HomeLiterature Study GuidesCapital Das KapitalVol 1 Part 4 Chapters 14 15 Summary

Capital (Das Kapital) | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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Capital (Das Kapital) | Vol. 1, Part 4, Chapters 14–15 : The Production of Relative Surplus-Value | Summary



Chapter 14: The Division of Labor and Manufacture

According to Marx, there are two basic types of manufacturing in the capitalist system. In the first type the workers each contribute a part of a whole commodity. Marx gives the example of a complex item like a carriage passing through many different workers' hands, each one creating a part. The second type of manufacture has all the workers doing the same small task over and over, such as making paper. This repetitious approach to working causes workers to lose their individuality and become machine-like, which is what the capitalist system wants. In order to streamline manufacturing, tools must also be altered to fit the more specific and singular purposes of this type of production. Manufacturing items using this division of labor creates a type of production that maximizes time, as the product can be handed continuously from one set of hands to another, all constantly working. As Marx explains, the "labor processes can proceed uninterruptedly, simultaneously, and side by side."

While the division of labor in a society might not look so different initially from the division of labor in manufacturing, there is a crucial distinction. Marx gives the example of the creation of a pair of shoes: how one person raises the cattle, the next tans the leather, the next makes the shoes. These represent the natural division of labor in the process of producing a commodity. However, in this system each craftsman is creating his own commodity, whereas in the capitalist system "the specialized worker produces no commodities." In this way the division of labor in a society can exist in many economic systems, the "division of labor in the workshop" is unique to capitalism. In this system the worker loses much of his value as a specialized worker and becomes an impoverished cog in the machine. This, in turn, is detrimental to the worker's mental and physical health.

Chapter 15: Machinery and Large-Scale Industry

Marx asks "what the difference is between a machine and an implement used in a handicraft." The implements used for handicrafts are present in machines, but a machine, once set by a worker in motion, "performs with its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did with similar tools." In manufacture one machine soon becomes part of a larger system of machines, all in cooperation. Machinery in capitalist manufacture, Marx points out, is not meant to lighten the burden of the worker but instead to create surplus-value. The machinery itself, however, doesn't actually create value "but yields up its own value to the product it serves to beget." Marx describes machinery as entering "only piece by piece into the process of valorization." This means that the machine has an overall value, but this differs from the way it transmits value to the commodity it helps to create, which is affected by the depreciation of the machine as it puts energy into the product.

The introduction of machinery into production has also allowed for the employment of more women and children, because a certain level of bodily strength is no longer necessary for production. Another negative effect of machinery is the prolongation of the working day, as the workers can expend less energy and work longer, and the machines experience a faster turnover. This longer work day leads also to an "intensification of labor." So instead of aiding workers and lightening their labor, the machines intensify it. The use of machines and employment of unskilled labor leads to a general "deskilling" of the whole working class.

There is a long history of contention between workers and machines. Machines typically have improved speed and efficiency of different tasks but almost always render workers unnecessary in the process. Marx argues that an instrument used for producing commodities, in "the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the worker himself." Many political economists of the time argued that the use of machines "sets free an amount of capital adequate to employ precisely those workers displaced": meaning that more mechanics will have to be employed to create more machines, etc. However, Marx argues that this is illogical and illustrates that not as many jobs are created by the production of machines as are displaced by their use. In addition, the skills needed to make one type of commodity are not necessarily transferable to making a machine or different commodity.


In Chapter 14 Marx gets into more detail about how labor-power is maximized in the capitalist system. Since labor-power is the place where the surplus-value is created, its maximization is the foundation of what makes capitalism possible. Manufacturing using a division of labor allows for this process to be streamlined and speeds up production. It is important to note that even in the second type of capitalist manufacturing, the workers still do different jobs, and there is still division of labor. In this early type of assembly-line style system, each worker does a different minute part of the process of creating a single item. This takes away the craftsmanship aspect of creation and causes a situation where a worker is doing only one tiny part of a job in endless repetition. This is what Marx points out makes the workers like part of a machine, instead of individual craftsman.

The division of labor in the workshop, as opposed to in a general community, is common in the capitalist system. In the workshop, when labor is divided, a situation occurs where each person does a segment of labor that does not create a commodity they can sell—it only has value as part of the larger whole. This gives the capitalist—or head of the workshop—control over the workers in a way that doesn't naturally exist in other economic systems. Usually, each person creates his own commodity and sells it to the next person, who might use that commodity to make something else. This is a crucial part of Marx's argument about why, in the capitalist system, the workers are now selling labor-power instead of actual commodities. Marx argues that the system that causes a worker to do the same repetitive work for hours on end "mutilates the worker, turning him into a fragment of himself." This uniformity of mental and physical movement, day in and day out, creates a situation where the worker's physical and mental health deteriorates drastically. So, in effect, not only does the system give the capitalist financial power over the worker, but it also drains the very life-force of the worker as well.

Not only are workers expected to play the parts of machines, but machines themselves are a crucial part of capitalist manufacture. Machines bring together the old tools of handicraft into a single complex device that requires manpower to be set in motion. Machines, like the workers in a factory, are also created to work in cooperation with other machines, so that a network of machines and workers all working in concert with one another maximizes production.

It is important to note that machines themselves do not create new value but instead transfer the value of their own manufacture and energy expenditure to the product they are creating. Thus, they are only worthwhile if the machine's "value added to the product remains smaller than the value added by the worker."

Marx sees machinery as a largely negative addition in the context of capitalism. He outlines the major effects it has had on industrial manufacturing. Marx saw the inclusion of women and children in the process as a source of "moral degradation." While he also deplores the brutal environments in which women and children worked, he makes a point to quote a doctor who illustrates the moral repercussions of adult women leaving their families at home to go to work.

Machines, Marx argues, create a general "deskilling" of labor in a given society. That society would have had at one time a diverse array of artisans and craftsmen who provided skilled labor and created individual commodities. However, the division of labor and introduction of machines create workers who act as automatons, understanding only one tiny part of the whole process. This results in an overall loss in skilled labor in a community and means that the knowledge of hand-making some types of crafts might be completely lost. Machines have also had a long history of putting laborers out of work. Whenever a new machine is introduced into a particular field, inevitably the skilled laborers who previously did the work are suddenly no longer relevant.

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