March is my month of Marx, and in this Part 1 we’ll be looking at labour and class. So we’re talking about production, making
products, and in order to make any product you first need two things: you’ll need the “means of production.” This video is like a product, which I made, and I can show you some of my means of production
right now, it’s my camera, my microphone, my tripod, lighting, the backboards I’ve got in my little studio here, and of course – the talent! – as well as the editing software and so on. All of these things I own. But that only gets me a video; in order to get a YouTube video, I need YouTube,
the website. That’s the most important means of production for me, and it’s owned not by me but by Google. This means that making YouTube videos is what Karl Marx called “capitalistic production,” where
the means of production are privately owned, rather than owned by the labourers, and the products are sold in a market for profit – in this case Google sells ad
space on my videos. The second thing you’ll need is labour. And Labour for Marx is really important because it’s the only thing that can increase the value of what
you have. If you a buy a block of wood and do nothing with it then its value will remain constant.
But if you labour to carve that wood into a chair you will increase its value. Now you could try to rip somebody off and sell the wood for more than it’s worth, and supply and demand will
come into it, but those things will only affect its price, which for Marx is not the same thing. He thought that prices would generally be proportional to value, but value he thought was, definitionally, how much labour it takes to make something under normal circumstances. Labour is measured in time, hours and minutes: the more labour time it takes to make something under normal conditions, the more valuable it is. That’s why if you can automate a process then the products become cheaper, because it now takes less labour to make them. If you’ve got a job needs doing takes a lot of special training then it becomes more expensive because the time spent training is necessary labour for doing the job. Time is Money – literally.
This is called the Labour Theory of Value. The “normal conditions” caveat is important
here: if you slack off and it takes you two hours to do something that would normally only take one well then the value of the product doesn’t double. It stays the same ‘coz under normal conditions it would only take one hour to make that. Similarly, if you work really hard and get the job done in 30 minutes, the value of the product doesn’t halve. Now the Labour Theory of Value is, at this moment in history, unorthodox. Mainstream economics prefers a theory of value called Marginalism: Marginalists say that the Labour Theory breaks down in certain circumstances; Marxists and Post-Marxists say that actually it’s Marginalism that beaks down in the right circumstances, so just bear in mind as we go here that a lot of this is very hotly debated, and as we’ll be seeing later in the series there’s a lot riding on it. How exactly value becomes price is one of the big talking points, though some economists prefer to just ignore value altogether and just focus on prices, since you can model an economy and find out how to make that mad dolla just by looking at something’s price. Value brings with it a whole bunch of questions about fairness and whether the price is right, and mainstream economics often prefers to just gloss over those issues. The other big talking point is the so-called “Great Contradiction;” if labour is the source of value then why aren’t the most valuable products made in the most labour-intensive industries? Some people think this completely scuppers the Labour Theory; there might be ways of getting around it but we don’t need to worry about that, I’m just making sure you know where we are on the theoretical map. Labour-power, the ability to labour, is, in
Marxist economics, the most important commodity in the world. It’s the only commodity that
when applied, increases the value of what you have. Labour power is found only in people, and when you go to work you rent out your labour power for the day. But your ability to work, your labour power, doesn’t just grow on trees. It takes a certain amount of food, and shelter, and clothing
and so on, to sustain your labour power from 9 to 5. Now, all of those things have values that can be measured in labour time as well. So let’s assume that it takes, say, 4 hours of labour to produce everything you need to work for one day. You go to work at 9am, and by 1pm, four hours later, you have paid for yourself for that day. The amount of labour going into you is the same as the amount of labour coming out of you. But you don’t go home at 1pm. You have to stay the rest of the day. So your boss gets 4 hours labour out of you during which time you are generating what Marx called “surplus value.” Value on top of the value it took to get you there. Profit, essentially. But because the means of production are privately owned, anything you make belongs to your boss or to your company, and they sell the products you make for profit and keep that profit. The surplus value goes, not to you, but to them. And that right there, in a nutshell, is why
Marx thought capitalism was unavoidably exploitative. Even if you’re making a great wage and you’re happy with your job, under capitalism he thought you are always being paid less than what your labour is actually worth. That’s how capitalism works: you hire other people to increase the value of what you have, and then you keep that extra value for yourself. Marx thought
that capitalism, and everything that has come with it, is sustained only by exploiting the working class. But hang on a minute, what was that about “class?” How can you take everybody working in very different jobs and lump them all together into one group called “the working class?” Well, the idea that society is made up of groups, which we call classes that struggle with each other is called “conflict
theory.” And it doesn’t mean that everybody within the same class has exactly the same experience. It just means that we can model society as being made up of those groups. A little bit like in meteorology: when we look at a weather front, we know that not every molecule of air has the same temperature and moves in the same direction, but we can observe trends in groups of them and model those trends. Marx thought that we could model class conflict so accurately we could even predict the future with it: he thought that society would follow an inevitable progress towards Communism as the relations of the working classes to the means of production changed. This is called “Historical Materialism,” and as we’ll be seeing later in the series
he may have been a little hasty there. But it’s not just the working class who get
a raw deal, Marx thought. Remember earlier on we said that capitalism is when the means of production are privately owned. So, how do capitalists get to own them? You’ve gotta have money in order to buy somebody else’s labour – you gotta have money to make money – so how does capitalism get started? Marx’s answer is that it’s usually violence. He lived in
19th Century England, where a lot of capital and property was either being violently confiscated
from foreigners – there’s the link between capitalism and imperialism – or inherited
from people who, at some point in history, got their wealth through Feudalism or conquest. Even if people invent totally new inventions, as during the Industrial Revolution they did, the conditions that allow them to do that often come about through that violence. This leads us to a consideration of capitalism’s consequences, which will be Part 2 in the series. That’s the end of Part 1: you’ve learned about Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and the different relations of classes to the means of production. In Part 2 we’ll be looking at capitalism’s problems and Alienation. Today’s show was sponsored by
If you go to you can get a free audiobook, and yes they do have Marx’s Das Kapital. You can get it with a free 30 day trial of their audiobook service that you can cancel anytime, and every time one of you signs up I get a tiny bit of money.

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