(I’ve had sporadic internet and computer access for a bit here so I’ve written bits of drafts of a few posts over a few days, I’m going to post this stuff all now.)

I’m mostly but not totally done with a longish post on Engels’ preface to v2 of Capital This was a digression I went on while writing that post. I cut it out and made it into its own post.

In the preface to Capital v2 Engels quotes an 1821 pamphlet, “The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. A Letter to Lord John Russell.” The bits Engels quotes struck me as relevant to issues of reproductive labor and social reproduction that have been on my mind lately in part due to issues raised on the Caring Labor, Disparaged CNA, and Paid in Smiles blogs. The pamphlet remarks that the capitalist “can only receive the surplus-labour of the labourer; for the labourer must live.” Engels qualifies this, editorializing “But how the labourer lives and hence how much the surplus-labour appropriated by the capitalist can amount to are very relative things.” I take this to mean two things. One, the quantity of surplus labour appropriated by the capitalists and the standards of working class living are related in an important way, because there’s only one fund, so to speak, which can only be allocated to either capitalists or to the working class. (This merits much more than a parenthetical mention but I’m not up to the task just now… it’s worth mentioning the issue of segmentation or stratification of the working class, which is incredibly important, as is the issue of how those segmentations relate to each other — what is a gain for one sector can come out of what was previously allocated to the capitalist(s) or it can come out of another portion of what is made available to the working class; in the latter case a gain is not really a gain for the working class but rather a gain of some workers the cost of which is passed on to other workers.) Two, Engels remarks means that “surplus” vs “necessary” are relative rather than fixed terms, they’re subject to conflict. Engels goes on to quote from the pamphlet demonstrating the point, as the pamphlet decries decline in working class standard of living in terms of nutrition and food.

He quotes, “the capitalists will exact from the labourers the produce of every hour’s labour beyond what it is possible for the labourer to subsist on.” The quote continues, “the captalist may … eventually say to the labourer ‘You shan’t eat bread … because it is possible to subsist on beet root and potatoes. And to this point we have come!” (11; p23-24 in the original pamphlet, according to Engels.) Engels quotes again, “Why, if the labourer can be brought to feed on potatoes instead of bread, it is indisputably true that more can be exacted from his labour;that is to say, if when fed on bread, he was obliged to retain for the maintenance of himself and his family the labour of Monday and Tuesday, he will, on potatoes, require only the half of Monday; and the remaining half of Monday and the whole of Tuesday are available either for the service of the state or the capitalist.” (11, p26 in original.) As Engels notes later in a discussion of Ricardo, “As soon as labour-power becomes a commodity, its value is determined by the labour embodied in this commodity as a social product. This value is equal to the labour socially necessary for the production and reproduction of the commodity.” (18.) Engels doesn’t connect this to the earlier discussion, but the connection for my purposes is that the substitution of potatoes in place of bread lowers the total product and thus the socially necessary labor time required to (re)produce the commodity labor power. That is, it gets cheaper to make labor power. So the prices, ie, wages, can be lowered.

The connections to issues of reproductive labor and so on may be obvious by now, but I want make one point clearly — unwaged reproductive labors like housework don’t count in the monetary accounting of socially necessary labor time. Socially necessary labor time is actually labor time which it is necessary to pay for in money. Unwaged labors stretch how far wages go. They help maintain or extend the quality and sort of living that workers can get given the current value of their labor power. It seems to me conceptually difficult to distinguish that activity from activity which lowers the socially necessary labor time required to produce that commodity which is labor power. That is: for any worker who gets subsistence needs met by a some combination of items purchased with money derived from wages and by someone’s unwaged activities, we can always imagine two other workers — one who gets less subsistence via unwaged activities thus more via purchase, and one who gets more subsistence via unwaged activities and less via purchase. That last worker is cheaper to employ. (I’m holding total quantity of subsistence fixed here, which is actually a major area of conflict.) My point is that maintaining the price of labor power via unwaged labor is subject to attempts by capitalists to seize upon this to lower the price paid for labor power. The reverse is true as well – increase in purchased means of subsistence can be part of workers demanding higher prices for their labor power.