Socialist Economics: 4 – Do Machines Produce Surplus Value

Historically the function of the capitalist system of production was to replace the previous mode of production prevailing within Feudal society by the more efficient capitalist mode of production. This involved the amalgamation of small fragmented and even individual means of production into a social force. Capitalism socialized the means of production. All the productive forces which were capable of being developed were developed. The capitalist could ensure the presence of large numbers of wageworkers in any one place co-operating with each other within the process of production, with a view to cutting down the time expended in the process.

Even on the basis of simple manual labour, it is a fact that 20 men working in unison can perform tasks that 40 men working individually could never do. The secret is that the 20 men are operating socially, or in concert, as a productive force; a force almost as old as mankind. The sub-division of labour is accelerated as each process becomes repetitious and broken down so that a number of operations can happen at the same time. It is quite obvious that a productive force based on even a high sub-division of manual labour was inadequate so long as it continued to rely on mainly manually operated tools. There were limits as to how many men you could get into a factory or one place, and there were also limits to the amount of time you could work the labourer without his health deteriorating. This productivity of labour could only be increased by the introduction of machinery. The motive force for this machinery was, in the first instance, provided by men or animals, but eventually by water, steam, gas and electricity, in that order.

It should always be borne in mind that the natural forces in social labour, i.e. sub-division of labour and co-operation, cost the capitalist nothing; likewise with the physical forces, water and steam. It is true that physical forces have to be harnessed in order to be exploited. This involves costly power-generating stations, hydro machinery, etc., but the cost of these is recovered over the period of their operation. Capital, therefore, has not only inherited the earth, but the natural physical forces so far discovered, and perhaps some at present undiscovered.

The gigantic means of production existing today bear little resemblance to the industrial scene when Marx made his analysis of machinery, manufacture, and the position of the working class in relation to the development of these technical productive forces. Automation, computers, nuclear energy, are certainly new, but the basic Marxist theory on machinery embracing these new developments is as true today, and of equal application, as it was in 1860. Today, capitalists and their economic advisers will go to great lengths to stress that most of the profit created by modern industry is due mainly to the increasing mass of constant capital vested in plant and machinery.

This appears on the surface to be the case, but Socialists do not take things at their face value. We fully agree with Marx that machines do not produce surplus value, and consequently profit, even if whole areas of production were based entirely on automated processes involving little direct labour participation. The reason why machinery, however highly developed does not produce surplus value is not difficult to understand. Machinery is an extension of the labour process which is carried on mechanically.

Machines are, in effect, social tools created by the man for the sole purpose of replacing human labour-power, and cutting down the time expended by human labour. The productiveness of machinery is measured by the labour it replaces. It is a fact that there are quite a number of processes which can only be done by machines, but all complicated processes have evolved from a sub-division of simple labour, and therefore the fact that simple labour has been intensified to the point of the scientific skill needed to produce and operate a machine to replace that simple labour, in no way alters the basis for calculating the productiveness of a machine.

No matter how complicated machines become, even to the point of the capitalist’s wildest dreams — the push-button society — they are still produced and maintained by men. Being a product of labour, a machine like every other commodity contains value in addition to its use-value. That value is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour required to produce the machine. During the productive process, the machine wears out, and has to be replaced in the course of time. It follows then that the machine cannot pass on any more value than that which is contained within it in the first place. The machine is used in the production of commodities, and it gradually by stages, perhaps over years or decades, comes to the end of its working life. But during its working life it has added value to the particular commodity for which it was designed. Each of the commodities, therefore, has consumed part of the value of the machine, and consequently the machine has transferred its value to the products.

Suppose, for example, a machine cost £10,000, and would operate efficiently for 10 years, and at the end of the period would require to be replaced. The capitalist owner of the machine would therefore add £1,000 to the value of the products produced annually, representing 1/10th of the value of the machine. In this way the capitalist ensures that he can replace that portion of his capital vested in the machine. Any depreciation of value of machinery, however complicated, is always compensated by the amount returned to the capitalist by way of the value added to the commodity.

Value, in the form of capital, lives on — it has the gift of eternal life. Not only do the workers produce surplus value at the point of production, but they also preserve existing value. It is the phenomenon of the social relation of value that whilst it owes its origin to the social relation of human labour it has an independent existence, working through its own anarchistic economic laws; consequently it is no longer under the control of the society which gave rise to it.

If we consider the productive process as a whole, with computers, electronic devices, and highly developed machinery, there can be no doubt that these have added greatly to production. It appears that any increase in profit, apart from cutting wages, can only be derived by introducing machinery. This is true, but the profit, or surplus value, cannot come from an inanimate object. The technical foundations of modern industry are built on machinery. This machinery has been created by men under the capitalist mode of production and distribution; the incentive to its invention and introduction has always been the profit motive. If a machine is to replace labour it must perform its operation in less time than that required by human labour — it is no good otherwise.

Any substitution for labour, including the substitution of natural force for human force, is an extension of the labour process carried on by the working class. It is not disputed that machinery is a means to the production of surplus value, but this surplus value is produced by the people who make and operate the machines. The production of the worker working with machinery is increased tremendously, but the workers are paid not for what they produce but for what they sell, their labour-power. It follows, therefore, that the introduction of machinery serves only to increase the rate of exploitation; that is, the difference between what the worker produces and what he receives in the form of wages.

Each fresh introduction of machinery  into the working process is always done with a view to cutting down the amount paid in wages, by reducing the number of wage workers. Capitalists find the machine a useful ally in the struggle over wages.

Most of the industrial processes today could not, as they are, serve the needs of a Socialist society. Existing technology would provide the basis for developing socially acceptable industrial processes, free from noise, dirt, and non-injurious to life and limb. At the moment, the plain fact is that scientific progress in the development of machinery, as in all things, serves capital and not man.

Jim D’Arcy

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