[OPE-L:6437] On the commodification and subsumption of labor power

From: Gil Skillman (gskillman@MAIL.WESLEYAN.EDU)
Date: Wed Jan 23 2002 - 17:03:36 EST

In response to this comment from me,

>> Assuming a positive rate of exploitation, that is, and there's nothing
>> "paradoxical" about it.  Of course I agree--Roemer generalizes this point
>> in his Generalized Commodity Exploitation Theorem--but this misses the
>> point of my question:  is the fact that workers gain access to capital *by
>> selling their labor power as a commodity*--rather than, say, borrowing
>> money to finance constant capital costs or leasing capital goods
>> directly--essential to the process of creating surplus value under the
>> capitalist mode of production, according to Marx's account in Volume I of
>> Capital?

Paul C. writes in 6428

>Yes because of the real subsumption of labour to capital. Of course the
>formal subsumption under manufacture leaves open the possiblity of 
>independent workers hiring their means of production, and the formal
>subsumption continues to exist in parallel with the real subsumption.
>But modern technology makes the scale of the means of production
>required for most production processes so large that workers can not
>do this. This is one point of the anlysis of machinery and modern industry.

We're on the same page here, Paul.  I would have given something like the
same answer to my question, if from a slightly different angle.  Let me
pursue this a bit:

1)  This thread began with Rakesh's suggestion that I have not demonstrated
the "significance" of my critique of Chapters 4-6 in Volume I.  I note in
this connection that on one hand, Marx doesn't begin to hint at the
possible relationship between the commodification and subsumption of labor
power in his Chapter 6 analysis of the distinction between labor and labor
power.  Indeed, thanks to an apparently llth-hour editorial decision, Marx
removed all *explicit* mention of the phenomenon of real or formal
subsumption from Volume I (to the "Resultate" which he did not publish)
except for a passing reference in Chapter 16 [p. 645].  That is, we know
from Volume I Part IV that Marx associates a particular trend in the
technical conditions of production with the development of capitalism, but
we don't know what this has necessarily to do with capitalist control of
production and the commodification of labor power until we get to the
Resultate and Volume III of Capital (or the background material for both in
the Economic Mss. of 1861-63).

Conversely, the observation that commodification and (formal or real)
subsumption of labor power are connected has nothing intrinsically to do
with the relationship between commodity prices and values, the explicit
basis upon which Marx introduces and motivates his distinction between
labor and labor power.  The fact that, under the capitalist mode of
production, capitalists typically prefer to purchase labor power as a
commodity and then extract its use value by subsuming it within
capitalist-controlled production [rather than making production loans or
leasing capital goods] is not in any way illuminated by possible
connections between commodity value and price magnitudes.

Bottom line:  granting that the commodification of labor power has some
important connection to the process of labor subsumption, Marx's analysis
in Chapter 6, proceeding from his conclusions in Chapter 5, essentially
misses the boat as to what's significant about the fact that capitalists
typically purchase labor power as a (leased) commodity.  [I also argue that
the argument is invalid on its own terms, but let that pass.]

2)  Granting that there is some connection between the commodification of
labor power and its formal or real subsumption under capital, what is it?
A rough formula for Marx's argument in the Resultate, Vol. III, etc.
(references available if interested) is that *formal* subsumption is in
general necessary for capitalists to realize the full gains associated with
*absolute* surplus value, while *real* subsumption is in general necessary
for capitalists to realize the full gains associated with *relative*
surplus value.  Both forms of subsumption, of course, entail *direct*
capitalist ownership and control of the means of production, with the
corollary that capitalists hire labor power rather than workers hiring

But *if* one is going to assert that the real significance of the
commodification of labor power lies in the logic compelling the subsumption
of labor under capital, one must explain *why*.  For example, you suggest
that the typically large scale of production precludes the viability of
worker-owned firms.  But why?  Why can't workers borrow enough money to
finance large-scale production?  [It's not a matter of logical
impossibility--many of the Mondragon coops, for example, engage in
large-scale production.]  What's a *Marxian* answer to this question?  Marx
doesn't say anything about this one way or another in his Volume I analysis
of machinery and modern industry.  

Obviously, I have some ideas about the answers to these questions.  But
frankly I'm much less interested in airing these ideas than in pursuing
this thread of thought out to the sorts of contemporary issues Rakesh has
suggested we should be talking about:  the nature of capitalist
unemployment and crisis, the degree and form of immiseration of the working
class in developed capitalism, etc.  Of course, I do not presume that
anyone else on the list wants to pursue this particular thread--I just
didn't want to lose the opportunity to make a potential connection with the
larger concerns of the list collective.

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