[OPE-L:1561] Re: capitalism and wage labor

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Tue, 26 Mar 1996 13:11:48 -0800

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Tony, I like your post on this topic, but I have some clarification
questions with respect to certain details. You write:

> A few comments on Marx's claim that wage labor in capitalism is necessary:

Necessary for what? In volume I, Part 2 of CAPITAL Marx suggests that
the purchase of wage labor and its subsumption under capital is
necessary to explain the existence of surplus value on the presump-
tion that all commodities exchange at their respective values. In Volume
III, Part 5 Marx suggests that the circuit of industrial capital (i.e. the
circuit of capital based on wage labor) is necessary to avoid "a tremendous
fall in the rate of interest." More on these two stories below.

> 1. In his discussion of method in the GRUNDRISSE Marx
> is quite explicit that he begins with the totality that is capitalism as
> experienced in everyday life. He then abstracts to the simplest and
> most abstract determinations of this totality, and then proceeds to
> reconstruct capitalism in thought by moving to ever more complex and
> concrete determinations. So as others have said he does not have to
> deduce capitalism; it is there from the starting point.
> 2. This does not mean the derivation of the necessity of wage
> labor in capitalism follows by definition. An argument must be
> provided.

I strongly agree with this. Just out of curiousity, how would you
define the concept of the "capitalist mode of production" if it
doesn't include the purchase and subsumption of wage labor?

> 3. In the sort of theory Marx constructed there are *two* sorts
> of arguments justifying transitions from one level to another:
> "progressive" arguments that justify the transition on the grounds that
> it is necessary given what has gone before, and "regressive"
> justifications that justify the transition on the grounds that the move
> is necessary to account for aspects of the concrete totality that have
> yet to be comprehended. It would be nice if we had both sorts of
> arguments for every transition, but the theoretical reconstruction in
> thought of the concrete totality in question doesn't stand or fall on
> that.

Given the above, I take Marx's value-theoretic argument of Volume I,
Part 2 (the one which concludes that surplus value must be explained on the
basis of price-value equivalence) to be an instance of a "progressive"
argument, and Marx's historical-strategic argument (to the effect
that exploitation of labor requires at least supervisory "effort" on
the part of industrial capitalists or their proxies) to be a case of
"regressive" argument. Is this accurate?

> 4. So far the discussion of the derivation of wage labor on the
> list has solely concerned what I have termed the "progressive" argument,
> that is the argument that the introduction of wage labor is justified
> because it is required by what has gone before in CAPITAL.

But if my summary above is accurate, Marx's historical-strategic
account, pursued in various forms on this list by Mike and me, constitutes
a "regressive" alternative [not sure I like this terminology...] to the
"progressive", value-theoretic argument of Volume I.

> 5. Whatever problems there may be in the "progressive"
> justification for the introduction of wage labor, by themselves they do
> not undermine this move if compelling "regressive" considerations can be
> brought into play.

I don't entirely understand this. Suppose the "progressive"
justification is based on invalid arguments, as I suggest Marx's
value-theoretic account is. Why not just jettison the invalid argument entirely?

> 6. And so here is the question: are there any aspects of
> capitalism introduced later in the theory that can only be comprehended
> adequately if wage labor is introduced at this point? I am not sure of
> how this question can best be answered. I suspect the strongest case
> for an affirmative answer might have to do with the dynamic of technical
> change. This is obviously an essential dimension of capitalism that has
> to be accounted for.

I've suggested an answer to this, in the
guise of Marx's "historical-strategic" account of capitalist
exploitation. This argues that the subsumption of wage labor is a historically
contingent strategic response to problems confronted by capitalists in
appropriating surplus value from producers. The "dynamic of
technical change" under the capitalist mode of production is strictly
subsidiary to such considerations, because the latter explain why
this "dynamic" depended on capitalist control of production (a
strategic variable) for its realization. (More on this below.)

What's wrong with this account?

>Marx presents a compelling argument that the
> capital/wage labor relation does allow us to understand why the dynamic
> of technical change is built-into capitalism. He also suggests in other
> places that other social relations within which capital is accumulated
> do not have this same dynamic. For instance, if any advance in
> productiviyt introduced by independent producers would simply be
> appropriated by landlords or usurers, then those independent producers
> would not tend to ceaselessly introduce technological innovations.

I agree, but it seems to me that the ground for addressing such
questions is historical-materialist, and in particular
historical-strategic. For example, in his classic "What Do Bosses
Do", Marglin identifies capitalist production as a strategic response
to methods by which independent producers secure to themselves a
portion of given productivity gains.

Alternatively, granting the premise that independent producers
"would not tend to ceaselessly introduce technical innovations" if
they do not reap a portion of the productivity benefits they yield,
a strategic argument is still required to explain why adoption of
such innovations could not be induced. Since by Marx's Volume I
analysis individual capitalists stand to gain from such innovations,
why didn't they bribe workers to adopt them? The chief answer
I can think of is that such "contracts" were not easily specifiable
or enforceable--a historical-strategic argument.

> If
> this line of reasoning is correct, the introduction of wage labor can be
> justified, even if it does not follow logically from the M-C-M' circuit
> that immediately proceeds it in Volume I.

Marx's introduction of wage labor can indeed be justified, but I don't
think this was ever at issue. As suggested at the beginning of this post,
the key question is what is wage labor necessary *for*. Marx's
value-theoretic argument suggests a categorical answer to this question.
Marx's historical-strategic argument, in contrast, suggests a contingent
answer to the question: subsumption of wage labor is necessary for
realization of the *maximal level* of exploitation relative to given market
and technological conditions, rather than for the existence of exploitation.

In Volume I Marx concludes that "the transformation of money into
capital" must be explained on the basis of price-value equivalence. This
conclusion manifestly does not follow from the arguments advanced in
its support. Why should we bother defending it, even if we could?

In solidarity, Gil