Chapter 15: Machinery and Large-Scale Industry. Sections 1 – 4

I have set out the notes under thematic headings mostly corresponding with the chronology of the text. There are a couple of suggested discussion points in the end two points. See you all in the reading group meeting!


‘Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life and of the mental conceptions that flow from these relations.’[1]

For Marx, the machine is the starting point of the industrial revolution and is a particular form of technology. He wrote earlier that the economic epoch of ‘manufacture is characterized by the differentiation of the instruments of labour’[2] and the division of labour. The economic epoch of ‘large-scale industry’ for Marx is characterized by the production of machines by means of machines.[3] In Marx’s thinking based on the quotes in my last post, technology is the means (instrument) via which humans labour. I would argue that Marx posits this capacity to labour at the very core of human being. At the beginning of his chapter on Machinery, Marx sketches the transition from the technologies of feudalism to capitalism and in the process gives us a powerful template of an assembly of interrelated elements with which to think about the dynamic process of revolutionary change (both in the past and in the future). As we go from the tool or ‘dwarf like implement’ to the ‘cyclopean machine’ in Marx’s historical sketch, we travel through the economic epochs of handicraft, manufacture and then arrive at large scale industry.


The invention of the steam-engine took place during the manufacturing period and is a precondition to the development of large systems of machinery. ‘Not till the invention of Watt’s second and so called double acting steam-engine was a prime mover found which drew its own motive power from the consumption of coal and water, was entirely under man’s control, was mobile and a means of locomotion, was urban and not – like the water wheel – rural, permitted production to be concentrated in towns instead of – like water-wheels – being scattered over the countryside.’[4] The steam engine, harnessed the chemical properties of water, and is an independent ‘motive mechanism…entirely emancipated from the restraints of human strength.’[5] Here I think we see an increasing divergence of the physics concepts of ‘work,’ ‘energy’ and ‘power’ from the political economy concept of ‘labour.’ Largely because the engines powering technologies move further and further away from simple manipulations of natural sources of motive power: ‘animals, wind and even water.’[6] Marx points out that it is significant that a combination of coal and water was simultaneously a source of power and a means of locomotion, thereby allowing for the spatial reorganisation of where work and production could be understaken utilising this new form of motive power. The Harvey lecture points out that this is offcourse the beginning of the coal industry and hints that it is also the beginning of large scale mining for resources under the earth (need to check the details of where coal fits into the history of mining).


In the previous chapter we saw how technological innovation was interior to the logic of capital. In this chapter, Marx examines the historical ramifications of technological development into machine form in Manchester to draw larger conclusions about how the organsiation of societies are upturned by the Industrial revolution.

Changes that accompany the transition from artisan-made-tool to machine-made-machine as the technology of production:

  • While the tool is an augment to human organs (particularly the hand), with the development of the machine the human becomes an augment to the organs of the machine.
  • Increase in the number of products made in a given time
  • Thus machine increases the rate of surplus value by shortening the time that the worker works for her/himself (in comparison to what is the socially necessary labour time that worker needs to reproduce themselves)
  • Machine results in cheaper products and a drop in the value of labour power. (515)
    • Large-scale machinery might now be producing cheap shoes and hence the value of labour-power goes down because the cost of commodities goes down.
    • By decreasing the labour-time necessary to reproduce life in one industry, the coercive laws of competion ensure that other capitalists in that industry also catch up with this new technological innovation and market simply adjusts itself so that eventually the new technology and its corresponding labour-time of necessary becomes standard, thereby dropping the value of labour-power. (Discussion point because I’m a little confused about this one)
  • Machinery displaces the ‘skilled’ worker who previously had particular knowledge of the specific implement they used under the division of labour system of manufacture. With machinery all that is needed is humans to superintend over the dead labour of the machine.
  • Machinery as the great leveller of what Marx calls ‘natural’ differences: Women and children added to the labour pool.
  • An oversupply of surplus labour in comparison to manufactriung period because of greater entry of women and children into labour market and the replacement of the family wage by the individual wage.
  • There is a great incentive to lengthen the working day to make use of the ‘ephemeral’ profit reaped by the superior technology while the market catches up.
  • Machine can regulate the intensity of work. I.e. workers forced to ‘set more labour power in motion within a given time’[7] in rhythm to the rate at which the machinery works.
  • Partly the flooded labour pool (consisting of women, children and displaced men) and partly the increasing-labour-intensity capability of machinery creates the conditions where capitalists can work people at increasing intensity (wheres if labour is scarce, workers can simply choose to sell their labour to a capitalist who works them with less intensity).
  • The price of labour-power falls lower then its value (557) as the labour market is swapmed (Note that this is one of the few times that Marx treats the issue of what happens when a commodity are exchanged at a price that is different to its value)
  • With the shortening of working day via the Factory Acts capitalists work out that shorter duration of work can also faciliate greater intensity of work.


The great contradiction that runs throughout this chapter relates to where technological innovation fits into the ultimate goal of capital which is the production of more value then you start with. While machinery increases the rate of surplus value (the ratio of necessary labour to surplus labour), it also makes workers superfluous and hence reduces the number of workers in employment. But we know that the only commodity that can self-valorize is human labour and so there is a contradiction in reducing the number of workers. DISCUSS THIS CONTRADICTION

‘NATURE’ and ‘MAN’

Throughout this chapter an interesting set of assumptions that Marx has about where ‘nature’ ends and ‘man’ begins surface. He is situated at a historical moment when the mental conception is that women in contrast to working men do not own their labour.This is illustrated clearly by: ‘previously the worker sold his own labour-power, which he displaced of as a free agent, formally speaking, now he sells wife and child. He has become slave dealer.’[8] We know that Marx doesn’t really believe that the male worker is free and he is being cynical and tongue –in-cheek each time he brings up the freedom of exchange in the labour-market rhetoric. Nevertheless this statement draws attention to the powerful belief that women are not (or should not be) the creators of exchange value. Marx also draws attention on a number of occasions to the ‘natural’ characteristic of the labour that women perform with children (suckling etc.) which sits outside the realm of the market and hence exchange-value (rather like water and wind power sit outside the realm of ‘value’). These strands of thinking reveal two of the paternalist assumptions in the mid 19th century: a) the differential in the ability of male and female workers to sell their labour power (and hence form a contract) and b) the situating of women in the realm of nature.  The fact that these assumptions seem so outdated today itself has to do with the way the processes of capital, industrialisation and feminist social movements that emerged in tandem with these processes that have radically transformed our thinking since Marx’s time.

Marx shows that the entry of large numbers of women into the labour market results from the introduction of machinery. I found it really useful to think through the complex ways that different patriarchs can treat this working woman newly entering the workplace during the process of industrialisation: The husband or father (familial patriarch) may believe that they own her labour and may pocket the wage that she gets from the capitalist for her labour-power. This is effectively perpetuating a slave relationship inside the family unit. She may disagree with the familial patriarch and agitate for control of her own labour-power. Or otherwise the familial patriarch may believe she owns her labour and hence she pockets her wage. The capitalist patriarch on the other hand doesn’t care who gets/controls the wage in the end (woman worker or the familial patriarch), but is interested in a source of labour that is cheap and plentiful. It is also in the interest of the capitalist patriarch to flood the labour market with the entry of women thereby giving the capitalist class power to hire labour that will put up with greater exploitation (greater intensity, length of working day etc.). I found it fascinating to think about the entry of women into the workplace in the 1960s of liberal democracies such as Australia and the simultaneous rise in a feminist social movements.

Consider the quote:

‘That mighty substitute for labour and for workers, the machine, was immediately transformed into a means for increasing the number of wage-labourers by enrolling, under direct sway of capital, every member of the worker’s family, without distinction of age or sex. Compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place, not only of the children’s play, but also of independent labour at home, within customary limits, for the family itself.’[9]

QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION: How are men and women workers situated differently in relation to the changes accompanied by machine technology?

[1] Footnote 4 in Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, Penguin Classics (London, New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 493.

[2] Ibid., 460.

[3] ‘Large scale industry therefore had to take over the machine itself, its own characteristic insrument of production, and to produce machines by means of machines. It was not till it did this that it could create for itself an adequate technical foundation, and stand on its own feet.’ Ibid., 506.

[4] Ibid., 499.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 504.

[7] Ibid., 536.

[8] Ibid., 519.

[9] Ibid., 517.


2 Responses to “Chapter 15: Machinery and Large-Scale Industry. Sections 1 – 4”

  1. 1 Sangam Mittal 28 May 2013 at 5:35 am

    verry well reports on machinery and large scale industries

  2. 2 guitar 4 May 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Right here is the right site for anybody who wants to understand this topic.
    You realize a whole lot its almost tough to argue with
    you (not that I personally will need to…HaHa). You definitely put a fresh spin on a subject that’s been discussed for decades.
    Great stuff, just excellent!

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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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