Capital I. Chapter 8: Constant and Variable Capital

In Chapter 8 Marx emhasises that means of production only transfer a value that exists independently of the production process, whereas labour produces a new value under the condition of that process. He introduces the categories constant capital and variable capital to clarify this distinction as a distinction within a capital value advanced (317). He concludes with a discussion of the impact of the social determination of value on the constant part of capital. The presentation of this argument draws on gothic imagery. Dead labour is “risen from the dead” (308), corpses are left behind the production process (311) and then value becomes a soul transmigrating from one use-value to another (314). We could discuss the significance of this imagery to the content of Marx’s argument.

  • The factors of the labour process play different parts.
  • Labour creates “fresh value”. Means of production transfer their values from one object to another; the values re-appear in the product.
  • The act of labour preserves the value of means of production. It does this at the same time as it creates fresh value. This double task reflects its two-fold character.
  • Labour preserves the value of means of production by incorporating them as constituent elements of a new use-value:

“… in so far as labour is productively activity directed at a particular purpose … it raises the means of production from the dead merely by entering into contact with them, infuses them with life so that they become factors of the labour proces, and combines with them to form new products” (308).

  • Treated as general labour, labour adds new value to production; treated as a specific sort of useful labour it preserves the values of the means of production.

“By the simple addition of a certain quantity of labour, new value is added, and by the quality of this added labour, the original values of the means of production are preserved in the product” (309).

  • The amount of value labour adds to its product is constant: 6 hour is always 6 hours. But the amount of material it works up in this period can change, and this changes the number of past labour-hours transferred to the product: more material more hours, less material less hours.

But 6 hours isn’t always 6 hours. It is only six hours if the labour is socially valid. Marx is beginning his discussion of productivity here.

  • The value of the means of production may vary. If the exchange-value of cotton falls, the same labour producing the same product transfers less value, if it rises the labour transfers more value.

This is the social determination of value. The rise and fall in the value of cotton results from a change in the labour-time socially necessary for its production.

  • The technical conditions of the labour process are, “conditions which are independent of his [the worker’s] labour” (310).
  • The value preserved is always proportional to the value created.
  • Value exists only in use-values, but is is also indifferent to the particularity of the use-value value that bears it.

“If therefore an article loses its use-value it also loses its value. […] But however important it may be to value that it should have some use-value to exist in, it is still a matter of complete indifference what particular object serves this purpose. We saw this when dealing with the metamorphosis of commodities” (310-11).

  • Raw materials and instruments of labour go to various places, or stay in the same place, once their values have abandoned them. Some disappear, some reappear in their product. Instruments of labour leave their corpses behind.

Here Marx refers to the tools as dying and leaving mortal remains. He also says, “the lifetime of an instrument of labour is spent in the repetition of a greater of lesser number of similar operations”. He then adds: “The instrument suffers the same fate as man” (311). Humanity is instrumentalised and disgarded when its use-value is lost.

  • Nature is a use-value without a value. Its use-value contributes to the formation of a product, but no value is transferred to the product.
  • Machinery dosen’t transfer its entire value at once but only “piece by piece”, although is doesn’t enter its whole body into the labour process.

This is an early reference to the distinction between fixed and circulating capital. Marx also, again, emphasises the distinction between its quality as use-value, the whole machine, and its value, or which only portions are transferred at a time.

  • Means of production may entire entirely into valorisation but only give part of their use-value to the product. Waste, devil’s dust.

“… the means of production can never add more value to the product than they themselves possess independently of the process in which they assist” (314).

  • The transfer of value the labour effects is an attribute of labour as such.

“While productive labour is changing the means of production in constituent elements of a new product, their value undergoes a metempsychosis. It deserts the consumed body to occupy the newly created one. But this transmigration takes place, as it were, behind the back of the actual labour in progress” (314).

  • The use-values of means production are consumed, not their values. Use-values are transformed from one form to another when they are consumed. One use-value disappears, another takes its place. Value is preserved in and through the process.
  • Whereas means of production transfer pre-existing value, labour contributes new value, it creates value. The value that replaces the value of the wage appears as a reproduction of that value. It isn’t. The replacement is brought about by the creation of a new value.

“This value is in excess of the total value of the product over the portion of its value contributed by the means of production. It is the only original value formed during this process, the only portion of the value of the product created by the process itself” (316).

  • The valorisation of the value advanced on means of production and labour power results from the prolongation of the labour-process. Valorisation produces a surplus-value that is the difference of between the value of the product and the values of means of production and labour power.

“The activity of labour-power, therefore, not only reproduces its own value, but produces value over and above this” (317).

  • The different parts that the factors of the labour process play index different elements of the capital advanced.

“The means of production on the one hand, labour-power on the other, are merely the different forms of existence which the value of the original capital assumed when it lost its money form and was transformed into the various factors of the labour process” (317).

Here Marx calls us back to the metamorphoses of the commodity form. Though interestingly ‘commodity’ is a word that is obvious for its absence in these chapters (7, 8 and 9).

  • The value of means of production does not vary during the production process. It is thus the constant part of capital, or constant capital (317).
  • The value of labour-power is constantly shifting from a constant to a variable magnitude. It is thus the variable part of capital, or variable capital (317).

Marx also notes that these two aspects, constant and variable capital, form the objective and subjective aspects of production, when considered as the valorisation process or as the labour process.

  • The value of the constant capital can change owing to a changed standard of social validity. This changed is independent from the specific valorisation process the constant capital is engaged in.

“The value of a commodity is certainly determined by the quantity of labour contained in it, but this quantity is socially determined. If the amount of labout-time socially necessary for the production of any commodity alters—and a given weight of cotton represents more labour after a bad harvest than after a good one—this reacts back on all the old commodities of the same type, because they are only individuals of the same species, and their value at any given time is measured by the labour socially necessary to produce them, i.e. by the labour necessary under the social conditions existing at the time” (318).

This is the aspect that distinguishes Marx’s theory of value. He says that the labour-time that goes into a commodity determines its value, but then adds that this time isn’t determined by the labour process (one-sidedly), but is socially determined. In Capital II he will call this a “revolution in value”, and say that capitals only survive to the degree that they conform with or subdue these revolutions (II:185).

  • A machine cannot transfer more value to its product than it contains outside its specific production process. This first means the value it has when it enters, but it also means the validity of that value during the process.

“… the change in value originates outside the process in which the machine is acting as a means of production. Once engaged in this process the machine cannot transfer more value than it possesses independently of the process” (318).

  • The proportions of constant and variable capital do not affect their function in the production process. Constant is still means of production that transfer value, variable still labour-power that creates new value.

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Reading Capital in Sydney records reading notes on Marx's Capital I, II and III, and other bits and pieces.

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