Marx divides the chapter into ten sections:
(1) The Development of MachineryFor Marx, the use of machines in capitalist production marks the modern developed form of capitalism: that of modern industry or large-scale industry.
(2) The Value transferred by the Machinery to the Product
(3) The Most Immediate Effects of Machine Production on the Worker
(4) The Factory
(5) The Struggle between Worker and Machine
(6) The Compensation Theory, with Regard to the Workers displaced by Machinery
(7) Repulsion and Attraction of Workers through the Development of Machine Production, Crises in the Cotton Industry
(8) The Revolutionary Impact of Large-Scale Industry on Manufacture, Handicrafts and Domestic Industry
(9) The Health and Education Clauses of the Factory Acts.
(10) Large-Scale Industry and Agriculture.
This chapter, in terms of its general assertions, is one of extraordinary dogmatism and communist propagandistic nonsense, even though nobody would deny that Marx accurately describes the worst elements, excesses and horrors of exploitation in 19th century British capitalism.
Marx essentially is arguing the following here: that machines do virtually nothing except create more misery and poverty for the workers. This process occurs in the following manner:
(1) machines are used to replace workers;Bizarrely missing from Marx’s analysis is the fact that (1) machines and automation enable soaring productivity and vastly increased output per capita, a process which makes a nation far wealthier and able to increase living standards for its workers, and that (2) machines, generally speaking, reduce the intensity and arduousness of work.
(2) the replaced workers add to a large growing reserve army of labour, which in turn increase labour supply and tends to reduce real wages;
(3) the use of machines allows more use of female labour and child labour;
(4) increasing use of machines de-skills workers and makes them more and more the slaves of the capitalist;
(5) machines even make the abstract labour worked per day more intense (Brewer 1984: 55, 57).
A further problem with this chapter is strongly related to the issue of Engels’ Pause and Marx’s hasty generalisations based on limited evidence from this period.
In Chapter 15, Marx is heavily dependent on works by Babbage, Ure and Engels’ own writings and experience in Manchester, but his attempts to draw sweeping conclusions about the whole nature and trajectory of capitalism are hasty and flawed, and even a Marxist like David Harvey admits this and that Marx’s analysis here is “one-sided” (Harvey 2010: 214–215).
In part 1, critical summaries of the chapter sections (1) to (5) follow below.
(1) The Development of Machinery
Marx starts his analysis with an extraordinary statement:
“John Stuart Mill says in his Principles of Political Economy: ‘It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.’ That is, however, by no means the aim of the capitalistic application of machinery. Like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working-day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus-value.” (Marx 1906: 405).In other words, the actual purpose of the use of machines by capitalists is to reduce the value of basic commodities so that the value of the maintenance and reproduction of labour-power will fall, and so in turn that the real subsistence wage that workers tend to be paid will fall. By these means, the relative surplus value extracted by the capitalists can rise.
England was the birthplace of large-scale industry or modern industry (Marx 1990: 498; Marx 1906: 410).
Automation essentially takes tools out of the hands of workers and creates new machines with the same type of tools driven by new motive power, whether by animals or natural forces or men:
“The machine proper is therefore a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations that were formerly done by the workman with similar tools. Whether the motive power is derived from man, or from some other machine, makes no difference in this respect. From the moment that the tool proper is taken from man, and fitted into a mechanism, a machine takes the place of a mere implement. The difference strikes one at once, even in those cases where man himself continues to be the prime mover. The number of implements that he himself can use simultaneously, is limited by the number of his own natural instruments of production, by the number of his bodily organs. …. The number of tools that a machine can bring into play simultaneously, is from the very first emancipated from the organic limits that hedge in the tools of a handicraftsman.” (Marx 1906: 408).The technical and scientific developments for the creation of machines in large-scale industry occurred in the period of manufacture (which for Marx was the 16th to the 18th centuries) (Marx 1990: 498).
Watt’s second steam engine using coal and water was a crucial invention which allowed manufacturing to be concentrated in the towns (Marx 1990: 499).
A machine can combine numerous functions to produce a product, or a number of machines may work serially in sequence to produce an output product (Marx 1990: 501–503).
“An organised system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from a central automaton, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, in the place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demon power, at first veiled under the slow and measured motions of his giant limbs, at length breaks out into the fast and furious whirl of his countless working organs.” (Marx 1906: 416–417).Machinery, then, replaces human labour with man-made technology driven by natural forces (Marx 1990: 508).
“A radical change in the mode of production in one sphere in industry involves a similar change in other spheres. This happens at first in such branches of industry as are connected together by being separate phases of a process, and yet are isolated by the social division of labour, in such a way, that each of them produces an independent commodity. Thus spinning by machinery made weaving by machinery a necessity, and both together made the mechanical and chemical revolution that took place in bleaching, printing, and dyeing, imperative. So too, on the other hand, the revolution in cotton-spinning called forth the invention of the gin, for separating the seeds from the cotton fibre; it was only by means of this invention, that the production of cotton became possible on the enormous scale at present required. But more especially, the revolution in the modes of production of industry and agriculture made necessary a revolution in the general conditions of the social process of production, i.e., in the means of communication and of transport. In a society whose pivot, to use an expression of Fourier, was agriculture on a small scale, with its subsidiary domestic industries, and the urban handicrafts, the means of communication and transport were so utterly inadequate to the productive requirements of the manufacturing period, with its extended division of social labour, its concentration of the instruments of labour, and of the workmen, and its colonial markets, that they became in fact revolutionised. In the same way the means of communication and transport handed down from the manufacturing period soon became unbearable trammels on Modern Industry, with its feverish haste of production, its enormous extent, its constant flinging of capital and labour from one sphere of production into another, and its newly-created connexions with the markets of the whole world. Hence, apart from the radical changes introduced in the construction of sailing vessels, the means of communication and transport became gradually adapted to the modes of production of mechanical industry, by the creation of a system of river steamers, railways, ocean steamers, and telegraphs. But the huge masses of iron that had now to be forged, to be welded, to be cut, to be bored, and to be shaped, demanded, on their part, cyclopean machines, for the construction of which the methods of the manufacturing period were utterly inadequate.
Modern Industry had therefore itself to take in hand the machine, its characteristic instrument of production, and to construct machines by machines. It was not till it did this, that it built up for itself a fitting technical foundation, and stood on its own feet.” (Marx 1906: 418–420).
(2) The Value transferred by the Machinery to the Product
So workers now labour alongside machines or using machines.
But machines are durable constant capital and so their value enters into the new product only in small amounts over their lifetime:
“Although, therefore, it is clear at the first glance that, by incorporating both stupendous physical forces, and the natural sciences, with the process of production, Modern Industry raises the productiveness of labour to an extraordinary degree, it is by no means equally clear, that this increased productive force is not, on the other hand, purchased by an increased expenditure of labour. Machinery, like every other component of constant capital, creates no new value, but yields up its own value to the product that it serves to beget. In so far as the machine has value, and, in consequence, parts with value to the product, it forms an element in the value of that product. Instead of being cheapened, the product is made dearer in proportion to the value of the machine. And it is clear as noon-day, that machines and systems of machinery, the characteristic instruments of labour of Modern Industry, are incomparably more loaded with value than the implements used in handicrafts and manufactures.Even though machines may cost a lot to make, they can produce a vast output, and so only transfer a tiny fraction of their value to each individual unit of output, which generally makes prices fall given that labour is eliminated and labour costs fall (Brewer 1984: 56).
In the first place, it must be observed that the machinery, while always entering as a whole into the labour-process, enters into the value-begetting process only by bits. It never adds more value than it loses, on an average, by wear and tear. Hence there is a great difference between the value of a machine, and the value transferred in a given time by that machine to the product. The longer the life of the machine in the labour-process, the greater is that difference.” (Marx 1906: 422–423).
The power and physical productivity of machines makes their ability to transfer fractional values to individual commodities produced approach zero, and so they resemble free forces of nature:
“Given the rate at which machinery transfers its value to the product, the amount of value so transferred depends on the total value of the machinery. The less labour it contains, the less value it imparts to the product. The less value it gives up, so much the more productive it is, and so much the more its services approximate to those of natural forces. But the production of machinery by machinery lessens its value relatively to its extension and efficacy.” (Marx 1906: 425–426).There is a profound point here: suppose, in Marx’s thinking, a machine is bought by a capitalist at its true labour value which is actually very low, but the machine is highly productive and can produce a vast output over many years: the cost price might be $1000 but the output of the machine could be 1 million goods. The labour value the machine transfers to each individual unit is very low and so “the more its services approximate to those of natural forces”: that is, it comes close to being like a free resource.
But this of course entails, as is stated explicitly in Chapter 8, that any instrument used in the production process had no labour value to begin with will transfer no labour value to the output product:
“So it is with the instruments of labour. It is known by experience how long on the average a machine of a particular kind will last. Suppose its use-value in the labour-process to last only six days. Then, on the average, it loses each day one-sixth of its use-value, and therefore parts with one-sixth of its value to the daily product. The wear and tear of all instruments, their daily loss of use-value, and the corresponding quantity of value they part with to the product, are accordingly calculated upon this basis.So as machines get less and less expensive and more and more productive (i.e., existing over a long life-time and producing a vast output), machines approximate natural forces or free natural resources.
It is thus strikingly clear, that means of production never transfer more value to the product than they themselves lose during the labour-process by the destruction of their own use-value. If such an instrument has no value to lose, if, in other words, it is not the product of human labour, it transfers no value to the product. It helps to create use-value without contributing to the formation of exchange value. In this class are included all means of production supplied by Nature without human assistance, such as land, wind, water, metals in situ, and timber in virgin forests.” (Marx 1906: 227).
Machines displace workers where their use allows savings in labour costs over the lifetime of the machines (Marx 1990: 515), but technological unemployment can drive wages down to the point where it is still cheaper to use human workers (Marx 1990: 516).
(2) The Value transferred by the Machinery to the Product
(a) Appropriation of Supplementary Labour-Power by Capital, the Employment of Women and Children
Since machines can perform intense labour and replace strong workers, machines allow use of women and children in lighter tasks.
For Marx, this was the paradox of the introduction of the machines:
“In so far as machinery dispenses with muscular power, it becomes a means of employing labourers of slight muscular strength, and those whose bodily development is incomplete, but whose limbs are all the more supple. The labour of women and children was, therefore, the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery. That mighty substitute for labour and labourers was forthwith changed into a means for increasing the number of wage-labourers by enrolling, under the direct sway of capital, every member of the workman’s family, without distinction of age or sex. Compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place, not only of the children’s play, but also of free labour at home within moderate limits for the support of the family” (Marx 1906: 431).Marx notes that the value of labour-power includes the value needed for maintaining families, and the effects of machinery on labour:
“The value of labour-power was determined, not only by the labour-time necessary to maintain the individual adult laborer, but also by that necessary to maintain his family. Machinery, by throwing every member of that family on to the labour market, spreads the value of the man’s labour-power over his whole family. It thus depreciates his labour-power. To purchase the labour-power of a family of four workers may, perhaps, cost more than it formerly did to purchase the labour-power of the head of the family, but, in return, four days’ labour takes the place of one, and their price falls in proportion to the excess of the surplus-labour of four over the surplus-labour of one. In order that the family may live, four people must now, not only labour, but expend surplus-labor for the capitalist. Thus we see, that machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation.” (Marx 1906: 431–432).This implies that women and children are paid less for their work than men, and it also leads to the exploitation of children by their parents, a new form of slave labour (Marx 1990: 519).
A feature of this section of the chapter is its reliance on evidence mainly from the 1820s to 1840s, even when Marx wishes to talk about capitalism of 1860s when clear progress had been made in reducing the extent of child labour and providing much better state education for children.
(b) The Prolongation of the Working Day
Machinery allowed capitalists to increase the working day (Marx 1990: 526). Since a higher output per day means more goods that can be sold for profit, capitalists wish to maximise the operation of machinery:
“The automaton, as capital, and because it is capital, is endowed, in the person of the capitalist, with intelligence and will; it is therefore animated by the longing to reduce to a minimum the resistance offered by that repellant yet elastic natural barrier, man. This resistance is moreover lessened by the apparent lightness of machine work, and by the more pliant and docile character of the women and children employed on it.Marx notices what we would now call the issue of obsolescence of machinery:
The productiveness of machinery is, as we saw, inversely proportional to the value transferred by it to the product. The longer the life of the machine, the greater is the mass of the products over which the value transmitted by the machine is spread, and the less is the portion of that value added to each single commodity. The active lifetime of a machine is, however, clearly dependent on the length of the working day, or on the duration of the daily labour-process multiplied by the number of days for which the process is carried on.” (Marx 1906: 440–441).
“But in addition to the material wear and tear, a machine also undergoes, what we may call a moral depreciation. It loses exchange-value, either by machines of the same sort being produced cheaper than it, or by better machines entering into competition with it. In both cases, be the machine ever so young and full of life, its value is no longer determined by the labour actually materialised in it, but by the labour-time requisite to reproduce either it or the better machine. It has, therefore, lost value more or less. The shorter the period taken to reproduce its total value, the less is the danger of moral depreciation; and the longer the working day, the shorter is that period. When machinery is first introduced into an industry, new methods of reproducing it more cheaply follow blow upon blow, and so do improvements, that not only affect individual parts and details of the machine, but its entire build. It is, therefore, in the early days of the life of machinery that this special incentive to the prolongation of the working day makes itself felt most acutely.” (Marx 1906: 442).According to Marx, machines also reduce wages, because workers tend to be paid the value of the maintenance and reproduction of labour-power:
“Machinery produces relative surplus-value; not only by directly depreciating the value of labour-power, and by indirectly cheapening the same through cheapening the commodities that enter into its reproduction, but also, when it is first introduced sporadically into an industry, by converting the labour employed by the owner of that machinery, into labour of a higher degree and greater efficacy, by raising the social value of the article produced above its individual value, and thus enabling the capitalist to replace the value of a day’s labour-power by a smaller portion of the value of the day’s product. During this transition period, when the use of machinery is a sort of monopoly, the profits are therefore exceptional, and the capitalist endeavours to exploit thoroughly ‘the sunny time of this his first love,’ by prolonging the working day as much as possible. The magnitude of the profit whets his appetite for more profit.But in reality with the increased use of machinery, the real wage in capitalism soared, so Marx’s analysis is badly flawed (see here and here).
As the use of machinery becomes more general in a particular industry, the social value of the product sinks down to its individual value, and the law that surplus-value does not arise from the labour-power that has been replaced by the machinery, but from the labour-power actually employed in working with the machinery, asserts itself. Surplus-value arises from the variable capital alone, and we saw that the amount of surplus-value depends on two factors, viz., the rate of surplus-value and the number of the workmen simultaneously employed. Given the length of the working day, the rate of surplus-value is determined by the relative duration of the necessary labour and of the surplus-labour in a day. The number of the labourers simultaneously employed depends, on its side, on the ratio of the variable to the constant capital. Now, however much the use of machinery may increase the surplus-labour at the expense of the necessary labour by heightening the productiveness of labour, it is clear that it attains this result, only by diminishing the number of workmen employed by a given amount of capital. It converts what was formerly variable capital, invested in labour-power, into machinery, which, being constant capital, does not produce surplus-value.” (Marx 1906: 443–444).
The machine also produces a surplus population:
“If, then, the capitalistic employment of machinery, on the one hand, supplies new and powerful motives to an excessive lengthening of the working day, and radically changes, as well the methods of labour, as also the character of the social working organism, in such a manner as to break down all opposition to this tendency, on the other hand it produces, partly by opening out to the capitalist new strata of the working class, previously inaccessible to him, partly by setting free the labourers it supplants, a surplus working population, which is compelled to submit to the dictation of capital. Hence that remarkable phenomenon in the history of Modern Industry, that machinery sweeps away every moral and natural restriction on the length of the working day.” (Marx 1906: 445).This technological unemployment produces the reserve army of labour (see Chapter 25 of volume 1 of Capital).
(c) Intensification of Labour
Marx now admits that attempts to lengthen the working day provoke legislation to limit it, and so a new form of extracting surplus value now becomes important: intensification of labour performed in a given working day (Marx 1990: 533). Marx treats this as another form of extracting more relative surplus value.
Marx claims the following:
“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. Thus in England, during half a century, lengthening of the working day went hand in hand with increasing intensity of factory labour. Nevertheless the reader will clearly see, that where we have labour, not carried on by fits and starts, but repeated day after day with unvarying uniformity, a point must inevitably be reached, where extension of the working day and intensity of the labour mutually exclude one another, in such a way that lengthening of the working day becomes compatible only with a lower degree of intensity, and, a higher degree of intensity, only with a shortening of the working day. So soon as the gradually surging revolt of the working class compelled Parliament to shorten compulsorily the hours of labour, and to begin by imposing a normal working day on factories proper, so soon consequently as an increased production of surplus value by the prolongation of the working day was once for all put a stop to, from that moment capital threw itself with all its might into the production of relative surplus-value, by hastening on the further improvement of machinery. At the same time a change took place in the nature of relative surplus-value. Generally speaking, the mode of producing relative surplus-value consists in raising the productive power of the workman, so as to enable him to produce more in a given time with the same expenditure of labour. Labour-time continues to transmit as before the same value to the total product, but this unchanged amount of exchange value is spread over more use-values; hence the value of each single commodity sinks. Otherwise, however, so soon as the compulsory shortening of the hours of labour takes place. The immense impetus it gives to the development of productive power, and to economy in the means of production, imposes on the workman increased expenditure of labour in a given time, heightened tension of labour-power, and closer filling up of the pores of the working day, or condensation of labour to a degree that is attainable only within the limits of the shortened working day. This condensation of a greater mass of labour into a given period thenceforward counts for what it really is, a greater quantity of labour. In addition to a measure of its extension, i.e., duration, labour now acquires a measure of its intensity or of the degree of its condensation or density. The denser hour of the ten hours’ working-day contains more labour, i.e., expended labour-power, than the more porous hour of the twelve hours’ working-day.” (Marx 1906: 447–448).Though Marx does indeed cite some empirical evidence in support of this, it is so obviously one-sided and blatantly skewed by his communist ideology.
“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).
After 1840s, child labour did indeed fall and the length of the working day fell, and the use of machines actually tended to reduce the intensity of labour for men and women in many industries, compared to the heavy manual labour of pre-industrial days.
In the long-run, the working day in capitalism did fall, and machines generally reduce the amount of work to be done and its intensity. But Marx will have none of this. But nowadays even a Marxist like 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).
(4) The Factory
The factory changes the skills of workers:
“Along with the tool, the skill of the workman in handling it passes over to the machine. The capabilities of the tool are emancipated from the restraints that are inseparable from human labour-power. Thereby the technical foundation on which is based the division of labour in Manufacture, is swept away. Hence, in the place of the hierarchy of specialised workmen that characterises manufacture, there steps, in the automatic factory, a tendency to equalise and reduce to one and the same level every kind of work that has to be done by the minders of the machines; in the place of the artificially produced differentiations of the detail workmen, step the natural differences of age and sex.So machines have a tendency to make the type of labour performed increasingly homogeneous (Harvey 2010: 215).
So far as division of labour re-appears in the factory, it is primarily a distribution of the workmen among the specialised machines; and of masses of workmen, not however organised into groups, among the various departments of the factory, in each of which they work at a number of similar machines placed together; their co-operation, therefore, is only simple. The organised group, peculiar to manufacture, is replaced by the connexion between the head workman and his few assistants. The essential division is, into workmen who are actually employed on the machines (among whom are included a few who look after the engine), and into mere attendants (almost exclusively children) of these workmen. Among the attendants are reckoned more or less all ‘Feeders’ who supply the machines with the material to be worked. In addition to these two principal classes, there is a numerically unimportant class of persons, whose occupation it is to look after the whole of the machinery and repair it from time to time; such as engineers, mechanics, joiners, &c. This is a superior class of workmen, some of them scientifically educated, others brought up to a trade; it is distinct from the factory operative class, and merely aggregated to it. This division of labour is purely technical.” (Marx 1906: 459–460).
Machine work can be learnt quickly from a young age (Marx 1990: 546).
Factory work destroys human freedom:
“At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity. The lightening of the labour, even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest. Every kind of capitalist production in so far as it is not only a labour-process, but also a process of creating surplus-value, has this in common, that it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman. But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality. By means of its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the labourer, during the labour-process, in the shape of capital, of dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual powers of production from the manual labour, and the conversion of those powers into the might of capital over labour, is, as we have already shown, finally completed by modern industry erected on the foundation of machinery.” (Marx 1906: 462).But Marx badly contradicts himself here, for he admits that large-scale industry can result in a “lightening of the labour” and later in the chapter refers to the “light character of the labour” in the factory system (Marx 1906: 505).
Factories impose an army-like discipline on workers with superintendents and overseers; the training of workers from childhood onwards is also an effective practice in the factories (Marx 1990: 549).
Marx makes a fair point about the dangers of early factories:
“We shall here merely allude to the material conditions under which factory labour is carried on. Every organ of sense is injured in an equal degree by artificial elevation of the temperature, by the dust-laden atmosphere, by the deafening noise, not to mention danger to life and limb among the thickly crowded machinery, which with the regularity of the seasons, issues its list of the killed and wounded in the industrial battle. Economy of the social means of production, matured and forced as in a hothouse by the factory system, is turned, in the hands of capital into systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the workman while he is at work, robbery of space, light, air, and of protection to his person against the dangerous and unwholesome accompaniments of the productive process, not to mention the robbery of appliances for the comfort of the workman.” (Marx 1906: 465–466).But even here organised labour and unions made great strides in improving working conditions, even in the 19th century, so Marx simply misses the point that over time in the West these conditions greatly improved.
Even in this very chapter in his footnotes Marx is forced to admissions that do not fit his hyperbole: for example, legal reforms gave workers more rights in regard to breach of contract: “the English laborer has been placed on an equity with the employers in cases of contract breaking, and can be proceeded against only by the civil courts” (Marx 1906: 464, n. 1). The Factory Acts had a beneficial effect in reducing the risks of dangerous machinery (Marx 1990: 552, n. 10). Even more:
“In those factories that have been longest subject to the Factory Acts, with their compulsory limitation of the hours of labour, and other regulations, many of the older abuses have vanished. The very improvement of the machinery demands to a certain extent ‘improved construction of the buildings,’ and this is an advantage to the work-people. (See ‘Rep. of Insp. of Fact, for 31st Oct., 1863,’ p. 109.” (Marx 1906: 466, n. 2).Marx even has evidence that machines can reduce child labour:
“At the end of 1871, Mr. A. Redgrave, the factory inspector, in a lecture given at Bradford, in the New Mechanics’ Institution, said: ‘What has struck me for some time past is the altered appearance of the woollen factories. Formerly they were filled with women and children, now machinery seems to do all the work. At my asking for an explanation of this from a manufacturer, he gave me the following: “Under the old system I employed 63 persons; after the introduction of improved machinery I reduced my hands to 33, and lately, in consequence of new and extensive alterations, I have been in a position to reduce those 33 to 13.”’” (Marx 1906: 490, n. 2).But we do not get this impression from his main text.
(5) The Struggle between Worker and Machine
Capitalists and workers are prone to disputes and conflict, and this began in the earlier period of manufacture, but intensified with the introduction of machines (Marx 1990: 553).
Marx reviews the history of worker hostility to machines:
“The enormous destruction of machinery that occurred in the English manufacturing districts during the first 15 years of this century, chiefly caused by the employment of the power-loom, and known as the Luddite movement, gave the anti-Jacobin governments of a Sidmouth, a Castlereagh, and the like, a pretext for the most re-actionary and forcible measures. It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” (Marx 1906: 468).Workers are in competition with machines:
“The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself. The self-expansion of capital by means of machinery is thenceforward directly proportional to the number of the workpeople, whose means of livelihood have been destroyed by that machinery. The whole system of capitalist production is based on the fact that the workman sells his labour-power as a commodity. Division of labour specialises this labour-power, by reducing it to skill in handling a particular tool. So soon as the handling of this tool becomes the work of a machine, then, with the use-value, the exchange-value too, of the workman’s labour-power vanishes; the workman becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. That portion of the working class, thus by machinery rendered superfluous, i.e., no longer immediately necessary for the self-expansion of capital, either goes to the wall in the unequal contest of the old handicrafts and manufactures with machinery, or else floods all the more easily accessible branches of industry, swamps the labour market, and sinks the price of labour-power below its value. It is impressed upon the work-people, as a great consolation, first, that their sufferings are only temporary (‘a temporary inconvenience’), secondly, that machinery acquires the mastery over the whole of a given field of production, only by degrees, so that the extent and intensity of its destructive effect is diminished. The first consolation neutralizes the second. When machinery seizes on an industry by degrees, it produces chronic misery among the operatives who compete with it. Where the transition is rapid, the effect is acute and felt by great masses. History discloses no tragedy more horrible than the gradual extinction of the English handloom weavers, an extinction that was spread over several decades, and finally sealed in 1838. Many of them died of starvation, many with families vegetated for a long time on 2.5 d. a day.” (Marx 1906: 470–471).So machines actually tend to drive down real wages even below the value of the maintenance and reproduction of labour-power.
Marx thinks the overarching effect of machines is to de-skill workers and dispense with skilled labour, and induce more child and female labour to replace that of skilled adult males, and in the process reducing wage rates (Marx 1990: 559–560).
Machines also give capitalists a tool with which to suppress strikes (Marx 1990: 563).
Harry Cleaver, Study Guide to Capital Volume I, Chapter 15.
Brewer, Anthony. 1984. A Guide to Marx’s Capital. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Harvey, David. 2010. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. Verso, London and New York.
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.
Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One (trans. Ben Fowkes). Penguin Books, London.