‘trades unions have from 1871 been the legally constituted subjectivity of the working class’

Source: Mieville, China (2005) Between Equal Rights. A Marxist Theory of International Law. Boston: Brill.

“As Kay and Mott point out, the labour contract is an unstable form that attempts to mediate contradictions.

The solution that the law has developed combines two elements:

1) The episodic nature of the transaction: so that the worker only submits himself to capital period by period, and never finally alienates his will. This permits the illusion that he remains in ultimate possession of himself. . . .

2) In the contract itself the object that is formally alienated does not appear as labour-power, i.e. a capacity which is an immediate attribute of the sub- ject, but as labour, i.e. expended labour-power, or labour which has become external to the worker.

The subordination of the labouring population to industrial capital necessitated a development of the categories of individual property which had been adequate to mercantile and artisan-based capitalism ‘when the process of accumulation was realised through the will of individual entrepreneurs’. The move to joint-stock companies provided the germ-seed of the modern corporation. This meant, in Marx’s words, then Kay and Mott’s,

[c]apital, which is inherently based on a social mode of production and pre- supposes a social concentration of means of production and labour-power, now receives the form of social capital (capital of directly associated individuals) in contrast to private capital, and its enterprises appear as social enterprises as opposed to private ones. This is the abolition of capital as private property within the confines of the capitalist mode of production itself.

Legislation in 1855 and 1862 established the principle of limited liability. . . . [T]his new legal form. . . . established a clear distinction between the private property of the capitalist (subject to consumption) and the property of the capitalist project (subject to accumulation).

It is now the capitalist project which must use wage-labour to accumulate, as opposed to the individual capitalist. A necessary corollary of this was the development of the juridical form to allow for a corporate body to be the owner of a commodity and therefore to retain legal personality. This was not a ‘new’ legal form but a development of the legal form Pashukanis outlines on the basis of that form itself.

With the move to the juridical acknowledgement of the agency of abstract entities of accumulation, the same tendency manifested on the side of the working class, where abstract entities of production were necessarily legally recognised. It would be nonsensical for the company to engage in a vast number of contracts, each with its own set of negotiations, one with each of its workers, and it would diminish the formal power of the corporation vis-à-vis its workers if each of them was its formal equal. The legal formalisation of capital’s agent, the company, had its flipside in the formalisation of labour’s agent, the collective organisation of workers, the trade union. ‘In composing the fully developed wage contract, it is necessary for the state to establish the subjectivities of both parties, since neither capital nor labour are spontaneous economic entities.’

Marx himself points out the extent to which such double-sided legalisation of capital and labour as collectives is a result of the peculiar nature of labour-power as a commodity, for similar reasons as those laid out by Kay and Mott.

The capitalist maintains his right as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible . . . On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. . . . [I]n the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between collective capital . . . and collective labour. . . .

As Kay and Mott point out, ‘trades unions have from 1871 been the legally constituted subjectivity of the working class’. There was a sequence of legal reforms and judgements extending the legal personality of the trade unions from 1841 to 1918. ‘This sequence of legislation defining both labour organisations and their space in law, was the formation of the legal subjectivity of labour by the state.’

What we have here is a theory of the legal recognition of corporations and unions, one of the fundamental changes in contract sometimes deemed to undermine Pashukanis’s theory, understood as a shift in the atoms of the juridical relationship on the basis of the commodity relationship under changing conditions of mass industrialisation and the commodification of labour-power itself. In other words, this does not represent a move away from the commodity-form theory, but a vindication of it.

At the heart of the capitalist economy is the extraordinary commodity of labour-power, which is a commodity simultaneously like and utterly unlike any other.”

Is student learning a form of labour?

My question is: In undertaking a degree, does a student exchange their labour power for anything? i.e. Is student learning/studying a form of labour? These are just some initial notes. Comments welcome.

Quoting from Chapter 6 of Capital: ‘The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power’. Translation of online version differs from Penguin Classics/Fowkes version below. My commentary in [parentheses].

“We mean by labour-power, or labour-capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind.”

“But in order that the owner of money may find labour-power on the market as a commodity [from the standpoint of the buyer], various conditions must first be fulfilled. In and for itself, the exchange of commodities implies no other relations of dependence than those which result from its own nature. On this assumption, labour-power can appear on the market as a commodity only if, and in so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is [now, the standpoint of the seller – it appears on the market as a commodity but was already a commodity as defined above: as the capability/capacity to produce use-values], offers it for sale or sells it as a commodity. In order that its possessor may sell it as a commodity [implies that labour power is a commodity if the owner is in a position to sell it – not that they do sell it], he must have it at his disposal, he must be the free proprietor of his own labour-capacity, hence of his person. [As the ‘free proprietor’ of his own labour-capacity, the student can choose to give her labour power away for free – sell it for nothing – and even pay the owner of another commodity to assist in enhancing her labour power through education; this is rational under the given circumstances] He and the owner of money meet in the market, and enter into relations with each other on a footing of equality as owners of commodities [money and labour power are both commodities prior to the act of exchange – they both have a value which is measured in socially necessary labour time], with the sole difference that one is a buyer, the other a seller; both are therefore equal in the eyes of the law [this remains true of the student and the teacher]. For this relation to continue, the proprietor of labour-power must always sell it for a limited period only, for if he were to sell it in a lump, once and for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. [The student is an owner of a commodity, not simply a commodity, so they are ‘free’ to dispose of it as they see fit] He must constantly treat his labour-power as his own property, his own commodity, and he can do this only by placing it at the disposal of the buyer, i.e. handing it over to the buyer for him to consume, for a definite period of time, temporarily. In this way he manages both to alienate his labour­ power and to avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it. [The student alienates their labour power for a given period during their education and then withdraws it at the end of their education so as to sell it/alienate it on the labour market for a potentially higher price than before their education. We are regularly told that the income of a graduate will be more than the income of a non-graduate over the person’s lifetime and as such, the student will be ‘paid’ for their education].

The second essential condition which allows the owner of money to find labour-power in the market as a commodity is this [again, from the standpoint of the buyer], that the possessor of labour-power [now, standpoint of seller], instead of being able to sell commodities in which his labour has been objectified, must rather be compelled to offer for sale as a commodity [it’s already a commodity before being actually sold – it takes the form of a commodity, regardless of what price/wage it fetches if any] that very labour-power which exists only in his living body [prior to sale, it is objectified as something for sale but not yet alienated; once purchased it is objectified and alienated].

In order that a man may be able to sell commodities other than his labour-power, he must of course possess means of production, such as raw materials, instruments of labour, etc. No boots can be made without leather. He requires also the means of subsistence. Nobody – not even a practitioner of Zukunftsmusik – can live on the products of the future, or on use-values whose production has not yet been completed; just as on the first day of his appearance on the world’s stage, man must still consume every day, before and while he produces. If products are produced as commodities, they must be sold after they have been produced [same with labour power – it must first and always be (re)produced in order to sell], and they can only satisfy the producer’s needs after they have been sold. The time necessary for sale must be counted as well as the time of production. [time studying for the student is (re)productive time as they enhance their labour power]

For the transformation of money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find the free worker available on the commodity-market [note: not ‘labour market’ since labour-power is simply a commodity, albeit a ‘special’ commodity; the labour market is a commodity market]; and this worker must be free in the double sense that as a free individual he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity [the student is ‘free’ to dispose of their labour power in whatever way it may benefit them], and that, on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realization of his labour-power. [the student is ‘free’ of the means to enhance their labour power in the way that they deem necessary. Should the means for self-education and social validation become available to them, they may freely choose not to go to university e.g. self-directed learning]

… In order to become a commodity, the product must cease to be produced as the immediate means of subsistence of the producer himself. [here, referring to the production of food, shelter, etc. Historically, such products of labour were not commodities. Higher education enhances labour power; individuals can subsist without it]

… The appearance of products as commodities requires a level of development of the division of labour within society such that the separation of use-value from exchange-value, a separation which first begins with barter, has already been completed. [what was subsistence labour becomes, in an advanced capitalist society, the labour power commodity due to the division of labour/private property]

… This peculiar commodity, labour-power, must now be examined more closely. Like all other commodities it has a value. How is that value determined?

The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this specific article. In so far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average social labour objectified in it. [education adds value, measured by average socially necessary labour time] Labour-power exists only as a capacity of the living individual. Its production consequently presupposes his existence. Given the existence of the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a certain quantity of the means of subsistence. Therefore the labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner. [hence exploitation being the production of value by labour-power above – surplus to – the necessary labour of the individual] However, labour-power becomes a reality only by being expressed; it is activated only through labour. But in the course of this activity, i.e. labour, a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc. is expended, and these things have to be replaced. Since more is expended, more must be received. If the owner of labour-power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a working individual. [a student must also meet their means of subsistence, the only way being through the sale of their labour power or from gifts, loans, grants, etc. During their education, some students work, most take loans, some use savings, etc. By and large, their subsistence is either based on the sale of past labour power (savings) or future labour power (loans). Full-time study represents a continuity of the expenditure of labour power, despite a suspension of immediate payment for it]

… In contrast, therefore, with the case of other commodities, the determination of the value of labour-power contains a historical and moral element. [the individual is not entirely ‘free’ – the value of their labour power is determined for them and thus the means by which to live] Nevertheless, in a given country at a given period, the average amount of the means of subsistence necessary for the worker is a known datum.

… In order to modify the general nature of the human organism in such a way that it acquires skill and dexterity in a given branch of industry, and becomes labour-power of a developed and specific kind, a special education or training is needed, and this in turn costs an equivalent in commodities of a greater or lesser amount. The costs of education vary according to the degree of complexity of the labour-power required. These expenses (exceedingly small in the case of ordinary labour-power) form a part of the total value spent in producing it. [higher education (re)produces labour power of a developed and specific kind and this has a cost which must be met with an equivalence of other commodities, usually money, though it could be met by an aggregation of different sources]

The value of labour-power can be resolved into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence. [like any individual, a student’s labour power is worth the value of subsistence. How they achieve an exchange for that value is a different matter] It therefore varies with the value of the means of subsistence, i.e. with the quantity of labour-time required to produce them.

… Some of the means of subsistence, such as food and fuel, are consumed every day, and must therefore be replaced every day. Others, such as clothes and furniture, last for longer periods and need to be replaced only at longer intervals. Articles of one kind must be bought or paid for every day, others every week, others every quarter and so on. But in whatever way the sum total of these outlays may be spread over the year, they must be covered by the average income, taking one day with another. [people can subsist for periods of time without the sale of their labour power e.g. loans, charity, but generally speaking these are interim periods made possible by hoards of money – savings/loans – which represent the value of their past/future labour power]

… The ultimate or minimum limit of the value of labour-power is formed by the value of the commodities which have to be supplied every day to the bearer of labour-power, the man, so that he can renew his life-process. That is to say, the limit is formed by the value of the physically indispensable means of subsistence. [again, the student’s subsidized life – gifts, grants, etc. – lessens the value of labour power required for subsistence to the point that its necessary sale can effectively be suspended or covered through part-time work] If the price of labour-power falls to this minimum, it falls below its value, since under such circumstances it can be maintained and developed only in a crippled state, and the value of every commodity is determined by the labour-time required to provide it in its normal quality.

… When we speak of capacity for labour, we do not abstract from the necessary means of subsistence. On the contrary, their value is expressed in its value. If his capacity for labour remains unsold, this is of no advantage to the worker. He will rather feel it to be a cruel nature-imposed necessity that his capacity for labour has required for its production a definite quantity of the means of subsistence, and will continue to require this for its reproduction. Then, like Sismondi, he will discover that ‘the capacity for labour … is nothing unless it is sold’. [A capacity for labour has to be (re)produced one way or another. If it’s not sold today, it must be sold tomorrow or whenever charity/loans are absent. The non-sale of labour power doesn’t negate its existence as a use-value that has an exchange-value i.e. a commodity]

One consequence of the peculiar nature of labour-power as a commodity is this, that it does not in reality pass straight away into the hands of the buyer on the conclusion of the contract between buyer and seller. Its value, like that of every other commodity, is already determined before it enters into circulation, for a definite quantity of social labour has been spent on the production of the labour-power. But its use-value consists in the subsequent exercise of that power. The alienation of labour-power and its real manifestation i.e. the period of its existence as a use-value, do not coincide in time. But in those cases in which the formal alienation by sale of the use-value of a commodity is not simultaneous with its actual transfer to the buyer, the money of the buyer serves as means of payment.

In every country where the capitalist mode of production prevails, it is the custom not to pay for labour-power until it has been exercised for the period fixed by the contract, for example, at the end of each week. In all cases, therefore, the worker advances the use-value of his labour-power to the capitalist. He lets the buyer consume it before he receives payment of the price. Everywhere the worker allows credit to the capitalist. That this credit is no mere fiction is shown not only by the occasional loss of the wages the worker has already advanced, when a capitalist goes bankrupt, but also by a series of more long-lasting consequences. [in the case of the student who receives a loan it is still credit at work but the other way around. The lender allows credit to the student so as to enhance their labour power based on a contract to repay the loan. The contract is based on the student being a private individual who possesses the labour power commodity and therefore is likely to repay the loan. If the student is unable to pay back the loan on the agreed terms, then the lender suffers the consequences]

… Whether money serves as a means of purchase or a means of payment, this does not alter the nature of the exchange of commodities. [student loans and wages for academic labour are both means of payment rather than purchase] The price of the labour-power is fixed by the contract, although it is not realized till later, like the rent of a house. The labour-power is sold, although it is paid for only at a later period. [reinforces the idea that money does not need to be exchanged directly or simultaneously for the expenditure of labour power as a commodity]

It will therefore be useful, if we want to conceive the relation in its pure form, to presuppose for the moment that the possessor of labour-power, on the occasion of each sale, immediately receives the price stipulated in the contract. [as is often the case, Marx is discussing capitalism in its ideal or ‘pure form’ so as to understand its fundamental workings. On the surface, things are more complex – a ‘noisy sphere’ – and it is the job of theory to abstract and bring clarity to complexity]

We now know the manner of determining the value paid by the owner of money to the owner of this peculiar commodity, labour­power. The use-value which the former gets in exchange manifests itself only in the actual utilization, in the process of the consumption of the labour-power. The money-owner [i.e. capital represented by the State and the University] buys everything necessary for this process, such as raw material, in the market, and pays the full price for it. The process of the consumption of labour­power is at the same time the production process of commodities and of surplus-value [the university is a means of production]. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the market or the sphere of circulation. Let us therefore, in company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow them into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice ‘No admittance except on business’. Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare. [the next chapter explains the valorization process which I am not concerned with here. I just want to establish the existence or not of the value-form of the commodity of student labour power]

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom,because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour ­power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest. [this paragraph represents the ‘vulgar’ view of capitalist social relations from the ‘noisy’ perspective of the sphere of exchange, i.e. not Marx’s view.]

When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris’ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing else to expect but – a tanning.”

[when students study at university and learn from/study with academics, they do so through the exchange of their labour: the commodity of labour power]

Illustrating the value-form of the commodity i.e ‘the economic cell-form’

As I noted recently, Marx explicated the ‘value-form’ in four published texts. Although the texts can be demanding of the reader at times, the resulting theory is relatively straightforward. When discussing Marx’s work, some writers try to illustrate the progression of his argument, which I think is a good idea. Here are three illustrations I’ve come across. Let me know of any more.

This illustration of the ‘simple value-form’ is from Milios et al (2002: 25). I really like it.

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This next illustration is quite different because it’s trying to show the unfolding of Marx’s argument (which includes the above ‘simple value-form’) in the first chapter of Capital. It’s from Harvey (2010: 26).

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Harvey’s illustration is very high-level. My preference is for that of Cleaver (2000: 93). Again, it’s an illustration of the unfolding of chapter one of Capital, but provides just the right balance of abstract overview and essential detail so as to remain useful. It offers both the detail of Milios and the overview of Harvey. It’s also copyright free, so unless I come across a better version, I will be using it in my article.

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Bloody genius!

Four versions of the value-form of the commodity i.e ‘the economic cell-form’

This week, I’m reading as much value-form theory as I can in preparation for an article I want to write on the ‘Student as Consumer’. Marx’s theory of the “value-form of the commodity” was developed over four different published texts. I have linked to them below in chronological order. It’s very interesting to read them in succession in terms of how Marx tried to make it easier for the reader. There’s something to be gained from using each text and as such a later version does not necessarily supersede the former. My preference is to usually use the third version (the appendix to the first German edition of Capital) because it is structured in a very pedagogical manner, unlike the first version which is especially dense reading.

Always keep in mind Marx’s own reflections on this body of work, too:

“Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty. That which concerns more especially the analysis of the substance of value and the magnitude of value, I have, as much as it was possible, popularised. The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.”

It would seem that the anatomy of capitalism is laid out in these four texts…

  1. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) (Chapter 1)
  2. Capital (1867) 1st German edition (Chapter 1) See Preface, paragraph 3 & 4.
  3. Capital (1867) 1st German edition (Appendix)
  4. Capital (1873) 2nd German edition (Chapter 1) See Afterword, paragraph 2.