By labour-power or capacity for labour is to be understood the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.
But in order that our owner of money may be able to find labour-power offered for sale as a commodity, various conditions must first be fulfilled. The exchange of commodities of itself implies no other relations of dependence than those which, result from its own nature. On this assumption, labour-power can appear upon the market as a commodity, only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammelled owner of his capacity for labour, i.e., of his person. He and the owner of money meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law. The continuance of this relation demands that the owner of the labour-power should sell it only for a definite period, for if he were to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. He must constantly look upon his labour-power as his own property, his own commodity, and this he can only do by placing it at the disposal of the buyer temporarily, for a definite period of time. By this means alone can he avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it.
What catches my attention is what I take to be a claim about the conditions of sale of labor power under capitalism, that the sale occurs in conditions of formal freedom (the buyer and seller are legally equal, contracting parties; Marx will later state what he thinks of this sort of equality quite clearly with the quip “between equal right force decides,” the formal freedom/equality masks or is blind to substantive inequality and unfreedom and the transactions occuring in terms of formal freedom rest on relations of force in the present and acts of violence both in the past and recurring). There’s a few ways to read the point here.
1) Part of a definition of capitalism (sale of labor power must be formally free or it’s not capitalism)
2) Part of a definition of Marx’s object (_Capital 1_ takes as its primary object of criticism the formally free sale of labor power)
3) Part of a textual or rhetorical decision on Marx’s part (I’m thinking here of the point that I take NP to be making about Marx’s voice in her extended and excellent series of posts on the beginning of _Capital 1_ )
I know I’ve seen 1) argued in reference to Marx. This point is wrong. In Marx’s exposition the point is not established but asserted. Up til now Marx has defined capitalism as money begetting money: M-C-M'; spending money to buy commodities which are sold for more money (the dashes indicate exchanges: purchase/sale). Marx eventually reveals this to be a more extended series: M-C(lp)+C(mp)…P…C’-M'; money spent to buy 2 sorts of commodities, labor power (lp) and means of production (mp), which are combined when the worker’s labor power is set to work in production (P) to produce a new commodity (C’) which is sold for more than the total value advanced initially. That sum of money M’ is then re-invested, kicking off the circuit again. There is no need for the sale of labor power to be formally free for this circuit to work. Selling the bodies of laborers, as in the case of slaves, fits just as well into these series. None of this is an argument for viewing slavery as an always non- or pre-capitalist institution rather than as one mode of command over labor which can exist as part of capitalism.
If it’s point 2) then I have no objections other than that I think the point is clumsily made such that it provides a point of purchase for the mistaken argument above.
If it’s point 3), likewise.
I’m less patient w/ Marx’s textual strategy than NP. I like the book more as it goes on. I find the first 3 chapters annoying and confusing. It seems to me that Marx moves between registers without marking the shifts clearly and sometimes makes claims which are or can be read as being in more than one register at the same time. Temporal registers – what can be read as very long term historical claims and what can be read as more recent historical claims – as well as other conceptual registers – orders of time like I just mentioned, extra-temporal/transhistorical claims, claims which some people read as involving a philosophy of history, logical claims (“for any X if X is capitalism…”) and epistemological/perspectival claims (“viewed from the perspective of simple circulation …; viewed from the perspective of the circulation of money as capital….”). I find these claims are much more easily distinguished as the book goes on and I find certain sorts of claims seem to fall out or occur less often.