[OPE-L:2322] Re: Chapter 5 and Marx's method

Gil Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Wed, 22 May 1996 08:27:02 -0700

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I've held off responding to Duncan's post 2275 because I know he wanted to
hear from other members of the list concerning the appropriate conception of
labor power. It's been a few days now since Michael W.'s post on the topic,
and I think that Duncan's questions touch on important issues. With that
excuse I'll inject a
short reply and see if it prompts more discussion.

In response to my remarks:
>> Re the former: I don't see how one could follow Marx's usage and still say,
>> re "lending...to poor peasants, or sharecroppers" [spendthrift lords, I
>> think, fall in a different category], that "there isn't any labor-power in
>> those situations, only labor." This seems definitionally impossible, since
>> Marx means by labor-power "the aggregate of those mental and physical
>> capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a
>> human being, capabilities which he sets in motion **whenever he produces a
>> use-value of any kind.**" [I, 271, Penguin; emphasis added] By this
>> labor necessarily implies the expression or expenditure of labor

Duncan writes:

>I guess I always saw the definition of labor-power as more "dialectical",
>that is arising out of the real social situation. You could define it in a
>dictionary sense as the capacity to labor in any situation, in particular
>under any social relations of production, but it's striking that the
>distinction only becomes necessary when, as Marx says, "labor-power
>becomes a commodity". (There's already been some discussion on the list of
>the peculiar and somewhat metaphorical sense in which labor-power becomes
>a "commodity".)

I agree that the social significance of labor power is historically
contingent--if "dialectical" is the appropriate term for that, it's fine
with me. But I disagree that the distinction between labor power and labor
"only becomes necessary when...labor power becomes a commodity...". I
consider the commodification of labor power as symptomatic of a particular
historical stage of class struggle relating to extraction of labor from
labor power. But *all* surplus value-generating circuits of capital,
including those which preceded the capitalist mode of production, faced the
strategic problem of extracting labor from labor power, albeit with
different methods and correspondingly different historical implications.

1) Usury capitalists appropriated surplus value by charging interest for the
means of production (in kind or in monetary form) they loaned to small
producers. This appropriation was problematic to the extent that these
producers could take the loan and yet not produce enough value to cover the
equivalent of the wage *and* the interest payment. However, unlike the
typical worker under the capitalist mode of production, these producers
owned some of their own means of production, so that the usurer could
require collateral. This is historically self-limiting, however, since as
workers lose their property (partly through unintended defaults), usurers
lose the ability to take collateral. Thus, as Marx says, "...as soon as the
worker no longer possesses any conditions of production...the power of the
usurer likewise comes to an end." [Marx-Engels Collected Works, V. 32, 534]

2) At least in principle, proto-industrial merchant capitalists (e.g. those
associated with the putting-out system) exercised somewhat more control over
the labor process than did usury capitalists, since they specified what was
to be produced, supplied the inputs and sold the resulting output, and
typically paid workers by the piece. But as spelled out for example in
Stephen Marglin's classic article, even these measures did not guarantee
profit-maximizing labor extraction, there being problems of embezzlement,
quality control, and flexibility in the rate of production. These problems
became increasingly severe as markets grew.

3) The commodification of labor power under the capitalist mode of
production is not a necessary consequence of its essential precondition,
i.e. the creation of a class of workers free in the double sense. I.e.
there is no *logical* (nor, I might add, *value-theoretic*) reason why even
propertyless workers couldn't borrow *all* the means of production from
capitalists, or else provide labor *services* to capitalists as in the
putting-out system. But for strategic reasons such as those indicated
above, this wouldn't have supported profit-maximizing levels of labor
extraction. Thus the commodification of labor power is a *strategic*
response to the heightened difficulties capitalists face in extracting labor
from labor power once workers are propertyless.

Absent such strategic reasoning, doesn't it seem a bit paradoxical that the
*deterioration* of workers' economic status, and corresponding increasing
concentration of wealth among capitalists, should imply an *increasing*
burden for profit-seeking capitalists, such that they must under such
conditions undertake the effort of directing production?

For these reasons, I don't think that the significance of the distinction
between labor and labor power at all depends on the commodification of the

In solidarity, Gil