The Social Relations Determined by Capital. January 200. Andy Blunden
Introduction to a critique of Hegel in the light of modern production relations
I pass you in the street. “You're looking a bit lost!”, I say, “Can I help?” and I show you the way to the street you were looking for. I never see you again, and of course I never expected anything in return other than the warm feeling I get in my chest for helping you out and confirming to myself how well I know my home town.
This is perhaps the most elementary form in which a person's needs are met by the labour of another person. In the first part of this work (Getting to Know Hegel) we looked at how this most elementary social relation which vanishes as silently as it came into being, can be built into the most developed forms of human culture. The form which is necessarily taken by this development is the construction of a mediating term, which is a universal, and which takes on an external existence of its own.
This universal may be as ephemeral as a collective identity with which many people identify, such as the female gender, or something as concrete and developed as a language spoken by a whole population and concentrating the history and culture of the people in its syntax and vocabulary, or a humanised landscape with all its historical sites, highways and by-ways and so on, or it may be that most powerful of all universals – money, which takes on the appearance not just of an external entity, but of an alien and oppressive God.
Now there can be no doubt that that one relation – money, the commodity relation, has inexorably absorbed and extinguished all other previously existing relations through which people have met each other's needs. The family is rapidly disappearing, and the welfare state is withering on the vine, to mention just the two most significant relations through which whole masses of people have been able to live in the past. However, there is no “law of nature” which determines that such a process is either inevitable or exhaustive. The simple example mentioned above certainly involved two people whose consciousness was determined by bourgeois society. I was on my way to my place of employment at the time and the stranger was looking for a certain restaurant to purchase a meal. But our passing exchange was a simple and human one nonetheless.
Even when workers take industrial action in pursuit of a wage claim, it would be wrong to characterise this relation (i.e. collective industrial action) as falling exclusively under the ambit of bourgeois relations even though the purpose of the whole action is to increase the price of labour power, for the union is not the seller of the labour power, only the individual worker sells labour power. (If a labour-hire firm withdraws its services from a customer to force up the price, that’s different). We shall explore this relation in more detail much later, but the point is that labour – which is essentially voluntary, huamn action – is fundamentally incompatible with capital. Wage-labour is the form under which labour is subsumed and determined by capital, but wage-labour is not a determination that exhausts the wage-labourer as a human being.
In every single human relation it is quite possible to perceive that aspect which is determined by capital and that which is not. Present day economy presents us with a diverse array of production relations which differ in the manner in which they determine human action and meet or fail to meet human needs. Every new development in the historical development of these relations constitutes a new starting point for their theoretical investigation. In general, each new qualitative development provided to historical experience must give us a deeper insight into the nature of capital, since each new turn indicates for us the truth of what was being done hitherto.
Consequently, my method of approach will be to firstly examine all those forms production relation we find around us today, beginning with the most simple and working through to the most developed. However, I shall not attempt to make an historical investigation. Such an investigation has of course considerable value in itself, but the main thing is that any attempt to start from some earlier time would force us either back into the mists of time or force us to make a beginning from some arbitrary starting point and from there to move back to our real beginning in the present day by a necessarily abstract and selective narrative passing through relations which in any case have already proved to be untrue.
Further, not all relations we find around us today are of equal significance; some are marginal while others ubiquitous; some are on the decline while others are growing. Clearly, these questions are of the utmost importance. However, it seems to me that an investigation of each of these relations in themselves and in relation to one another, irrespective of the specific weight which should be given to each relation cannot prejudice but can only enlighten a subsequent investigation of the present-day dynamic of each which must be informed by empirical investigation. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that daily experience and our theoretical starting point will cause us to pay more or less attention to certain relations rather than others.
Now, as pointed out above, we are concerned here with two different kinds of relation: on the one hand, those of voluntary association, of genuinely, free collective labour, and on the other hand, the relations of production which are determined by capital. These two relations everywhere interpenetrate and mutually determine one another, albeit in an external way, not being “determinations of a single essence.” The only way I know of dealing with a mixture of this kind, is to examine first one and then the other, and then the struggle between the two.
So, I shall begin with the relations of capital.
How do I recognise a relation as ‘determined by capital’? We know that the exchange of commodities at their value is the germ, the simplest relation, or notion, of capital. And, by ‘commodity’, I mean externalised labour which is executed for the purpose of being exchanged for the labour of others. Following Marx, I shall pay no concern whatsoever to the specific material form in which that labour is embodied. While formally, barter constitutes exchange of commodities, barter is no more than an undeveloped, stunted form of commodity relation, and my intention is to simply ignore barter. Similarly, I shall no attention to LETS, vouchers, ration-cards and other substitutes for money since these can be no more than transitory half-way houses to relations of capital. Consequently, buying and selling, production for money constitutes the definition of the scope of this first investigation. Other relations, which are conditioned by the commodity relation, shall be considered in this aspect, without prejudice to the fact that they may or may not also warrant consideration in their own right. For example, it still remains the case that the production of labour power is achieved by drawing on state enterprises and by mobilising family relationship in the upbringing of children and the daily restoration of human energy. Both these relations have an historical trajectory of their own, which deserves attention, but within bourgeois society, we see that their role is being inexorably undermined and destroyed by market relations.
When someone gives money to a beggar or a charity and expects nothing in return, then we have labour on the one hand (the beggar or the charity worker labour to acquire value), but not on the other (the donor gives voluntarily). So in this instance the donor is to the beggar an object, since the beggar sees in the donor the means of meeting their own needs, whereas for the donor, the act is a human act which is intended to meet the needs of the receiver alone and ought to do so. So the whole business of money-raising falls within the ambit of capital, even though the beginning and end of the process is free giving. All voluntary organisations that have any contact with money are necessarily caught up in bourgeois relations, though that is not necessarily their essence. This kind of situation we will look at much later on when we come to look at the external relation between capital and labour.
A specific focus of our investigation will be how the relations of production which fall under the ambit of capital take on mystical forms of appearance which make social relation appear in forms which belie this content. We will subsequently make this same question a focus of our investigation of voluntary association, since objectification is not a peculiar property of the market, only the perverse and alien character of that objectification is such a peculiarity.
What we are concerned with here is the oldest and simplest form of labour to be found in bourgeois society, that of the one-person firm, the self-employed worker or independent proprietor. It makes no difference whether we are dealing with a programmer who does software repairs from home for large firms or the owner of a little cake-shop who bakes their own creations in the morning and sells them across the counter during the day, or a prostitute who works the streets of St Kilda for cash payment.
But nevertheless, let’s look at the differences which may affect our various private labourers:
Now let us look at what all these private labourers, who are alternately manufacturers or service-providers, knowledge workers or workers with hand and body, share in common. Our private labourers are not employers and none of them direct the labour of others; (though the programmer does so vicariously by installing systems which the customer's employees will be obliged to use, he does vicariously, not by her own will):
Now, all of our private labourers work alone in the sense that they are one-person businesses, but equally they work in cooperation with others. If the programmer is provided with a faulty computer, the baker with bad flour or the prostitute with a leaky condom, then their efforts will fail. However, let us leave this relationship for the moment because their relationship with those who produce their various instruments of labour is much like the relationship that they have with their customers, and it is that relationship which most occupies the attention of our private labourers.
Let us consider these relationships from the point of view of human life. By human life I mean finding one's own needs, one's own essence in another person and in turn offering in one's own self the satisfaction of other people's needs.
Each of our private labourers spend the whole of their working day engaged in labour which in no way expresses their essence, their needs. The programmer wants to get back to nature, the baker wants a life of ease, the prostitute wants to be a good mother.
For each of our labourers, the object of their labour, that is the person for whom they labour, is a stranger with whom they have no other social connection: the purchaser of the programmer's labour is an agribusiness which is wrecking the countryside, the baker sells cakes to her clientele in the business district who owe their living to mortgage debts like hers, and the prostitute gives enjoyment to husbands who are secretly cheating on their families.
The specific needs which must be fulfilled are alien to our labourers: the programmer is obliged to facilitate the agribusiness client in achieving a total monoculture, the baker is forced to use a variety of high-fat ingredients which she personally despises and the prostitute acts out roles for her clients which sometimes bring her to the verge of vomiting. If the programmer introduces an opening in her program which compels the farm manager to leave a certain percentage of land available for diversity, it will be sent back for correction; if the baker uses fat-free ingredients she will lose her trade in the business district to other traders who are more dedicated to satisfying their customers' preferences.
Our private labourers tolerate this situation because for them their customers are but a means to their own ends, they are to them merely objects because they don't give a damn for their customer's labour at all. The baker is not paid with programming services nor the prostitute with a cake, they are paid with money, with a commodity which was not produced by their customer but simply happened to be their private property at the time.
Now let's look at it from the other side. Surely the clientele in the red light district lust after the prostitute and the agribusiness is in love with the programmer. Not true at all. The prostitute's clientele lust after her body for it shall be the means to satisfaction of their desire, but they altogether mistake who they relate to, for the prostitute does not offer her true essence to the client but only what she is required to meet their needs which is we have learnt the very opposite of who she essentially is. She only wants their money because at heart she is just a good mother. The programmer is in fact a hydroponic gardener without a garden and programs only to earn a living, and it is not the programmer that the agribusiness likes but only her program, and they take care to see that the programmer's greenie ideas are not reflected in the product that they buy. The baker's clientele have eyes only for the cakes and don't even lift their glance from their newspaper while making their purchase, far less have any will to help the baker achieve her end of a comfortable debt-free retirement, in fact if she is late with a payment the same customer may be the one who forecloses on her mortgage.
So we see that for all of the participants in this process of people meeting their own needs, the one party in the relationship regards to other as an object not a human being and as a result of this the act of labour is heartless and mechanical, and act of suffering not of the joyous expression of a person's life. When the programmer surveys the devastating effects of monoculture, the baker the obesity of the citizens of the top end of town and the prostitute the disgusting way men treat their wives, they all know that they have made their small contribution, though with reluctance. But this is for them not the decisive reality; what is real for our private labourers is money. They work for money, and who bears that money is a matter of indifference for them. The community affirms that they have laboured usefully when the till is full at the end of the day, and between them all, the programmer, the baker and the prostitute and all their fellow workers have fashioned the world just as it is, with its monoculture farms, its obese population and its cheating husbands.
But on the positive side, all our private labourers are good at their job. As we have found, if they weren't, they could not earn a living. They do not have the opportunity to work badly any more than they have the opportunity to work as human beings. They must work just as the market requires. They must work in order to earn a living. The community ensures that they labour in just such a way by honouring the value of the money with which their products are paid for.
The programmer understands and implements the principles of relational databases and object oriented programming and knows MicroSoft Access inside-out; the baker long ago gave up the use of an old-fashioned oven and can produce a batch of cakes from their ingredients in her microwave in 2 minutes flat, each iced with perfection, the prostitute deserves an Oscar for her every performance.
But even here, and it is most obvious in the case of the programmer, they do not labour directly with Nature, but rather with the products of others, likewise produced as alien products. The skills the programmer acquires amount to accommodating herself to the demands of MicroSoft and assimilating its methods into her own way of working; likewise, the baker learns the principles of cooking not by gouging out witchetty grubs and baking them in an open fire, but by manipulating the properties of the products of highly developed industry. This is less obvious in the case of the prostitute, but the fact is that the sexuality of her customers is produced by modern society, particularly its movies and advertising in combination with the general sexual mores of society and she must adapt herself to this sexuality if she is to labour successfully.
So we can see that this world which our private labourers have built looks to them a pretty alien thing, and yet they built it, and it is their only reality. But so long as the baker is still struggling to pay off her mortgage and the prostitute and the programmer and baker have not yet earned enough to adopt the profession of their aspirations, they remain objects for the rest of society, the mere means to the satisfaction of the needs of others.
Let us suppose for a moment that each of our private labourers has laboured well and by sacrifice and hard work, before reaching the age at which they must be confined to a nursing home, they have acquired enough money to retire from work and follow their dreams.
In this instance, their needs and their desires become a factor in the market ... because they have money. So it appears that they are human just as insofar as they are the owners of money, their humanity is then only as appendages of money. But under current social conditions it is unlikely that our private labourers can achieve their dreams long before they reach retirement age. Competition determines that they can only sell their product at a price comparable to others who are vying for a share of the market and they are only going to be able to sell their labour at a price which will enable them to reproduce themselves and their product, and with luck a further generation of programmers, bakers and prostitutes. The small surplus they gain over and above their daily needs will not be enough for them to retire early. For that they need to accumulate the surplus of many labourers. So, if they do accumulate a small surplus, it is more likely that they will approach the bank for a loan to expand their business and take on employees. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume for the moment that they forego a bank loan, or maybe they are lucky enough to inherit a small nest-egg from a relative, but one way or another, that they become a small-scale employer.
29th January 2000