Notes on the Fragment on Machines

The “Fragment on Machines” is the best known (and perhaps least understood) portion of Marx’s tremendous collection of notes known as the Grundrisse. It has been subjected to study by seemingly every Marxist or pseudo-Marxist theorist since the 1970s, from the pioneers of the wertkritik school to Paul Mason. While the entire passage is worth reading, the most consequential portion of the “Fragment” is its sixth paragraph, which I will include here in its entirety:

The exchange of living labour for objectified labour – i.e. the positing of social labour in the form of the contradiction of capital and wage labour – is the ultimate development of the value-relation and of production resting on value. Its presupposition is – and remains – the mass of direct labour time, the quantity of labour employed, as the determinant factor in the production of wealth. But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.) Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society. Real wealth manifests itself, rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself. (What holds for machinery holds likewise for the combination of human activities and the development of human intercourse.) No longer does the worker insert a modified natural thing [Naturgegenstand] as middle link between the object [Objekt] and himself; rather, he inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process, as a means between himself and inorganic nature, mastering it. He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself. As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them. Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high. ‘Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time’ (real wealth), ‘but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’ (The Source and Remedy etc. 1821, p. 6.)

Marx begins by stating that the value relation, and therefore capitalism, is defined by the exchange of human labor power for crystallized labor values in the form of money. But Marx goes on to argue that the development of capitalism throws this relationship – the relation between living human labor power and the production of value – into increasingly sharp contradiction. As science and technology develop, and as capital accumulates, capitalist society produces rising amounts of wealth as living labor in production is eclipsed by machinery.

Marx’s real contribution to our understanding of capitalism is not his argument that labor is the source of exchange value in a capitalist society. Every classical economist agreed on this point. Marx’s critique of political economy begins where he suggests that capitalism is a moving system compelled by the contradictions inherent in the production of exchange value. Simply put: If capitalism derives all the value it produces from the appropriation of living labor, and its continued development makes this labor increasingly obsolete, then capitalism is based on a fundamental contradiction which must ultimately be its undoing.

But what does Marx mean when he suggests that “production based on exchange value breaks down”? Jehu Eaves has recently offered a sophisticated interpretation of this passage. Eaves argues that capitalism consists of two modes of production: production for exchange value and production for profit. Eaves writes that “In the first, production for exchange value, the price of the commodity is determined by labor value. In the second, production for profit, the price of the commodity is determined by profit.” Eaves then argues that the development of capitalism makes the production of profit incompatible with production on the basis of exchange value. As such, the breakdown in production on the basis of exchange value means that production for profit (capitalism) can only persist if it abandons the premises of production for exchange value – namely, its foundation on the value of living human labor.

Eaves and I agree on most of the substantial points of this argument. The development of capitalism pushes the contradiction between the premises of production on the basis of labor values and production for profit to its limits. At a certain point, the surplus value appropriated from living labor can only expand so far when machinery and technology continue to replace the worker in every sphere of production. However, I argue that the breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value implies the breakdown of capitalism itself. But, as Jehu points out, in this passage Marx does not say that the production of surplus value or capitalism breaks down.

Let’s examine what Marx argues in detail. After Marx describes the development of science and technology in relation to human labor, he states: “As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value.” Marx argues that advanced capitalism produces enormous quantities of wealth with a minimal input of labor. Picture the essentially fully-automated factories of Fanuc, the preeminent manufacturer of industrial robotics, which can run for almost a month without human intervention. At this point, Marx states that exchange value (value derived from labor) can no longer be the measure of use value. This is an important point. Marx is not saying that exchange value ceases to be the measure of the price of goods, but that the relationship between exchange value and the production of material wealth breaks down.

Marx goes on: “With that production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis.” Again, Marx argues that the direct production of use values is no longer restrained by the poverty and contradictions that characterize capitalist production. He continues: “The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.” Marx contrasts the reduction of necessary labor time under capitalism, which serves to increase surplus value, with the reduction of labor time as a whole. Any student of Marx should recognize this statement as a description of the development of a socialist society – a society wherein the object of development is the general reduction of labor time and the consequent general increase of free time. Capitalism is not concerned with setting individuals free to pursue their individual development – it is solely concerned with increasing the amount of surplus value it extracts from their labor. As such, there is reason to believe that Marx associates the breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value not with the emergence of a new mode of capitalist production, but with the end of capitalism itself.

There is an essential ambiguity in Marx’s analysis in the “Fragment.” Marx does not explicitly say that capitalism breaks down with the breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value. If he believed that it would, why did he omit such a prediction? At the same time, Marx’s analysis of the consequences of the breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value sounds like the collapse of capitalism, not the continuation of capitalism in a different form. There is little value in having a prolonged philological debate about “what Marx really thought.” Capital is not a Bible, the Grundrisse is not Marx’s hadith. The value of ‘Marxism’ is that it is a method, a self-described science, which relies on falsifiable claims about the material conditions of capitalist society.

What is essentially at stake in this debate is whether production on the basis of exchange value has already broken down, or whether capitalism is in a prolonged process of breaking down along with production on the basis of exchange value. Eaves suggests that the collapse of the gold standard in 1971, the end of the general circulation of commodity money, represents the point at which production on the premises of exchange value broke down, at which point production for profit continued along alternative lines. I argue that the collapse of the gold standard signified the beginning of the general breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value, and capitalism itself. This process has been mediated and prolonged by the massive expansion of the world market and the available labor force, ballooning uses of irredeemable sovereign and private debts, and the massive investment of surplus capital in unproductive sectors such as real estate, the financial markets, and insurance. Nevertheless, the irruption of crisis in the developed world signifies that capitalism may be reaching its ultimate limits in its ability to exploit living labor relative to the accumulation of science, technology, and machinery.

The only way to resolve this disagreement is by examining which explanation best describes how contemporary capitalism functions and where it seems to be heading.

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