In chapter 15 of v1 of Capital, Marx writes that machinery “revolutionizes, and quite fundamentally (…) the contract between the worker and the capitalist. Taking the exchange of commodities as our basis, our first assumption was that the capitalist and the worker confronted each other as free persons, as independent owners of commodities (….) But now the capitalist buys children and young persons.” Marx has laid this out earlier in the chapter, arguing that machinery, by making physical strength less of a requirement in work, makes it possible for women and children to work. The family wage is replaced by the individual wages of all members of the family. “Previously the worker sold his own labour-power, which he disposed of as a free agent, formally speaking. Now he sells wife and child. He has become a slave dealer.” (519.) Marx calls this a “revolution effected in the legal relationship between buyer and seller of labour power, causing the transaction as a whole to lose the appearance of a contract between free persons.” Marx adds that this eventually “offer the English Parliament an excuse (…) for state intervention into factory affairs.” (520.)

I quote this because of my previous post on what Marx meant by free labor. The use of “appearance” here could be read as indicating something illusory. Or, if free labor is a defining trait of capitalism then the claim may be that English factories cease being properly capitalist and instead become something else which has capitalist-like dynamics alongside unfree labor. In any case it’s clear that the advance of the economy in time is compatible with not only the continuing existence but the increase of unfree labor.

What I’m unclear on, however, is what Marx’s precise claim is about the changed legal relationship. There is an important sense in which slavery is not an exchange between freely contracting persons, in that slaves are not freely contracting persons. On the other hand, slavery – when legal – is precisely an exchange between freely contracting persons: the buyer and the seller of the slave. Likewise with the sale of children and wives into labor by male workers. (More on this in a moment.) That the commodity sold is a human being is of course highly important, but … I’m not sure how to put this. Marx here seems to be insisting on a perspective which capitalists are/were not likely to admit. The trade in slaves was predicated on the slaves not being regular humans, legally speaking – on their not being legally contracting parties. Likewise with children and women when they are legally disqualified.

The legal disqualification of the person sold as a commodity makes the transaction acceptable as a transaction between legally contracting parties. That is, once it’s accepted that some humans are salable goods to be traded among other humans, the sale/purchase of one human can exist as a free contact between seller and buyer. Marx’s claim that there is a legal revolution effected by machinery strikes me as requiring a shift in perspective from the legal (formal?) level to some extralegal (substantive?) level.

It seems to me that the problem in the text here is that there’s no attention to the conditions in which one human can buy and sell another. Marx starts from humans selling only themselves and buying other humans from the human for sale. From that starting point it _is_ odd then to end up with a condition wherein humans are selling other humans, not themselves. But it seems to me that the point here should be precisely that the legal relationship of freely contracting can contain both selling oneself and selling another without much difficulty, that this is no revolution at all from a legal perspective. This is not to deny the importance of the change, I just don’t see why it’s a revolution in law, when the point is about labor, which is not only a legal matter.