Keith Hart on Thu, 5 Aug 2004 17:51:28 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> The Art of Sweatshops

It's funny how some threads run past their sell-by date, especially in
summer time. I know it's old-fashioned, but we can do better than
dictionaries, anecdotes and introspection. Karl Marx has a theory of
sweatshops which he lays out in a long section of Capital Volume 1 on
'absolute and relative surplus value' which contains the famous chapter on
machines. It's a rollicking read, but also a few hundred pages.

One of his reasons for making surplus value the focal point of his
analysis was to show that capitalism is really feudalism in drag. Under
feudalism, surplus labour is extracted from rural workers in a naked way
-- they toil for nothing on the lord's estate or they hand over a big
chunk of their harvest. The system is geared to extracting rent on threat
of force, without any thought to the well-being of the peasants who work
long hours for a miserable and precarious livelihood.  Capitalism looks to
be different, since workers are paid a money wage for producing
commodities that can be represented as fair exchange. But Marx aimed to
show that they were handing over an unfair portion of the value of their
labour, under a similar threat of coercion, just like the serfs.

The point of his analysis is that 'absolute surplus value' is a primitive
form of capitalist extraction, as naked in its own way as feudal rent. The
capitalist squeezes as much profit as possible from the workers, by paying
them less, making them work longer hours, imposing hard and dangerous work
conditions on them -- without worrying much about the efficiency of their
labour which is often performed on outdated equipment. Anyone can see what
is going on in this 'sweatshop capitalism' and it is easy to denigrate
capitalism as a whole by reference to such examples. But this was not
Marx's main point. There is a more progressive route to expanded profits
and that is by 'relative surplus value'.

There are three ways of raising the productivity of workers -- economies
of scale, division of labour and deployment of machines. Of these by far
the most important is the last and Marx was the first major economist to
notice this. When labour is made more efficient by substituting machines
for human effort, it is possible to raise their pay, education and work
conditions while still making super-profits. Indeed he believed that this
was the progressive route for capitalism, since more surplus value could
be squeezed out of workers this way than by the sweatshop route.  Higher
paid workers are often exploited more in the technical sense of the ratio
of proftis to wages, even as they may feel superior to the victims of
sweatshops and organize themselves to resist being undercut by competition
with them. Of course the process appears to be more benevolent. But Marx
looked to mobilize the high productvity workforce, not to the emiserated
peasants in the sweatshops, through a revolutionary critique of
capitalism. That is why he wrote to the book.

This dialectic has played on and on through all the phases of modern
capitalism. I doubt if China could account for 40% of world economic
growth last year by sweatshop methods alone, any more than Britain could
in Marx's day. The principal moral of the story for me is that a focus on
sweatshop conditions elsewhere diverts attention away from the
exploitation of the higher paid workers producing relative surplus value
in the so-called privileged centres of capitalism. Emphasizing sweatshop
conditions in poorer countries is usually a way of cranking up support for
more protectionism at home. Maybe artists are not immune to this tendency.

Keith Hart

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