“Nothing is more characteristic of the spirit of capital than the history of the English Factory Acts from 1833 to 1864,” Marx claims, in Capital volume 1, in a section of the chapter on the working day. (Chapter 10, sec. 6.)

This section merits close reading, whether or not one has read the rest of the chapter or the rest of the book, as there is a great deal going on. Marx writes toward the end of the section that, after a long and conflictual historical process, around 1853 there came to be laws in England that “regulated the working-day of all workers in the branches of industry that come under it.” This is distinct from those laws which regulated just children, or just women. This contributed to “the physical and moral regeneration of the factory workers” between 1853 and 1860. Many capitalists had previously opposed these regulations, but once the laws were passed it became common sense among capitalists that these regulations were in fact in the interest of the capitalist class. Marx writes that “[t]he masters from whom the legal limitation and regulation had been wrung step by step after a civil war of half a century, themselves referred ostentatiously to the contrast with the branches of exploitation still “free.” The Pharisees of “Political Economy” now proclaimed the discernment of the necessity of a legally fixed working-day as a characteristic new discovery of their “science.””

The particular thing I want to comment on is this line: “the principle had triumphed with its victory in those great branches of industry which form the most characteristic creation of the modern mode of production.” First, a comment I won’t develop much further. This section describes laws which first applied in a few industries and slowly spread. These were the most modern for Marx – they were the leading edge of development (or were at the leading edge, or were the product of the leading edge, I’m not sure any of those distinctions matter). It’s hard to tell what this means except retroactively. That is, I’m not sure what the difference is between “most modern” and “most like what later became hegemonic.” That is clearly an important trait, however. Second, aside from particular industries, there are implications here about the capitalist mode of production over all, in its most modern form. Here too I’m not sure how to distinguish “most modern” from “most like what later became hegemonic.” In any case, bracketing that, it’s arguable the Marx here is describing what he thinks is an early form of what he thought was then a new and emerging form of capitalism – a more advanced form of capitalism. I’m just going to assume for now that my reading of Marx here is correct and that Marx is correct.

We can see a few actors and tendencies in this chapter, making up this more advanced form of capitalism. For one thing, there is attention to management or maintenance/reproduction of the preconditions of capitalism, in addition to the specific interests of specific capitalists. This is a step toward greater class consciousness on the part of at least some capitalists. The state plays an increasingly important role in creating and maintaining this consciousness, in that it represents and clarifies the general interests of capitalists as capitalists – their class consciousness – rather than specific interests. (Or at the very least, it puts forward more general interests; the state does tend to represent some capitalists’ interests more than others.) There’s also a growth in state agencies for producing knowledge of what’s really going on and practical proposals for how to modify production in the capitalists’ interests. Class conflict – the struggles of workers – are a key factor in making all of this happen, a necessary condition for the process of creating and spreading this most modern form of capitalism, or of creating those social phenomena most characteristic of the modern form. This implies and I think demonstrates one basic but not always remember aspect of Marx’s understanding of capitalism. Capitalism is not just an economy, it is a type of society. The modern form of capitalism that Marx discusses is a social system, not just a form of production, or a form of production, distribution, and consumption.

I want to lay out a few other thoughts, riffing a bit further and linking to old posts of mine so I remember some connections that just occurred to me. I wrote a sloppy thing a while ago about the problems with Antonio Negri’s understanding of capitalism as biopolitical, coming out of for me what was a long series of attempts to move from vague misgivings to complaints to criticisms, a series I’ve mostly set aside now, having managed to convince at least myself…. I tried to argue in that thing that “biopolitical capitalism” is not a very useful way to periodize capitalism and (perhaps the same thing) not a very useful category for understanding particular capitalisms (whether differing in historical period/moment or in institutional arrangement, probably both because the former probably implies the latter), whereas “how is this capitalism biopolitical” as in the biopolitical particulars might be. I only gesture there toward this alternative perspective (and I really need to actually read the biopolitics literature, I’ve tried and find much of it insufferable, I gotta get over that). I’m now starting to think that part of what was going on in the US in the 19th century (and really I’m mostly interested in the very end of the century, the rest is sort of a pre-history for me, relative to these particular interests I mean) is that there was not only a growth of capitalist planning but a planning of labor power – on and off the clock, conditions of work, conditions of sale, conditions of maintenance, and conditions of reproduction.

In relation to Marx, I think Marx offers incredibly important – I’m tempted to say necessary, and that’s not something I say often about this sort of thing – resources for all this, but they can be hard to grasp because among other things it’s hard to sort Marx’s descriptive mode and his prescriptive mode. This is because, aside from any improvements that could be made in presentation, there’s a genuinely complicated idea here (I’m generally quite happy to fault Marx for errors of style and organization which make his concepts harder to grasp and am generally hesitant to conclude that part of the problem really is the complexity of the ideas — that is, I’m usually quite happy to see complexity in Marx as a decision and as contingent rather than internal to what he wants to do and necessary to the concepts – but this time I do think that’s part of what’s going on). I think Marx thinks there’s a particular relationship between these particular descriptions and his preferred prescriptions. Ditto for the over all object of analysis (capitalism). And ditto again for the relationship between descriptive and prescriptive in social theory/analysis: Marx not only has a complicated relationship between descriptive and prescriptive, he thinks that social theory ought to have such, and he thinks that the particular relationship between the two that he has is the right one. So it’s a multi-agenda or multi-place argument that unfolds at different speeds, with lots of moving parts and some of them move to the foreground and others to the background at different times. That’s all at least a bit vague (I am vague on how vague it is as well as on how to quantify vagueness as well as on if such quantification is possible, a similar and appropriate multi-place issue, and I think this is a very funny if dry joke) and I can’t do better now or any time soon. People should read NP’s work, she’s clearer and better at all this than I am. I do have a hunch that historical inquiry in tandem with Marx is not only usefully informed by Marx but that it also helps clarify the conceptual structures in Marx’s work – at the very least in a weak sense of clarify, in the sense of spelling out further for people how the theory works as they use it, and, I’d like to think, in a stronger sense of clarify in that this could contribute to revisions and improvements in the theory. It strikes me that perhaps I have a similar sense of the relationship between descriptive and prescriptive, with Marx’s thought/marxism as the object. But I digress…

I think Marx’s way of proceeding based on the British example can make it easy to make questionable assumptions if we don’t recognize the status of the model – that historical capitalism varies from theoretical capitalism (and we should be careful in positing certain things as external or accidental to capitalism or as merely vestigial holdovers from other modes of production). I don’t know this for sure but my hunch is that the British got going faster on the dynamics Marx talks about with regard to the factory acts and this isn’t just a matter of time. One factor I think has to do with labor supply — lots of inbound immigration of populations viewed as relatively disposable allow for a deferral of the need to treat labor power as a non-renewable resource or a resource renewable only if not over-harvested. That’d be an important difference, I think, between the U.S. and British cases, for quite a while. And once consensus does arrive about making needed changes, particular institutional factors shape how those changes play out (as do particular cultural and political and economic factors shape the manner and form of the consensus that arrives/arrived). Another factor that Marx does discuss is political and military – concern over troops and so on being affected by the rate and manner of consumption of labor power, this varies too and this factor is not intrinsic in the mode of production as such (such that all places where the mode of production exists will disply the direct and local presence of this phenomenon).

It seems to me that we might say that part of Marx’s account is a theory of social inertia and/or or flocking behavior under capitalism, with socially necessary labor time as an important center of gravity in that, so to speak. Changes like the ones I’ve been thinking about in the late 19th and early 20th century and like those Marx discusses in Capital v1 ch10 sec.6 are, I think, partly about trying to change that center of gravity relatively quickly and in a coordinated/planned fashion (even if not centrally planned and with much dissent from the plan). This probably why the struggles of the working class are necessary to (or at least have been historically important for) capitalist development in key moment, because inertia doesn’t overcome inertia — class struggle provides the dynamism necessary to change a particular institutional arrangement. It’s probably not the only source for this, I think the state is perhaps another relatively autonomous source of this dynamism on occasion, though I’m hesitant about that idea.

I should also say, the discussions about how to make these changes are global/transnational, at least they are once they begin to take place in the US. Marx suggests in section 7 of chapter 10 that the changes have a global impact very quickly. This section is short and it mostly focuses on the circulation of attempts at these limits among workers, which is different from policy debate/formulation and so on but it supports the point. Marx writes for example that “The history of the regulation of the working-day in certain branches of production, and the struggle still going on in others in regard to this regulation, prove conclusively that the isolated labourer, the labourer as “free” vendor of his labour-power, when capitalist production has once attained a certain stage, succumbs without any power of resistance. The creation of a normal working-day is, therefore, the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working-class. As the contest takes place in the arena of modern industry, it first breaks out in the home of that industry — England. [155] The English factory workers were the champions, not only of the English, but of the modern working-class generally, as their theorists were the first to throw down the gauntlet to the theory of capital. [156] Hence, the philosopher of the Factory, Ure, denounces as an ineffable disgrace to the English working-class that they inscribed “the slavery of the Factory Acts” on the banner which they bore against capital, manfully striving for “perfect freedom of labour.” [157]”

As long as I’m writing for the moment about this section –

Marx makes a comment that supports my point about institutional variation, in a remark that I think is at least in part about common law vs civil law systems — “The French revolutionary method has its special advantages. It once for all commands the same limit to the working-day in all shops and factories without distinction, whilst English legislation reluctantly yields to the pressure of circumstances, now on this point, now on that, and is getting lost in a hopelessly bewildering tangle of contradictory enactments. On the other hand, the French law proclaims as a principle that which in England was only won in the name of children, minors, and women, and has been only recently for the first time claimed as a general right.”

And Marx remarks at the beginning of this section that “The reader will bear in mind that the production of surplus-value, or the extraction of surplus-labour, is the specific end and aim, the sum and substance, of capitalist production, quite apart from any changes in the mode of production, which may arise from the subordination of labour to capital. He will remember that as far as we have at present gone only the independent labourer, and therefore only the labourer legally qualified to act for himself, enters as a vendor of a commodity into a contract with the capitalist. If, therefore, in our historical sketch, on the one hand, modern industry, on the other, the labour of those who are physically and legally minors, play important parts, the former was to us only a special department, and the latter only a specially striking example of labour exploitation.”

Here Marx is noting one of his methodological moves, and showing that assumption of the individual laborer actually doesn’t serve well and breaks down (as in the passage I quoted a moment ago which included the quote from Ure). Marx could be better at marking these asides and at pointing out that they have stakes which are not only methodological — the assumption of the individual free worker is a defining one of many accounts of work and of legal assumptions. In any case, I’m quoting this as well because of Marx’s reference at the end to people of legally dependent status, among others. I think there are two things here worth noting. One, Marx suggests that in actual historical capitalism these people have been incredibly important despite the theoretical assumption thus far focusing on non-dependent (“free“) waged laborers who have a particular role in historical capitalism that is important but also hard to specify correctly. Two, while Marx is here I think showing a bit of his method and some of the assumptions that have (in)formed the framework in v1 up to this point and a bit of the distance between his theoretical account (that is, between these assumptions) and historical capitalism he also points out that so far he’s only showing a bit of that distance, like this: “in this exposition we see that legally dependent laborers have been very important even though the conceptual framework has assumed legally independent laborers; the presence of these legally dependent laborers in this exposition, however, is at this point mostly just an illustration or a dramatization; in this point in the text we have not yet begun to operate with a different conceptual framework than the one that assumes legally independent workers.”

Note to self: look over ch15 sec8e and section 9, both on the factory acts. Might also look, on the issue of transnational stuff in Marx and in the world, at chapter 22 and with the final section of chapter 25 (and I STILL need to finish my damn post on that chapter, the delay is truly ridiculous now). Also, look to see if in any of Marx’s journalistic writings and/or writing by people he would have read, look for discussions of the factory acts. And review Engels’ _Conditions of the Working Class in England_; Marx talked about chapter 10 as a sequel to that book and suggested Engels release another edition of it.

Final note for now, I think some of this relates to my old unfinished draft on Agamben and Marx and biopolitics and these related notes on Benjamin, and some of those posts may become relevant to the above stuff, not so much the methodological stuff as the issues of law and biopolitics and consumption of labor power.