This is a draft of a script from my upcoming video series “Law of Value”.
The marketplace is a realm of great freedoms. Nobody tells you what you have to do for a living. Nobody tells you what you have to buy. But this doesn’t mean you can do any labor you want or buy anything you want. In fact, though in theory it seems like we could do anything, in practical, every-day reality most of us know that our freedom to work and consume are very restricted.
This is because our working and consuming activities implicate us in a complex world of social labor. When we sell the products of our labor in the market we are entering into a vast network of social relations in which the laborers of zillions of people are all being related in the market. While we may wish we had the freedom to do any work we wanted, at whatever pace we like, the reality is that that we are compelled to do socially useful work at something near the average level of productivity. While our consumer culture preaches to us about the great heights of individualism and self-expression possible to us, there is a great leveling force in a capitalist society- a tendency toward equalization. More specifically this is the tendency toward equalization of labor through the equalization of commodities.
[In the marketplace the relations between laborers are established through the relations between commodities. When you go to the store to buy tomatoes you don’t know how much labor has gone into their production. You don’t know what conditions they were produced under. All you can see is the price and the quality. You want the best quality for the lowest price. Yet in comparing different tomatoes with each other you send signals to producers. It is only through this competition between tomatoes in the market that tomato growers find out what the average quality and price is, or in other words, the average level of productivity.]
As you walk down the aisle in the grocery store you notice that commodities of the same kind tend toward an average price. Slightly higher quality versions are slightly more expensive. Generic rip offs are slightly cheaper. But competition keeps prices and quality within a narrow range. There is a force pulling the commodities toward equalization.
This same force is also pulling the labor of producers toward equality. In order to produce as well as the the competition one must achieve an equal level of efficiency. This means bringing production technology and techniques in line with the social average. If conditions are not favorable- like poor soil, or a poorly located factory- then steps must be taken to bring these conditions in line with the average conditions as much as possible.
The same force applies between different spheres of production. If there is a shortage of hats and hat prices go up this will attract more labor into the hat-making business until price falls back down. If there is a glut of baseball cards labor will move out of the the baseball card industry. So the same tendency toward equalization of productivity and conditions is also a tendency toward equal distribution of labor between sectors. This doesn’t mean equal distribution in terms of numbers, but equal in the sense that no industry has a greater advantage than another.
This means that there is a constant force towards conformity and control in the workplace. In the early 20th century an entire science of work was developed by management theorist Frederick Taylor, whose sole aim was to reduce the motions of labor to their basic, measurable units so that all labor everywhere could be planned and carried out at common levels of efficiency. As machines began to occupy more and more prominence in the workplace, this forced the motions of the worker to succumb to the steady rhythm of the machine. It became possible for manual work everywhere to be reduced to its most, basic universal elements: the expenditure of equal, abstract labor. (This movement toward the simplification and homogenization of work made it possible for workers to easily move from one job to another. People in a modern capitalist society often have many different occupations over the course of their lifetime.)
When western governments responded to the economic crisis of the 1970’s by eliminating international trade barriers this created a force for the equalization of labor between countries. US corporations moved production overseas where labor was cheaper. This began a long, slow decline of the position of labor in the US as workers saw benefits, wages and pensions slowly deteriorate over several decades. The forces of the market were exerting a tendency toward equalization between first and third world workers. This doesn’t mean equalization was ever reached. Equalization is a direction in which things move, not a permanent state of existence.
The same forces that move us toward equilibrium also pull us away from it. It’s not just that producers strive to achieve average productivity. They strive to do better than average productivity. Just as the market punishes those who don’t produce at the socially necessary labor time, it rewards those who produce more efficiently than what is socially necessary. So, the average productivity is always moving. Not only that, but if socially necessary labor time is the average level of productivity that doesn’t mean that everyone produces at the average. If I say that the average age in the room is 30 that doesn’t mean that everyone in the room is 30. As producers scramble to out-produce each other in the market they are presented with all sorts of advantages and disadvantages, obstacles and opportunities, which effect their distance from this moving average. In fact, when an average is moving its hard to call it an average at all.
Some industries have enormous barriers to entry because of the huge amounts of capital needed to compete. On the other hand huge investments in plant and equipment lock companies into the long-term use of this technology even if new competitors enter the market with cheaper more efficient technology. Industrialized nations often attempt to suppress the spread of technology and capital to the developing world so as to maintain economic supremacy. Cycles of explosive growth and crisis mean that some sectors of the economy experience ecstatic orgies of investment and development while others sometimes experience devaluation and stagnation. This leads to an asymmetry in the conditions of labor. Yet these tendencies toward disequilibrium are created by the same forces which move the economy toward equilibrium.
Many economic theories before and after Marx presented models of equilibrium, discussing forces that moved the economy towards an equilibrium state. Marx’s theory is unique in both the way he understood both the tendency toward and away from equalization. For one, Marx realized that the leveling tendency of money and prices was an expression of a deeper phenomenon, the equalization of labor: both the conditions of labor and the labor itself. On the other hand Marx saw the conditions of labor in a capitalist society exist on an antagonistic basis. The antagonism between labor and capital produce a constant drive to increase efficiency and to innovate, as well as constant cycles of boom and bust. This produces all sorts of inequality in labor markets, uneven geographical development, and constant changes for the lives of laborers. In Marx’s theory of capitalism we see technological dynamism, cycles of growth and crisis and unequal development between sectors and countries. This means that there is a tendency both towards and way from equalization of labor.