Conceptually I mean. At the level of Marx’s categories. I had one of those “oh yeah…” light bulb moments, where I put things together in a way that it felt like it should have been obvious all along.

As Marx says repeatedly, labor power resides in workers’ bodies. Capitalists purchase commodified labor power then consume it in production, setting workers to work. In doing so, they consume the workers’ bodies, their lives. The terms of this vary, as does the degree to which there is accidental/incidental consumption of workers’ bodies (that is, consumption of bodies which is like a cost of production but not directly productive). This may be obvious but it wasn’t to me. It helps me place the stuff I’ve been doing on workers’ comp in relation to Marx’s categories. I want to keep thinking about that biopolitics stuff in relation to this as well. More notes on this later, I gotta go to bed.


More stuff…

According to Marx, what capitalists care about, to the degree that they are fully capitalists, is whether or not they recoup a greater income when they sell a product than they spent on needed raw materials, machinery and tools, and wage. Marx used the term surplus value to designate the average difference between the cost of those means of production and the return on the product. Surplus value is what capitalists most care about.
For Marx, capitalists buy a “peculiar commodity” he called labor power, the capacity to work. The peculiarity of labor power is the fact that it is the source of surplus value. Workers sell their time for a designated period and in that time produce a product worth more than it cost to employ them for that period.
Marx argued that for the capitalist all of this is a normal economic and legal action and nothing more. The capitalist purchases a commodity, labor power, for a determinate quantity of time. Like any other commodity, the purchaser is free to make us of it. When capitalists set workers to work in order to produce surplus value, they consume the workers’ labor power.
Things look differently for the working class. As Marx wrote in Wage Labor and Capital, in selling labor power a worker sells “his very self” to an employer. Labor is inseparable from the worker’s body. Thus the consumption of labor power from the working class point of view is the consumption of workers’ bodies, of their selves.
The commodity labor power around which Marx’s analysis turned thus embodies a duality. On the one hand, for the capitalist, labor power is simply a factor of production to be employed in the pursuit of production to create wealth. For the worker, labor power is the workers’ own body, to be cared for and preserved to at least a minimal extent. The worker has an economic incentive to preserve her body, in that the destruction of the body can render the worker’s labor power no longer salable, thus cutting off the ability to earn wages. The workes also has an intrinsic incentive to preserve her body and avoid suffering, particularly as she endures the capitalist use of her labor power (a process at once production and consumption, as Marx notes in the beginning of the Grundrisse). We have here two different goals or logics.
The relationship between these goals or logics varies historically. These logics and perspectives – the working class’s bodies and the capitalist class’s purchased commodities – could sometimes be made to overlap temporarily, or one could trump the other. Barbados sugar plantations, for example, consumed labor power at a frenetic pace, to a degree and in a manner that “consumed labor power at a frenetic pace” is a woefully inadequate phrase. The plantations worked a great many enslaved people to painful deaths at an atrocious rate. Work in the early 21st century is generally much safer. These differences are an example of one part of what Marx calls the peculiarity of labor power, that labor power is a commodity the price of which has moral determinants.
At different moments in time and in different places workers have sought to make effective their own interests in preserving their bodies, against the capitalist consumption thereof. These interests have been made effective to various degrees and using a variety of mechanisms. In the late 19th century and early 20th century United States an outcry arose over the quantity and quality of workplace injuries, over the rate and effects of the consumption of labor power in an industrialized or industrializing economy. A variety of mechanisms existed for dealing with the destruction of or damage to workers’ bodies.


In this previous post I said (and I’m sure elsewhere too, at least in my head for a very long time) I said there are two basic perspectives in capitalism, that of the capitalists and that of the working class. I said “there is are important differences between labor power as subject and as object.” Now leaving aside homogenization and what constitutes political interests, I think that while true, all of this is overly simplistic. Here’s what just struck me in thinking about this, in relation to body and injury stuff. There are two class perspectives, capitalist and proletarian, and there are for lack of a better term two forms of being, subject and object. There are not identical and are not two categories at all, rather they combine into more than two categories. That is: there is a capitalist perspective (again, setting aside possible objections about homogenization, which would suggest more than on capitalist perspective) on the proletariat as subject (ditto re: homogenization and multiplicity), and a capitalist perspective on the proletariat as object (ditto again). And a capitalist perspective on the capitalist class as subject (not sure if that’s independent or a restatement of one or both of the last two perspectives on the proles). There is also a proletarian perspective on the capitalist class, on the proletariat as subject, and on the proletariat as object. That last, proletarian perspectives on the proletariat as object – as commodified labor power consumed – are part of what I’m interested in re: all this injury stuff.


Notes on what next …


– Think piece on Foucault – state regulation and disciplining of bodies, but also regulating employers’ consumption of workers’ bodies; Panzieri on planning.

– Judith Butler on bodies – Bodies That Matter and Gender Trouble; Kathleen Canning on body history; Joan Scott on gender and work?

– Jason Read on capitalism and production of subjectivity; Regulation School – modes of regulation

– Pashukanis on law and capitalism; State Derivation debate; Skocpol et al Bringing The State Back In; Gramsci on law in capitalism; John R. Commons on law and capitalism

– Heidi Hartmann – Marxism as ‘sex-blind’; Dale Tomich on historical theory/theoretical history – reconstructing actually existing capitalism and the role of slavery therein; capitalism at the level of abstraction of the idea of the consumption of labor power is indifferent to differences. Actual capitalisms, however, involved the inadvertent production of disabled bodies, differential effects on men and women workers and on disabled workers.