Part 5, chapters 17 and 18

Chapters 17 & 18 :

17 Changes of Magnitude in the  Price of Labour-Power and in Surplus Value

As has already been demonstrated in previous chapters of Capital, there are three circumstances that determine the relative magnitudes of the price of labour-power and of surplus-value. These are: “(1) the length of the working day, or the extensive magnitude of labour, (2) the normal intensity of labour, or its intensive magnitude, whereby a given quantity of labour is expended in a given time, and (3) the productivity of labour, whereby the same quantity of labour yields, in a given time, a greater or smaller quantity of the product, depending on the degree of development attained by the conditions of production” (p655). Proceeding from the assumptions that commodities are sold at their value, and that the price of labour-power occasionally rises above its value, but never sinks below it, Marx outlines the most prominent combinations of the above conditions and their effect upon the magnitudes of the price of labour-power and surplus-value.

I will offer only brief notes on these.

The primary combinations are as follows:

1 Length of the working day and intensity of labour constant; productivity of labour variable

In this condition, three laws determine the value of labour-power and the magnitude of surplus value.

First, in a working day of a given length, the amount of value produced remains the same, regardless of the productivity of labour. If in a working day of 8 hours, a value of $100 is produced, then this value will be spread across a greater or smaller number of commodities. The mass of use-values produced may vary with productivity, but the value produced in a day of work remains the same.

Second, the value of labour-power and surplus-value vary in opposite directions. Taking the given quantity of $100 from above, this constant quantity is the sum of the surplus-value and the value of labour-power, for eg it is constituted by $50 worth of labour-power and $50 surplus-value. It is obvious that one of these parts cannot vary without an inverse variation in the other part. They cannot rise or fall simultaneously. The value of labour-power cannot fall, thus an increase in surplus-value cannot occur, without an increase in the productivity of labour. “An increase in the productivity of labour causes a fall in the value of labour-power and a consequent rise in the surplus-value, while on the other hand, a decrease in the productivity of labour causes a rise in the value of labour-power and a fall in surplus-value” (p657). The variation in this case, however, is not necessarily in the same proportion. The proportional variation depends upon the original magnitude.

Third,  “Increase or diminution in surplus-value os always the consequence, and never the cause, of the corresponding diminution or increase in the value of labour-power” (p658). A change in the magnitude of surplus-value therefore presupposes a change in the value of labour-power, brought about by a change in the productivity of labour. As we know, the value of labour-power is determined by a certain quantity of means of subsistence. “It is the value and not the mass of these means of subsistence that varies with the productivity of labour” (p659). “It is possible, given increasing productivity of labour, for the price of labour power to fall constantly and for this fall to be accompanied by a constant growth in the mass of the worker’s means of subsistence. But in relative terms, i.e. in comparison with surplus-value, the value of labour-power would keep falling, and thus the abyss between the life-situation of the worker and that of the capitalist would keep widening” (p659).

2 Length of working day and productivity of labour constant; intensity of labour variable

In this situation the working, the working day of increased intensity is embodied in more products than one of less intensity. Whilst the increased productivity of labour also increased the amount of commodities, in that case there was a decrease in the amount of value of each individual commodity, in this case there is an increase in output without decrease in value. With length of day constant, an increase in intensity “will be incorporated in increased amount of value…and increased amount of money” (p661). With variable intensity of labour, a work day of constant length produces a variable amount of value.

3 Productivity and intensity of labour constant; length of working day variable

Shortening the working day, under the given conditions (constant productivity and intensity), reduces the amount of surplus-value and labour, as the value of labour-power remains unchanged. Bourgeois arguments against the shortening of the working day assume these conditions. However, “a shortening of the working day either follows upon, or immediately precedes,  change in the productivity and the intensity of labour” (p663).

Lengthening the working day, taking the numbers above of 8 hours work, $100 total value produced, $50 in labour-power and $50 in surplus-value. If working day increases by 2 hours, to 10 hours, and the price of labour-power remains the same, the amount of surplus labour increases both absolutely and relatively. There is no absolute change in the value of labour-power, yet relatively it falls. In this condition, “the change in the relative magnitude of labour-power is the result of the change in the absolute magnitude in surplus-value” (p663).

Under the present conditions there is the possibility of an increase in both surplus-value and the price of labour-power.

4 Simultaneous variations in the duration, productivity and intensity of labour

Marx identifies two important combinations here:

Diminishing productivity of labour with simultaneous lengthening of working day. Taking again the numbers above. 8 hours, $50 in labour-power (4 hours necessary labour time @ $12.50 an hour) and surplus value (4 hours surplus labour), $100 in total. If there is a rise in the price of the products of subsistence, i.e. those that determine value of labour-power, such that necessary labour time goes up from 4 to 5 hours, or value of labour-power rises to $62.50, if the length of the working day remains the same (8 hours) the surplus-value goes down to $37.50, or from 4-3 hours. If the day is increased by 1 hour, to 9 hours, the surplus-value returns to $50, or 4 hours surplus, but its relative magnitude will fall against the necessary labour time of 5 hours. If an increase of 1 more hour takes place, the proportions continue unchanged, but the absolute amount of surplus-value is increased.

Increasing intensity and productivity of labour with simultaneous shortening of the working day. Increasing intensity and productivity both reduce the amount of labour necessary to produce subsistence. This leads Marx to comment on the antagonism over time, and the potential of communist time against capitalist time. “If the whole working day were to shrink to the length of its necessary component, surplus labour would vanish, something which is impossible under the regime of capital. Only the abolition of the capitalist form of production would permit the reduction of the working day to necessary labour-time”, but this too would mean an expansion of necessary labour time for two reasons, first because the conditions of life would improve, and because what is considered surplus now count as necessary as it would form a social fund for reserve and accumulation.

“The capitalist mode of production, while it enforces economy in each individual business, also begets, by its anarchic system of competition, the most outrageous squandering of labour-power and of the social means of production, not to mention the creation of a vast number of functions at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous”.

“In capitalist society, free-time is produced for one class by the conversion of the whole lifetime of the masses into labour-time”. (p667)

Chapter 18 Different Formulae for the Rate of Surplus-Value

Different representations of the rate of surplus-value are given here, which demonstrates the flaws in the approach taken by the classical political economists.

the formulations of the political economists “conceal the specific character of the capital-relation, namely the fact that variable capital is exchanged for living labour-power, and that the worker is therefore excluded from the product. Instead of revealing the capital-relation they show us the false semblance of a relation of association, in which worker and capitalist divide the product in proportion to the different elements which they respectively contribute towards its formation” (p671). Labour commanded, Smith’s wage, misses the essence of capital. “Capital… is not only the command over labour, as Smith thought. It is essentially command over unpaid labour… The secret of the self-valorisation of capital resolves itself into the fact that it has as its disposal a definite quantity of the unpaid labour of other people” (p672).


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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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