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The Wealth of Capitalist Societies

September 3, 2011

Adam Smith investigated the wealth of nations, offering an analysis that can be localised in history, but that did not thematise the historical specificity of its own categories.

Marx begins Capital with a similar question, but asks it, not of nations, but of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. The question is posed from the beginning in a socially-specified form.

The wealth of such societies presents itself – at what Marx will later call “first sight” – as a tremendous accumulation of commodities. An accumulation that possesses an elementary form – that of a single commodity. The text begins with the analysis of this elementary form, and so unpacks the first form of appearance of the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails.

Architectonically, this first form of appearance is situated within a longer critical analysis of approaches that attempt to understand the wealth of capitalist societies on the assumption that capitalism is a form of “social metabolism” – a process in which material goods, satisfying various utilitarian needs, are produced and then circulated to the site of consumption via the medium of money. This arc within the text – the exploration of all the approaches whose understandings of the wealth of capitalist societies fall under this broad umbrella – occupies the text from its opening chapter, until chapter 6.

Capitalist production includes a process of social metabolism – goods really are produced, and really are circulated – and so there’s a certain “social validity” to the categories generated by forms of political economy that understand capitalist production in this way. The categories are expressive of real aspects of our social practice. Treating capitalist production as nothing more than a process of social metabolism, however, reduces a complex process to only one of its moments.

This reductive, partial and one-sided treatment of capitalist production is associated, in Marx’s text, with a specific kind of politics. Throughout these chapters, while exploring the sorts of practices and theoretical claims that are suggested by the “social metabolism” view of capitalist production, Marx also repeatedly targets social contract theory – with its emphasis on the politics of mutual recognition, formal equality, and rights. This undercurrent is introduced in the third section of the opening chapter, and culminates in Marx’s sarcastic declaration at the end of chapter 6 that this perspective on capitalist production understands capitalist societies to be “a very Eden of the innate rights of man… the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham”. This sort of politics does not provide an adequate basis for the critique of capitalist production – as Marx flags when he draws attention to the change in the “physiognomy of our dramatis personae” at the end of chapter 6, as

He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to marker and now has nothing else to expect but – a tanning.

I’ve written below on an overarching joke that structures this arc within the text, which is that the text begins, and continues to assert in multiple chapters, that commodities are objective – are things – in a way that implies that these “things” are external, passive objects that are separate entities from the human subjects busily engaged in the intersubjective social contract relations of mutual recognition, consent, and formal equality that also populate these chapters.

With the derivation of the category of labour-power, this subject-object dualism is undermined. The category of the commodity is redetermined as something that can also include a particular class of human subject – a class whose separation from the means of production requires it to objectify and sell its own powers and capacities on the market. These subjective powers and capacities are thus plausibly experienced and enacted in an objectifying way – and the compulsion that arises from the need to sell them is, by chapter 6, presented as something that is social in origin, but that can plausibly appear to social actors to be an objective physiological constraint, rather than an arbitrary social one:

If his capacity for labour remains unsold, this is of no advantage to the worker. He will rather feel it to be a cruel nature-imposed necessity that his capacity for labour has required for its production a definite quantity of the means of subsistence, and will continue to require this for its reproduction.

Chapters 7-10 then explore a new perspective on the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. This new perspective is a positive appropriation of the perspective that has been introduced negatively in chapter 6. In chapter 6, the need to expend human labour-power in order to preserve one’s life is experienced by social actors as a “nature-imposed necessity”, and this necessity is experienced as a curse. In chapter 7, this necessity to expend human labour-power has been seized upon and redeployed in a positive valorisation of the creative importance of human labour as the source of social wealth. Note that both approaches – the one presented in chapters 1-6, and the one presented in chapters 7-10 – accept that the need to expend human labour-power is imposed by nature, not by an arbitrary social convention that can be transformed:

The labour process, as we have just presented it in its simple and abstract elements, is purposeful activity aimed at the production of use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.

The text goes on to say that, because this category of productive labour is socially transcendent, it was not necessary to investigate social relations between people in order to present the category. It sufficed to examine, in isolation, the relationship of the worker with natural raw materials, mediated by instruments of labour, rather than by social relations.

The perspective in this section of chapter 7 needs to be understood as an immanently-voiced representation of a particular understanding of social wealth – one that Marx intends to criticise, and has already flagged that he intends to criticise in earlier chapters. Earlier chapters have already laid the groundwork for grasping why a contingent social relation should appear to social actors as an objective natural constraint – for grasping why this sort of perspective would be “socially valid”, but also one-sided and partial, confused by the fetish character of social relations that makes these relations appear to be objective and asocial – appear to be attributes of natural processes or of human interactions with nature – rather than social relations that arise under determinate and changeable conditions that are constituted by human practice.

As he does with the social metabolism conception of social wealth, Marx explores the sort of politics that he associates with the labor-centric perspective – and is considerably more sympathetic towards it, than he was to the “very Eden of the innate rights of man” associated with the social metabolism understanding of wealth, which Marx revisits at the end of chapter 10:

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 that 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’. What a great change from that time!

While the politics of the labor-centric view is presented sympathetically, this sympathetic treatment does not reflect Marx’s endorsement of either the conception of social wealth, or the political adequacy of the labour-centric view. At the beginning of chapter 10, Marx characterises the fight for the normal working day as one that takes place within the realm where – as Marx has the voice of the worker announce – “You and I know on the market only one law, that of exchange of commodities”. The worker’s demand in this conflict, as Marx voices it, is: “I demand the value of my commodity”.

Marx presents the contestation over the working day as an essential conflict, in order to constrain what Marx characterises as a vampire that “lives only by sucking living labour”. The conflict is necessary to prevent the trammelling of the working class – and, interestingly, also to prevent the self-destruction of capitalist production itself, which does not possess the ability to self-regulate without the external “universal” compulsion that can be provided by the state, which emerges in this section as an essential aspect of capitalist production whose necessity was not foreseen by the social metabolism conception of capitalist production, but which comes clearly into view once working-class contestation is factored into the account.

Yet this contestation is not the sort of politics Marx has written Capital in order to endorse, and the labor-centric conception of social wealth associated with this kind of politics is one that his argument will ultimately undermine. As he moves past both the “very Eden” of political economy, and the “modest Magna Carta” of working-class self-assertion as a working class, Marx contests the notion that human labour specifically must be central, in all societies, to social wealth. The analysis soon to come – of cooperation, the division of labour, and machinery, of the development of socially general scientific and organisational knowledge – will open up the possibility for the development of forms of social wealth to which the expenditure of specifically human labour grows increasingly contingent – increasingly sustained because it is imposed, not at all by nature, but by human practice.

Marx is not advocating for a politics predicated on the notion that human labour is an “everlasting, nature-imposed necessity” – to him, the notion that readers would take literally such representations of perspectives he sets out to criticise, would seem as unlikely as the notion that his readers would agree that commodities are, by definition, external objects separate from their owners. He will acknowledge in places that some expenditure of human labour-power – some ongoing realm of necessity – will likely be required into the future, but this is a very different proposition from the claim that human labour is always and eternally the way nature forces humans to mediate their relations to the natural world. Moreover, the specific descriptions of the labour-process here – and the raw material conception of nature that accompanies it – are “practical truths” for capitalist production, in a way that they would not have been in other human societies.

It is capitalist production, for Marx, that specifically sanctifies and glorifies the expenditure of human labour in this way – and that treats the natural world as disenchanted “raw material” that passively awaits reworking by humans. The presentation in chapters 7-10 is therefore not of a transhistorical labour process, as contrasted with a historically specific valorisation process. It is rather a representation of a socially specific process that possesses a fetish character, such that aspects of the process have taken on an objective, socially-transcendent character, while aspects appear intuitively social and contingent. This complex bifurcated process, both parts of which are equally historically specific in Marx’s argument, is enacted in such a way that a significant dimension of the social process appears not to be social, or subject to transformation by human actors, at all.

One implication of this argument is that attempts to eliminate “the socially specific side” of this dual construction – the part that intuitively appears “social” – while preserving the “transhistorical” side – attempts to abolish the valorisation process without also simultaneously transforming the labour process itself – will not succeed in abolishing capitalist production, on Marx’s analysis. There are the seeds here, in Marx’s text, of an analysis of aspects of the Soviet system, as well as of aspects of the period of more “organised capitalism” in the 20th century in the West.

Another implication of this argument is that Marx is not advocating the social centrality and importance of the expenditure of specifically human labour power – still less is he asserting that the expenditure of human labour-power in the forms described in these chapters are anything like everlasting nature-imposed necessities. He is instead, in the longer arc of the text, advocating something much closer to the “right to be lazy”, as expressed in Paul Lafargue’s classic work, which opens:

A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work. Blind and finite men, they have wished to be wiser than their God; weak and contemptible men, they have presumed to rehabilitate what their God had cursed. I, who do not profess to be a Christian, an economist or a moralist, I appeal from their judgement to that of their God; from the preachings of their religious, economics or free thought ethics, to the frightful consequences of work in capitalist society.

The frightful consequences of work in capitalist societies will preoccupy much of the later chapters of Capital – a work that is oriented toward, not the apologist justification of labour as an everlasting nature-imposed necessity, but instead the question of why – after the development of machinery, automation, the dramatic increase of scientific and organisational knowledge we possess – the expenditure of human labour-power should nevertheless remain so central to capitalist societies. The standpoint of Marx’s critique – no more transcendent to the society he is criticising than the various perspectives he criticises in the course of his work – requires appropriating the insights of more of our collective experience than is expressed in either the social metabolism or the labour-centric understandings of capitalist production.

His critique operates by mobilising insights from one portion of the argument, against incomplete perspectives suggested by other portions. So the social metabolism conception of capitalism runs aground on the introduction of a category that breaks apart the subject/object and form/content dualisms this perspective attempts to assert. The labour-centric conception of capitalist production runs aground on both the earlier analysis of why social phenomena take on a fetish character that entails that they are experienced as physiological processes, and also runs aground, retrospectively, on the later analysis of the growing role of machinery, which suggests the possibility to organise production in a way that undermines any “nature-imposed” necessity for human labour to be central to social wealth. The nature of Marx’s argument thus becomes clear only when the individual parts are able to be thought – and, often, re-thought – in tandem with the implications of the whole.

The problems posed by his text replicate those posed by the analysis of capitalist production itself – a process which contains something that could be described as “social metabolism”, a process for which the expenditure of specifically human labour-power is essential, and essential in ways that plausibly imply to social actors that this necessity is driven by nature, rather than by contingent social practices. In attempting to demonstrate the social validity of partial and one-sided analyses of capitalist production – analyses that fixate on only small portions of a complex social phenomenon – Marx generates a number of opportunities for readers to stumble across his re-presentations of the partial and one-sided views of political economy, mistaking those views for Marx’s own, rather than understanding them as perspectives specifically put forward to be criticised in the course of a more complex analysis of capitalist production and the wealth of capitalist societies.

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16 Comments
  1. Very interesting results from your rereading. Thanks!

    Where can I (we) find some reasonably adequate summary of the positive implications of Marx’s “analysis soon to come – of cooperation, the division of labour, and machinery, of the development of socially general scientific and organisational knowledge”? Difficult to search for this… but it is the material I want the most.

    My sense is that right now we (globally) are right up against the failure of social organization dedicated to “human labour [as] an ‘everlasting, nature-imposed necessity'”, but have no idea of what to do next, and have massive entrenched social structures prepared to insist on the validity of that mode of organization.

    Lafargue looks interesting. However it doesn’t sound like he generated a viable political agenda — in fact I can’t think of one between Marx and now that reflects the analysis you point to. But there’s now “market demand” for that agenda and somehow we’ll have to pull it together. I think the main question is how we can minimize the damage between now and when it gets accepted.

  2. Hi Jed – thanks for your comment, and sorry you were held in moderation – should happen only the first time you post (anti-spam measure).

    My computer is being hugely temperamental at the moment – it’s crashed on me twice while I was trying to reply to you – so I’ll write only a little bit, and see if I can get the comment online this time :-)

    In terms of this:

    My sense is that right now we (globally) are right up against the failure of social organization dedicated to “human labour [as] an ‘everlasting, nature-imposed necessity’”, but have no idea of what to do next, and have massive entrenched social structures prepared to insist on the validity of that mode of organization.

    Yes – that’s a good way of putting it. And the mainstream image of Marx has generally been that he sides with the “everlasting necessity” view, and therefore won’t seem to be a go-to text for this dilemma. Although there have been readings of Marx – and associated political movements – that have understood his argument as being about the self-abolition of the working classes, so it’s not that the sort of reading I’m proposing is really new in a general sense – some of the details might be new, but there are other people making the general point.

    More at a later time when my computer isn’t crashing every five minutes…

  3. Chris Wright permalink

    This is the conundrum, is it not? (What to do with the state of the world, not with your computer crashing, though that is no doubt vexing as well.)

    Nicole, as always, I appreciate the general thrust of your argument. I believe it is best to take a break from the whirlwind discussion of late, however.

    Jed, you might want to look at Hans-Dieter Bahr’s The Class Structure of Machinery (http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcvalue3.htm) and I would like to offer my talk which develops some aspects of that essay in relation to other ideas (http://howsickly.blogspot.com/2011/08/night-without-end-notes-from-vanguard.html).

    Bahr’s argument rests on a development of the relation between the valorization process and the labor process which indicates an interesting way to consider transformations of the labor process as the outcome of attempts to solve problems in the valorization process, and not surprisingly, central to this is the utilization of machinery and the development of technology which both undermines the resistance to being reproduced as labor and which is meant to renew valorization, but following Moishe Postone, in the long run it also expels more and more labor from the valorization process, exacerbating each new impasse. Bahr also does a bit to show the impact this has on the formation of the proletariat as organized abolition of the capital-labor relation (as self-abolishing.)

  4. Sorry your machine is subverting you, N. Pepperell.

    Thanks for the references, Chris. I quite liked Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination many years ago, but otherwise hardly read in this literature.

    I will devote some time to reading Bahr’s work but I can see it will be a struggle. For example in the first paragraph he says “The fact that the tool can only serve the function of mediating the living relationship among workers if this living relationship is simultaneously severed is the reason why – in the form of private property – it can also ‘mediate’ a social relationship between workers and non-workers, or between different types of labour.” I don’t yet understand how to make sense of this. For example, consider an open source contributor using his or her laptop to develop code, interact with other developers, play computer games (with friends), etc. Obviously the laptop is material capital that is mediating the worker’s relationships with the work, other workers, and non-workers. But how to map this essay’s claims onto that situation baffles me.

    Perhaps worth noting that open source projects are often in direct competition with, and in fact out-competes, massive capitalist enterprises. So it is certainly a mode of production that has to be considered in the same framework.

    One last point. Appropriation of the value of whatever work is done has to play a major role in this sort of analysis. I haven’t spent long enough working through this essay to find useful summaries of Bahr’s position. But his parallels between factory labor and science tend to obscure the completely different modes of appropriation involved, especially in the early industrial era. Similarly, essentially the same basic work — developing software, for example — can be carried out in very different modes of appropriation — for example, in a very standard capitalist framework of appropriation in which it is “work for hire” and its value is appropriated by whomever paid for the work, or in a framework like open source peer production, in which the social and legal arrangements prevent appropriation of the value by any “owner”.

    I will need to understand much better how Bahr responds to this relative independence between the means of production, and the mode of appropriation.

  5. The temperature in my room has crept up above 19 degrees, which means I’m on borrowing time in terms of posting here before my computer overheats… But on this:

    Similarly, essentially the same basic work — developing software, for example — can be carried out in very different modes of appropriation — for example, in a very standard capitalist framework of appropriation in which it is “work for hire” and its value is appropriated by whomever paid for the work, or in a framework like open source peer production, in which the social and legal arrangements prevent appropriation of the value by any “owner”.

    I actually think quite a lot of Marx’s argument hinges on points analogous to this: that actions that are similar or even identical at one level – the actions involved in developing software, in your example – can be seen as practices that contribute to radically different outcomes, depending on the network of downstream practices within which these practices are embedded, and to which they are contributing. This both makes it difficult for social actors (and theorists!) to work out what’s contributing to downstream, large-scale impacts – it makes plausible a response that says, again using your example, “hey, it’s all software development – what’s the diff?” – when the immediate practice is not analysed in terms of its longer-term consequence. It can also make plausible the reverse perspective, which says “software development contributes to X horrible downstream consequence – out with the software development!” – a perspective that doesn’t appreciate that the “same” sort of practice can have very different downstream consequences, depending on the network of other practices to which it is a contributor.

    This probably sounds a bit silly for me to write, with this specific example (I’m racing to get this posted, as above 19 degrees this computer’s on borrowed time… so this will be really rough). But this basic move is repeated with many different sorts of social practices in Marx’s argument, and suggests useful possibilities for assessing practices in terms of various scales of consequences those practices have – useful ways to differentiate the types of consequences practices generate, where it becomes really important to consider tandem effects that arise only because a set of practices is carried out in a context where they feed into a specific broader context.

    This probably makes no sense as written – apologies :-) May try to flesh it out a bit more at a cooler time in the day :-)

  6. Your comment makes a lot of sense as written and is completely responsive to my point — and to the larger issue of how our network of social practices is going to change / be changed in response to the stresses of changing modes of production. Also it does fit the example. Critics for a long time were talking about the “dehumanizing” influence of computers. Now critics instead worry they lead too much gossip, short attention spans, risky display and game playing. And in both cases the critics attribute the problem to the technology that’s mediating the behavior, not to the social relations in which it’s embedded.

    Also I think the quote that struck me — “human labour [as] an ‘everlasting, nature-imposed necessity’” — is very much one case where Marx is calling out what is presented as an intrinsic characteristic of some activities, but is in fact are characteristics imposed on them by the larger (now much, much larger) network of social practices.

    The only minor nit I’d pick is that the social practices aren’t just “downstream”, they completely embed the practices whose meaning is being determined or influenced.

    Sorry about your technical constraints! Hope you get a cooler environment and/or cure your machine’s iills.

  7. Hi Jed – many thanks – for whatever reason, my computer actually has crashed yet :-) We’re now up to 21 degrees in the room – it’s being exceptionally tolerant today.

    And fair enough on this:

    The only minor nit I’d pick is that the social practices aren’t just “downstream”, they completely embed the practices whose meaning is being determined or influenced.

    The “downstream” vocabulary is an attempt to gloss more Hegelian vocabulary of totality and moment, in a way that gives a better empirical gestalt for why the phenomena Marx is describing aren’t mystical in any way – it’s not a perfect vocabulary, and I’ll happily swap it for better modes of expression. One level of his argument is that, in spite of superficial similarities, a lot of elements of our practical experience that we take to have long historical registers – like “money” – in fact pick out very different sorts of entities, now, than they do in earlier historical periods. This is part of why he can explode what appear to be transhistorical discourses from within – he can push on them to show that they are presupposing hugely more historically-specific phenomena, than the abstractness of the categories would seem to imply.

    At the same time, what the “downstream” vocabulary does provide, is a sense of how it might be possible to hack our existing practices, to develop alternative forms of social life. If our vocabulary tends too much in a direction that emphasises the “subsumption” of our practices – the shaping of those practices into forms that tend to reproduce capital – it can occlude the internal diversity required to reproduce capitalist production, and therefore make it a bit harder to see how Marx isn’t just presenting an account of capitalism as a form of domination, but is also trying to unearth immanent possibilities for transformation. The “downstream” vocabulary makes this aspect of his argument a bit easier to thematise, however imperfect the term…

  8. Excellent point. I tend to read “downstream” differently but have a bit more sense now of what you are trying to do.

    The problem of creating / finding a standpoint that isn’t just going to be stuck in / reproduce the existing relationships is indeed tough. Mostly in my experience I need to pay attention to the details of how things are done, and then look for patterns that emerge from the details that can’t be comfortably assimilated to the “standard account”. So in a way I work best “bottom up”. I suppose my brief description of how an open source contributor uses their “tools” is an example — I didn’t see how to make it mesh with the account. (It helps that I’ve spent a lot of time doing amateur ethnography of open source projects.)

    Lucy Suchman’s study of the actual practices in an accounting department (“Office Procedure as Practical Action”) is a classic example of this approach. It doesn’t particularly engage with the sort of issues we’re discussing here, though there are interesting connections and it overlaps some of the issues in “The class structure of machinery”. But the methods and more important the ways of thinking can be transposed into our context. Suchman is an professional ethnographer, by the way, now at Lancaster.

    Vocabulary is a related problem. “Terms of art” carry entire mental frameworks with them; while they permit very efficient communication they can interfere with exploring new problems or new ways of looking at things. I tend to try to build up examples (as you often do in your analysis of Marx’s rhetoric) and pull the vocabulary into shape around them.

  9. Chris Wright permalink

    ““The fact that the tool can only serve the function of mediating the living relationship among workers if this living relationship is simultaneously severed is the reason why – in the form of private property – it can also ‘mediate’ a social relationship between workers and non-workers, or between different types of labour.” I don’t yet understand how to make sense of this. For example, consider an open source contributor using his or her laptop to develop code, interact with other developers, play computer games (with friends), etc. Obviously the laptop is material capital that is mediating the worker’s relationships with the work, other workers, and non-workers. But how to map this essay’s claims onto that situation baffles me.”

    I don’t think it is obvious that the laptop or the labor of the developer is capital in that situation, especially as the code is being produced as an end in itself. That laptop and that developer are actually outside the cycle of capital. Their output only re-enters the cycle of capital as some kind of effectively free constant capital, which could mitigate the cost of production for a capital because it ends up not paying for an essential part of the means of production. However, it also means that there is an activity going on which offers a way of reproducing ourselves which not only is practically outside of the cycle of capital and only brought in as an exterior factor.

    So Bahr’s notion is really only appropriate to the way machinery operates in a situation where the workers are related to each other as moments of variable capital, and in a case of wage-labor, which is not what you are presenting, the machine mediates between the worker and non-worker as form of domination and control over the worker’s activity.

    As an IT worker who is predominantly engaged in application administration and support, this makes perfectly good sense to me because I operate in a manner similar to a machinist or electrician in a factory: I keep the machinery running so that the labor process is as uninterrupted as possible.

    “Perhaps worth noting that open source projects are often in direct competition with, and in fact out-competes, massive capitalist enterprises. So it is certainly a mode of production that has to be considered in the same framework.”

    I don’t quite know what the second sentence means. I think I know what you want to say, but open source projects are generally unwaged and not intending to produce a commodity per se. The appropriation of that product by a particular capital, if it is freely appropriated, is a lot like turning peasants into wage workers in a city: capital gets them at a discount because their original reproduction was not a part of the cost to capital. Sometimes companies will charge for maintenance and support services around an otherwise free piece of software, but that is relatively straightforward from a capital point of view. If we are talking about Red Hat, I think it is clear that that is a pretty standard capitalist enterprise.

    “Appropriation of the value of whatever work is done has to play a major role in this sort of analysis.”

    There is no value to appropriate in your original example. However, if constant capital is reduced to from 100 to 50, and variable capital remains 50, and surplus value is 50, then utilizing Open Source allows one company to have a much, much higher rate of surplus value (or, in the more appropriate terms to such a discussion, production costs will be significantly reduced and selling their product at the same price will yield higher profits.)

    “I haven’t spent long enough working through this essay to find useful summaries of Bahr’s position.”

    There aren’t any really. The essay is very difficult in that respect.

    “But his parallels between factory labor and science tend to obscure the completely different modes of appropriation involved, especially in the early industrial era.”

    You would have to specify which arguments because I don’t see his discussion of the relation of labor to science this way. What he is indicating is that much of the labor process in craft, manufacturing, and industrial production was an extension or extrapolation of the skills of the workers and involved a labor process that was comprehensible technically and spatially (the production process was relatively localized, in a way especially so with huge complexes like Ford’s River Rouge.) With the development of chemical labor processes, the direct application of scientific knowledge to the labor process means that the comprehension of the labor process and the means of production are increasingly beyond a non-specialist’s knowledge. One of the most evident examples for me is bio-engineered seed. This is way past the days of splicing plants, which was the typical process well into the late 20th century. In fact, the techniques of the seed companies like Monsanto were, for the longest time, just more technically sophisticated and controlled version of plant splicing.

    “Similarly, essentially the same basic work — developing software, for example — can be carried out in very different modes of appropriation — for example, in a very standard capitalist framework of appropriation in which it is “work for hire” and its value is appropriated by whomever paid for the work, or in a framework like open source peer production, in which the social and legal arrangements prevent appropriation of the value by any “owner”.”

    The creation of software is “the same basic work” only because at the moment any and all work has to be done within the broader array of capitalist relations. For example, even the most free (in Richard Stallman’s sense) open source project still likely is buying their computer equipment and their developers have to get paid from someone, somewhere, and their software is likely to be appropriated by some corporation, although as free constant capital, not as a commodity to be sold as such.

  10. Thanks Chris for your detailed reply. Right now I’ll just respond to the first paragraph — I need to think more about your points, and the questions about your first paragraph ramify throughout the rest of your reply.

    You say

    I don’t think it is obvious that the laptop or the labor of the developer is capital in that situation, especially as the code is being produced as an end in itself. That laptop and that developer are actually outside the cycle of capital. Their output only re-enters the cycle of capital as some kind of effectively free constant capital, which could mitigate the cost of production for a capital because it ends up not paying for an essential part of the means of production. However, it also means that there is an activity going on which offers a way of reproducing ourselves which not only is practically outside of the cycle of capital and only brought in as an exterior factor.

    Your use of "capital" here is a good example of a term of art; in this case I don't know the art well enough to have confidence in your intended meaning. I just meant a resource used in production that can be reproduced (multiplied) as needed and that isn't used up in the process of production. I guess you mean something more like a resource used in production within the "cycle of capital" which I also guess means it is embedded in capitalist relationships (ownership of the results of production, intent to sell the results, etc.) But these are only guesses.

    Anyway, it would be useful to have a word that corresponds to my definition. It would cover, for example, a knife I use in my kitchen to prepare food for myself and others, a laptop I use for my own pleasure, for open source development, for contract work, and for managing my investments. And so forth.

    If we don't want to call the laptop in this scenario "capital" — or the OS running on it, which might well be Linux or BSD, thus "free constant capital" as you call it within capitalist production — then it does seem that we need some further set of conceptual tools for thinking about the presence of substantial non-capital-based modes of production in our society — modes that major parts of the capitalist system depend on.

    More later when I get a chance to read and think more deeply. The issues around appropriation are equally important but are harder for me to get a grip on. Any clarification you could provide would be much appreciated.

  11. Sorry about the missing closing bracket on the blockquote. I should always preview…

  12. Not online today, but just fixed the blockquote for readability… Take care all…

  13. Chris Wright permalink

    Jed,

    I think the problem with the term capital is that it expresses both a social relation and a kind of objectivity, thus capital is both the movement M-C…P…-C’-M’ with all which that entails, but it is also each of those moments: money capital, commodity capital (as constant and variable capital i.e. equipment, raw materials, and labor), commodity capital (as output/product), and back to money capital (increased in quantity).

    I don’t think that we can refer to instruments in a production process as capital, however, unless they are part of generalized commodity production.

    My home computer is just something I use. It is not part of the capital cycle that leads to valorization. It was C’ for the company that sold it, but form me, it is part of C-M-C, an object of consumption. I think that for the Open Source developer who is not producing software for sale or doing development as a wage-laborer (as part of C), their output does not count as C’ because it’s goal is not to become M’. It is not a part of the self-expansion of capital.

    In the same way, if I hire a tutor for my son, we are outside of the capital-labor relation. I am not hiring the tutor to sell his labor as a product, I just want a service. If I hire a tutor from a tutoring company, then the the tutor is a wage-laborer, the tutoring company is part of the capital cycle, and I am the purchaser of a commodity, but the end of the cycle is not with me, but with my money becoming M’ for the tutoring company.

    What I find promising Open Source practices is that they indicate the possibility of (re)production outside of the capital form.

    However, if they remain isolated moments, they can actually benefit capital by providing a competitive edge. Capital A utilizing the free software requires less M (money capital) to acquire the necessary C (labor, raw materials, means of production), while still allowing the same number of C’ (say parts being made by CAM using Open Source software to control the machining process) to be produced and sold at the going market rate. Capital B therefore is at a disadvantage because it’s C is higher in terms of constant capital, thus it’s surplus value is lower, but it still has to sell at the same cost as Capital A.

    In this case, however, the Open Source software was not itself produced as part of the capital cycle, so even though it was used by Capital A, it was free.

    I think this is critical for understanding both the potential and the limits of moments like Open Source/Free Software.

  14. Sorry for the very long delay in replying. I had to travel and also find this discussion difficult to carry forward as productively as I’d like.

    Perhaps a good place to start is with one of Chris’ later point that “if [Open Source practices] remain isolated moments they can actually benefit capital…” This of course raises the important question of how Open Source practices would function as non-isolated moments — or more specifically what Chris (and other Marxist social theorists?) would imagine or accept as non-isolated practices. To constructively engage Chris, or the community of people who use this model, we need to focus on that question. This is actually why I was asking for appropriate vocabulary — that is terms that don’t just apply to the social relationships of capital.

    In passing I’d like to note that open source practices are extremely socially connected, that in fact the social network arguably constitutes the ground of the practices much more than for capitalist practices. But lacking any detail about what would address Chris’ concerns I’m not sure of the significance of that.

    I think I roughly understand Chris’ model of the self-reproductive cycle of capitalism. This is a special case of cycles of self-reproduction generally (c.f. Maturana and Varela, or Luhmann) but of course has characteristics specific to (our particular form of) capitalism.

    Open source (and peer production more generally) has its own cycles of reproduction — most peer production is done using peer-produced tools, often “all the way down” to the hardware. Some hardware is partially peer produced, but most electronic components are very much commodities (in Chris’ sense). Peer production practices and social structure are also reproduced largely within the peer production network. However I don’t know what vocabulary Chris would find appropriate to describe these reproductive cycles, or the “capital like” and “commodity like” elements that participate in them, so it is kind of hard to carry on a discussion.

    Regarding Chris’ point about capitalist production gaining an advantage from peer produced materials (open source software is an example but far from the only one): A logical consequence of the process he describes is that once a new competitive equilibrium has been established, the capitalist enterprises are dependent on peer production, since any capitalists who gave it up would be at an immediate and serious disadvantage. This is in fact the case. Companies that have become dependent on peer produced inputs — including IBM, Apple, Cisco, Amazon, Google, the major telecom services and mobile device providers, etc. — don’t have the option of retreating from that dependence. In fact they must keep increasing their dependence, through the very dynamics of the capitalist cycle of reproduction.

    It is perhaps noteworthy that these peer production dependent companies include the largest company by market cap (Apple) and many of the fastest growing large companies. I think it is fair to say that large and growing portions of the global capitalist system are dependent on peer production. Microsoft for a while was calling this dependence a “cancer” but they shut up because it wasn’t working for them.

    The consequences of this aren’t clear yet, but they certainly don’t simply strengthen the existing capitalist system. Capitalism’s dependence on peer production has not brought this mode of production under the control of capitalist social relationships or practices. That may yet happen, but it is far from automatic or guaranteed.

    Peer production is also affecting our social self-reproduction in ways less directly enmeshed with capitalist social processes, but with potentially as serious an effect on capitalism. Knowledge is migrating from “commodity like” frameworks (such as encyclopedias, educational institutions, published books and journals, etc.) — where users have to pay a fee for access, production is organized using primarily wage labor, etc. — to “peer production like” frameworks (like Wikipedia, open courseware, open access repositories, etc.) where access is free and production is largely by voluntary contributions. In the process expectations of curation, authority, etc. are being drastically revised. However it seems clear that the quality and effectiveness of the knowledge available is at least as high, and perhaps even superior to what was provided by the “commodity like” framework.

    Again, this is an irreversible transformation that has overcome substantial resistance from pre-existing institutions, that is still picking up speed and that is likely to have a much larger effect on our social possibilities than it has up to now.

    I’d also be interested in relating these ideas to other largely self-organized social processes (including social upheavals such as the Arab Spring, crowd sourced inquiry, such as FoldIt, the molecular folding game, and many others) but first I’d like to get some feedback and perhaps find some common ground to discuss these issues.

  15. Chris Wright permalink

    Hi Jed,

    Just a couple clarifications that hopefully are fruitful.

    By “isolated”, I do not mean that people doing open source work are isolated individuals. I specifically mean isolated in the sense that open source relations remain, in spite of (in some cases maybe because of) their internally cooperative form, unable to generalize outside of commodity production in general, that is, in a way, ‘infect’ if you will all other relations they come into contact with.

    Commodities, capital, money are certainly things, but they are things that are social relations, crystallizations of human practice. M-C-M’ thus does not merely denote an economic cycle, but a set of human relations with structured forms of practice which entails the reproduction not only of capital in its various forms, but of the social relations between the people producing stuff as commodities, capital, money. So I could not possibly refer to the product of a serf’s labor given in kind to his lord as a commodity, nor the tools used to produce that product as capital, nor the corvee labor performed as wage-labor.

    Also, I have no real familiarity with Luhmann. My point is specifically in reference to Marx’s working through of the reproduction cycle of capital. I am not trying to find a general application for it or relegate it under “general kinds of cycles of self-reproduction”. It would not necessarily apply to open source per se, if by open source or peer production we are suggesting something that, at least internally, operate in a fashion not producing stuff as commodities at all. What is interesting about peer production is the ways it is inside, outside, and maybe could be against capital, since it is not simply “in” M-C-M’.

    I am less sanguine about how far open source and peer production is practically outside, but I nonetheless think it has potential and its relation with capital is up for grabs. What does it mean if companies like Oracle, Apple, and IBM depend on peer production? At the same time, it does allow them to get the fruits of unpaid labor, and unwaged labor that provides part of capital’s production process is always a benefit. The hope is in the gap between these, but what that gap entails is necessarily a political project, one which must become more self-conscious.

    I am also less sanguine about the quality or the structure of knowledge in this framework. I actually think that some of Wikipedia’s functioning squeezes out proper confrontation. Its rules for articles strike me as homogenizing and intended to mitigate controversial and contradictory claims rather than to allow them to be fully developed without simply imagining or imposing by “rules of conduct” a resolution, which maybe works ok with an entry on chemistry, but not so good for one on sociobiology or Marxism or psychoanalysis.

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