purchase to get competitive advantage, which means increasing intensity for the workers, playing tricks with the clock and so on. Sustainability is not part of capitalists’ bottom line — they would need extraordinary incentives that go beyond laws like the Factory Acts, which through regulation, often just concentrate capital into the hands of fewer people, using the same techniques. I feel like the capitalists’ relationship to nature IS exploitation, and to change this, would require transformation in all of those other aspects: social relations, mental conceptions, etc.

    These days, people like to think that technology can solve social and environmental problems, but perhaps the lesson in Marx is that technology is only one part of the puzzle.

  5. Teresa Ober

    1)
    During the time that Marx was writing Capital (1867), the world as the author knew it was undergoing a rapid transformation precipitated by the factors that caused what we now refer to as the Industrial Revolution. While much has changed since then, we still see parallels between that time and ours. There is a still a constant struggle between the rights of laborers and the rights of the “automaton/autocrat” (Section 4, p. 284), especially in countries that are know for large-scale production as a primary industry. We may hear in the news about the poor conditions of garment workers, or the tedium and long hours of electronic makers. These concerns very much mirror the issues that are expressed in Marx’s work. With that, new concerns have also arisen. The recent news coverage documenting the rapid increase in the number of migrants from war-torn countries has potentially created a source of labor which could be exploited.

    Other aspects of technological production have also led us to succumb to new forms of an “automaton,” some with less apparent negative outcomes than others. Purchasing habits and preferences, social connections, and the overall ease recording and sharing daily events has enabled us to systematize our subjective selves, raising the possibility of a more sustainable future.

    2)
    While the immediate context that Marx describes implemented measures to adapt to the negative consequences of the technological advancements, mostly through the advocacy of the rights of laborers and the subsequent implementation of policy, similar forms of exploitation exist in a global context. With increased demand for a commodity, along with rapid technological advancements, the accessibility of a resource increases, thus increasing the supply. Perhaps not so well known to Marx at the time of writing, was a the notion behind the Keynesian model of supply and demand, which suggested increased supply of commodities tends to result in a decreased demand as the value of each unit of the commodity decreases. In this way, there is a natural halting point at which production is no longer efficient. While many parts of the industrialized world have reached an economic stasis, certain developing countries are in the process of rapidly catching up, often with negative consequences for its labor force. It seems possible that it is not really technology, per se, that is driving an economy, but rather those who are control of setting the relationship between supply and demand.

    3)
    Further technological innovations could have the potential to more precisely estimate the point at which a hypothetical supply and demand are reached with respect to the outputs of any industry. I think that there is too much potential for good things to arise from technological innovations, in particular with implications for sustainability. While tragedy may still result from the mindlessness of machines that Marx describes in detail, such as the recent fatal accident of a car factory laborer which was rather highly publicized, these types of incidents seem to happen on a much smaller scale. When we can still collectively remember to put the horse in front of cart, so to speak, and that humans can strategically drive the uses of technology, I think beneficial changes can occur.

    4)
    That’s interesting! It didn’t come to mind, but I definitely thought at least once the movie, WALL-E.

  6. Sara Vogel

    SOMETHING WEIRD happened with my tags… posting again:

    Marx is writing during and about a very particular historical moment, so there must be both continuity AND change. As I write at this moment, having finished the lectures and about half of the Marx reading, the continuity seems most apparent.

    ON CONTINUITY: Marx’ argument that machines are not agents used to lighten our loads holds up in many ways. Computers and digital technology, like the cloth-weaving machines of Marx’ day, also shave minutes and seconds off of worker tasks, but this only leads to higher expectations from employers. They too, want to squeeze every ounce of competitive advantage out of their machines before it becomes obsolete and they have to buy a better one. This is one of those aspects of the capitalist system that, as Harvey summarizes, lives in the “base” of the system — something that will not change unless capitalism is done away with.

    This from Mother Jones a few years ago demonstrates a lot of these continuities. A journalist writes about her time working in a warehouse as a picker, locating items for shipping out to online (mostly Amazon) shoppers. The pickers each get an electronic scanner which keeps rigorous track of the worker’s time and productivity:

    “My scanner tells me in what exact section…of vast shelving systems the item I’m supposed to find resides. It also tells me how many seconds it thinks I should take to get there. Dallas sector, section yellow, row H34, bin 22, level D: wearable blanket… At 5-foot-9, I’ve got a decently long stride, and I only cover the 20 steps and locate the exact shelving unit in the allotted time if I don’t hesitate for one second or get lost or take a drink of water before heading in the right direction as fast as I can walk or even occasionally jog… Often as not, I miss my time target.”

    Missing the target, being 1-2 minutes late, bringing a cell phone into the warehouse, and a litany of other infractions, all electronically monitored by the scanner, are grounds for discipline. The example nicely proves Marx’ point about how: “machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation.” (section 3)

    ON CHANGE… I may have more to say about this when I get to the end of the Marx reading, but I’ve learned in past courses that something Marx doesn’t consider in Capital at great depth is consumer and worker psychology. He doesn’t foresee the exchange value of the object as potentially coming from sources beyond the labor hours that go into it (when they become commensurable to money). Today (in consumer capitalism), other kinds of value get crystallized into commodities — the value that comes from the “appearance” of value of a thing (a concept built onto Marx by Haug). I see this as coming from advertising and PR (perhaps another form of paid labor), but also from social media “buzz,” a kind of labor that the consumer puts in (usually unpaid!)

    More later…!

  7. Sara Vogel

    Marx is writing during and about a very particular historical moment, so there must be both continuity AND change. As I write at this moment, having finished the lectures and about half of the Marx reading, the continuity seems most apparent.

    ON CONTINUITY: Marx’ argument that machines are not agents used to lighten our loads holds up in many ways. Computers and digital technology, like the cloth-weaving machines of Marx’ day, also shave minutes and seconds off of worker tasks, but this only leads to higher expectations from employers. They too, want to squeeze every ounce of competitive advantage out of their machines before it becomes obsolete and they have to buy a better one. This is one of those aspects of the capitalist system that, as Harvey summarizes, lives in the “base” of the system — something that will not change unless capitalism is done away with.

    This from Mother Jones a few years ago demonstrates a lot of these continuities. A journalist writes about her time working in a warehouse as a picker, locating items for shipping out to online (mostly Amazon) shoppers. The pickers each get an electronic scanner which keeps rigorous track of the worker’s time and productivity:

    Missing the target, being 1-2 minutes late, bringing a cell phone into the warehouse, and a litany of other infractions, all electronically monitored by the scanner, are grounds for discipline. The example nicely proves Marx’ point about how: “machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation.” (section 3)

    ON CHANGE… I may have more to say about this when I get to the end of the Marx reading, but I’ve learned in past courses that something Marx doesn’t consider in Capital at great depth is consumer and worker psychology. He doesn’t foresee the exchange value of the object as potentially coming from sources beyond the labor hours that go into it (when they become commensurable to money). Today (in consumer capitalism), other kinds of value get crystallized into commodities — the value that comes from the “appearance” of value of a thing (a concept built onto Marx by Haug). I see this as coming from advertising and PR (perhaps another form of paid labor), but also from social media “buzz,” a kind of labor that the consumer puts in (usually unpaid!)

    More later…!

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