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

6) Chapter 15: The Machine

Having discussed how the capitalists are able to increase profits by improving productivity through the application of new organisational means within the workplace, Marx now turns his attention towards the most revolutionary of developments within capitalism: the machine.

Whilst the development and application of machinery within the productive process was a revolutionary step forward, Marx begins chapter 15 of Capital on Machinery and Large-Scale Industry by explicitly stating the purpose of the application of such machinery on a capitalist basis: to increase the profits of the capitalists.

“Like every other instrument for increasing the productivity of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities and, by shortening the part of the working day in which the worker works for himself, to lengthen the other part, the part he gives to the capitalist for nothing. The machine is a means for producing surplus-value.”1

The focus of the capitalist when introducing machinery into the workplace, therefore, is not to lighten the load of the worker, nor to reduce the hours of the working day, but to increase the productivity of labour within the workplace and thus substitute workers with machines.

The effect for the individual capitalist is to reduce the cost of the commodities that are being produced, with the hope of being able to reduce prices below that found on the market. If this feat can be achieved, then market share can be captured by the capitalist and super-profits can be earned.

The laws of competition within capitalism, however, force every other capitalist to follow suit; each capitalist must attempt to keep up with the pace of technology in industry or face extinction. Thus, the application of pioneering machinery within the workplace becomes generalised, and the effect is a general increase in productivity across industry, which in turn results in a general cheapening of commodities – i.e. a reduction in their values due to a reduction of the socially necessary labour-time needed to produce them.

Whilst this is not the starting aim of the individual capitalist, this general result means a cheapening of the value of labour-power, which is determined by the value of those commodities needed to maintain the working class and their families: food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, etc., etc. This, then, is the how the application of machinery leads to a general increase in surplus-value for the capitalist class: by cheapening commodities in general, the value of labour-power is reduced; relative surplus-value is thereby gained by reducing the part of the working day in which the worker must perform necessary labour, and increasing the part of the working day in which surplus labour is performed – labour that is performed for free from the perspective of the capitalist.

From the beginning, therefore, Marx makes clear the contradiction of machinery within the confines of a system of production for profit: the development and application of technology and technique – that is, the development of the means of production – no longer translates to improved living standards for the vast majority of society, but is merely a means by which a tiny minority enriches themselves. The application of machinery and new technology under capitalism does not liberate us, but enslaves us.

The dialectical development of machinery

Marx begins his analysis of machinery by outlining its general historical development. The question of machinery is, in essence, a question of automation – of reducing the socially necessary labour-time required for any given process. “The machine, therefore, is a mechanism, that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did with similar tools.”2

The spread of machines in one industry, in turn, paved the way for – and indeed required – the use of machines in others. Eventually, the size and scale of the machines used necessitated the development of machines that were themselves produced using other machines.

The method of historical materialism, as outlined by Marx and Engels, explains that the motor force of society is the development of the means of production – the development of industry, science, technology and technique. If any given society cannot do this, then it will – eventually – be overthrown, conquered, or replaced by one that can.

At root, the development of the productive forces is a process of humankind’s mastery over nature, of harnessing the forces bequeathed to us by our surroundings. In relation to industry, Marx explains that it was not the invention of the steam engine that enabled the Industrial Revolution, but rather it was the revolutionary development of machinery that made a similar revolution in the source of power necessary.

Here we see the dialectical materialist method of Marx fully at work. In many versions of history, the improvements of the steam engine by Scottish engineer James Watt are painted as being the fundamental cause of the Industrial Revolution, and, by extension, the primary factor behind the rise of British capitalism and the ensuing industrial and economic dominance of British imperialism. Without the individual genius of Mr Watt, it seems, the whole of history would be different!

But the improvements made to the steam engine by Watt were merely an historical ‘accident’, in the sense that they might have easily have been made by anyone else. Behind this accident, however, lay the driving necessity to develop machinery and liberate industry from the confines imposed by nature in terms of a power source. The development of steam power removed the reliance on water power and so enabled industry to be moved to other locations more freely; with steam power, the primary factor became access to coal, the source of the energy needed to generate steam. Today, with the development of electrical power, industry has been even further liberated from these natural restrictions, and is frequently moved – with the rise of globalisation – to wherever the cheapest labour can be found.

“The steam-engine itself, such as it was at its invention during the manufacturing period at the close of the seventeenth century, and such as it continued to be down to 1780, did not give rise to any industrial revolution. It was, on the contrary, the invention of machines that made a revolution in the form of steam-engines necessary. As soon as man, instead of working on the object of labour with a tool, becomes merely the motive power of a machine, it is purely accidental that the motive power happens to be clothed in the form of human muscles; wind, water or steam could just as well take man’s place.”3

Labour and machines

The role of the machine is to amalgamate the various tasks and processes that are found in a given industry; to combine the functions of the different tools held by different workers within one body.

“The machine, which is the starting-point of the industrial revolution, replaces the worker, who handles a single tool, by a mechanism operating with a number of similar tools and set in motion by a single motive power, whatever the form of that power. Here we have the machine, but in its first role as a simple element in production by machinery.”4

Having discussed the role of the co-operation and the division of labour within manufacture in chapters 13-14, Marx now explains how, with the application of machinery, this organisation of workers within the factory is now internalised within the workings of single machine or set of interconnected machinery. “Here we have again the co-operation by division of labour which is peculiar to manufacture, but now it appears as a combination of machines with specific functions.”5

Such a transition from labour to machinery is, in turn, a transition from the subjective variation of efficiency and skill amongst workers to an objective level of efficiency within the productive process. The pace and rhythm of the productive process, once dependent on the random variety of skill amongst the workers, is now replaced by the definite order and speed of the machine, which presents itself as an objective fact to the worker.

“The collective working machine, which is now an articulated system composed of various kinds of single machine, and of groups of single machines, becomes all the more perfect the more the process as a whole becomes a continuous one…in other words, the more its passage from one phase to another is effected not by the hand of man, but by the machinery itself. In manufacture, the isolation of each special process is a condition imposed by the division of labour itself, whereas in the fully developed factory the continuity of the special processes is the regulating principle.”6

“As machinery, the instrument of labour assumes a material mode of existence which necessitates the replacement of human force by natural forces, and the replacement of the rule of thumb by the conscious application of natural science. In manufacture the organisation of the social labour process is purely subjective: it is a combination of specialised workers. Large-scale industry, on the other hand, possesses in the machine system an entirely objective organisation of production, which confronts the workers as a pre-existing material condition of production. In simple co-operation, and even in the more specialised form based on the division of labour, the extrusion of the isolated worker by the associated worker still appears to be more or less accidental. Machinery…operates only by means of associated labour, or labour in common. Hence the co-operative character of the labour process is in this case a technical necessity dictated by the very nature of the instrument of labour.”7

Man vs the machine

The application of machinery in the productive process is not automatic, however. The purpose of machinery, from the perspective of the capitalist, is to cheapen the commodities being produced. This can only happen if the cost of the machinery is less than the cost of the workers that the machinery is intended to replace, as Marx explains:

“The use of machinery for the exclusive purpose of cheapening the product is limited by the requirement that less labour must be expended in producing the machinery than is displaced by the employment of that machinery…the limit to his using a machine is therefore fixed by the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour-power replaced by it.”8

“Since the division of the day’s work into necessary labour and surplus labour differs in different countries, and even in the same country at different periods, or in different branches of industry; and further, since the actual wage of the workers sometimes sinks below the value of his labour-power, and sometimes rises above it, it is possible for the difference between the price of the machinery and the price of the labour-power replaced by that machinery to undergo great variations, while the difference between the quantity of labour needed to produce the machine and the total quantity of labour replaced by it remains constant.”9

The use of machinery, therefore, is always dependent on the relative price of machinery versus that of wages. Where the labour movement is weak and wages are low, the relative cost of employing workers is less; investment in machinery will therefore be less also, keeping productivity at a low level. Hence the spread of globalisation, with capitalism taking advantage of the low-cost labour and paltry wages of textile workers in Bangladesh or factory workers in China.

Rather than developing the means of production by investing in technological research and new machinery, therefore, we see how capitalism – with its need to continuously increase profits – holds society back and keeps industry on a low level of productivity. This contradiction, however, is not confined to industry in developing countries, but can be seen today even in advanced capitalist countries like Britain: investment is at historically low levels, with businesses instead taking advantage of relatively low wages to employ many workers in jobs that could be automated. Whilst this may temporarily keep unemployment rates at low levels, the result has been a drop in productivity since the crisis began. In the long term, this can only mean stagnation in the economy and declining standards of living for ordinary workers.

On the other hand, where workers are organised and strong, helping to push up wages, investment in new technology will be greater. Hence the enormous development of machinery and investment in new technology during the Second World War and the post-war period, where the labour supply was limited, strengthening the hand of the workers and putting an upward pressure on wages. In such a situation, Marx explains, the threat of replacing labour with machinery is used by the capitalists to pacify workers:

“But machinery does not just act as a superior competitor to the worker, always on the point of making him superfluous. It is a power inimical to him, and capital proclaims this fact loudly and deliberately, as well as making use of it. It is the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, those periodic revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital.”10

Instead of seeing a harmonious development of workers and technology, therefore, we see how there is a constant race, competition, and antagonism between workers and machines under capitalism. “The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor to the worker himself.”11

By automating the tasks of the worker, the machine replaces skilled labour with unskilled, stripping the worker of any privileged position they might have had as a result of education and experience. In place of specialisation and skill, we see the creation of a vast mass of homogeneous unskilled labour, intensifying the competition between workers, and placing a further downward pressure on wages.

“The division of labour develops this labour-power in a one-sided way, by reducing it to the highly particularised skill of handling a special tool. When it becomes the job of the machine to handle this tool, the use-value of the worker’s labour-power vanishes, and with it its exchange-value. The worker becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. The section of the working class thus rendered superfluous by machinery, i.e. converted into a part of the population no longer directly necessary for the self-valorisation of capital, either goes under in the unequal contest between the old handicraft and manufacturing production and the new machine production, or else floods all the more easily accessible branches of industry, swamps the labour-market, and makes the prices of labour-power fall below its value…When machinery seizes on an industry by degrees, it produces chronic misery among the workers who compete with it. Where the transition is rapid, the effect is acute and is felt by great masses of people.”12

Today, with the development of new technologies, particularly in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and voice recognition, a similar process is going on in front of our eyes to that which Marx describes in relation to the 19th Century: the better-paid professions of the middle-classes and the more skilled layers of the working class are facing the threat of extinction due to automation. Indeed, a recent study by academics from Oxford University suggests that nearly half of today’s professions could be eliminated by automation over the next two decades, including many white-collar jobs, such as accountancy, legal work, and technical writing; hence why some commentators, such as MIT economists McAfee and Brynjolfsson, are talking about a new ‘race against the machine’.

“Creative destruction”

Historically, it is this race and competition between workers and machines that has led to movements such as the Luddites – a rebellion, through the destruction of machinery, against the existential threat posed by new technology.

“Hence the character of independence from and estrangement towards the worker, which the capitalist mode of production gives to the conditions of labour and the product of labour, develops into a complete and total antagonism with the advent of machinery. It is therefore when machinery arrives on the scene that the worker for the first time revolts savagely against the instruments of labour.”13

Today, as in Marx’s time, anyone who dares to mention the contradiction of how, under capitalism, the application of new technology leads to unemployment is labelled a Luddite who is against social progress and the use of technology in general. As Marx mockingly explains:

“And this is the point relied on by our economic apologists! The contradictions and antagonisms inseparable from the capitalist application of machinery do not exist, they say, because they do not arise out of machinery as such, but out of its capitalist application. Therefore, since machinery in itself shortens the hours of labour, but when employed by capital it lengthens them; since in itself it lightens labour, but when employed by capital it heightens its intensity; since in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of nature but in the hands of capital it makes man the slave of those forces; since in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital it makes them into paupers, the bourgeois economist simply states that the contemplation of machinery in itself demonstrates with exactitude that all these evident contradictions are a mere semblance, present in everyday reality, but not existing in themselves, and therefore having no theoretical existence either. Thus he manages to avoid racking his brains any more, and in addition implies that his opponent is guilty of the stupidity of contending, not against the capitalist application of machinery, but against machinery itself.

“No doubt the bourgeois economist is far from denying that temporary inconveniences may result from the capitalist use of machinery. But where is the medal without its reverse side! Any other utilisation of machinery than the capitalist one is to him impossible. Exploitation of the worker by the machine is therefore identical for him with exploitation of the machine by the worker. Therefore whoever reveals the real situation with the capitalist employment of machinery does not want machinery to be employed at all, and is an enemy of social progress!”14

The argument of the capitalist apologists, therefore, is this: yes, the application of machinery and new technologies might displace workers in one industry; but this should only liberate workers to allow them to work in new, even more productive and technologically advanced industries. This is the argument of ‘creative destruction’ – that old industries must be destroyed in order to allow new ones to flourish.

But, as Marx explains, under capitalism this process develops in a chaotic and anarchic way, due to the way in which it is driven forward, not by a rational plan of production across society, but by competition and the thirst for individual profit. Instead of smoothly transitioning from the old to the new, with education and training provided to allow workers to develop new skills and move into new, emerging industries, workers in the old industries are instead thrown onto the scrapheap and forced into a bitter struggle for survival. Whole towns, cities, and regions are left blighted with a permanent scar of mass unemployment. One only has to look at the former mining areas in Britain, which today still suffer from the forced closure of the pits by the Thatcher government, to see the real effects of so-called ‘creative destruction’. There has been plenty of destruction, and very little creation.

“The real facts, which are travestied by the optimism of the economists, are these: the workers, when driven out of the workshop by the machinery, are thrown onto the labour-market. Their presence in the labour-market increases the number of labour-powers which are at the disposal of capitalist exploitation…this effect of machinery, which has been represented as a compensation for the working class, is, on the contrary, a most frightful scourge. For the present I will only say this: workers who have been thrown out of work in a given branch of industry can no doubt look for employment in another branch…even if they do find employment, what a miserable prospect they face! Crippled as they are by the division of labour, these poor devils are worth so little outside their old trade that they cannot find admission into any industries except a few inferior and therefore over-supplied and underpaid branches. Furthermore, every branch of industry attracts each year a new stream of men, who furnish a contingent from which to fill up vacancies, and to draw a supply for expansion. As soon as machinery has set free a part of the workers employed in a given branch of industry, the reserve men are also diverted into new channels of employment, and become absorbed in other branches; meanwhile the original victims, during the period transition, for the most part starve and perish.”15

From a revolutionary force to a fetter

At its height, capitalism was a revolutionary force. Competition and the drive for profits smashed through all the previous barriers to the development of the productive forces, playing an enormously progressive role in society from the perspective of creating the material conditions for socialism:

“Modern industry never views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical process and other methods, it is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within society, and incessantly throws masses of capital and of workers from one branch of production to another.”16

Machinery played a vital role in this process, as Marx describes: not only by paving the way for large-scale industry with its economy of scale, but also by breaking down the physical barriers that stood in the way of increasing profits by simply forcing workers to labour harder and longer. Now greater surplus-value could be extracted by increasing productivity without having to push workers beyond their physiological limits.

“At last the critical point was reached. The basis of the old method, sheer brutality in the exploitation of the workers, accompanied by a more or less systematic division of labour, no longer sufficed for the extending markets and for the still more rapidly extending competition of the capitalists. The hour of the machine had struck.”17

At the same time, the development of machinery, new technologies, and large-scale industry, also created the conditions for a change in the superstructures in society – in particular, in the family structure and the relationship between the sexes:

“However terrible and disgusting the dissolution of the old family ties within the capitalist system may appear, large-scale industry, by assigning an important part in socially organised processes of production, outside the sphere of the domestic economy, to women, young persons and children of both sexes, does nevertheless create a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes.”18

Under socialism, the technologies and large-scale organisation created under capitalism could be used to socialise the tasks of domestic labour – childcare, cooking, cleaning, and laundry – in order to liberate both women and men from these burdens. Housework would not have to be shared, but would be abolished altogether.

Under capitalism, however, such possible changes remain mere potentials. Working class women today under capitalism are doubly exploited, both for the surplus-value they produce during the working day and for the unpaid domestic labour they perform in the home. Nevertheless, by bringing women out of the isolation of the home and into the workplace, organised together alongside men under one roof as one class, capitalism has created its own gravediggers: the common struggle of working women and men, who will go about creating a society that is not only free of classes, but that is free of all oppression.

Whilst capitalism played a revolutionary role in the past, in terms of developing the productive forces, this always came with a human cost, as explained above, due to the contradictory way in which progress takes place within a system of private ownership and competition.

“We have seen how this absolute contradiction (namely the contradiction between the revolutionary technical basis of large-scale industry and the form it takes under capitalism) does away with all repose, all fixity and all security as far as the worker’s life-situation is concerned; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands the means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his specialised function, to make him superfluous. We have seen, too, how this contradiction bursts forth without restraint in the ceaseless human sacrifices required from the working class, in the reckless squandering of labour-powers, and in the devastating effects of social anarchy. This is the negative side.”19

Alongside this human tragedy that capitalism creates, there arise also contradictions within the system itself. All the forces that propelled society forward in the earlier period of capitalism – namely private ownership, competition, and the production for profit – turn into their opposite and become an enormous fetter on the development of the productive forces. The nation state too, also created by capitalism, becomes a barrier.

On the one hand, by replacing labour with machinery, capitalism kills the goose that lays the golden egg, for it is only the application of labour itself that can create surplus-value for the capitalist. The tendency for workers to be displaced by machines, therefore, gives rise to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, which Marx explains in volume three of Capital.

On the other hand, this same process of automation and the resultant unemployment that it creates means that the capitalists are also cutting away the very branch they are sitting on, for it is the wages of those in work that forms the demand – i.e. the market – for the goods that capitalism produces. While Marx correctly concentrates on production as the source of surplus-value in the first volume of Capital, this surplus can only be realised in the market, through the circulation of capital (which he explains in detail in volume two). Hence the viscous cycle that capitalism generates in times of recession, with unemployment creating a further lack of demand, which means a further curtailing of production, and thus a further reduction in jobs, and so on and so forth.

At the root of this is the contradiction of overproduction, arising from the limits of private ownership and production for profit. Since profits are nothing more than the unpaid labour of the working class – the surplus-value generated by the workers – there is a permanent contradiction within capitalism whereby the productive forces outstrip the market: the ability of the system to produce extends far beyond the ability of the workers to buy back what is produced.

While the capitalists temporarily overcome this contradiction by reinvesting their profits into new machinery, into new means of production, this simply generates greater and greater productive capacity. As a result of private ownership and competition, this ‘solution’ only leads to further instability and even greater crisis.

“The factory system’s tremendous capacity for expanding with sudden immense leaps, and its dependence on the world market, necessarily give rise to the following cycle: feverish production, a consequent glut on the market, then a contraction of the market, which causes production to be crippled. The life of industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, overproduction, crisis and stagnation.”20

Alongside these crises in the economy, capitalism simultaneously destroys not only the lives of those who produce the wealth in society, the working class, but also the environment upon which we depend:

“Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development…the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.”21

These words, written by Marx in the 19th Century to describe capitalism’s ruining of the soil, could so easily be used to describe the general ecological crises and destruction of the environment we see today due to capitalism’s insatiable desire for profits.

It every respect, the economic progress we see under capitalism is accompanied by social contradictions and antagonisms. Whilst creating the potential for a fundamental change in society, the forces that push society forward become fetters – enormous barriers that prevent the fulfilment of this potential fundamental change. The task, therefore, is to smash through these barriers and remove these limits to progress; to abolish the system of private ownership and production for profit that stands in our way; in short – to fight for the socialist transformation of society.

“[Capitalism] destroys both the ancient and the transitional forms behind which the dominion of capital is still partially hidden, and replaces them with a dominion which is direct and unconcealed. But by doing this it also generalises the direct struggle against its rule. While in each individual workshop it enforces uniformity, regularity, order and economy, the result of the immense impetus given to technical improvement by the limitation and regulation of the working day is to increase the anarchy and the proneness to catastrophe of capitalist production as a whole, the intensity of labour, and the competition of machinery with the worker. By the destruction of small-scale and domestic industries it destroys the last resorts of the ‘redundant population’, thereby removing what was previously a safety-value for the whole social mechanism. By maturing the material conditions and the social combinations of the process of production, it matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of that process, and thereby ripens both the elements for forming a new society and the forces tending towards the overthrow of the old one.”22


1 p492

2 p495

3 p496-497

4 p497

5 p501

6 p502

7 p508

8 p515

9 p515

10 p562

11 p557

12 p557

13 p558-559

14 p568-569

15 p567-568

16 p617

17 p601

18 p620-621

19 p617-618

20 p580

21 p638

22 p635

Cyclist“The capitalist can annihilate all regularity of employment, and according to his own convenience, caprice, and the interest of the moment, make the most frightful over-work alternate with relative or absolute cessation of work..” – Marx, Capital Vol I, Chapter 20

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