‘Skill’ (Concrete Labour) and the Division of Labour as Functions of Capitalist Commodity Production.

‘Skill’ (Concrete Labour) and the Division of Labour as Functions of Capitalist Commodity Production.

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‘Skill’ in the worker is a technical function of the requirements of capital insofar as the use value of commodities – which results from the application of this skill in production – is the repository of value. It is a continuously evolving, historically determined, function in terms of its development and operation in the service of capital. What required 10 workers to achieve in 10 days, 50 years ago, can now be done by one (or even none) in five minutes with automation and computer controlled production. And producing a product of considerably higher quality in terms of its use value. Capital only requires the forms of ‘skills training’ in workers which adequately fits its needs. It does not lay out capital which is wasted in the acquisition of skills which are surplus to its requirements because this is capital wasted. And capital wasted is capital not realising its notion, its raison d’etre. It is the negation its own intrinsic character as capital. This is a root of the merely utilitarian and philistine approach of capital in its relationship to labour and society as a whole.

But this approach also excludes and marginalises those who are highly qualified in specific areas. Only if a skill can be employed productively to create surplus value – either directly in production or indirectly in research, development and management – will its bearer be employed by capital. If the employment of any skill at any level cannot cannot yield surplus value for capital then it is not a skill as such for capital. Those, for example, with doctorates in Engineering can be completely wasted and under-utilised by capital if they cannot provide exploitable skills. Under socialism, of course, such people would be treasured and developed as the innovators of production and technique. They would be afforded unparalleled scope for development and teaching. In this sense, many workers are, indeed, not only often overskilled for capital’s requirements. But – in the course of being scientifically under-utilised in production – they have those more advanced skills denuded and wasted in the course of capitalist production. We may refer to this as a form of “deskilling” in which acquired skills are not put to full actual and potential use and development.

The proletariat as a whole (Marx writes about this in Volume 1, Capital, p.618, Penguin) becomes more universal and flexible in its labouring capacities as the capitalist system evolves because this is precisely what capital itself demands. This, of course, has implications for the labourer in terms of the degradation and dehumanisation of his role in production in which he becomes a ‘mere appendage of the machine’ and working monotonously in a ‘supervisory capacity’. His labour-power is dehumanised as the variable component of capital itself in the reproduction of capital. Living labour becomes reified (Verdinglichung) as a mere material element in the production of capital with all its dehumanising, alienating consequences for the labourer in his relationship with his fellow men and himself .

But this increasing degradation of labour and the labourer alongside the growth in structural unemployment becomes a function of the progressive increase in the organic composition of capital which tends to transform the ‘skilled worker’ into a mere ‘supervisor’ of production. The machine – in one form or another – replaces human labour. At the same time, the worker in this supervisory function is expected to be able to move effortlessly from one area of production to another with the breaking down of divisions and barriers in production and in society generally. Today a person can move through different occupations (if they are lucky enough to find work) in the course of life whereas in Marx’s time this was not so easy.

The division of labour is a product of the unfolding of the historical process and reaches its highest point of development in the epoch of global capital. It is only necessary for this epoch of capitalist commodity production and exchange and becomes increasingly unnecessary as this epoch is transcended. The division of labour within the workplace and in society as a whole are inseparable sides of the singularity of this division of labour within the developing historical process of capitalist production as a whole. The social division of labour under capitalism is a necessity for this system based on the reproduction of capital. As, of course, is the technical division of labour whilst capital continues to exist as the dominant social relationship of production and distribution. Exchange remains just as intrinsically necessary to this process as production and distribution under capital which, of course, does not apply in those stages of communist society far beyond the epoch of capital and beyond the initial stages of socialist society dominated by the compulsion of natural necessity.

Labour for capital is alienated labour (Marx : “the theft of alien labour time”) done for another for a wage which is used to purchase the means for reproducing and sustaining that labour-power as a commodity for re-sale to the owners of capital or its various agencies. It is labour that must produce surplus value or, if not, it ceases to be variable capital for capital as a whole and is useless labour for capital accordingly. The purchase of labour power takes place on condition that the value produced by the labourer is always greater than the actual value of the labour power itself. Otherwise, no surplus value could be produced and therefore no profit made. The negation of capitalist commodity production means that this alienated character of labour will be supplanted by the “free activity of the social individual” within a forever deepening “true realm of freedom”. (Vol 3, Capital, The Trinity Formula. pp 958-59 ff. Penguin Classics Edn, (translated by David Fernbach) 1991.)


Shaun May

August 2014




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