William Morris

Socialism From The Root Up - Chapter 19 - Scientific Socialism - Constant and Variable Capital

Marx goes on to develope (sic) further the process by which the capitalist exploits the labourer under the present system of wages and capital.

We now come to the two instruments which the capitalist uses in his exploitation of labour, and which are named constant and variable capital; constant capital being the raw material and instruments of production, and variable the labour power to be employed in producing on and by means of the former.

The labourer, as we have seen, adds a value to the raw material upon which he works; but by the very act of adding a new value he preserves the old; in one character he adds new value, in another he merely preserves what already existed. He affects this by working in a particular way, eg., by spinning, weaving, or forging, that is, he transforms things which are already utilities into new utilities proportionately greater than they were before.

'It is thus', says Marx, 'that the cotton and spindle, the yarn and the loom, the iron and the anvil become constituent elements of a new use-value.'

That is, in order to acquire this new value, the labour must be directed to a socially useful end, to a general end, that is, to which the general labour of society is directed, and the value added is to be measured by the average amount of labour power expended; i.e., by the duration of the average time of labour.

Marx says: 'We have seen that the means of production transfer value to the new product so far only as during the labour-process they lose value in the shape of their old use-value. The maximum loss of value that they can suffer in the process is plainly limited by the amount of the original value with which they came into the process, or in other words by the labour-time necessary for their production. Therefore, the means of production can never add more value to the product than they themselves possess independently of the process in which they assist. However useful a given kind of raw material, or a machine, or other means of production may be, though it may cost £150, or say 500 days labour, yet it cannot under any circumstances add to the value of the product more than £150. Its value is determined not by the labour-process into which it enters as a means of production, but by that out of which it has issued as a product. In the labour process it only serves as a mere use-value, a thing with useful properties, and could not therefore transfer any value to the product unless it possessed such value previously.'

The matter is succinctly put as follows: 'The means of production on the one hand, labour-power on the other, are merely the different modes of existence which the value of the original capital assumed when from being money it was transformed into the various factors of the labour process. That part of capital which is represented by the means of production, by the raw material, auxiliary material, and the instruments of labour, does not in the process of production undergo any quantitative alteration of value. I therefore call it the constant part of capital, or more shortly constant capital.'

At first sight it might be thought that the wear and tear of the machinery, and the seeming disappearance of part of the auxiliary material (as eg., the mordaunts used in dyeing cloth or yarn, or the gums, etc., used in textile printing) contradict this statement as to the alteration of value; but on closer view it will be seen that the above wear and tear and apparent consumption enter into the new product just as much as the visible raw material does; neither are really consumed, but transformed.

In the following chapters Marx enters into an elaborate and exhaustive analysis of the rate of surplus value, ie., of the rate at which the creation of surplus value takes place; and he also deals with the important subject of the duration of the working-day. But as this is after all a matter of detail, in spite of its very great interest and importance we must omit it, as it would carry us beyond the scope of these articles.

Marx distinguishes between absolute and relative 'surplus value'; the absolute being the product of a day's labour over and above the necessary subsistence of the workman, whatever the time necessary for the production of a definite amount of product may be. The relative 'surplus-value' on the other hand is determined by the increased productivity of labour caused by new inventions, machinery, increased skill, either in manipulation, or the organization of labour, by which the time necessary for the production of the labourer's means of subsistence may be indefinitely shortened.

It will be seen once again by all this, that whatever instruments may be put into the hands of the labourer to bring about a result from his labour, in spite of all pretences to the contrary, the one instrument necessary to the capitalist is the labourer himself living under such conditions that he can be used as a mere instrument for the production of profit. The tools, machinery, factories, means of exchange, etc., are only intermediate aids for putting the living machine into operation.

Commonweal, Volume 3, Number 75, 18 June 1887, PP. 196-197