On the Equality of Necessity; On the Necessity of Equality


The commodity is a use-value, an article or object of some use to human beings.  Existence may have no purpose; history may have no goal, no telos, but human labor certainly has both and that is the satisfaction of need.  The commodity shares this content, this condition, with all other objects of production from all other histories, or modes, of production.  It is an article appropriated from nature by human beings.   The activity of appropriation is labor.  Labor mediates nature for human beings.

Now the appropriation might be performed by individual actors, divorced from society, living in perfect, absolute isolation. That might be the case in some circumstance, but it cannot be the case in general, and throughout history.  If it were, there would be no history.   We’d have nothing to discuss and no way to discuss it.

What interests Marx is just that– history.  History means that the mediation of nature by human labor involves simultaneously the mediation of that human labor by the production relations of society which circumscribe, and determine, the form the labor assumes.  The commodity represents a specific history; a definite mediation of human labor configured by the organization of society.

The domination of society by the relations of commodity production is likewise a definite expansion of those relations such that all such labor is subsumed in the domain of commodity production either by direct commodity production, or the exchange of other objects for commodities, thereby bringing those other modes into contact, and into the orbit of the bourgeois world.

So Step 1 includes, automatically, Step 2, which involves identifying the characteristics of the mode of commodity production that distinguishes their production under capitalism from the production of use-values, from the production of non-commodities, and from the intermittent but persistent,  sporadic but sustained, production of commodities in prior modes of production.

So that feature that distinguishes the commodity from the use-value, the non-commodity, is, of course, exchange-ability, exchange value. Unlike other appropriations of nature, unlike any other mediation of social labor, the commodity is a use-value produced for the purpose of exchange.  The satisfaction of need is….indirect, and only realizable through the encounter, the exchange with other commodities purposefully produced for exchange.  Consumption is not just mediated by this process, it is transformed into a derivative of exchange itself.

The commodity, unlike the direct use-value, does not exist unto itself– its use-value is not immediate accessible, or necessary, to the producer.  The commodity is private property, but private property without use, save its use as an exchange value.  Thus the commodity has to find a bridge to the realization of the exchange value, and that bridge is the existence of all other commodities; that bridge is the market.

And it gets us to Step 3: if the “end,” the purpose of the object produced is as a value in exchange, then the means to that end, the mode of production and all its components, including the activity of labor itself, the power to labor, are constituted as exchange values, as commodities.  What, after all, can make all the differing use-values equivalent, or if not equivalent, exchangeable in definite proportions? What makes the use-value of any single commodity manifest, realizable, in the, as the exchange value of any or all other commodities?  Certainly not the physical characteristics of the commodities, a ton of wood  weighs the same as a ton of steel, both have a shear strength and a compression strength, but a ton of steel does not exchange for a ton of wood.  The act of exchange, remember, is a social product.

Labor-power is forced to present itself as a commodity, without use to its “owner,” save its use in exchange in order for all other exchanges to occur.  If the results of the labor process is the creation of exchangeable values, then the condition of labor must be the necessity to exchange that activity, that power.   The factor that makes capitalism capitalism is the configuration of the labor as commodity.

Now we move to Step 4: to find that feature of the labor-power, raw or filtered, simple or complex that makes the exchanges occur in uniform, proportional ratios, so that the system as a whole oscillates around an axis of equal exchange such that the value that was created in production is realized and distributed in an “equitable” fashion, both despite, and through,the gouging, cheating, dissembling of the private owners of commodities, the appropriators of labor-power. Regardless of the difference in exchange values of the commodities, each is only realizable as a value if it can be expressed, that is exchanged, for the other; all can be realized only in and as the expression of each. All the variations in exchange value must be the expression of a proportionality established by a measure of the labor process itself, by the measure of labor-power.  That proportionality, that measure, is time.   The value of a commodity, the value of all commodities, which allows them to be exchanged, to be expressed as a relation to each other, is determined by the labor-time necessary for its production.

Time sums up, connects, winds and unwinds all the circuits of capitalism. In fact, time is both the measure and the very substance of exchange.  It is labor-power dissolved by, in, and as a sort of aqua regia.  Time is not just of the essence; it is the essence.

And we’re on to Step 5,  which is the core condition of labor in capitalist production.  Once labor is compelled to present itself as a commodity, that labor-power is appropriated for a duration of working time that exceeds the labor time necessary for the reproduction of the commodity of labor-power.  The use-value of the labor-power– its ability to provide 8, 10, 12 hours of labor time, of value, on commodities, is not its exchange value.   Its exchange value as a commodity is only the time necessary for its reproduction, embodied in the wage, which will always represent less time than that consumed by the capitalist during the working day.

Marx followed these steps and determined that the exchange of labor-power for the commodities necessary to maintain and restore the power to labor–the reproduction of labor-power–is a transaction always run at a loss for the laborers.  An unequal exchange forms the basis for all the equivalencies, and proportionality, in the exchange of other commodities.

We have found our way to the origin of surplus value, in uncompensated labor time, surplus labor time.  We found that by examining first the commodity, and then the condition of labor.  From the examination of the condition of labor, we found the “universal equivalent” of capitalist production, and it ain’t gold.  It’s labor-time.  All of this is introduced by, and follows from, Marx’s opening statement in Capital, Volume 1:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities…

Step 6:  The commodity represents both a “natural condition” of wealth, use-values, and a mediation of that natural condition through a social relation.  This mediation under capitalism is indelibly deformed,  permanently misshapen, and the dramatic distortion of real social wealth.  Under capitalism we get the formulation that social wealth represents the ability to purchase, to command, to expropriate the time of others, when the real purpose of labor, a purpose that can only be achieved with the emancipation of labor through the overthrow of capitalism, is that real wealth amounts to the disposition over time of all for all, of each for each.

In his Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 21, Marx approvingly reproduces the work of a –at that time anonymous– pamphleteer, copying out a passage:

A nation is really rich only if no interest is paid for the use of capital; when only six hours instead of twelve hours are worked….’Wealth […] is disposable time, and nothing more’…

Marx refers to this as “a fine statement.”  In the Grundrisse, Notebook VII, he takes over this statement and makes it his own, providing a really fine analysis:

The exchange of living labour for objectified labour – i.e. the positing of social labour in the form of the contradiction of capital and wage labour – is the ultimate development of the value-relation and of production resting on value. Its presupposition is – and remains – the mass of direct labour time, the quantity of labour employed, as the determinant factor in the production of wealth. But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.) Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society. Real wealth manifests itself, rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself. (What holds for machinery holds likewise for the combination of human activities and the development of human intercourse.) No longer does the worker insert a modified natural thing [Naturgegenstand] as middle link between the object [Objekt] and himself; rather, he inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process, as a means between himself and inorganic nature, mastering it. He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself. As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them. Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high. ‘Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time’ (real wealth), ‘but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’ (The Source and Remedy etc. 1821, p. 6.)

That’s the step where we are.  At the same time, we are at the same step Marx was at in the writing of  The Poverty of Philosophy:

Competition, according to an American economist, determines how many days of simple labor are contained in one day’s compound labor. Does not this reduction of days of compound labor to days of simple labor suppose that simple labor is itself taken as a measure of value? If the mere quantity of labor functions as a measure of value regardless of quality, it presupposes that simple labor has become the pivot of industry. It presupposes that labor has been equalized by the subordination of man to the machine or by the extreme division of labor; that men are effaced by their labor; that the pendulum of the clock has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives. Therefore, we should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcase. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour, day for day; but this equalizing of labor is not by any means the work of M. Proudhon’s eternal justice; it is purely and simply a fact of modern industry.

In the automatic workshop, one worker’s labor is scarcely distinguishable in any way from another worker’s labor: workers can only be distinguished one from another by the length of time they take for their work. Nevertheless, this quantitative difference becomes, from a certain point of view, qualitative, in that the time they take for their work depends partly on purely material causes, such as physical constitution, age and sex; partly on purely negative moral causes, such as patience, imperturbability, diligence. In short, if there is a difference of quality in the labor of different workers, it is at most a quality of the last kind, which is far from being a distinctive specialty. This is what the state of affairs in modern industry amounts to in the last analysis. It is upon this equality, already realized in automatic labor, that M. Proudhon wields his smoothing-plane of “equalization,” which he means to establish universally in “time to come!”

Capitalism has established an “equality” of deprivation where “man is nothing, time is everything.”  Laboring beings are nothing because in fact they are deprived of their time.  The deprivation of time is the reproduction of labor as labor-power, and the reproduction of the value of the labor-power.

As in all things, in all its relations, in all its exchanges, capital only achieves its “equality,” even its equality of deprivation, its proportionality, in the sum total of its transactions, any individual transaction being more or less random, and distributed either closer to or further from the “average.”

For labor-power, this means that the equality of deprivation, while absolute, is achieved through differences, variations, deviations in compensation.   The loss is equal; the compensation not necessarily so.  Still time is everything, and the human laborer is nothing, or rather, is “worth” the same as all other laborers in the designated time period.  The inequalities in compensation are the inevitable product of private property in the means of production, and the incessant fragmentation of the labor process, and the labor force under the division of labor.  The division of workers by the division of labor is reinforced in the differing wage rates offered for differing work, when the loss that each and every worker endures is qualitatively the same, and qualitatively the essential condition of capital.

So clearly the next step is self-evident:  We know that the emancipation of labor depends upon the unification of the working class; its recognition of itself as a class.  We know that fundamental to that recognition is the equality of all labor. The fundamental step to be taken is the elimination of all wage differentials.  The working class needs every worker to be compensated at the rate of the highest paid workers, regardless of specialty, training, skill, or seniority.

We can, of course, attempt to forge the unity and self-recognition of the class in any number of ways,  based on notions of common interest.  We can struggle for a uniformly safe working environment for all regardless of specialty, training, skill, or seniority, but to threaten the foundations of capital, we have to seize the basis of valorization on the terms capitalism has created, and those are the terms of equal compensation in that all labor power has common needs of reproduction; that wage-labor embeds equal value in commodities as labor-time; that the differentiation in rates of compensation are simply mechanisms for different capitals to realize competitive advantage in their market exchanges.

On a railroad, for example, there are at any one time, approximately 15 different unions representing dozens of different job categories.  The wage differentials within a specific union boundary may be small.   The wage differentials between unions can be, and often are, immense.  A locomotive engineer may make twice the hourly wage of a track worker.  Is that because the locomotive engineer operates more expensive machinery; bears greater responsibility; requires greater training?  A locomotive engineer may or may not operate more expensive machinery, may or may not bear greater responsibility, may or may not require greater training.  None of that however drives the wage relation.   Does the locomotive engineer “add more value” per hour worked?  No, the very basis of commodity exchange is that an hour is equal to any other hour.   The notion that more highly trained labor adds “additional value” is fundamentally antithetical to the labor theory of value.  Labor power is not compensated for the value it adds. 

There is a reluctance to push this issue of “one big wage” based on the reaction of more highly compensated workers to an imagined threat of wage reduction, of leveling down.  No such leveling down is advocated.  Would revolutionists advocate or even tolerate reduced pension benefits for those retiring from one job classification versus another classification? Of course not, but pension benefits are nothing but compensation for labor-power.

It is certainly the case that compensation rates are established by a correlation of forces; as a product of relative force, but that is the challenge to be accepted and overcome, not accommodated. The issue is need, and the need of the class is for wage uniformity at the highest possible level.

May 6, 2018


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