Chapter 15: Machinery and Modern Industry

Section 1. The Development of Machinery

Outline of Marx's Discussion


One of the basic themes of this chapter is set out in the very first paragraph where Marx quotes John Stuart Mill to the effect that machines have not "lightened the day's toil of any human being." Marx's response, of course, is that in capitalism machinery is not introduced to lighten toil but to increase relative surplus value. In this way he introduces an argument which will frequently appear in the chapter: the paradox of capitalism that the very machinery which reduces the effort necessary to produce a given product results in more work rather than less. The various ways in which machinery causes an increase in labor will be explored at different points in the text.

What his exposition of the nature of machines primarily deals with is the way in which machines accomplish the same tasks as those carried out by workers. They substitute both mechanical contrivances for the various gesture and operations of the workers and motor power for human energy. He traces the development of machines from relatively simple substitutes for particular operations to complex systems of machinery driven by non-human energy sources. But the story is always the same: machines accomplish that transformation of non-human nature that he identified in Chapter 7 as the nature of human work. Thus particular machines replace particular workers and systems of machines replace large numbers of co-operating workers. In the place of the co-operation of humans, we have the co-operation of machines. In this process some humans are rendered redundant and expelled from production and others are reduced to being mere tenders of machines.

This displacement accomplishes what is for Marx a fundamental change in the work process, one which had already begun in manufacturing but which is completed in modern industry. That change is the replacement of the central role of the worker in commanding the work process by the machine. From being the central subject who works, the worker is demoted to being one more cog in the system of machines.

While Marx's analysis is clearly focused on the factory —most of his examples are drawn from main sectors of 19th Century British industry— bringing that analysis up to date requires its application to the world outside the factory which has also been transformed by the proliferation of machines. Increasingly throughout the 20th Century machines have been developed not merely as mechanisms of production but also as elements of consumption. To some degree Marx anticipates this as he notes "But as well as this, the revolution in the modes of production of industry and agriculture made necessary a revolution in the general conditions of the social process of production, i.e., in the means of communication and transport. . . . Hence quite apart from the immense transformation which took place in shipbuilding, the means of communication and transport gradually adapted themselves to the mode of production of large-scale industry by means of a system of river steamers, railways, ocean steamers and telegraphs." (pp. 505-506) To these we can add the 20th Century proliferation of automobiles, trucks, airplanes, telephone, radio and television, computer networks. But if these developments amounted, in part, to an "adaptation" of and to the rise of machine systems in production, they carried those systems into the extra-factory world of everyday life. Ocean steamers, railways, automobiles and airplanes are not only adjuncts to production but, to varying degrees, they also organize consumption and provide the means not merely of the reproduction of labor power but also become vehicles of struggle and self-valorization. Just as Marx studied the implications of this transformation for our understandings of the dynamics of exploitation and class struggle in the factory, so can we study the implications for this wider proliferation for our struggles and our desires.

What Marx's analysis provided is a methodological point of departure for querying the nature and meaning of machine technology whereever we find it. For example, take the clothes washing machine, a common fixture in most households. This machine, like those that Marx discusses, substitutes a mechanism for human work. Sometimes these machines are used in capitalist enterprise: cleaning factories where they are used alongside dry-cleaning machines, pressing machines, and so on. Commonly they are used in the home that is not organized as a business. Technically the role is the same, but socially and politically it is quite different. In the factory, the machine substitutes for waged labor and allows the capitalist to process more dirty fabric (clothes, linen, etc) while dispensing with workers. In the home, the washing machine allows the unwaged houseworker to accomplish the same tasks of cleaning but in much less time and with much less effort. But if there is displacement of work, there is normally no displacement of workers —with the possible exception of a reduced marriage rate by those who feel less need of a spouse/domestic worker. Whereas, as we will see in Capital the threat to employment often led workers to resist and attack machines, in the household houseworkers, usually housewives more commonly fought for machines, i.e., for the expenditure of household wages on such machines, because of the dramatic reduction in their work loads. Such expenditure undoubtedly often amounted to a diversion of the wage in a direction that benefited housewives much more than waged husbands and thus reflected and contributed to a shift in burdens of work and power. As such the proliferation of such labor-savings devices in the 20th Century has certainly been a reflection of the growing power of women to escape servitude and improve their lives vis à vis men.

Yet, there has been another analogy between the capitalist use of the machine in the factory and the housewife's use of such machines in the home. Just as in the former case, the machine was manipulated, as we will see to increase work, so too have the dynamics of capitalist intervention in the home tended to increase the very work that such machines have reduced. How? First, through advertising the peddlers of both washing machines and their associated products, e.g., soaps, have raised expectations and standards of acceptable levels of "cleanness" to the point where washing is much more frequent than ever before. Advertisements condemning "ring around the collar" or "spots on the glasses" that might offend employer or mother-in-law spur houseworkers to more frequent and more thorough cleaning. While it may be that even with such repetition, clothes cleaning still requires less time than it used to, at the level of the household as a whole with all its "labor-saving" devices, there is some evidence that in many families the total amount of housework has not been reduced by the introduction of such machines —and thus their potential for the liberation of human life-time from work has not been realized.

Section 2. The Value Transferred By the Machinery to the Product

Outline of Marx's Discussion


The basic message of this section is the same as that of Chapter 8 on constant and variable capital: machinery, as a sophisticated form of constant capital, only adds to the value of the product what it transfers to it. It does not create any new value. As I discussed in my commentary on Chapter 8 this is a misleading way of putting things. The "transference" under consideration here is merely the validation of the contribution of the labor that went into creating the machine to the final product created with the use of the machine. Therefore the amount of value "transferred" depends on how much labor went into the machine and how much product is processed by the machine. The greater the former, the more transferred. But, the greater the latter, the less transferred per unit of output. So, the longer a machine lasts, ceterus paribus, the smaller the amount of value attributable to it per unit of product, i.e., the less of a role the original labor of producing the machine plays in the creation of the final product.

There are two essential ingredients in the creation of machines and in their functioning which deserve comment here: "natural forces" and "science". Now for Marx "natural forces" includes both non-human forces like steam, water, etc. and human forces like "the productive forces resulting from co-operation". Although he doesn't define "science", it is certainly one of the elements of human co-operation. Science has developed as a collective way of thinking about and interacting with the world through the interconnected activities of vast numbers of people. Instead of saying, as he does in footnote 23 that "'Alien' science is incorporated by capital just as 'alien' labor is.", Marx should say "as one aspect of 'alien' labor". For what is science if not the development and elaboration of just that thinking "will" which Marx defined in Chapter 7 as making the worst of architects better than the best of bees?

As with science, so too with "technology" which is traditionally defined as the "application of science to industry". In footnote 4 of the previous section, Marx noted that "a critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual." (p. 493) With this he was insisting on the collective character of technological change. As with science, its application is the work of vast numbers across space and time. The contributions of individuals are often critical, but they are always building on the work of others before them and along side them. They "invent" in response to perceived real problems, generally having considerable experience and related materials close at hand.

Unfortunately, although considerable history of scientific and technological development has been written since Marx's time, the vast majority of it remains unknown to most people. Instead, popular ideas derive from Hollywood images of isolated "mad scientists" and the failure to teach the history in schools. In the case of Hollywood, take the recent, hugely popular film Back to the Future. That film and its sequel presented, once again, invention as the work of a crazy (albeit lovable) inventor working out of his home in total isolation. In the case of schools, it is common at the elementary and secondary level to teach children about "great inventors" and their inventions in ways which totally abstract from the socio-historical contexts within which they worked. The purpose is undoubtedly ideological —reinforcing bourgeois individualism— and pedagogical —you the individual child can hope to achieve great things— but the method obfuscates any real understanding of invention and technological change and by mystifying it transforms the "inventors" into magicians and their creativity into a totally magical and unknowable art. Well meaning teachers who then pressure every student to be an "inventor" through obligatory and competitive "invention fairs" complete the alienation from creativity by asking children to "invent" in total abstraction from the normal social contexts and processes in which real invention takes place. Under these circumstances, most of the children have nothing substantial to suggest and wind up feeling silly and inadequate in comparison with the inventors and inventions they are given as role models. The end result is the opposite of that intended: an alienation from imagination of those who can not understand that their lack of ideas derives from a social rather than an individual failing.

*In the 1950s as the centrality of science and technology to industrial development (via productivity increases and relative surplus value) became preoccupations of policy makers, the negative public perception of scientists came to be perceived as a problem. In an era when Sputnik and aggregate production functions dictated increased investment in human capital and the expansion of science curriculum in public schools, efforts were made to change both popular images and the in-group orientation of scientists who wrote only for each other in technical and mathematical jargon indecipherable by the general public.

** Although the literature of science fiction has often reproduced this same misunderstanding of the processes of invention —compare H. G. Wells' Time Machine with Back to the Future— the fact that it has increasingly been written by scientists and those with serious scientific understanding has meant that it sometimes gives a much truer portrayal of the social processes of discovery.

Section 3. The Most Immediate Effects of Machine Production on the Worker

Outline of Marx's Discussion


The Great Paradox

The "most immediate effects of machinery on the worker" which Marx describes here are all negative: the introduction of machinery is used by capital to impose work on women and children, to prolong the working day and to intensify labor. The great paradox which Marx sees in the capitalist use of machinery appears fully elaborated here: the machine reduces the need for muscle power —which should lighten labor— but draws in and exhausts women and children; the machine makes it possible to produce more in a shorter period —which should lighten labor— but it is used instead to prolong it; the machine which allows one to accomplish the work of many faster than ever —which should lighten labor— is used to make the one work at an exhaustingly rapid pace. Thus at the end of section (b) he writes:

Hence too the economic paradox that the most powerful instrument for reducing labor-time suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labor-time at capital's disposal for its own valorization. (p. 532)

In quoting from Aristotle's Politics and the poetry of Antipater and Stolberg, Marx is showing how this capitalist use of the machine amounts to a betrayal of the dreams and hopes of humanity. From time immemorial humans have sought to use their intelligence and imagination not only to improve their world but to reduce their drudgery and free themselves for new and more diverse pursuits. In some ways, as Marx and Engels argued in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism liberates the possibilities for such developments by destroying many traditional barriers to innovation and change. But even in its historically unprecedented flexibility, capitalism imposes new barriers —including the endlessness of its imposition of work.

The Historical Relation Between Absolute and Relative Surplus Value

Although, as this chapter makes clear, absolute and relative surplus value often co-exist as capitalist strategies, Marx nevertheless suggests a fundamental historical linkage between the two approaches. On the one hand, during the period of the "formal" subordination of labor to capital, before there is any capitalist modification of the labor process, absolute surplus value dominates, i.e., the main way capitalist seek to extract more surplus labor is through making workers work longer. On the other hand, the historical success of workers' resistance to absolute surplus value forces capital to shift its emphasis to relative surplus value.

As soon as the gradual upsurge of working-class revolt had compelled Parliament compulsorily to shorten the hours of labor, and to begin by imposing a normal working day on factories properly so called, i.e., from the moment that it was made impossible once and for all to increase the production of surplus-value by prolonging the working day, capital threw itself with all its might, and in full awareness of the situation, into the production of relative surplus value, by speeding up the development of the machine system. (pp. 533-4)

Capital's tendency, as soon as a prolongation of the hours of labor is once for all forbidden, is to compensate for this by systematically raising the intensity of labor, and converting every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means for soaking up labor-power. (p. 542)

It is not an exaggeration, therefore, to argue that throughout the last 150 years as the working class has been on the offensive attacking absolute surplus value by reducing the amount of official waged work time, capital has come increasingly to depend upon relative surplus value strategies for its survival and expansion. Indeed, with the development of the Keynesian state in the period following the Great Depression of the 1930s, capital sought the institutionalization of relative surplus value through a variety of productivity deals, formal and informal, that linked rising wages and profits to rising productivity. By creating an institutional framework within which workers' struggles for less work and more pay could be paid for by increased investment and rising productivity, relative surplus value became systematized as a key component of capitalist strategy and growth. This formalization can be seen partly in collective bargaining and industrial union contracts and partly in the tax and investment policies of the state that has quite consciously fostered technological change with the object of achieving steady growth in productivity. While such policies have fairly consistently favored investment in new and better capital equipment in private industry, they have also expanded investment in science and technology outside the factory both through research and development programs and through human capital investment in education. The contemporary preoccupation with "high tech" industrialization is only the latest phase in a long history of relative surplus value strategies.

Machinery and Life outside the Factory

Although, as we have seen, Marx spends little time in Capital analyzing life outside the factory, his discussion of the ways in which the development of machinery allow the capitalist to draw women and children into production leads him to a recognition of the interrelatedness of waged and unwaged work. Factory inspector reports and other sources indicate how time and energy spent by women and children on the waged job dramatically reduces the time and energy available for both the work of reproduction and life more generally. He cites evidence of high infant mortality rates resulting from the neglect or mistreatment of the young by women whose time is eaten up by the factory. * He notes observations that women working long hours can not keep up with their traditional domestic tasks and young girls forced to work for wages never even learn the skills necessary. As a result domestic work (e.g., sewing and mending ) does not get done and working class families either go without or are forced to purchase commodities to replace what they might have produced themselves at home (e.g., new clothes) —thus reducing their real disposable income. The 19th Century evidence from periods of crisis and high female unemployment about how family health often improved with increased time at home, e.g., from increased breast feeding, resembles contemporary experience in the Third World where the fall in agricultural export prices sometimes leads to improved peasant health, e.g., via improved nutrition as family effort is redirected from export to subsistence crop production.

*At this point in the text, Marx's focus is on women and children but it should be obvious that the long hours and exhausting expenditure of energy required of men also played hob with the relations among fathers, wives and children. The brutality and violence of the factory has often been brought home by those who have been forced to w ork there. Listen, for example, to the song "Factory" by Bruce Springsteen and note the lines "Dad comes through the gates with death in his eyes, somebody's gonna get hurt tonight". Where blue collar workers often bring home physical brutality, middle class white collar workers bring home the psychological brutality of the office and carry out the same kind of transference of their anger to their children; only the character of mistreatment differs.

More generally, Marx's analysis draws our attention to the close connection between waged and unwaged work, between the work of production and the work of reproduction. In the early 20th Century as restrictions on women's and children's wage labor grew and both were increasingly expelled from waged work, the reconstitution of the family became a preoccupation of capitalist social policy makers who contributed both to the emergence of the modern nuclear family (of a male wage earner, an unwaged housewife and unwaged children) and such complementary institutions as the public school system. The early efforts to give waged working class children some education —that Marx critiques in this chapter— becomes a much more generalized effort to re-incarcerate all children. Over the last thirty years as women have re-entered the waged labor market in large and growing numbers both families and social policy makers have been concerned with the impact on family life and reproduction. The substitution of collective day-care for parental care, the phenomenon of latch-key children, rising divorce rates and child abuse have all become widely discussed and hotly debated issues. Positions have ranged from feminist and gay efforts to create (and demand the social acceptance of) a wider range of what are considered "healthy" family structures to conservative attempts to re-impose the rapidly disappearing nuclear family structure by making alternatives illegal or socially unacceptable. In short, the development of these debates has forced recognition of the very interrelatedness that Marx emphasized back in the 1860s.

As mentioned in the commentary on section one above, machines, and the subordination of life to them, has become omnipresent not only in the factory but in the larger social factory. Besides the domain of housework, already discussed, machines have also been used to organize the time of recreation such that it becomes that of re-creation of labor power. Probably one of the most widely commented examples of this is the television —which has been generally portrayed as a device whose entertainment reduces the worker to a passive witness to an ever changing spectacle manipulated to inculcate passivity more generally. This interpretation has been a application of the analysis of the Frankfort School and critical theory whose theorists elaborated a critique of traditional "culture" as dividing the population into an active minority —those who perform— and a passive majority —those who witness. A more recent example of this kind of subordination, of only slightly less passive responses, was the first generation of arcade computer games which activate only hand-eye motor responses and proved, for some, most addicting. The following song, "Machines" by the City Boys reproduces and comments on such addiction.


Win or lose, pick and choose
You put your money in the slot
Hold and wait, hesitate
The name of the game is to have and have not
You don't know you lost till you know what you've got
Give me a quarter, a kroner, a yen
We all wind up wasted so try it again

Have you spent what you made?
Or is your pocket heavyweight?
There's a price to be paid
Your heart in your mouth as the points start to grow
Your hands tell you stop when your head says to go
Give me a quarter, a kroner, a yen
We all wind up wasted so try it again

Machines, machines, Michael loves machines
Always waiting for the delay
Machines, machines, Michael loves machines
He's always looking for another game to play
Another game to play, another game to play.

Every nerve every bone
Is getting ready for the shot
It's a world of it's own
You don't see a thing as the crowd gathers round
They call out your name but you don't hear a sound
Give me a quarter, a kroner, a yen
We all wind up wasted so try it again

Machines, machines, Michael loves machines
Always waiting for the delay
Machines, machines, Michael loves machines
He's always looking for another game to play
another game to play, another game to play

At the end of the day
There's two more buttons left to press
It's the ultimate game
Your video playmate is ready and set
It's so hard to choose when it's Russian Roulette
Give me a quarter, a kroner, a yen
We all wind up wasted so try it again.

Machines, machines, Michael loves machines
Always waiting for the delay
Machines, machines, Michael loves machines
He's always looking for another game to play
Another game to play, another game to play.

City Boy,
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
Vertigo 6360173, 1979. Bear Tracks CD 979 419 AH.

Even today as more interactive software has widen the possibilities of self-activity vis à vis computer games, a visit to the arcade centers of any shopping mall will provide opportunities to witness the kind of manic, obsessive behavior being critiqued in the song. The current crop of arcade games has replaced space invaders with street fighting and friends can duke it out with each other or with gangs, but the nature of the "entertainment" has changed little. On the positive side, at the level of eye-hand coordination such games have an attraction similar to some sports, without the risk of humiliation in failure. They also provide the opportunity for a kind of cathartic release of tension, and perhaps aggression in a harmless manner. On the other hand, the players are jumping hoops set by an unknown programmer rather than crafting their own world so the games recreate life as experienced by those who believe themselves helpless to change it.

More interesting are the myriad role-playing games designed for personal computers that test not eye-hand coordination but ones cleverness, wit and imagination. That the kind of appeal of these games is fundamentally different from arcade games is widely recognized and proven by the spread of do-it-yourself programs with which those without programming skills can none the less craft their own worlds to play in. At this point the machines begin to be more like tools in the hands of workers —the kind of thing Marx talks about when discussing handicrafts— rather than machines into which the players merely fit like cogs in a predesigned system. In any event, we are forced to recognize the spread of such new forms of "recreation" and can bring to its analysis the theoretical tools of Capital for thinking about the roles it plays in the organization of our lives, or, in our own organization of our lives.

Machinery and Child Labor

Most striking in Marx's survey of the impact of machinery on the family are his descriptions of the virtual slave dealing in children whose confinement in factory work wipes out both current play and future prospects. Both capitalists who wanted the children's labor and parents who needed the children's wages participated in this trade. Once adult workers succeeded in imposing legal restrictions on the use of young children, both capitalists and some parents would seek to slip underage children past the factory inspectors, each for their own reasons: of exploitation and of survival. In Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell gives space to the voice of one such parent, a mother whose husband has died of starvation and fever and who desperately needs the income of one of her children.


'I'm sure, John Barton, if yo are taking messages to the parliament folk, yo'll not object to telling 'em what a sore trial it is, this law of theirs, keeping children fra' factory work, whether they be weakly or strong. There's our Ben; why, porridge seems to go no way wi' him, he eats so much; and I han gotten no money to send him t' school, as I would like; and there he is, rampaging about th' streets a' day, getting hungrier and hungrier, and picking up a' manner o' bad ways; and th' inspector won't let him in to work in the factory, because he's not right age; though he's twice as strong as Sankey's little ritling of a lad, as works till he cries for his legs aching so, though he is right age, and better.'

(Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848), New York: Penguin Classics, 1988.)

Unfortunately, as I have pointed out elsewhere, neither such needs nor such practices have disappeared since Marx wrote. From the agribusiness fields of America through the carpet factories of South Asia to the brothels of Southeast Asia, children are still being sold into virtual or out and out slavery by poor parents and still put to work, often under the vilest of conditions by capitalists greedy to suck every drop of profit from their veins.

Intensity of Labor

By addressing changes in the intensity of labor, Marx adds a whole new dimension to his analysis not only of surplus value but of value itself. Throughout the book, right up to this chapter, he has always held the intensity of work constant. In the discussion of absolute surplus value, both intensity and productivity were held constant. Then in chapters 12-14 the discussion of relative surplus value analyzed the impact of changes in productivity while holding the length of the working day and intensity constant. But in subsection (c) of section 3 he discusses the implications of changes in intensity. These changes are introduced at this point because they are so intimately related to the widespread use of machinery in modern industry. As he shows through many examples, the capitalists introduce machinery not only to raise productivity (output per input of labor) but also to increase work, i.e., make workers work harder (and sometimes longer). Machines allow the use of women and children who are easier to force to work harder. Machines set the rhythm of work, so by speeding them up the capitalists can force the workers who work with them to work harder. Machines work continuously so it is harder for workers to create "pores" of free time in the working day and so on.

Under these circumstances, Marx notes "a change took place in the nature of relative surplus value". (p.534) The change is that not only are the capitalists getting more surplus value from increased productivity, but they are getting more work, i.e., more value and surplus value, in a given work time. This raises an interesting theoretical question. Why does Marx treat increasing intensity as a form of relative surplus value rather than absolute surplus value? After all working harder would seem to be analogous to working longer because in both cases capital is extracting more work (rather than just getting a larger share as is the case with relative surplus value as we have studied it). How does working harder produce more surplus value? Suppose in the aggregate speed-up results in workers working twice as hard and producing twice as much output in a given time. Assuming as Marx does that the value of labor power hovers around that amount of abstract labor required to produce subsistence, then it will be possible to reproduce labor power with only half the work time as before. The value of labor power will remain the same, the real consumption of the workers will remain the same but the capitalists will now arrogate to themselves more of the output and labor time, both in physical and value terms. To illustrate:

t1 assume total output = 100 units, and S/V = 1, so V = 50u, S = 50u, V = 4hrs, S = 4hrs (8hr day)

t2 let output double so = 200 units, so V = 50, S = 150, V = 4hrs, S = 12hrs* so S/V goes to 3.

*4+12 = 16hrs equivalent of working twice as hard in 8hrs

So, doubling the intensity of labor has reduced the relative value of labor power while increasing the relative amount of surplus value, a result analogous to what happens when productivity is raised and intensity is constant. This would seem to be why Marx treats the strategy of increasing intensity as a component of the strategy of relative surplus value instead of absolute surplus value in which workers also work harder (i.e., longer).

In Marx's discourse, rising intensity is described as a "heightened tension of labor-power" because workers work more intently, more focused, both physically and consciously on their tasks. In the case of Jack London's Johnny, quoted above, such tension was mainly corporeal as his total focus on his stopper tying reduced his thinking toward zero. In other jobs that necessarily involve calculation, judgment and even the engagement of individuals' personalities, the strain can be more intellectual and emotional than muscular. Today we are more likely to speak of this in terms of "stress" —the increased nervous tension and emotional drain that comes with high-pressure, intense labor in both factory and office. As in the case of Johnny or say agricultural workers forced to use short-handled hoes, it is obvious how physical speedup can lead to physical breakdown. It has also become increasingly clear how psychological stress can lead to psychological breakdown. Moreover, recent research has made the connections between both kinds of stress more apparent. Physical stress can lead to psychological collapse, e.g., nervous breakdown;* psychological stress can lead to physical breakdown, e.g., heart disease and heart attacks.

As capital has penetrated and manipulated the world outside the official workplace, subjecting all of life to the ever faster rhythm of machine paced existence —from increased pressure for grades in school, through the commuter freeway to the rapid fire sensory barrage of television and other forms of "entertainment"— the physical and psychological stresses of the factory have become commonplace throughout the social factory. This phenomena, whether recognized as an element of the capitalist organization of society or not, has been increasingly recognized as constituting pathological conditions by both medical and social critics. From epidemiologists who have come to recognize the connections between stress and disease to psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysists and new age healers of various sorts whose professions have expanded rapidly in response to the demands of overworked, overstressed workers, housewives and students, this recognition has spread in the last thirty years.

Working Class Response

In Marx's writings there are two major kinds of working class response to the pressures and injuries caused by the ever increasing subordination of life to machinery: one is objective, the exhaustion and using up of people's lives, the other is subjective: revolt. "There cannot be the slightest doubt," he writes at the end of the section, "that this process [increasingly intensity] must soon lead once again to a critical point at which a further reduction in the hours of labor will be inevitable." And in a footnote he adds: "Agitation for a working day of 8 hours has now (1867) begun in Lanchashire among the factory workers." (p. 542) In other words, faced with a speed-up they cannot stop, the workers fight for fewer hours.

But this is not the only kind of resistance workers have posed to such speed-up. Far more common has been the day to day sabotage of speed-up and periodical revolts that have taken the form of official and wildcat strikes to stop or reverse the process. Remember the excerpt from "Counter-planning on the Shop-floor" by Tom Watson that described how workers organized rod-blowing contests and water fights in auto plants to fight the endless pressure of the assembly line. In Chaplin's Modern Times, when Charlie flips out in response to repeated speed-up he does not just walk away, he disrupts the line, squirting oil in the faces of other workers and sabotaging the machinery. Today it is not uncommon to read about such workers returning to their places of "employment" and shooting bosses and even fellow workers —whether the job place be a post-office, a factory, an office or a school.

Resistance can be individual or collective and the later is usually more effective. The isolated individual worker who tries to sabotage speed-up has a real problem in a collective work situation and may be caught and fired, or frustrated with lesser efforts flip out and take ultimately self-destructive action, such as shooting the boss, or drugs, or self. Collective action on the other hand is often highly effective. In the case of sabotage, it is harder for bosses to identify those responsible as workers shield and protect each other. In the case of more formal protest, strikes and wildcat strikes workers can and have been successful at rolling back speed-ups and at imposing work rules which make such intensification harder to implement. As in the case Marx cites —the struggle for the 8-hour day— such struggles can be successful not only in a particular plant or industry but at the level of national legislation, reducing the need for isolated less powerful resistance.

If each introduction of new machinery offers the capitalists new opportunities for class decomposition and speed-up, it also sets off another round of struggle against work intensity. An interesting question is what the long term up-shot of this conflict has been. In the period Marx is describing in this chapter the capitalists are clearly on the offensive, accelerating the introduction of machinery and the pace of work. From Marx's description of the excesses to which this led in the mid-19th Century it seems likely that the intensity of labor reached the maximum intensity possible. Subsequently, worker struggles have periodically reduced the intensity of work, which is probably why capitalists have so frequently sought to increase it. In the long run, therefore we can imagine, thought there is little statistical evidence to substantiate the speculation, that since the height of capitalist power —perhaps around or after the time that the length of the working was maximized— the general tendency has been for a reduction in intensity, with periodical success by capitalists in raising it.

Section 4. The Factory

Outline of Marx's Discussion

The capitalist factory as a whole combined co-operating workers using machines, collective worker = dominant subject
= "a vast automaton", a "self-regulated moving force" of machines that uses workers,
automaton = subject, workers = conscious organs
= deskilling means skill distinctions and hierarchy disappear

Machines = power of capital

--which requires military like organization of command

--of overseers (N.C.O's) over manual laborers (grunts)

--discipline imposed through "autocratic code", "book of penalties"

= damage to workers


This short section summarizes what has been said before, emphasizing how within the factory the workers are, simultaneously, subordinated to the automatic machine system, deskilled and reduced to organs of the machine themselves, and stripped of their freedom. "Factory work . . . does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity." (p.548)

Marx makes clear, however, that this deskilling and impoverishment of the work process does not result in a homogeneity of the working class. Capital does not abandon its methods of dividing the workers to conquer them, it merely substitutes new divisions for the old, divisions of young and old, of men and women, of one kind of machine tender versus another. As he has mentioned elsewhere, these divisions have been complemented by those of ethnicity, race, nationality, tribal affiliation and virtually every other potentially divisive difference capital can identify. Marx's general distinctions between those employed on machines, those who merely attend them (e.g., feed materials to them) and the more technically trained class of engineers, mechanics and joiners etc., constitutes a rough beginning to an analysis of the class composition of the factory. In any actual factory such an analysis could be considerably refined to bring out relevant distinctions of power, of class allegiance, of income, of the degree to which various kinds of workers are assigned responsibility over others, and so on.

At the end of the section, Marx asks "Was Fourier wrong when he called factories 'mitigated jails'?" This likening of factories to jails is apt from several points of view. Both are sites of incarceration. Both are usually surrounded by walls, fences and guard-posts that keep workers in and others out. To a considerable degree jails in capitalism have been work-houses. The Texas penal system, for example, is one great labor camp, a southern Gulag in which all inmates are condemned to work. In the most profound sense, factories are the jails of the working class given the way in which capital condemns one and all to life sentences at hard labor. Indeed, as Michel Foucault has pointed out incarceration is the paradigm of social control in capitalism. Everywhere you look capitalism has incarcerated social life within closed walls (jails, factories, asylums, hospitals, schools, stadiums, concert halls, shopping malls, swimming pools, the single family dwelling) at the expense of free life (in the commons, the streets, village square, the open forest, the free flowing river, communal housing, and so on).

Section 5. The Struggle between Worker and Machine

Outline of Marx's Discussion

Worker struggles against machines


Workers struggle against machines because machines are used by capitalists against the workers. "Hence the character of independence from and estrangement towards the worker, which the capitalist mode of production gives to the conditions of labor and the product of labor, develops into a complete and total antagonism with the advent of machinery." (p. 558) Machinery "is the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, those periodic revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital. . . . It would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt." (p. 563)

There are several important implications of these passages. First, to a considerable degree if capitalists introduce machinery against workers, then we can understand the history of the development of technology as a capitalist response to the struggles of workers. This is different from the usual Marxist view that sees technological development solely as the outcome of the competition between capitalists. Better from the perspective of this chapter, to see capitalist competition as a particular organization of the class struggle in which the success of some capitalists in dealing with their workers, e.g., introducing new machinery that raises productivity and cuts costs, forces others to make similar attacks on workers' power.

Second, although in commenting on the Luddite movement Marx notes "it took both time and experience before the workers learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and therefore to transfer their attacks from the material instruments of production to the form of society which utilizes those instruments", the fact is that he shows precisely how machinery was indeed an "antagonistic" "power inimical" to the workers. His own examples show that it is really not possible to separate machinery from its use by capital. Machinery is always developed within a particular concrete context, e.g., to break strikes based on a certain configuration of working class power, and therefore always embodies a certain class content in its material form. There is no such thing as politically neutral technology. While it may not always be in the workers' best interests to "break" machines, as the Luddites did, the revolutionary transformation of society must certainly involve the transformation of machinery and the relationships between workers and their machinery so that both embody new and changed social relationships. Failure to recognize this can lead to most reactionary policies, e.g., those of Lenin who favored the introduction of Taylorism in the Soviet Union.

Third, technological innovation, although used by capital against workers, derives not from capital but from the working class. It is only labor that is creative and innovative. Here capital seeks to turn some aspect of the working class' own power against it. This is the secret behind Ure's observation (quoted by Marx on p. 564) that "capital enlists science into her service". "Science", like technology, is but an aspect of the collective knowledge and know-how of labor. "Enlisting" science, means tapping that knowledge and ability in ways which benefit capital at the expense of labor. This is accomplished, in part, through the imposition of a strict division between manual workers and "mental" labor in which the latter are privileged over the former and come to identify and cooperate with the capitalist enterprise instead of their fellow workers. As the numbers of the "mental" workers grow, the same method is then used against them: the imposition of a division of labor that divides to conquer.

Concepts for Review

    instruments of labor
    motor mechanism
    working machine
    motive mechanism
    complex system of machinery
    mode of production
    social relations of production
    semi-artistic employment
    alien science
    value added by machines
    redundancy of labor
    full timerswretch
    women and barges
    contracts and slavery
    intellectual degeneration
    dangers of education
    moral depreciation
    immanent contradiction
    Aristotle's dreams
    pores of working day
    degree of density of labor
    relay system
    factory and contentless work
    industrial army

    despotic bell
    dangerous work conditions
    war and machinery
    compensation theory
    machinery and foreign markets
    international division of labor
    prosperityover - production
    composition of collective worker
    factory acts
    health and education conditions
    machinery and family
    machinery and urbanization
    motive power
    transmitting mechanism
    prime mover
    cooperation of machines
    machine system
    automatic system
    means of production
    automatic fabrication
    associated labor
    machinery and wages
    domestic work and wages

    moral degradation
    children and opiates
    education and employment
    docility of married women
    machinery and work time
    economic paradox of machinery
    intensity of labor
    condensation of labor
    intensive and extensive magnitudes
    increased supervision
    automaton as subject
    torture of Sisyphus
    domination by dead labor
    desultory habits of work
    the industrial battle
    Luddite Movement
    machinery as weaponry
    displaced labor
    composition of capital
    machinery and emigration
    business cycle
    machinery and domestic industry
    machinery and small masters
    social anarchy
    totally developed individual
    machinery and peasants
    urbanization and ecology

Questions For Review

(An * means one possible answer can be found at the end of the Study Guide)

1. How is the machine a means of producing surplus value?

2. What are the three parts of fully developed machinery?

3. Describe the transition from tools to working machine. How does the latter generally include the former?

4. How did the steam engine satisfy the requirements of large-scale machines with working tools?

5. How does Marx distinguish between the cooperation of similar machines and a complex system of machinery? Why does he consider the latter to be a "real machine system"?

6. What converts a system of machinery into an "automaton"? Why does Marx call it "a mechanical monster" with "demonic power"?

7. In what sense did the system of machine production first grow spontaneously out of a material basis which would prove inadequate to it? What material basis would suffice?

8. What was the impact of machinery on those workers with "semi-artistic" skills?

9. In what ways might the development of machine technology in one industry spur the development of that technology in a related industry?

10. Similarly, how does such a technology in industry call forth a change in communication and transportation?

*11. Marx says in footnote 23, page 508, that "science, generally speaking, costs the capitalists nothing." Is this still true? Why ? Why not?

12. How does the value of machinery enter into the valorization process? What is the influence of the length of life of the machine?

13. Explain why it is that with machines "the value arising out of the instrument of labor increases relatively but decreases absolutely"?

14. What is the relationship between wages and the tendency to substitute machinery for labor? How are Marx's comments on this substitution similar to those of neoclassical economics? How are the different?

15. Why were women often used instead of horses for hauling barges in England in the mid-19th Century?

16. How did machinery facilitate the annexation of labor previously used in the home? What is the relationship between domestic labor and necessary labor time?

17. How did Marx see machinery transforming the nature of the contract for labor power?

18. How did the employment of women on machines adversely affect the health of their children? Is this true today as increasing numbers of women enter the labor force?

19. Characterize Marx's critique of education in the period of the rise of machinofacture. How could education be dangerous? (See pp. 523-526, 613-614, 618-619, 628-629).

20. How was machinery a powerful means of increasing absolute surplus value? What were the inducements for the capitalists?

21. What is the "moral depreciation" of the value of a machine? How is this an application of Marx's analysis of socially necessary labor time in Chapter One?

*22. Although the productivity raising use of machinery tends to increase relative surplus value, it also tends to displace labor. How does this constitute an "immanent contradiction"? How can the capitalists compensate for the difficulties of this contradiction?

*23. What is the "economic paradox" associated with labor saving technological change?

24. What is the "condensation of labor" or a rise in the intensity of labor? What is its impact on productivity? On value produced?

25. Discuss the implications of Marx's assertion that intensive and extensive magnitudes are two antithetical and mutually exclusive expressions for one and the same quantity of labor.

*26. How does machinery facilitate the increase in the intensity of labor? How did this constitute a capitalist response to the successful working class attack on the hours of labor such as the Twelve Hours Act of 1844 and the Ten Hours Act of 1847? Why does this, in turn, lead to new attacks on the length of the working period?

27. How does the factory constitute a paradigm for the incarcerated society of capital?

28. In what sense does the machine system become the autocratic "subject" of the production process? What happens to the role of the worker?

29. How does machinery lead to deskilling and new hierarchies, new class compositions?

30. What is the relation between deskilling and the relay system?

31. How does machinery deprive work of all interest and content? How is this a form of alienation?

32. What is there in the way capitalists want to use machines that makes them particularly dangerous (physically) for workers?

33. What was the Luddite movement? What was its logic? Its illogic? Are there still elements of this movement alive today?

34. How did the American civil war give an impetus to the development of machinery in England?

35. How do workers use strikes to differentiate themselves from the machines to which they are tied?

*36. How does machinery constitute "the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes"?

*37. What was the "compensation theory" and how did Marx critique it? To what degree do you think Marx's argument is applicable to the current cycle of increased automation?

38. How does the widespread use of machinery give the capitalist mode of production a new elasticity to respond to changes in demand?

39. How does machinery prompt new surges of imperialism? And how does this result in a "new and international division of labor"?

40. What are the phases of the industrial business cycle?

41. What determines success in the competition among capitalists for market shares?

42. How was the cotton famine of 1860-61 advantageous to English textile manufacturers?

43. How does the introduction of the sewing machine typify the transition from manufacturing to machinofacturing? Describe the steps of this process.

*44. What is the upper limit on the intensity of labor? The lower limit?

45. In this chapter there are several references to post-capitalist society. Assemble and analyze them.

46. What was the impact of machinery on family structure Marx observed?

47. Why was the generalized extension of the Factory Acts inevitable? How does this generalize working class struggle?

48. How does large-scale agriculture annihilate the peasants and transform them into wage laborers? How do they resist?

49. How does capitalist production "disturb the metabolic interaction between humans and the earth"? How does Marx's commentary provide the basis for a critique of capitalist violations of ecological balance?

50. Compare Marx's discussion of the dispersion and power of workers in agriculture and in domestic industry.