Capital I. Chapter 10: The Working Day. Sections 1-5

Capital notes-The Working Day

Hi all,  this is quite rushed-hope it’s useful in some way. Tim

I’ve tried to draw out some ideas that could considered in the context of contemporary struggle-this seemed to be a particularly appropriate chapter to try and do this.

David Harvey describes The Working Day as a ‘fantastic chapter’, which is about the question of “temporal discipline”. It also seems to mark a turn towards intense historical detail and shows much more of Marx the ‘ political agitator’, rather than the logician we’ve seen earlier. The question of the reproduction of labour power, and the changing relationship of the state to this is drawn out. Marx now demonstrates, with evidence, rather than just asserting points. Clearly temporality is still important to capitalism today, and different conditions, for instance ‘precarity’, have emerged, which we could discuss…..

If people don’t know what I mean by precarity here are some references..

1. The limits of the working day

Working day is not a “fixed but fluid quantity”. Does thing with lines to demonstrate this! Gives example of three working days.




Defines surplus labour as “extension line BC”, the part beyond socially necessary labour-time. The point about value being socially necessary labour-time comes home to roost in this chapter, with capital constantly “nibbling and cribbling” at the time spent in work and conversely struggles occurring around this..

Asserts that under capitalism-“this necessary labour can form only part of the working day; the working day can never be reduced  to this minimum.” Must be surplus labour.

-emphasis on the question of social reproduction, which previously hasn’t been prominent  That is how ‘labor-power’ can reproduce itself..

“Within the 24 hours of the natural day a man can only expend a certain quantity of his vital force. Similarly a horse can work regularly for only 8 hours a day. During part of the day the vital force must rest, sleep, during another part the man has to satisfy other physical needs, to feed, wash and clothe himself…the extension of the working day encounters moral obstacles. The worker needs time in which to satisfy his intellectual and social requirements, and the extent and the number of these requirements is conditioned by the general level of civilisation.”

I think this is an interesting starting point for further analysis; and you can see links to authors like Federici and Dalla Costa who explore the role of housework in the social reproduction of capitalism…

In the context of modern capitalism Harry Cleaver comments that: today we must extend Marx’s analysis beyond the factory to a “working day” defined not only in terms of the production of commodities on whose sale a surplus value is realized, but also in terms of work aimed at the reproduction of labor-power. The working day thus includes the time of production and the time of reproduction. This extension is required not only because capital has extended its despotism beyond the factory into the home, family and community, but because working class struggle has also developed in these areas, and the terrain of struggle over the “working day” has expanded accordingly.

Marx sees that the working day is contested and analyses the issue from the point of view of a worker and a capitalist.

Gothic language continues here beautifully…

-“Capital is dead labor, which vampire like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” pg 342

Therefore, from the perspective of the capitalist, argues that “The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour power he has bought from him. If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.”

*As a tangential side note, but interestingly, the Italian left-communist Amadeo Bordiga  expands on this point in relation to disasters and their connection to capitalism. From an Antagonism pamphlet (

For Marx, “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire like, lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Bordiga goes a step further and shows that “To exploit living labour, capital must destroy dead labour which is still useful. Loving to suck warm young blood, it kills corpses”. Hence “capitalism, oppressor of the living, is the murderer also of the dead” (ibid).

This somewhat gothic imagery is used to make a fundamental point. Buildings, bridges, roads, like consumer goods, are the products of “past crystallised labour”, dead labour. The big profits are made when they are built, but they are only built once – unless they are destroyed and need to be built again. Thus “Modern capital… has a great interest in letting the products of dead labour fall into disuse as soon as possible so as to impose their renewal with living labour, the only type from which it ‘sucks’ profit. That is why it is in seventh heaven when war breaks out and that is why it is so well trained for the practice of disasters” (ibid). *

The Worker

Whereas the worker says “You pay me for one day’s labour power, while you use three days of it. That is against our contract and the law of commodity exchange…What seems to throb their is my own heartbeat. I demand a normal working day because like every other seller, I demand the value of my commodity.”

Then “Between equal rights, force must decide. Hence in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle betwen collective capital, i.e the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e the working class”. We have reached class struggle! Fireworks!

But at the same time Marx seems to be setting up the idea that the collective achievement of a working day doesn’t break from the overall logic of capitalism, and that it can be very much integrated into it. (with the worker here just demanding the ‘value of my commodity’, rather than articulating a stronger, revolutionary politics). This point, and the political tension involved in it, sparking questions about what types of demands are useful, is developed throughout the chapter. Zizek argues on these lines today, criticising much modern activism, that: “all (that) is needed is a light shift in our perspective, and all the activity of ‘resistance,’ of bombarding those in power with impossible ‘subversive’ (ecological feminist, antiracist, anti-globalist…) demands, looks like an internal process of feeding that machine of power, providing the material to keep it in motion.”

David Harvey comments on how the concept of ‘rights’ is critiqued throughout this chapter, and you can see this in the above section, with how ultimately “force must decide”.  The chapter ends with a highly sceptical comment about the use of the Magna Carta and other declarations of ‘universal rights of humankind’-rather “the working class puts its head together”.

2. The Voracious Appetite for Surplus Labour. Manufacturer and Boyar.

Surplus labour occurrs in non-capitalist societies; Athens, for the Etruscans, Normans, etc.pg344

However, the amount of surplus labour increased greatly in societies where exchange-value predominates, not use-value.

“But as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave labour, the corvee, etc are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, whereby the sale of their products for export develops int their principal interest, the civilised horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom etc.” pg345

E.g for black slaves in Southern US

Uses the example of the Danubian principalities because surplus labour is in an “independent and immediately perceptible form”-i.e the peasants performs some labour for themselves, and then on the days of the corvee, does labour for the ‘boyar’ (presumably the lord of the area). As opposed to normal capitalism where surplus labour is not “directly visible”.

All the boyar has to do is extend the days of the corvee. Which they do-it is nominally 14 days per peasant; but in practice it is ’56 days out of 12′, which they then extend even more.

So “The 12 corvee days of the Reglement organique’, cried a boyar, drunk with victory, ‘amount to 365 days in the year’.

Role of the state is discussed in next paragraph. (pg348) Don’t think this has come up too much before.

The English Factory Act is “the negative expression of the same appetite.”

“Apart from the daily more threatening advance of the working class movement, the limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity as forced the manuring of English fields with guano. The same blind desire for profit that in the one case exhaused the soil had in the other case seized hold of the vital force of the nation at its roots.” pg 348

Suggested that the role of the state is to curb the ‘blind desire for profit’, when it threatens the reproduction of labour power.

Theme throughout chapter that suggests how capital dehumanises people, by using comparisons with agricultural devices and later machines. (we’ve already seen comparisons to horses and now the process of manuring).

Uses factory inspectors report’s to Parliament as further evidence for the “voracious appetite of the capitalists for surplus labour”.

E.g a fradulent mill owner is able to extract an extra 340 minutes of surplus labour/week

Some discussion of relation of surplus labour to periods of crisis, which is interesting in the present context.

“Crises during which production is interrupted and the factories work ‘short time’, i.e for only part of the week, naturally do not affect the tendency to extend the working day. The less business there is, the more profit has to be made on the business done. The less time spent in work, the more of that time has to be turned into surplus labour-time.”

Gives examples of this in factory crisis 1857-58, and cotton crisis 1861-65.

Therefore argues that time is structured and disciplined under capitalism. “Moments are the elements of profit” pg 352. In these moments can we also see sites of resistance, signs of everyday antagonism towards capital….A lot of ultra-left writing talks about the everyday ‘refusal of work’, comprising for instance of the process of tacking sickies, doing as little work as possible etc. Is this an important/useful concept?

Marx concludes that “In this connection, nothing is more characteristic than the designation of the workers who work full time as “full-timers”, and the children under 13 who are allowed to work six hours as ‘half-timers. The worker here is nothing more than personified labour-time. All individual distinctions are obliterated in that between ‘full-timers’ and ‘half-timers’. Theme of dehumanisation occurring from capital continues.

3. Branches of English Industry without legal limits to exploitation

Begins with a reference to the “werewolf-like hunger for surplus labour”. This makes sense as the werewolf’s transformation is a natural part of its life (the full-moon comes every month), just as trying to increase the amount of surplus labour extracted is natural to capital.

We look at “certain branches of production in which the exploitation of labour is either still unfettered even now, or was so yesterday.” Could this be similar to the countries of the ‘Global South’ today ? (though this is a somewhat problematic concept in itself)

Gives about 8 examples (by industry). This is quite a powerful section. The “unfettered” exploitation is stripping away life in most of these cases.

1. Lace Trade

2. Potteries

3. Matches

4. Wallpaper


6. Scottish agricultural labourer (this gets a sentence but a long footnote)

7. Railwaymen in London

8. Comparision between milliner (dress-maker) and blacksmith.

Concludes from the first seven examples of these therefore that: “From the motley crowd of workers of all callings, ages and sexes, who throng around us more urgently than did the souls of the slain around Ulysses, on whom we see at a glance the signs of over-work…let us select two more figures, whose striking contrast proves that  all men are alike in the face of capital”.  This has implications for resistance to capital as well:the class is “motley” and diverse, not singular and unified.

I thought it interesting that the milliner story references how their “failing ‘labour power’ is maintained by occassional supplies of sherry, port or coffee.” An Indian left group wrote an interesting paper on the connection of coffee to contemporay labour processes (I’ll try and find it)…I know i’ve consumed incredible amounts of coffee in order to write essays for uni, and lots of people drink it to get them through the work day…..

4. Day-Work and Night-Work. The Shift System.

Begins with the argument that: “The prolongation of the working day, beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, only acts as a palliative. It only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour. Capitalist production therefore drives, by its inherent nature, towards the appropriation of labour throughout the whole of the 24 hours in the day.”

Again, we can relate this to today’s context….Marx gives examples related to factory environments but the most obvious ones today seem to be more general..E.g taxi drivers and international students working all night shifts and sleeping during the day

Gives examples of how capital regards the 24-hour system. Capital only speaks of the system in its ‘normal’ form…

4 examples…Some concern over reproduction of labour-power within the statements of the manufacturers themselves. Generally demonstrating that capital conceives of itself as  a 24 hour system.

1.Naylor and Vickors, steel manufacturers

-They think that “periodic alternations of night and day labour might well do more harm than continual night-labour”, as opposed to Ellis (because of issue of labour-power reproduction)

2. Elllis from John Brown & Co, steel and iron works

3. Cammel & co, steel and iron works.

4. Sanderson, steel rolling mills and forges..

Of Sanderson, gets into a detailed and savage critique e.g “If the furnaces were kept up there would be a waste of fuel (instead of the present waste of the living substance of the workers)

5. The Struggle for a Normal Working Day

Summarises implications of earlier argument that for capital, “It is self-evident that the worker is nothing other than labour-power for the duraion of his whole life, and that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and by right labour-time, to be devoted to the self-valorisation of capital.”

“Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fullfillment of social functions..for the free play of the vital forces of his body and his mind..what foolishness!”

Machine comparisions are here…”It haggles over the meal times, where possible incorporating them into the production process itself, so that food is added to the worker as a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, and grease and oil to the machinery.”pg376

Imperative for capital is “the maximum of labour power that can be set in motion in a working day”

But Argues that (because of need for reproduction) “it would seem therefore that interests of capital point in direction of normal working day”. pg 377 As hinted earlier the establishment of a working day in itself isn’t antithetical to capitalism, is a demand that can be integrated into its functions….

This is, as like a machine, when “the part of its value that has to be reproduced daily grows greater the more rapidly the machine is worn out.”

From pg 377-381 Marx develops ideas about surplus labour and population.

The example of the slave-owner in Kentucky and Carolina is given. Because labour can be quickly replenished from the “teeming preserves”; the slave-owner has no hestitation in sacrificing large amounts of life.

Gives two more examples of this. The second, involving ‘flesh-agents’ scouting the southern agricultural districts of England for labour for manufacturers up north, culminates in failure for the capitalist, with the surplus population being absorbed.

Says that:

“What experience generally shows to the capitalist is a constant excess of population, i.e an excess in relation to capital’s need for valorisation at a given moment, although this throng of people is made up of generations of stuntend, short-lived and rapidly replaced human beings, plucked, so to speak, before they were ripe.”

This point could lead into useful discussions around the role of borders, transnational economies, migration and surplus labour today….

From here, Marx argues that is doesn’t matter if the capitalist is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person, ‘nice’ or ‘cruel’; rather:

“It is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.”

Discusses the historical trajectory of the struggle for the working day, which displays “two opposite tendencies”.

Initially the state’s Factory Acts try to lengthen and normalise the concept of the working day.

pg 382 “Of course, the pretensions of capital in its embryonic state, in its state of becoming, when it cannot yet use the sheer force of economic relations to secure its right to absorb a sufficient quantity of surplus labour, but must be aided by the power of the state-its pretensions in this situation appear very modest in comparision with the concessions it has to make, complainingly and unwillingly, in its adult condition.”

David Harvey points out that there is a similar approach in many colonial administrations as well.The colonialists have to coerce the inhabitants into work. This was a significant tension in the 19th century: in France for instance there was a concerted attempt to weed out ‘Blue Monday’, whereby the artisan class would have drunk so much on Sunday that they couldn’t get to work on Monday.

Marx refers to a debate between Postlethwayt and the unnamed author of an Essay on Trade and Commerce.

Postlethwayt is the more liberal of the two, arguing for less work-but so it will ensure English “bravery in war”. The other author wants to discipline English labourers through creating a ‘House of Terrors’. This climaxes in comparing the modern factory to the imaginary ‘House of Terror’, which is considerably the  more preferable of the two.

pg389 “The House of Terror’ for paupers, only dreamed of by the capitalist mind in 1770m was brought into being a few years later in the shape of a gigantic ‘workhouse’ for the industrial worker himself. It was called the factory. And this time the ideal was a pale shadow compared with the reality.” So what are the ‘gigantic workhouses’ of today?

Here are Harry Cleaver’s questions from his study guide:

1. Explain what determines the maximum and minimum limits to the working day.

2. Explain why it made sense in Marx’s day to look at the time workers worked in terms of the length of the working “day”. Discuss what measures would be appropriate in our time period.

*3. Discuss the argument that the concept of the length of the working day should be understood to include not only the phase of production but also activities of reproduction. What is “free” time? How can we tell if it is really free?

*4. Explicate: “Between equal rights force decides. Hence it is that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists and collective labor, i.e., the working class.”

*5. In Section 2 of Chapter 10 Marx says that “Capital did not invent surplus labor.” What then did it invent? What is the relation of this invention to the form of value? to primitive accumulation? to valorization? to our understanding surplus labor in a dynamic sense? to our understanding of what needs to be transformed in the sphere of reproduction?

6. What, according to Marx, was the impact on slavery in the United States of the mobilization of slaves to produce for the world market? Why did this occur? Explain its relation to the logic of the system?

*7. Discuss “nibbling and cribbling.”

8. What parallels can you find today to the murderous conditions of work in many English industries in the 19th Century? Are they, too, associated with working too long?

*9. Explain the logic of the capitalist move to keep production going day and night and demanding that the workers work all night long. To what degree does this pattern find itself repeated in the case of reproduction? Discuss this last question with reference to the age hierarchy.

*10. Discuss the pattern of struggle over the length of work time since the rise of capitalism. During what periods was capital on the offensive? What methods did they use? During what periods did the working class take the initiative? What methods did they use? What can we say about these trends during the 20th Century? Today?

11. What will be the effect on capitalist attempts to impose long hours of labor of the ready availability of large amounts of unemployed cheap labor? What will be the effects on the lives of workers? What conclusions might one draw for immigration policy?

12. What does this chapter tell us about competition among capitalists?

*13. Discuss the relationship between the labor theory of value and the struggle over the length of the working day.

*14. What motives may lie behind recent moves by workers in Western Europe for a shortening of the working week? In other words, what were the pressures on the European Commission that prompted it on September 20, 1983 to endorse the shortening of the working week? What are the likely reasons why European business strongly opposes such a change? Explain this from the point of view of the firm and from that of the capitalist class viewed as a social power.

*15. Discuss the international ramifications of working class success in struggling over working time in a given country — but not in all. Discuss this, in particular, in a contemporary context in the light of the multinational corporation.

16. Discuss the implications of Marx’s analysis of the struggle for a normal working day for our understanding of the way he uses the concept of “law of motion” of capitalism.


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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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