Chapter 8: Constant and Variable Capital

Outline of Marx's Analysis


Although aimed at clarifying and elaborating the content of the previous chapter, Marx's use of language in this chapter is misleading. Writing of labor "preserving," "transferring" or "creating" value makes value sound like some metaphysical essence, some ethereal substance which can be conjured into being, conserved or transferred from one object to another. This is particularly true when he writes of value undergoing a "metempsychosis," a term which usually refers to the transmigration of souls from one body to another. These verbs, preserve, create, transfer, are all transitive verbs that seem to have an object: value. Because value is not an object, but a sociopolitical aspect of labor, these words obscure the phenomena they are intended to evoke. We can, however, bring those phenomena into the light.

"Creating" value is nothing more than the simple act of working within the context of capitalist institutions. Workers "create" value every time their labor performs the roles capital assigns to it, i.e., creating commodities that are sold and on which a surplus-value is realized, and, in the process, serving to keep people's lives centered on work, now and in the future. "Preserving" or "transferring" value refers simply to how useful labor, if it is performed competently, guarantees that the SNLT previously embodied in raw materials and machinery becomes part of the total SNLT required for the creation of the final product. Incompetent labor (or intentional sabotage), which results in wasted raw materials, broken machinery or flawed products, not only fails to add new value but nullifies the previous labor that went into producing the means of production. It is unfortunate that the language Marx chose is not clearer.

In this chapter, as in Chapter 7, Marx further develops the fundamental dichotomy he set out in Chapter 1 between useful labor and abstract labor. Here it is the useful labor—the actual concrete processes of labor that produce a use-value—which preserves, through its competence, the labor already invested in prior stages of production. It is the additional characteristic of that useful labor as abstract labor, that makes it count as additional value.

With respect to his comments on the repair of machinery, his point is a simple one: the labor it takes to create a machine and the labor it takes to keep it running are both necessary for its existence as a machine and count as value. This analysis of the labor that repairs machinery can be extended to the labor that repairs labor-power. Later on in chapter 23 of Capital Marx has some analysis of this issue but we can at least mention it here.

Repairing and Producing Labor Power

In Chapter 6, the labor required to reproduce the ability and willingness to work was defined as that embodied in the means of subsistence. The labor of repairing labor-power, analogous to that which repairs machinery, raises new issues. Operating coffee machines at work to obtain the caffeine necessary to stay alert on-the-job is labor that obviously repairs and maintains labor-power. But brewing off-the-job morning coffee to wake up, get up, get to work and begin work, also renews labor-power. Then there's the work of caring for those on sick leave, of patching up the psychological wounds incurred on the job. In short, much of housework contributes to the daily, weekly and annual repair of labor-power. This labor neither creates commodities purchased with the wage, nor does it create commodities that the capitalist purchases and then provides to the worker. Such labor, because it does not produce a capitalist marketed good, is not counted in the value of labor-power. It certainly influences that value, as I pointed out in my commentary on Chapter 6, but unlike the labor that repairs machinery, it is not counted in the value of labor-power.

Yet, the amount of work involved in repairing labor-power is probably much greater than that involved in repairing machinery. When you count all the work done by individuals taking care of themselves and all the work done by other family members and friends, you have a tremendous amount. Unaccounted for in Marx's value theory, it also remains uncounted in capitalist measures of labor performed or of (market) value produced, e.g., national product accounting that only tallies up the market values of sold commodities. Only when such work is done by professional cooks, housekeepers, cleaning establishments, prostitutes, psychotherapists, and so on, are the hours of work measured and the purchased service counted as part of the value of labor-power.

One place where the large extent of such work is recognized is in the Global South—because so much effort goes into subistence farming, in both rural communities and garden patches in cities, often maintained by rural-urban migrants. So extensive is such work that it supports not only those performing it but often also provides a necessary subsidy for those working at below subsistence wages, or those who have lost their jobs. Extended families that include those growing food in many areas constitute the only form of "welfare" available.

Even in the developed countries such labor is important. In the early 1970s when food prices jumped as a result of Nixon Administration manipulation of the supply and demand for agricultural goods, there was a rapid expansion in home gardening and canning. This home production constituted an expansion of housework to offset an attack on the real wage (the value of labor-power). People wanted to continue to eat as well as they did before prices jumped. Of course, even when they were successful in maintaining their standards of consumption, the increase in the amount of work they were forced to perform to do so meant a drop in that part of their standard of living made up of leisure time.

In general the amount of work involved in patching up, in repairing labor power is probably much greater than that involved in repairing machinery. When you count all the work done by individuals trying to take care of themselves and all the work done by spouses and even kids, you have a tremendous amount of work—and none of it is taken into account by capitalist accounting methods, e.g., national income accounting which only tallies up the market values of sold commodities. Only when workers are forced to have such work done by professionals: cooks, housekeepers, cleaning establishments, prostitutes, psychotherapists, and so on, does such work produce a marketed service that is counted as part of the value of labor power.

Against this almost universal refusal to recognize the importance and quantity of housework, some Marxist feminists have pointed out its essential role in the reproduction of capital and created an international "wages for housework" campaign of women demanding regular payment for their work of procreating, rearing and repairing labor-power. In some places, government pro-natalist policies have indirectly recognized the validity of these arguments by awarding money to women for having children. In some recent divorce and separation legal cases, women and some hired economists have argued persuasively that such work has economic value. A few economists have even argued that housework should have a value imputed to it and should be included in measures of Gross National Product.

Recommended Further Reading

Concepts For Review

    creation of value
    preservation of value

Questions For Review

(An * means that one possible answer to the question can be found at the end of the study guide.)

*1. What do you think Marx means by the "creation" or "preservation" of value? If you disagree with the interpretation I have set forward, explain your reasons.

2. Define and distinguish constant and variable capital. In what sense is there a conflict between the two?

3. Why might workers want more constant capital as opposed to less?

*4. Discuss the analogy I have suggested between the work of repairing constant capital and that of repairing variable capital. What do you think of the way Marx ignores housework in his calculation of the value of labor power?

5. What is there about subsistence peasants that makes it cheap for capitalists to hire them?

*6. What would be the counterparts of constant and variable capital in the "industry" of creating and repairing labor power?