The Gift of Surplus Labour

[Excerpted from Contract & Contagion, pp.163-64]

The conservative critique of capitalism is preoccupied […] with taking capitalism to task for setting up crises of its own realisation, as in the expansion of debts that cannot – or will not – be repaid. It is concerned not with the question of moving beyond the interrelated dynamics of expansion and crisis, but of restoring the very foundations of capitalism in the retrieval of the conditions of gratuitous labour.

This can be accomplished by way of a technological reorganisation of production that increases the intensity of exploitation, or by the extension of labour time – but it is always naturalised by recourse to the apparently archaic, biological or cultural definitions of obligation, debt and origin.

The oikonomic nexus of family, nation and race delivers up the gift of free labour in its most forceful senses through the interrelated boundaries of the wage contract and those of citizenship (that is, the social contract). It does so in the forms of unpaid domestic labour; migrant labour that, by way of visa stipulations or outright criminalisation, is compelled to work for as little as possible; the geographic organisation of cheap and below-subsistence labour; to mention the most notable. The oikonomics of present-day organisations of the economy is also apparent in what I referred to earlier as the expectation that women, as as a consequence of their very identity as women, deliver a labour that has affective purchase, circulating as an extension of (rather than refusal of or indifference toward) care-giving domestic labour that significantly must appear as if it is not work at all, but freely and naturally given. Far from being marginal to the extraction of surplus labour, this expectation of a labour freely given has always been central to capitalist re/production.

Yet while Marx was astute enough to know that the extraction of surplus labour presupposes the delivery of this surplus as if it is a debt to the employer, or freely offered up by the worker – both of which rely on the premises of the contract – his critique of the contractual remained incomplete.

In the Grundrisse, Marx remarking on the paradoxical “tendency of capital to make human labour (relatively) superfluous, so as to drive it, as human labour, towards infinity,” noted that the analysis of the “creation of “surplus time” – what he suggested can be accomplished by the intensification of work time, or the “forcible prolongation of the working day beyond its natural limits,” or “the addition of women and children to the labouring population” – “belongs in the chapter on wage labour.”

As is generally well-known, Marx did not, in Capital or elsewhere, write this proposed chapter on the wage. Roman Rozdolski has argued that the pertinent aspects of the projected chapter on the wage were moved into other sections. Negri, lamenting the absence of such a chapter, has hypothesised that it would have “been a chapter on the working class, on the level of needs, pleasure, struggle, and necessary labor.” This, he argued in Marx Beyond Marx, is “the foundation of the theory of surplus value.”

Along similar lines to Negri, Felton C. Shorthall has insisted that the absence of such a chapter restricted Marx’s critique of capital (and of its crises) to its objective aspects, leaving a more detailed analysis of the subjective forms of class struggle outside the explicit scope of Capital.

For Shorthall, Negri and others, this question of the missing chapter on the wage marks the possibility of moving beyond a theoretical and political impasse, one conditioned by the collapse of the Second International and the putative success of the Russian Revolution, in which (to put the question on its own crude terms) there are either objective laws of capitalist development and (conclusive) crisis, or there are revolutionary subjects construed as a vanguard force operating at the level of consciousness.

Yet the juxtaposition of objective and subjective processes implicitly recapitulates Fordist distinctions, playing out the aspiration for transformation in the implicit suggestion that a move from the condition of the mass worker of the assembly-line to the autonomous agency of cognitive labour might construct the necessary subject of revolution.

It also misses the significance of intimate self-management in the very organisation of the wage contract. As Staples has insisted: “lurking in the workingman’s historic demand for higher wages and a shorter working week is the ghostly figure of workingwoman. Class has long been a ghostly appearance of what we have come to think of as gender – and with gender always race.”

When Marx suggested that surplus labour time might be expanded by way of the entry of women and children into the workforce, he misunderstood the character of the wage contract as the organisation of right and surplus labour in its socially amplified senses.

Marx was writing at a time when the number of women in regular paid work – having increased most notably through and alongside the industrialisation of textile production – began to decline due to campaigns to remove women and children from the factory through so-called protective legislation and the emergence of the family wage, to be replaced by systems of day labour for women and an increasing dependence on male earnings defined as a breadwinner wage.

Set in the midst of these complex shifts between public and private labour, the contested and gendered lines between paid, unpaid and precarious work, and the early association of mechanisation with the increasing economic independence of women, this meant that the theory of alienation (linked as it was to notions of “de-skilling” from industrialisation) was highly charged with gendered assumptions about the distribution of right and the organisation of recognition. The wage contract seems to confer right, even as it extracts surplus value, not least from those who are not deemed to be formal parties to the contract but nevertheless crucial to its reproduction (such as the family wage).

As industrialisation diminished the circumstances of waged workers, the wage contract served to nevertheless imply a compensatory distinction between those with, on the one hand, the authority to contract and those, on the other hand, who laboured under the condition of slavery or unpaid domestic labour.

Beyond its symbolic recompense, the wage contract organised the distinction between home and factory and therefore the delivery of free labour that would humanise and reproduce the recognised and contracted labour that takes place the factory. As Staples argues, “in the Fordist era of the mass worker there was never any abstract or statistical measure of value for specifically reproductive labor other than that of the workingman’s socially necessary labor.” Astutely, Staples links this to the issue of thermodynamics and debt, which is to say, the transfers of energy that are not recognised as labour but, instead, depicted as gift. […]

[Excerpted from Contract & Contagion, pp.200-01]

Marx’s draft chapter on a “falling general rate of profit” begins with the division of time between “necessary labour” and “surplus labour.” Surplus labour is that portion of time which is surplus to “the reproduction of … wages.” […]

In the Grundrisse, Marx linked the “countervailing tendency” to, among other things, the naturalisation of surplus value. Of Smith, Marx wrote: “With him … labour in principle is the source of value, likewise of wealth, but actually labour too posits surplus value only in so far as in the division of labour the surplus appears just as much a free gift of nature, a natural force of society, as the soil with the Physiocrats.”

The “tendency of the rate of profit to fall,” then, is significant not because it might assert the inevitable decline or terminus of capital, but inasmuch as it clarifies the dynamics of crisis and restoration. For Marx, this dynamic is largely understood in terms of thermodynamic tendency and its countervalences, drafted at a time of a large-scale shift from agriculture to manufacturing. Marx had criticised Smith’s labour theory of value by pointing out that in this understanding, the labour that “posits surplus value” appears as if it is “a free gift of nature” within a particular division of labour, much as the Physiocrats had previously revered land as the source of value.

In other words, where Marx pointed out the shift between the Physiocrats’ understanding of land as foundational to value and that of Smith’s labour theory of value, from the middle of the 1960s, economists [such as Becker] in the United States had begun to doubt that it was possible to easily map a Fordist, manufacturing diagram of production and reproduction into emerging markets and on the basis of a shifting foundations of the household. […]

2 thoughts on “The Gift of Surplus Labour

  1. Pingback: Fail again. Fail better. Notes in the interests of continuing conversations and some unfinished thoughts on withdrawing from the Historical Materialism Australasia Conference 2013 | The Golden Barley School

  2. Pingback: The abolition and limitation of (which and whose) work? | s0metim3s

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