~700 words, ~ 4 min reading time
Since workers create surplus value, it makes sense for capitalists to minimize how much they spend, relatively, on non-labor. (That is “constant capital” in Marx’s terminology.) In general, they can do this by increasing working hours. Since the same building can operate for 8 hours or 24 hours, a greater profit margin will be attained if work happens for more hours. In addition, capitalists look for ways to use the “excretions of production” – that is, by-products or “waste”.
Marx goes a bit deeper on a couple of examples. He discusses savings on labor conditions – pointing out that capitalists can decrease their expenses by tolerating unsafe or uncomfortable working conditions, and presents data showing that disease and mortality are more common among workers in industries where conditions are particularly bad. Marx also observes that large-scale production is encouraged, in part, by the way that power works in industrial machinery. It is often more economical to operate one large plant than multiple smaller ones. These economies of scale (to use the modern phrase) allow capitalists to economize on constant capital. Marx goes a bit deeper into the “excretions of production”. Strangely, he criticizes capitalism for not putting human feces on fields to use as manure. Finally, Marx observes that new inventions are often not economical – so that the first to buy a new product end up paying far more than when the product gets more developed.
Why It Matters
Here we’re getting much more to the practical criticism of the capitalist system that Marx provides. The most important part here is the criticism regarding requiring long working hours and the one about unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. These are the two activities that look the most like “exploitation”, and, I would suggest, are often at the heart of criticisms of a market system.
Where Marx Goes Wrong
Here, Marx’s wage theory is what creates the biggest problems. Since Marx buys into the classicals’ iron law of wages – that is that wages will stay at the level of subsistence – Marx misses the actual dynamics of what is happening. For example, people will trade off wages against other features of a job. So, for example, people may be willing to accept worse conditions – but they only do so if they are compensated for it financially. Conversely, it can sometimes be cost-saving for a company to offer more benefits but pay less – in fact, Marx himself points out a case where a business ended up saving money by installing safety equipment. Marx’s argument then, in this section, relies on the existence of two “irrationalities” – one of which Marx is explicit about, the other of which is missing from the explicit argument, as it is ruled out by Marx’s wage theory. The first irrationality: that capitalists habitually seek to avoid certain kinds of costs – specifically for safety devices. Marx reported one case where a group of manufacturers spent more paying lawyers to fight the imposition of safety regulations than it would have cost to simply implement the regulations themselves. A second is that workers care only about wages and pay no attention to the conditions of production. But these are unlikely to be true. There are systematic differences in certain wages which are explained by differences in job characteristics – sometimes explicitly. This makes perfect sense – people would be willing to be paid less for safe, comfortable jobs, other things equal – but doesn’t fit the iron law of wages which suggests that wages will fall to subsistence levels. In addition, employers take this fact into account when making decisions about safety procedures and the like. Do they get things wrong sometimes? Of course. But, it hardly seems accurate to suggest that employers regularly, irrationally avoid measures that are actually cost-saving – in a competitive world, such decisions put you at a disadvantage compared to your competitors. Which brings us back to a central issue with Marx – for Marx, competition between competitors seems to exist sometimes, but is not worked into the logic consistently. So, competition keeps prices of products in check – but doesn’t let wages rise above subsistence. Competition leads to capitalists being cost-minimizers – but they do so very poorly.