The 'Moral Element' in the Reproduction of Labor-Power
This blog post is split into two parts. The first part--this one here--is concerned with an interpretation of a passage at the end of Part I, Volume 1 of Capital dealing with the reproduction of labor-power. My goal is to offer a reading of this passage that is slightly different from what might be (or at least what I take to be) the orthodox reading, but which has significant downstream effects if correct. As such, it is largely an exercise is text interpretation. In part two (forthcoming), I try to show how this small interpretive difference can help us make sense of the tensions that have been brought up in the current COVID pandemic. Those who have little interest in Marxist minutiae can probably skip directly to part two. Otherwise, strap in.
One final note: much of my analysis here is inspired by Bob Wolff's seminar on Marx. That being said, all mistakes--interpretative or philosophical--are my own.
The Means of Subsistence
The passage I have in mind is a rather long, but not terribly complicated excerpt in Marx's discussion of labor-power. In any case, I'll break things down in pieces shortly. Here I quote it in full:
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. 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. 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. His natural needs, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing vary according to the climactic and other physical peculiarities of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country; in particular they depend on the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been formed. In contrast, therefore, with the case of other commodities, the determination of the value of labour-power contains a historical and moral element. 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.
Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (Penguin Edition) pg. 274-275 Emphasis mine
As stated, this passage is part of Marx's broader discussion of labor power as a commodity. Here we learn that labor-power (to hell with the British spelling!) is like every other commodity insofar as its value is determined by the average socially necessary labor needed to reproduce it. And given that labor power is something that can only be done by a living individual, the reproduction of labor-power from one day to the next requires the reproduction of the individual as well.1
To calculate the value of labor-power we have to calculate the value of the average socially necessary labor needed to reproduce the individual. And to calculate that value, we have to account for the average socially necessary labor needed for the means of subsistence which go into reproducing that individual. These means of subsistence are, roughly, that basket of goods that is necessary to replace what was spent in the process of laboring (or, as we find out later, the money equivalent for that basket--c.f. pg. 324). Thus, the means of subsistence is, for example, the food, clothing, shelter, etc. needed to keep someone working from one day to the next, and its value is determined by however much the average socially necessary labor is that goes into reproducing those material goods (bread, shirts, houses, etc.).
Now, of course, the value of each of these goods will itself have a history, such that we get little recursive cycles between the value of labor-power and the value of the means of subsistence. That is, some portion of a loaf of bread is needed to reproduce labor from day one to day two, from day two to day three, and so on (we assume, of course, for the sake of simplicity that this portion is constant); but that portion of that loaf of bread is itself the result of the application of some other amount of labor-power that was previously employed to produce the loaf (and hence that portion of bread), which, in turn, required some portion of bread to be applied, and so on and so on. Now, this series terminates--I leave proof of that for the mathematicians--so at any point in time, we're able to quantify both the value of labor power and the value of the means of subsistence in terms of each other. This is why Marx says at the end that this is a known datum.
So far so good. However, what Marx says right before he makes the claim that the value of the means of subsistence is a known datum is of special interest. Specifically, Marx tells us that the value of labor-power will be partially a matter of historical and moral contingencies because (part of) what determines it is the value of the means of subsistence..
This reference to history and morality should be enough to perk one's ears up. What does Marx mean here?
On a deflationary, thin reading of the text, Marx is merely pointing to the fact that, say, the concrete forms that the means of subsistence will vary from place to place based on the particular traditions and history of the location--in one place it will take the form of a meatloaf and a suit; in another it will take the from of a bowl of bean soup and woolen pants; in yet another, for ostensibly moral reasons, it will exclude pork or synthetic clothing, etc. Similarly, the means of subsistence for a society located near the equator will not include warm clothing as what's necessary to reproduce labor from one day to the next, but a society located in the arctic circle would. And the means of subsistence for an advanced industrial society will be different from those of a purely agrarian one. Nevertheless, regardless of where we go and what culture we look at, each one will be tracking the same thing when it comes to the means of subsistence: namely, what is necessary to reproduce the labor-power of a worker in that society from day to day.
This much seems to be a brute empirical fact: different places have different culinary traditions, different fashion senses, and so on that have been shaped by specific histories peculiar to the area in question. However, I believe there's a further question regarding whether this is all Marx meant by these remarks. Specifically, it's once again worth noting that Marx makes explicit note of the fact that it's the moral element in question and the expectations of the workers as they relate the means of subsistence that makes labor-power different from other commodities.
Crucially, if we take the thin reading then it's not clear why it shouldn't apply for every commodity. After all, is it not true that because of historical and perhaps (ostensibly) moral considerations and expectations, different groups take different things to count as tables, chairs, shirts, etc.? Yet, as far as I know, Marx never says that the way would find out the value of a coat is by calculating the average socially necessary labor and then factor in the expectations of the workers regarding their history and moral consideration of coats (the very notion that one can have moral considerations about coats might strike some people as ridiculous, but there are cultures for whom the use of special clothing--hats, hair coverings, etc.--are indeed a matter of morality). In short, this thin reading doesn't explain the special attention Marx pays to the means of subsistence as making a difference to the value of labor-power.
How are we to understand this remark and especially the fact that what needs to be accounted for are the expectations of "the class of free workers?" Note well, the class of free workers does not constitute the entire society in which those workers labor, but, if the thin reading were correct, there would be no need to distinguish that it's the expectations of the free workers and their history that must be considered. This seems to point to the notion that Marx had something else in mind.
2. Interlude: Upper and Lower Boundaries
To get at what I think Marx had in mind, we have to take a little detour. I promise we'll return to the text at the end to tie things together.
Given what has been said so far, one might push back with something like the following view (presented in its own separate box for readability):
Start with some obvious scientific facts. Namely, at least when it comes to food, there is some minimal number of calories that the worker must have access to and be able to consume so that she can continue to labor from day to day (let's leave out clothing and shelter for the sake of simplicity). This specific minimal number can be known and is a factor one's biology, the kind of work involved, and the environment. It might vary from location to location and person to person, but in every case there is some brute biological fact about what that number is such that dipping too far below it would make it impossible to do today's labor tomorrow, and meeting or exceeding it would allow one to labor again. The number itself will vary from job to job (breaking rocks vs. painting a fence), from person to person (a twenty-year-old woman vs. a sixty-year-old man), and from locale to locale in the specific concrete form that it takes (bean soup vs. meatloaf), but it is a determinable number that can be read off solely from the material conditions on the ground. Crucially, it is this caloric number that sets the actual value of the means of subsistence, and, consequently, it is part of what sets the value of labor-power and what determines the fair minimum price at which the capitalist must purchase it (Marx never disagrees that labor-power is purchased at its value!). It's when the worker labors past that point that exploitation becomes a factor and how the capitalist makes his nut. In the end, the remark about cultural differences and moral elements are really in line with the thin reading--they explain superficial difference between locales, but not much more. To insist otherwise seems to be tantamount to denying that there is such a thing as a bare minimum needed to stay alive, and perhaps even to consider that some people are radically and fundamentally different in their biology.
Now, this view is not entirely wrong--after all, it is true that one can calculate the number of calories in this way, that the body needs a certain amount of calories without which the same kind of labor cannot be reproduced (at least not for long), and that, roughly speaking, human bodies are more or less the same in what they need (it's not that some of us need bread to eat and others drink boiling vats of carbolic acid).
What's at stake, however, is whether this view presents us with the full picture and whether this is the only way of calculating the value of the means of subsistence. We can grant that the means of subsistence must have some kind of lower boundary below which they simply can't function as means of subsistence. But given that anything above this minimum will also reproduce labor-power, the question becomes of where to stop. Let's look at our options.
It's obvious where the capitalist will want it to stop. Given the labor theory of value, profit is generated depending on the amount of labor that can be squeezed out of the workers past the amount paid to them for purchasing their labor-power. If the capitalist employs the laborers for 8 hours, paying them only for the equivalent of the one hour of labor that's needed to reproduce their labor power from one day to the next (i.e. the value of the means of subsistence), then he gets to keep the value generated for himself in the remaining seven hours. All things being equal, it's clear from this that the longer it takes for the worker to generate the value to cover their needs of subsistence, the less value the capitalist appropriates, and hence, the lower his profit. If it takes six hours instead of one to cover the means of subsistence, then the capitalist only gets to appropriate the value of two hours worth of labor rather than seven. And that makes a big difference! What he would like, qua capitalist of course, is for the ratio of time spent covering the means of subsistence to time spent working for the capitalist to be as small as possible. And given that at least part of how that ratio is calculated is a matter of what the value of the means of subsistence is, the capitalist has a vested interest in making sure that the means of subsistence really are at the limit bare minimum. Thus, he adopts the view above and claims that the fair price for labor-power just is that bare minimum.2
Thus the capitalist reasons. But what should we make of this reasoning? He's certainly correct insofar as there is a minimum he must pay his workers if he is to make a profit (although, this, too, is possible if there's a sufficient number of workers waiting in the wings to take over the places of their dead comrades), but does establishing that fact mean that the value of the means of subsistence must be bound to that minimum? No--or rather, it's not immediately obvious why that should be the case. What it establishes is simply that his profits won't be as high if he pays beyond that, but unless we accept that the maximization of profits--the capitalist's raison d'etre--serves as an over-riding consideration, it makes little difference.3
What is of interest to the worker? Presumably, she wants to stop somewhere beyond merely subsisting from day to day, toiling for the capitalist. Even if she must sell her labor, what she wants is a full life replete with all the goods that go along with it. Thus, she might want not just the caloric equivalent needed to work tomorrow, but good food she can enjoy; not just adequate shelter that keeps the elements out, but good housing; not just clothes that haven't fallen apart, but comfortable clothes that allow her to move freely; she wants healthcare, vacations, time for creative labor, good schools for her kids, a pension, etc. In other words, she wants to have and to reproduce a certain life, the means of subsistence of which are far from the bare minimum.
Let's suppose that just as there is a lower bound to what the capitalist must provide that represents his interest, there's an upper bound that the worker can demand that represents her interests. At the very limit, this upper bound would be a scenario in which the worker's entire time at work is spent generating the value that goes into (re)producing her means of subsistence and spends no time making a profit for the capitalist. The capitalist, obviously, wouldn't accept this since he would then cease to be a capitalist, and the worker won't accept anything below the bare minimum (and will only accept the bare minimum if forced). So, if there's ever going to be an agreement between worker and capitalist it will be between these two limits.4
What's important to note is that how we settle where to draw the line will be a matter of what counts as the means of subsistence, and this, in turn, will be a matter of what kind of life we aim to reproduce, or rather, what kind of being is to be sustained from day to day. If the kind of life that is to be reproduced is simply the life of a physical entity that is capable of engaging in physical labor (i.e. the kind of life that the capitalist needs), then the means of subsistence will be minimal. If, however, the kind of life that is to be reproduced is one of a robustly healthy, educated, autonomous being that labors (i.e. the kind of life that the worker wants), then the means of subsistence will be much greater.
Crucially, the question of what kind of life is to be reproduced (and hence, what the means of subsistence are to be) is not one that is established by reading off the biology of the worker, her work, etc. Indeed, the question is not settled empirically or descriptively at all! Rather, it is one that is answered only by considering the history of struggle by the free workers.
3. Back to Marx
If this is correct, then we have everything in place to explain what Marx means when he says that the value of the means of subsistence depends "on the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been formed" and why this means that "the determination of the value of labour-power contains a historical and moral element."
If through its struggles, the working class at a certain locale has come to expect a certain kind of life that goes beyond the bare minimum that the capitalist needs--say, the life that includes healthcare and education on top of a salary equivalent to the minimum caloric intake--then what they will consider as the means of subsistence will be different from a different locale where there are no such expectations. Consequently, the value of the means of subsistence will differ, as will the value of their labor-power as a commodity.
Whether there have been such struggles and whether such expectations have been formed will, in turn, be a matter of the history of the locale and of the workers' struggle. But it will also include a moral element as well insofar as the life they think they should reproduce is an ethical matter. To take one step further, the value of labor-power (via the value of the means of subsistence) will be a matter of what the workers believe they are entitled to. Given that entitlement is squarely in the realm of the ethical and that the ethical in the Marxist view is roughly settled as a matter of class struggle, the value of labor-power is at least partially a matter of how class struggle has been waged. Likewise, the future value of labor-power will likewise be a matter of how class struggle will be waged. I'll return to this point shortly.
Before I do that, however, it's worth noting that this doesn't change the fact that at any given moment one can indeed calculate both the value of the means of subsistence and the value of labor-power. Both of these remain known data. The reading I'm advocating doesn't deny this. What it does deny is that there is a fixed, a priori value to the means of subsistence that can be read and universally applied in the way that one could on what I've called the thin reading by simply making some simple empirical observations about human biology.
4. Why does this Matter?
One of the upshots of this reading is that it leaves room to understand the importance of action and agitation on the Marxist picture. One of the oldest 'problems' found in Marx's philosophy is that it's hard to square how to combine its descriptive and prescriptive elements. If the analysis in Capital is correct, then the revolution will come about because of the insurmountable contradictions inherent in the capitalist system itself as crisis after crisis proletarianizes (proletizes?) the masses, which will raise working class consciousness and kick things off. One way of understanding this is that the revolution will come when the material conditions are right, and those conditions will be right when capitalism itself comes to a certain stage of development. If that's correct, then there's seemingly no need for revolutionaries apart from what they can do to accelerate the development of capital to the appropriate stage! Indeed, they might even do significant harm if they try to start the revolution before the material conditions are right.
Yet, we also know that Marx's writings (and his personal life) do not advocate for passivity in the face of encroaching capital, nor do they advocate for the acceleration of capitalism (as far as I'm aware Marx never encourages his readers to become capitalists so that the revolution can come sooner). How are we to square the urge for revolutionary activity and revolutionary organizing (a normative consideration) with what seems to be the purely descriptive nature of Capital?
The answer is, of course, that Capital is not a purely descriptive project and that the passage we've been discussing is one of the places where the normative and descriptive meet. Simply put, the descriptive element involves the discussion of the calculation of the value of labor-power via the value of the means of subsistence; the normative element involves the fact that that the value of the means of subsistence is something that is (at least partially) a matter of what the workers choose to do, expect to receive, and fight for.
One task of the revolutionary, then, rests in getting the working class to understand the fact that the value of their labor is, to some extent, a matter of what they're willing to do and accept.
Acting to agitate in this way is perfectly compatible with the overall claim that capitalism will collapse because of its own contradictions without leading to either passive-ism or accelerationism of capital. How so? In the broadest sense, if what I've said is correct, then a capitalist system in which the means of subsistence are significantly robust will be less likely to cope with capitalism's own crises since the capitalist's profits will be minimal and less capable of withstanding shocks. This, in turn will accelerate the conflict between workers and capitalists as workers are asked to reduce their quality of life (or, rather, as the kind of life they're able to reproduce changes) for the sake of the capitalist's profit. But it does this without accelerating capital itself. As the workers come to see that they have no reason to do this and preserve the capitalist's profit rather than seizing the means of production themselves and maintaining the kind of life they've come to expect to have, their consciousness will be raised, and the conditions will become ripe for revolution.
All this also suggests some clear tactics for what revolutionaries can do. Namely, it suggests that one of the actions that they can take is precisely to agitate workers by drawing their attention the kind of life they want to reproduce as laborers, why they are denied that kind of life, and what they can do to obtain it. Such actions are compatible with more aggressive tactics, with the claim that the state should be violently overthrown, with the claim that citizens should be armed, and even with the claim that the revolutionary party is the vanguard of the proletariat.5 My intention here is not to dull the revolutionary edge, but only to draw attention to how this small change in text interpretation serves to resolve what is taken to be a sticky problem.
There are, I believe, further upshots, but given the length of this post, I'll leave things here. In the next post I'll use what I've discussed here to make sense of something closer to home. In particular, I'll argue that the severity of the crisis faced by capital by way of COVID-19 in the US can be understood in terms of the history of what goes in the means of subsistence for workers.
 Interestingly enough, this doesn't mean that the reproduction of labor only requires the reproduction of the individual. Rather, it means that one of the necessary conditions in reproducing labor power is the reproduction of the physical body that provides labor-power. Maybe other things need to be produced or reproduced in order for labor-power to be reproduced. Let's set that worry aside for now though.
 This is not to say that the capitalist can only remain solvent if he pays the minimum for labor. Indeed, at times he may even pay beyond the minimum if he concurrently increases the speed of the work he expects of his workers, introduces new methods of efficiency in the workplace, or adapts some creative accounting practices. By doing this he can increase workers' wages while maintaining or even increasing his rate of profit. However, he'll be in a tough spot if there should be a crisis--then the urge to return to profitability will drive wages down towards the minimum needed for pure physical reproduction
 The capitalist knows it and this argument is never given in these terms. Rather, the capitalist makes arguments having to do with how the loss of profit stifles innovation, kills the entrepreneurial spirit, or, generally, makes the workers worse off. Ideology shows up in full effect to defend his exploitation. In any case, I'll leave these arguments to the side.
 Of course, this doesn't mean that there should be such an agreement between worker and capitalist. Indeed, one might think that the capitalist has no grounds on which to claim profit over and above what he puts in as a worker and that anything beyond this minimum is exploitation. Indeed, I'm inclined to think that the demands of the workers are not bound by the preferences of the capitalist at all, but by the limits of what the means of production are able to accomplish. But that's another matter. Let's set these worries aside for the moment.
 The state may still need to be violently overthrown even if the proletariat has the appropriate level of consciousness; the citizens may still need to be armed if a violent overthrow is necessary; the revolutionary party may still be the vanguard of the proletariat insofar as it serves to help and organize the workers to see their predicament. And so on.