Is the Continued Exploitation of Past Labor, Through
the Use of Machines that Past Labor Created, as Serious
of a Crime as the New Exploitation of Current Labor?

      [In January 2009 a correspondent of mine wrote regarding the issue of the labor theory of value (LTV), and my modification of it which says that past labor (in the form of machines) can continue to generate value in the current production process, along with the value produced by current human labor. This correspondent raised the important issue of whether this exploitation of past labor (through the use of machines created in the past) can really be viewed as being as serious of a moral crime as the exploitation of current labor. This is my response. —Scott H.]

Date: 01/16/09

Hi -----,

Thanks for your letter! There has so far not been much interest shown in the theory I put forward that past labor can continue to be exploited through the use of machines. I find that surprising. Perhaps it is because there has not been much interest of any sort in Marxist political economy in recent years. But as with your own case, I think this suddenly ferocious capitalist world economic crisis is likely to change that!

You raise some good points that do require some more consideration than I gave them in my posted essays on this topic. So let me now launch into that and see what I can come up with!

You wrote:

> - I agree with you that the fact that machines can be a source of surplus value 
> does not negate the fact that, ultimately, labor is the source of the value 
> embedded in machines. However, it seems to me that there is a significant 
> distinction between direct surplus value and indirect surplus value arising from 
> machines. At the ideological level there seems to me to be less moral 
> legitimacy in the claim that workers are being exploited where surplus value is 
> produced indirectly by automated processes.

I think you are right in saying that there are still important differences between the direct exploitation of human labor in the current production process, and the continuing exploitation of past labor (through the use of machines) in the current production process. But the key question you raise is whether there is a moral difference here, and I don’t think that there really is, or if there is, that it is as important of a moral difference as it might first seem.

It is true that moral wrongs which are in the past, which are over and done with, and which cannot be corrected in the present or the future, have to be viewed more generously than current moral wrongs. For example, someone who committed a murder long in the past, and who deeply and sincerely regrets having done so, and for whom there are good reasons to believe he will never do such a thing again, should not be treated in the same way that someone currently committing a murder should be treated. The long-ago murder should probably be viewed by society in the same way that it is now viewed by the guy who committed that murder—as an extremely regrettable past tragedy about which nothing can now be done. And if the murderer was never caught and sent to jail, and now voluntarily comes forward and confesses out of a guilty conscience, the only possibly valid reason to send him to jail now is as an object lesson for other potential murderers. In any case, it would be reasonable to give the guy a much reduced sentence, or even better to simply require him to perform useful community service for a long period of time, as a form of recompense to society.

But is the continuing exploitation of past labor by the capitalist owners of the machine (that past labor built) like this? I don’t think so. First of all, it is in fact still continuing the crime of exploitation that first began back when the exploited workers built the machine. Yes, it would have been better if the exploitation had been stopped back then, or long before then through social revolution, but the past cannot be changed. What we can do, though, is change things now, and that means that even long-continuing wrongs which have gone on for many years must also be stopped.

Another tack: If a dishonest pay clerk at some company manages to embezzle $5 from all the other workers’ paychecks each month this is a continuing crime, and if anything it should really be considered to be a much worse crime than simply a one-time theft from the other workers’ pay some time in the past. It is a worse crime in part simply because it is a continuing crime.

Secondly, capitalist exploitation is not really a moral crime of one single person (the capitalist) harming another single person (the worker), in the way that a single pickpocket robbing somebody on the street is. It is more of a social moral crime, wherein all of society is arranged so that one social class can exploit and oppress another entire social class.

It might be argued that continuing to exploit past labor by using a machine can’t possibly be as bad as directly exploiting current labor, because perhaps those workers who made the machine are no longer even alive! And people who are dead can no longer be harmed in any way (except perhaps for their reputations—and even that no longer concerns them!). And even if the workers who built the machine are still alive, it could be argued that the continuing use of the machine in no way further harms them. When they made the machine they were harmed in that they had to give up part of their life to do so; that required their time and effort which they very likely could have applied to much more enjoyable pursuits! But how is using the machine that they made harming them in any way?

Well if they are alive it is still harming them in that they are continuing to not receive the wealth that their past efforts are continuing to create. You are in fact harmed if you don’t receive what is due you. And when they are dead, their families could still well be viewed as being harmed by not receiving the continuing wealth created because of the labors of the deceased family member.

But even if they and their families are all long dead and gone, their class is still being exploited and oppressed by the ownership and control by an alien class of the wealth they have produced, and which their past labor still continues to produce via the machines they made. This is in fact the most important reason for viewing the continuing extraction of surplus value through the use of machines in the current production process as still being a major moral crime.

The working class as a whole, including all the workers who had no part whatsoever in building the machine in question (or who themselves were perhaps not even alive yet when it was built!), are still being victimized today by the continued existence of the capitalist system, and that continued existence is only possible because of the machines and tools created by past labor as well as by the continuing exploitation and oppression of current labor.

Capitalism is fundamentally against the interests of the working class, and just about everything which serves to promote and continue the existence of capitalism is therefore a great moral crime. (The qualification of “just about everything” is necessary because the continuing existence of humanity itself is one factor that might be viewed as serving to promote the continued existence of capitalism. Capitalism is a terrible system, but even we revolutionaries do not say that it would be worth wiping out humanity in order to get rid of it!)

But I still don’t think I have fully answered the question you are raising. You went on to say:

> For example, to scale back your 'android' example a bit, I could imagine a time 
> in the not too far distant future where a highly automated society could be 
> divided into capitalists, a small productive working class (comprising 
> technicians, engineers, laborers etc), a large unproductive working class (in 
> banking, finance, service industries etc) and a large reserve army of 
> unemployed. In such a society, the capitalists could pay the productive working 
> class the value of their product or even more and still yield large amounts of 
> surplus value from automation. The only exploitation would be of the dead labor 
> embodied in machinery, so the working class would have only a tenuous claim that 
> they are being exploited.

The original thought experiment assumed that human beings are no longer necessary at all in the capitalist economy. Suppose machines (androids or otherwise) produce all goods and services. But suppose that the wealth generated still belongs to only one relatively small class, the capitalists, while all other people—the former working class included—are either left to starve, or else are granted a pittance to stay alive, as long as they don’t make any trouble.

Under this scenario too there is only the exploitation of past labor, “dead labor”, and no further exploitation of current human labor (since there isn’t any). Suppose for the moment that such a society could actually exist; would it be morally acceptable? Of course it would not be. It would be a horrible nightmare.

As with your scaled-back thought experiment, nobody (living) would actually be exploited any more. This would be a society based entirely on the exploitation of dead labor. But the fact that there was no exploitation of current human labor would hardly make things acceptable. Many people would still live in misery, if they continued to live at all.

If all the fruits of both past and current human labor do not belong to humanity as a whole, then we have an outrageous bourgeois horror story.

There is of course a major question about whether this sort of society could exist at all. There would be no mass market any more; only a capitalist market among the different capitalist enterprises. And if there was only “one big corporation” left, there would no longer be any capitalist market at all! Once there is no longer any capitalist market at all, no longer any commodities, and no longer any human involvement in the economy, then it is really not capitalism any more even if it had its roots in capitalism.

This form of society (which would undoubtedly not last for long if it could be brought into existence at all), would be more like a bourgeois perversion of communist society. It would be a place where it was easy to produce more than enough for everybody, but where—despite this—only an elite class enjoyed its benefits, and the masses were left in either misery, or to outright starve to death.

Maybe this is the ultimate bourgeois utopian dream!

You continue:

> In view of a scenario such as this, I think it is conceivable in the future that 
> the proletariat could lose [their] historical role as agents of change. It may 
> be necessary to form broader alliances with students, the unemployed, 
> environmentalists etc to advance the course of socialism. Alternatively, with no 
> effective class to oppose it, capitalists may continue mindlessly on until 
> society ends with environmental catastrophe.

If it weren’t for the inevitability of capitalist overproduction crises the worries you raise here about the declining proletariat and the permanent triumph of the bourgeoisie would be much more critical. As it is, we are now entering a really major crisis which makes what might have developed if there were no crises somewhat moot.

I’m sure the world will never get to the extreme type of capitalism where human labor is dispensed with entirely and there is no longer any direct exploitation of labor in current economic production. But we have already moved a bit along the road in that direction, and as long as capitalism continues to exist, it will move further in that direction. The current crisis is both rapidly promoting the rise in unemployment, and at the same time raising a situation so critical that the continuation of capitalism itself will soon start to become a mass issue.

The current economic crisis is much more serious than that of the 1930s, though this may not become obvious yet for several years. There are three reasons for this:

1) The means to postpone or mitigate the crisis have already been employed for many decades, and they are almost at the end of their ability to work. (I mean the enormous expansion of consumer and government debt, primarily.)

2) Machinery can do a whole lot more of the work that needs to be done than before, and certainly than what was the case during the 1930s. That is, human labor is no longer really needed as much.

3) There is no looming world war which can massively destroy sufficient excess capital to end the crisis and create the conditions for a new boom.

These factors mean that the coming depression will be much deeper than that of the 1930s, that unemployment will eventually become even worse than it was in the 1930s, and that this depression will go on for decades (with only secondary ups and downs within it).

If the Depression of the 1930s was appropriately viewed as a major crisis for the capitalist system, then just wait a little while until the full force of this coming new Depression hits!

All sorts of things will be tried by capitalist governments: even more massive Keynesian deficits, replacement of currencies made valueless through hyperinflation, fascist corporatism, various forms of state capitalism (phony socialism), etc. Maybe, even genuine socialist revolutions will take place in some countries (such as India) and eventually show the world how to get out of its capitalist-imperialist mess!

In short, the long term economic trends under capitalism are in the direction of more automation, less need for human labor, and qualitatively growing unemployment. But the immediate changes are in the direction of recession followed by depression, sudden massive unemployment, collapse of many people’s means of existence, and in other words, of both economic and political crisis that demands fairly immediate and major changes.

You remarked that “the proletariat could lose their historical role as agents of change”. Unfortunately, for decades now in the U.S. especially (and to a slightly lesser extent in other advanced capitalist countries) the proletariat as a whole has become ever more embourgeoisified. Their potential role as agents of revolutionary change is far removed from their minds and abilities at present.

But it is just the sort of crisis that we are now entering that can shake people awake to the realities of the capitalist system.

The question is whether our class can and will change into a revolutionary proletariat in the course of a prolonged new depression. I don’t think it will happen quickly, and it might not even happen first. It is quite possible that in many countries fascism will be tried first, for example. If we survive that sort of disaster, then maybe proletarian revolution might actually become possible some years down the road.

I think, however, that this crisis, and the facts that unemployment is already becoming considerable, that it is bound to get tremendously more extensive, with more and more people genuinely suffering economically, etc., can only serve to help reproletarianize (in the ideological sense) the proletariat.

On the other hand, I certainly do agree with you that our revolutionary movement should be forming much broader alliances with students, the unemployed, environmentalists, and so forth. The environmental crisis is already quite serious, and is bound to become qualitatively much worse, for example. We Marxists have an obligation to build united fronts with environmentalists, and to become environmental activists ourselves. (Many are already doing this, as for example the folks around Monthly Review magazine.)

We should have been doing much more along these lines already, and it will be important not to forget the necessity of this as the economic problems themselves become much sharper.

To return to the initial topic, I don’t know of any web locations getting into the sort of discussion we are having here about the LTV. Steve Keen did inform me that there is some Indian Marxist by the name of Bose (I don’t recall his first name at the moment) who seemed to be getting into some of the same considerations about the LTV as I was raising, but I haven’t been able to locate his book.

I hope we can carry on a further correspondence on questions like this! We all need others to help provoke us to think more deeply about things!

Revolutionary greetings!

Scott Harrison

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