[Book] Understanding Marx’s Capital: A reader’s guide

4) Chapters 9-11: exploitation

In chapters 4-8 the secret is revealed: the profit that drives capitalism forward is nothing more than the unpaid labour of the working class, arising from the fact that the value paid (by the capitalist) for labour-power (in the form of wages) is less than the value produced (and appropriated by the capitalist) through the consumption of this labour-power.

Having outlined the question in its general theoretical form, Marx now looks at the issue more concretely, opening up the roof of the factory and peering in to examine the conditions inside – conditions that reveal how the capitalists extract ever greater quantities of surplus-value from the working class. What we see when we peek behind this magician’s curtain is a brutal history of exploitation and class struggle.

The rate of exploitation

To explain his ideas, Marx uses a series of figures and symbols. We know that capital is divided between constant capital and variable capital. The value of a product is made up from the value transferred from the means of production, plus the value created by the expenditure of labour. Surplus-value is created when the value created in production exceeds the value of labour-power. In other words, the value of a commodity ( C’) is made up from constant capital ( c) + variable capital ( v) + surplus-value ( s). Marx therefore uses the equation C’ = c + v + s, where the actual value created in production is ( v + s).

Firstly, however, Marx defines an important quantity – or ratio – in relation to the question of surplus-value: the rate of surplus-value, or rate of exploitation by capital. This is defined by the ratio of the surplus-value produced by the worker to the value of the labour-power (wages) paid by the capitalist. This, as a fraction, can be represented as s/v.

The variable capital, v, the value of labour-power involved in the production process, Marx notes, can also be thought of as the necessary labour – the labour necessary to produce value equal to that of the labourer’s subsistence. As Marx notes, however, with the division of labour within society, the worker does not, of course, produce their own means of subsistence directly; rather they produce commodities for the market that have a value equivalent to this means of subsistence.

The remainder of the working day is devoted to the production of surplus-value. The additional labour beyond necessary labour, therefore, is surplus labour. Surplus labour is present in all forms of class society. Indeed, the potential for surplus labour is the prior condition for class society, as it is only with the production of a surplus that a minority of exploiters can live – without working themselves – off the labour of others. What distinguishes capitalism as a mode of production, therefore, is not the presence of surplus labour, but the particular way in which this is generated – i.e. through wage-labour – and appropriated. As Marx notes:

“What distinguishes the various economic formations of society – the distinction between for example a society based on slave-labour and a society based on wage-labour – is the form in which this surplus labour is in each case extorted from the immediate producer, the worker.”1

The working day is therefore divided up between necessary labour and surplus labour. This ratio is equal to the rate of surplus-value, or s/v. To use the words of Marx, it is “an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the worker by the capitalist.”2 It is the working class that produces all the value in society; and yet, under capitalism, they receive only a fraction of this value back in the form of wages. The class struggle is, therefore, a struggle over this surplus in society.

The question of time

Since value is an expression of socially necessary labour-time, the rate of surplus-value, whilst representing the ratio of the surplus labour to the necessary labour, is ultimately a ratio of times: namely, the time that the worker works to produce the value of their labour-power, compared to the time that the worker works unpaid – free labour from the perspective of the capitalist.

Of course, however, in buying the worker’s labour-power, the capitalist has paid for this time, and by doing so, they have the right to appropriate the products made in this time. The task of the capitalist is therefore to try and maximise the length of time that the worker works – to maximise the length of the working day and thus increase the rate of exploitation, the ratio of the surplus labour-time compared to the necessary labour-time, also written as the fraction s/v.

For the capitalist, all time spent by the worker not working – all leisure time granted to the worker – seems like wasted money. Importantly, during such times, the machinery and infrastructure that the capitalist has paid for – the constant capital – lies idle also. The drive of the capitalist, again, therefore, is to maximise the length of the working day.

“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorise itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labour. Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has bought from him. If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.”3

“The prolongation of the working day beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, only acts as a palliative. It only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour. Capitalist production therefore drives, by its inherent nature, towards the appropriation of labour throughout the whole of the 24 hours in the day.”4

Regardless of the personal morality of this or that business owner, the laws of competition – the laws of capitalism – force this drive upon all capitalists. Every capitalist must take part in this race to the bottom or face losing their profits to someone else. As Marx comments:

“Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our pleasure (profit)? But looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.”5

This highlights the problems faced by the Utopian Socialists, such as Robert Owen, who preceded Marx and Engels, and who thought that socialism could be brought about purely through education and by appealing to the ‘eternal truths’ of morality, justice, and reason. Similarly, this explains the limitations of trying to build ‘socialism in one factory’, as Owen himself attempted to achieve. An individual business owner may be kind and philanthropic, treating their workers kindly and paying them well, as Owen did, but such an owner will still be subject to the laws of competition and production for profit, and thus will be forced to cut labour costs to those of their competitors or risk being booted out of business. The problems of capitalism, therefore, are not simply a result of the greed of individual capitalists, but are inherent contradictions within the laws of capitalism itself.

Alongside this drive by the capitalist to extend the working day in the name of profits, Marx notes, “there arises the voice of the worker”6, who wishes to curtail the extension of the working day, which leads to overwork and resultant injury. By increasing the hours of the working day and trying to extract ever more surplus labour from the worker, the capitalist causes the physical and mental degradation of the worker, and by extension, through competition, of the working class as a whole. The call of the worker, therefore, is: “I demand a normal working day because, like every other seller, I demand the value of my commodity.”7

Limits, therefore, are placed on the length of working day at either end. At a minimum, the working day must be long enough to cover the value of the labour-power – i.e. to cover the wages paid to the worker. This time itself varies from place to place, depending on the value of labour-power, which, as discussed previously, is socially and historically determined, dependent on the productivity within society and the level of living standards that any particular society has become accustomed to.

At the other end of the scale, the working day has a maximum limit. Firstly, it is clearly impossible for the working day to be longer than 24 hours. More importantly, there is a limit imposed by the need to maintain the physical and mental state of the working class. In extending the working day too far, the capitalist not only risks diminishing the productivity of his workers through fatigue, but also risks the possibility of a violent and militant backlash from the accumulation of anger that builds up amongst workers who are pushed to their own personal limits.

As Marx notes, “limiting conditions are of a very elastic nature…So we find working days of many different lengths, of 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18 hours.” The length of the working day, therefore, ultimately reduces itself to a class struggle – as a battle of living forces: between the capitalist class who wish to extract the maximum amount of labour from the labour-power they have purchased; and the working class, who wishes to work no longer than necessary. The class struggle, in other words, is a struggle over time.

“We see then that, leaving aside certain extremely elastic restrictions, the nature of commodity exchange itself imposes no limit to the working day, no limit to surplus labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible, and, where possible to make two working days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. There is here therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides. Hence, in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class.”8

The history of the working day

Marx spends a large part of chapter 10 using historical records and factory reports to look at the concrete ways in which the capitalists have sought to extend the working day, from introducing the shift system in order to ensure that the process production is unceasing and uninterrupted, to biting into the leisure time of the worker and taking away from them any breaks:

“[I]n its blind and measureless drive, its insatiable appetite for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral but even the merely physical limits of the working day. It usurps the time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It haggles over the meal-times, where possible incorporating them into the production process itself, so that food is added to the workers as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, and grease and oil to the machinery.”9

In doing so, Marx comments, the capitalists erode away the physical and mental health of the worker. Today, with shorter working days, a weekend of leisure time every week, and longer life expectancies, we might imagine that such talk by Marx is a thing of the past. Of course, this is not the case.

Firstly, however, we must ask, how did the concept of ‘the weekend’ – that is, of two days paid leisure time – and of a 40-hour week even come into existence? For such ‘luxuries’ have not always existed; as Marx explains, the working day would frequently be 12 hours or more, and the only day of rest would be Sunday – the Lord’s Day. The reality is that this leisure time, like all other progressive reforms, was won by the working class through struggle; through organisation and action. Only by threatening the profits of the capitalist class has the working class been able to win and secure such measures.

Marx spends a great deal of chapter 10 outlining the history of the working day, detailing how, “The establishment of a normal working day is the result of centuries of struggle between the capitalist and the worker,”10 from the Factory Acts of 1833, 1844, and 1847, to the Chartist movement of 1846-1848 and the fight for the Ten Hour Act.

Secondly, the capitalists today are continually trying to take such reforms away and extend the working day wherever possible. For decades there has been a drive by the capitalists to extract ever more labour from the working class in the form of unpaid overtime, which has become an expected norm in most workplaces, with the capitalists using competition between workers and the threat of unemployment to force workers to put in ever more hours every week. The latest estimates from the TUC indicate that the average worker puts in almost eight hours per week of unpaid overtime, with an estimated value (i.e. profit to the capitalist) of £34bn per year. In addition, we see the erosion of all personal time during the working day, with ‘tea’ and even lunch breaks now seemingly a thing of the past.

This enormous quantity of overtime put in by workers lies in contradiction to the mass unemployment existing in society, with capitalism unable to provide jobs, despite there clearly being overwork falling on the shoulders of those who are employed. How can it be that millions are unemployed, and yet millions more are forced to work 50-60 hours per week or take on two or three jobs just to make ends meet?

“Staff across Britain work among the longest hours in Europe – and are not even paid for much of the extra time they put in,” stated TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, in relation to the figures above. “If there really is much too much work to go round, employers might want to consider taking on new staff. There are 2.3 million unemployed people across the UK who would be glad of the chance.”

Alongside this, with the growth of giant corporations, modern technology, and the pressure of competition on small businesses, there is again a drive for production and distribution to break through all physical or temporal limits, with shops open 24/7, online shopping and overnight delivery, and zero-hour contracts to guarantee the ‘flexibility’ of labour.

Finally, whilst the sort of physical degradation and work-induced illness that Marx describes in the 19th Century might be a thing of the past, today we instead see a proliferation of mental illness, stress, depression, and social problems caused by the pressures of overwork. For example, statistics show that stress now accounts for 40% of all cases of work-related illness; and whilst the total number of working days lost to sickness has decreased between 2009-2016 (from 146 million to 137 million), the number of days lost due to stress, depression, and anxiety has increased (from 12.3 million to 15.8 million). Elsewhere, over half of those involved in academic research in the UK say that heavy workloads are having an impact on their mental health; meanwhile, 57% of teachers in Britain say that they are thinking of leaving the profession as a result of increased hours, with primary school teachers and secondary school teachers now working an average of 60 and 56 hours per week respectively.

The competition and pressure under capitalism has, in other words, led to a state where workers are increasingly alienated from their labour, from their fellow workers, and from society in general. In place of mental stimulation and cultural enrichment, we instead see only feelings of isolation and anxiety. The work-induced premature deaths seen in Marx’s time have been replaced today by a lifetime of toil, stress, and depression.

Quantity and quality

Marx makes two additional important points regarding the question of surplus labour and surplus-value in this section. Firstly, he ridicules the argument of the important ‘Last Hour’ put forward by the English bourgeois economist Nassau W. Senior. Professor Senior argued that laws in the Factory Act of 1833 that imposed a reduction in the working day of one hour – the famous ‘Last Hour’ – would see the profits of the cotton business owners disappear.

Senior’s argument, Marx showed, was fundamentally flawed, for it assumed that the worker spent much of his day reproducing the values of the constant capital involved in the production process. But as explained previously, the value embodied within constant capital – the accumulated dead labour of previous workers – is not destroyed in the process of production, but is simply transferred over from the old products to the new. This is the case for both the machinery and the tools utilised, as well as for the raw materials used.

“You are altogether on the wrong track, if you think that he loses a single moment of his working day in reproducing or replacing the values of the cotton, the machinery and so on. On the contrary, it is because his labour converts the cotton and the spindles into yarn, because he spins, that the values of the cotton and spindles go over to the yarn of their own accord. This is a result of quality of his labour, not its quantity.”11

The value within the constant capital, therefore, appears on both sides of the balance sheet and cancels out. All socially necessary labour-time involved in the productive process adds new value to the end product, which is in addition to the previous accumulated labour contained within the raw materials, machinery, etc. that is the product of past efforts. The hours of the working day, therefore, are not split into c + v + s (constant, variable, and surplus), but are merely split into v + s, the variable and the surplus.

The result is that a reduction in the working day has a far less detrimental effect on the profits of the capitalists than that posed by Senior. As is the case now, Senior’s argument was nothing more than bourgeois hysteria, designed to raise a hue and a cry about legislation that, whilst mildly reducing the burden on workers, was ultimately a threat to the profits of the capitalists.

Later, in chapter 11, Marx draws a distinction between the rate of surplus-value and the mass of surplus-value, the latter quantity simply being the former multiplied by the total variable capital advanced. The mass of surplus-value (and therefore the mass of profits) for the capitalist, therefore, depends on the degree of exploitation and the number of workers being exploited.

This helps to explain the relationship between investment, productivity, exploitation, and employment. By investing in machinery to increase productivity, the capitalist can increase the degree of exploitation, allowing workers to produce more in a given time period. Fewer workers then need to be employed to produce the same amount, allowing labour costs to be lowered and profits to be increased. The capitalist, then, can lower the prices of their goods below the social average, undercutting competitors and gaining market share. This process forms a key part of the capitalist competition that drives capitalism forward in its heyday to develop the means of production – a tendency that turns into its opposite as capital becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, turning competition into monopoly and progress into regression.

This also has important consequences for today in Britain, where there seems to be a ‘productivity puzzle’: compared to pre-crisis levels, the numbers in employment are at record levels (although there are important factors behind this), but yet GDP (national wealth) is relatively low; this implies a drop in productivity in the UK economy since the crisis.

How then are British businesses maintaining their profits, if productivity is low and yet unemployment is also relatively low? The key is that wages are low too, thus a larger number of workers can be employed for a given quantity of variable capital. In other words, cheap labour is being employed in the UK today instead of investing in efficiency, machinery, and automation. Rather than investing and developing the means of production, the parasitic capitalists are simply taking advantage of low wages to make a quick profit.

Finally, Marx explains the dialectical relationship between money and capital – a relationship of quantity and quality. Not all money is capital. But at what point does an accumulation of money and wealth become capital?

In short, money becomes capital at a point when the owner of wealth is able to survive purely by living off the labour of others. An owner of a small quantity of money may only be able to employ a single worker, who in turn may only produce enough to cover their own means of subsistence and a small fraction of the money-owner’s means of subsistence. As the quantity of money in the hands of the owner grows, the workforce can expand until eventually a point is reached whereby the money-owner can survive by living off the work of others.

Similarly, as the productivity of labour increases, the ratio of surplus to necessary labour increases, and thus the amount of workers needed to maintain a single capitalist decreases. This again relates to the degree of exploitation and the relationship between the rate and mass of surplus-value.

An end to toil

Under capitalism, the question is always posed in such a way: how many workers does capitalism require for its maintenance? The answer we so frequently find is: far fewer than the total population. Hence the permanent scar of mass unemployment that blights society. Such is the absurdity of capitalism, under which the development of the means of production and the increase of science, technology, and productivity only lead to increasing profits at one end and increasing misery at the other.

Instead of having the contradiction of mass unemployment alongside 50-60 hour weeks for those in employment, why isn’t the technology and machinery in society used to share work out evenly amongst the population and lower the hours of the working week for everyone? Full employment could exist alongside a 30 or even 20 hour week. But this is incompatible with capitalism and profit-making.

Today, with a high level of potential productivity, thanks to the possibilities inherent in modern technology and automation, we could reduce this necessary labour to only a few hours a day, or even less. Eventually, with the continued development of science and technology, this could be reduced even further and the idea of ‘work’ as we know it could be done away with completely. Our concerns should not be work, but how to enjoy our lives to the full, free from this burden. In the 1960s, TV programmes pondered what, with the advent of automation, we would do with all the leisure time at our disposal. But rather than having more free time, thanks to capitalism we have less time.

Under capitalism, where production is only for profit, this indeed remains a utopia. Only a rational and democratic plan of production – that is, a socialist system in which society’s needs come before personal profits – can make this dream a reality.

But as Marx highlights, no gain in leisure time for the working class has ever come without an organised struggle. The task, therefore, is to educate, agitate, and organise, and to fight for the revolutionary transformation of society.

“The history of the regulation of the working day in certain branches of production, and the struggle still going on in others over this regulation, prove conclusively that the isolated worker, the worker as ‘free’ seller of his labour-power, succumbs without resistance once capitalist production has reached a certain stage of maturity. The establishment of a normal working day is therefore the product of a protracted and more or less concealed civil war between the capitalist class and the working class.”12

“For ‘protection’ against the serpent of their agonies, the workers have to put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital.”13


1 p325

2 p326

3 p342

4 p367

5 p381

6 p342

7 p343

8 p344

9 p375-376

10 p382

11 p335-336

12 p412-413

13 p416

SocietyFactory“It is very characteristic that the enthusiastic apologists of the factory system have nothing more damning to urge against a general organisation of labour in society than that it would turn the whole of society into a factory.” – Marx, Capital Vol I, Chapter 14

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