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

Cooking the Books

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.


Socialism in one enterprise?

In an article in Counterpunch (28 July) Richard D. Wolff, of ‘Capitalism hits the fan’ fame, criticised the widespread definition of capitalism as ‘private’ or ‘free’ enterprise on the grounds that it ignores state enterprises and that ‘free’ is a loaded term that in any case only applies to those who own enterprises. He offered instead:

A key unique quality of capitalism is the employer/employee relationship between two different groups of the people engaged together in the economic system. That relationship entails an exchange of wages or salaries for labor power (the ability of an employee to work). A contract between employer and employee covers that exchange plus the employee’s exertion of brains and muscles over lengths of time and to ends specified by the employer. ’.

A defining feature of capitalism is indeed the wages system. Ending capitalism does involve the ending of this employer/employee relationship. Wolff, however, sees this as being implemented at enterprise level, describing as ‘instances of communist enterprises’ worker coops where ‘one and the same community designs, directs, and performs the work of an enterprise such that each community member has one vote and enterprise decisions are made democratically.’

His justification for calling worker coops ‘communism’ is that they are commonly owned by those working in them and end the employer/employee relationship as far as their members are concerned. But if the common ownership of something by a group is ‘communism’ then there are many other examples of it within capitalist society. What socialists aim at, however, is the common ownership of the means of life by society as a whole – a communist society.

Marx wasn’t opposed to workers forming cooperatives. In fact he saw their emergence as one of the signs that society was becoming ripe to move from a capitalist to a communist society; they showed that the individual private owner/employer was redundant and that workers were quite capable of organising production without them. He was, however, opposed to the reformist demand that the state should subside them. In his own words:

The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour’ (Capital, Volume III, Chapter 27).

In other words, under capitalism, workers co-ops had to function like a capitalist enterprise with all the shortcomings this involves such as, we can specify, having to make a profit to re-invest in up-to-date methods of production so as to remain competitive and stay in business.

Wolff’s conception of the role and significance of ‘cooperative factories’ is different. He envisages them as producing for the market alongside private and state enterprises both under capitalism and in ‘socialism’ (by which, going completely off the rails, he seems to mean places like the old USSR). He advocates cooperative enterprises as a way forward for workers within capitalism in the same way that other reformists used to advocate state enterprises.

This brings out that his definition of capitalism is incomplete. It needs to include as well as the employer/employee relationship that production is carried on for sale with a view to profit. Capitalism is a market society in which everything is bought and sold, not just labour power.

Common ownership on a society-wide scale implies that the democratically-run productive units would not be producing for a market, precisely because what they produced would belong to society and be available to be distributed in non-market ways, whether free distribution, free use or taking according to need.

Socialist Standard October 2020

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