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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

The Machine

(17 August 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 33, 17 August 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A machine is a product of labor just like a pocket watch or a pudding, but the first thing you usually think about a machine is how handy it is and what it can do. You don’t stop to think that each part is cast, rolled or forged and machined just like the material it works on. You think instead of the wonderful things it can do – how ingenious and clever the machine is.

But the machine is not a human being. And it doesn’t live by the same laws human beings do, or that labor power does. From the standpoint of value it is the sum total of all the castings, forgings and rolled products in itself, and the labor that put them there, plus the machinings, the close tolerances in it that other machinists put there. And that is all it is. It sells in the long run for how much these things will bring.

A modern machine seems to turn out riches for its owner like a sausage machine turns out sausages. When you see a twenty-ton press stamping out auto fenders at 600 per hour, or a hundred ton press stamping out the fuselage of airplanes, as young girls feed and handle the stock, you wonder if the machine isn’t after all the creator of values and the coiner of wealth, instead of labor. That’s how it seems on the surface.

But this isn’t so. It is not the machinery, but labor which creates new value and surplus value.

Remember, when we discussed tools – like the crescent wrench, the lug wrench and the jack? How much could be done with them and how little they cost! Their usefulness was one thing; but their value was something else. For example, a garage man will jack up your car – change your wheel, and change your tire too – all for a dollar and a half. Without the right tools ten garage men couldn’t do this in ten hours. Nevertheless it only costs you a dollar and a half. Why?

Because you do not pay for the magic of the tools. You do not pay for their tremendous efficiency in multiplying the productivity of labor. You pay only for the tiny bit of exchange value of the tools which gets used up as the mechanic uses the tools on your car. Approximately a dollar and a quarter of your money is paid for the labor.

Why is this? Because these tools are so common they are sold cheap. They are produced easily. It takes little labor to make them. They can be used a thousand times without wearing out. If a five dollar jack can be used a thousand times (by a garage man) he does not pay five dollars for its use the first time and nothing the rest of the time. The wear and tear of the jack amounts to about a half a cent each time.

As it is with a tool, so, too, with a machine. The machine is cheap or expensive depending on one thing, and one thing only, namely: the total amount of labor necessary to produce it. A welding machine costs several hundred dollars. A modern blast furnace, which is one big roaring machine fed by a lot of little ones, runs quite a bit over a million dollars!

And these large machines can be used thousands of times just like small tools. They give up their value to the product in the same way tools do – bit by bit, as they gradually wear out, or depreciate.

An electric welding job can save a thousand dollar casting from the scrap heap. During the life of the welding machine, the welder will perform thousands of such operations. But the welding machine does not for that reason cost a million dollars. Nor does it do a million dollars worth of work. Welding machines are so common that even if there were none in the foundry the imperfect but still costly casting would merely be sold for close to its final price, say $975, and someone else would weld it into the $1,000 job.

Before the invention of welding such a repair job could never have been done at all. Now, owing to welding machines and welders, the work is done in a casual, offhand sort of way, just like the moulders, pourers, chippers, grinders and sand-blast men do theirs. The welding machines are slung around the foundry by the crane like so much scrap iron. In a few years, these little machines are worn out. And the company gets some new ones.

The value of the old ones has finally worn away just like its parts. But there is a difference. The parts of the machine are still there for you to look at, while its value is no longer there at all. The old used-up machine is valueless. It is only a corpse. Its life has gone into the work it has done. Its value into the casting it has repaired. A tiny fraction of its value has gone out of the shop with each casting it repaired. The sum total of these fractions is just equal to the value of the machine. No more – no less. It creates no new value.

Besides creating new values, the hand of the workman welder preserved the value of the machine in the new product he created with the aid of the machine. Over a period of years he transferred the value of the machine over entirely to the sum total of his thousands of rapid and cheap jobs.

(Next Week: Machines Create No Value)

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