Saturday, 20 October 2018

Is nature a machine? Reflections on a passage in the Grundrisse

“In agriculture, the soil itself with chemical etc. action is already a machine which makes direct labour more productive...” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, 1973: 588)
Is nature a machine? Perhaps. But according to Marx, machinery can transfer value to the product while nature cannot. What, then, is meant by the statement that nature is a machine?

First, does machinery really transfer value to the product? It is a widely held assumption that in Marx’s “labour theory of value” machinery cannot produce any value, only transfer the value that has already gone into producing the machinery itself. But how exactly is this transference achieved? It is not achieved in the process of utilizing the machinery. During this process, machinery is simply a resource that is freely available to its owner, just like nature. Hence, a machine cannot transfer any value once it is acquired by an owner. It’s only a semblance that it does so, arising from the fact that a capitalist who employs machinery enjoys a competitive advantage over other capitalists who don’t. The use of machinery affects the distribution among competing capitalists of the surplus produced in the economy, but it doesn’t add to the overall amount of this surplus itself. If machinery had been simultaneously introduced and employed in the same measure by all capitalists in a certain branch of production, the result would be a general raise of productivity, shortening the “socially necessary labour” needed to produce the commodity and leading to a cheaper, less valuable product.

Machinery, then, cannot add to value once it is acquired; although it can add to the surplus value obtained by the individual capitalist (through the competitive advantage it gives the capitalist on the market, through monopolies or monopoly-like situations where competition is prevented from exerting downward pressure on the price, or by opening up new markets when commodities are developed that were impossible to produce before the introduction of machinery).

If this is so, then how can machinery “transfer” any value at all? The answer is that the transfer happens through two crucial moments. The first is the purchase and maintenance of the machinery. Just as wages (variable capital) add to value by adding to the production costs, so the purchase and maintenance of machinery (constant capital) adds to value by increasing these costs. Machinery, then, adds to value not by virtue of increasing productivity (which cheapens the product) but by virtue of its costs (which makes the product more valuable and expensive). If machinery had been free, i.e. without any costs, it would have been just as value-less as nature. Here it’s important to remember that when I write that the cost of machinery “adds” to the value of a commodity, this “adding” is actually a “transfer” of value that originates in labour, since – according to the labour theory of value – the cost of a machine reflects its value which corresponds to the “socially necessary labour” that has gone into producing it.

The second moment is, of course, when the commodity is realized on the market, since without this realization the commodity wouldn’t have any value of all.

These reflections clarify why nature takes on the appearance of a “free lunch” in capitalism. Nature is like a machine in the sense that utilizing it as a resource in the production of commodities doesn’t add to their value. As stated above, it's not the process of utilizing a machine that adds to value. Value is only transferred from machinery when the cost of purchasing and maintaining machinery reflects labour that has been socially necessary to produce it. To the extent that nature preexists such labour, it functions like a valueless machine. While it has use-value, like all machinery, it lacks value in a strict sense to the extent that labour isn't needed to produce it.

Just as nature can be seen as a value-less machine, machinery can be seen as value-endowed nature. Once acquired by the capitalist, however, machinery functions as nature tout simple.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.