2020s >> 2020 >> no-1394-october-2020

Cooking the Books: Do monkeys produce surplus value?

Do monkeys produce surplus value?

‘Liverpool FC have cut ties with their “official” coconut milk following allegations that monkeys were used as slave labour to pick fruit for the product’ (Times, 11 August). The animal rights group PETA had produced evidence that in Thailand monkeys were being used as ‘coconut-picking machines’ and were maltreated by being held in chains when not working.

The monkeys were certainly maltreated but were they being economically exploited in the same way as human wage workers? Were they producing surplus value?

Marx divided the capital of a business into two parts. (1) The instruments of production, raw materials, buildings, fuel, which he called ‘constant capital’ and (2) the fund out of which productive workers were paid, which he called ‘variable capital’. In the course of production the elements of constant capital transferred only their pre-existing value, whether in one go or gradually, to the product. Productive workers too transferred the value of their labour power to the product, but at the same time added new value over and above this; hence ‘variable capital’ with the variation being surplus value.

But what about the labour power of animals used in production, which at one time was so widespread that ‘horse-power’ was chosen as the name of a unit of mechanical force: is this constant or variable capital?

In discussing, in the opening chapter of Volume I of Capital, production by humans of what they need, Marx made the point that this involved them changing other parts of nature into something useful for them. These use values

‘are combinations of two elements – matter and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended on them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the help of man. The latter can work only as Nature does, that is by changing the form of matter. Nay more, in this work of changing the form he is constantly helped by natural forces’ (Section 2).

In a later chapter Marx pointed out that ‘physical forces, like steam, water, etc when appropriated to productive processes cost nothing’ (chapter 15, section 2). In the previous section of the same chapter he had included animal power alongside wind power and water power as among the natural forces that humans used in production.

A capitalist enterprise, therefore, does not have to pay for the ‘material substratum’ of wealth or for the forces provided by Nature; these are available to them cost-free. This applies as much to animal power as to wind or waterfalls (or the sun’s rays, tidal power, etc). What a capitalist enterprise does have to pay for, however and which can be costly, is the means of harnessing these free natural forces – windmills, water-wheels (solar panels, tidal barrages etc). In the case of animal labour, it is the animal itself that has to be paid for; its labour power does contribute to production but, as it is free, is not a part of capital, neither constant nor variable.

 As the animal itself has value (it has to be bred or acquired and maintained by human labour) it is a part of capital, but as constant capital. Like a machine it transfers its value gradually to the product until it wears out, but adds no new value. PETA was not so wide of the mark in describing those monkeys in Thailand as ‘coconut-picking machines’.

Just because they don’t produce surplus value is no reason for us workers not to show solidarity with our fellow other-animal workers and oppose their maltreatment.


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