The Social Process of Production

Following a long hiatus, during which I transferred my blog from one host to another, we are back considering K Marx’s mature economic system.

We are now in Chapter 15, volume I, “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” which, considering its future, particularly in socialist nations, one might expect K Marx to be eagerly promoting. He is not. “In handicrafts and manufacture, the worker makes use of a tool; in the factory, the machine makes use of him” (548). So, how might it have made sense (for a list of socialist leaders too long to concern us here) to feel that installing machines to make use of socialist workers was different than installing machines to make use of non-socialist workers?

One clue comes on page 547, where K Marx differentiates between what he calls “the development of the social process of production” and “the exploitation by the capitalists of that development,” seeming therein to suggest that the purely technological elaboration of production can be considered in isolation from the exploitation of this technology to produce surplus value. Is this not precisely what VI Lenin, J Stalin, M Zedong, JB Tito, et al. were doing when they leveraged the factory system on behalf of workers and not against them?

The conclusion appears inescapable that K Marx believed (mistakenly it so happens) that an institutional form in which machines make use of workers might be exploited for the benefit of workers in a socialist state. Is there any reason to conclude otherwise?

Yes, there is. The most direct avenue to this alternative reading is to ask whether K Marx thought any process of production was not social. Clearly the answer is “No.” Here he stands shoulder to shoulder not only with Aristotle and GWF Hegel, but also with a host of eighteenth century economic theorists who eagerly acknowledged that anyone caught at any time in the process of labour was by virtue of that fact its victim. Individuals either own their own private enterprise and employ dependent labourers or individuals work in such a household. Even the hermit depends upon the labour of others. It follows that when K Marx calls attention to the “social process of production” he is not directing our attention to a contrast between a process that is “social” and therefore emancipatory and a process that is not social — political? arbitrary? anti-social? economic? — and therefore oppressive.

The second point that needs making is that irrespective of whether I am producing surplus value for my employer (or for others), we can all recognize more or less humane ways to organize work. In Chapter 15 K Marx is eager to show that the efficiencies generated by large-scale machine production — efficiencies that might accrue to workers and might reduce their work load or shorten their working day — are uniformly reinvested in the production of surplus value. So, yes, K Marx identifies a social mechanism within capitalism that gives rise to a tension between labour and value. The drive for ever greater efficiency gradually makes human input into the production process increasingly obsolete. Yet, because it is subject to the greater mechanism to maximize returns on investment, and because surplus value relies solely on abstract labour time expended, labour must always be called back in to fill the gap between material wealth and value. “The economical use of the social means of production, matured and forced as in a hothouse by the factory system, is turned in the hands of capital into systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the worker while he is at work, i.e. space, light, air and protection against the dangerous or the unhealthy concomitants of the production process, not to mention the theft of appliances for the comfort of the worker. Was Fourier wrong when he called factories ‘mitigated jails’” (553)?

So, what would a regulatory shift away from the production of surplus values look like and how would it change the labour process? Presumably, if my motivation for work was not driven by the production of surplus value, I would not feel compelled to produce more wealth than the market demanded. Would this absence of compulsion also remove the drive for innovation? Clearly the answer is both yes and no. If innovation could grant me more leisure time, then this in itself could motivate innovation. Would it motivate me to produce an iPhone 6s? Perhaps not, unless, of course, doing so had the effect of shortening the work day. Beyond production itself, however, as other social mediations — the environment? family? religion? culture? — outside of private markets reasserted themselves, it is also likely that the drive to produce ever more value would itself undergo a dramatic change.

In terms of K Marx’s economic system, however, it simply makes no sense to suggest (as, e.g., VI Lenin or M Zedong apparently thought) that we would “naturally” be driven to tie ourselves ever more firmly to machine production to realize the higher production goals set by the Party, especially since the primary motivation for this social form has always been the production of greater value.