But first let us look at Marx’s theory. It is that capitalists aim at increasing their theft of surplus value from workers.
They can do this in three ways:
(1) by increasing the length of the working day while holding down the real wage to a subsistence level (that is, increasing absolute surplus value);It is method (3) that concerns us here.
(2) decreasing the price of the basic commodities making up the value of the maintenance and reproduction of labour by automation, and thus reducing the real subsistence wage when the working day is held constant (that is, increasing relative surplus value);
(3) given a stable working day, using machines to increase the intensity and speed of work by labourers and so increasing the socially necessary labour time worked per hour, while holding down the real wage to a subsistence level (that is, increasing relative surplus value).
Marx says clearly that one of the primary effects of machines in factory work is as follows:
“It is self-evident, that in proportion as the use of machinery spreads, and the experience of a special class of workmen habituated to machinery accumulates, the rapidity and intensity of labour increase as a natural consequence.” (Marx 1906: 447).So the general effect of machines in capitalism is to make workers labour with more and more intensified work and faster speed per hour of work.
“The shortening of the hours of labour creates, to begin with, the subjective conditions for the condensation of labour, by enabling the workman to exert more strength in a given time. So soon as that shortening becomes compulsory, machinery becomes in the hands of capital the objective means, systematically employed for squeezing out more labour in a given time. This is effected in two ways: by increasing the speed of the machinery, and by giving the workman more machinery to tend. Improved construction of the machinery is necessary, partly because without it greater pressure cannot be put on the workman, and partly because the shortened hours of labour force the capitalist to exercise the strictest watch over the cost of production.” (Marx 1906: 450).
“There cannot be the slightest doubt that the tendency that urges capital as soon as a prolongation of the hours of labour is once for all forbidden, to compensate itself, by a systematic heightening of the intensity of labour, and to convert every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means of exhausting the workman, must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable.” (Marx 1906: 456).
Marx’s world of increasing intensity of labour may as well be the factory imagined by Charlie Chaplin in the movie Modern Times (1936), as below.
Marx even quotes with approval the bizarre idea of John Stuart Mill that it was “questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being” (Marx 1906: 405).
While Marx certainly could point to some evidence of an intensifying of factory labour in the 1810s to 1850s, as a general tendency of developed capitalism even in the 19th century or in the long-run history of Western capitalism, it is a most absurd perversion of the truth. It is a piece of communist propaganda.
Let us look at human labour in the videos below in some modern factories where more and more machines have been introduced.
Look carefully at the workers in these videos. Is their work more labour intensive and faster than the work required before machines were introduced? The very idea is absurd.
In video 2, most of the factory work has been reduced to visual inspection and overseeing of machine work, not physical labour.
In video 1, the work has manifestly been made less intense and less arduous given the massive use of robots, machine tools, conveyer belts, and load-bearing technologies, and certainly in relation to how the cars were manufactured in past decades.
Marx’s central claim that machines, generally speaking, are an unmitigated evil in capitalism whose primary effect to increase the intensity and speed of work by labourers is an outrageous falsehood – a perversion of history and reality. If true, it would imply that advanced industrial capitalism would have increased the intensity of work so much that an individual worker would be moving at the rapidity of Speedy Gonzales.
Even worse, Marx himself even in Chapter 15 of volume 1 of Capital on machines badly contradicted himself, because he let slip the reality that large-scale industry can result in a “lightening of the labour” for workers (Marx 1906: 462) and then refers to the “light character of the labour” in the factory system (Marx 1906: 505).
These days even some Marxists realise that Marx’s theory on this point is rubbish: e.g., the Marxist Harry Cleaver admits that, in the long run in capitalism, the “general tendency has been for a reduction in intensity” of labour (see here under Section 3. Working Class Response).
And once we admit that the third and last element in Marx’s theory of increasing exploitation of workers based on extraction of surplus labour value cannot be sustained, the whole theory collapses like a house of cards because the first two are false as well.
Marx, Karl. 1906. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 1; rev. trans. by Ernest Untermann from 4th German edn.). The Modern Library, New York.