D. Prices and Values

Midnight Notes from 1980 on structural changes to capital in the 1970s.

Submitted by Fozzie on June 20, 2023

Capital’s response to this invasion of entropic energy was not a “strike”, an “investment freeze” or the beginning of an era of “slow investment economies”. Allowing for the recession of 1974, investment since 1973 (relative to GNP) has sustained and even surpassed the levels prevalent in the ’60s (for all the crocodile tears of the business journals). There has been, however, a shift in the composition of investment, which to many, capitalists and workers, appears as a lack of investment. Why? Simply because fewer people see it. (See graph #4)

What has been seen by everyone, however, is the leap of the relative, as well as absolute price of “energy” commodities (in the form of oil, natural gas, coal, uranium as well as electricity). Inflation has directly attacked working class income by reducing the “average” real wage, but the changed ratio of energy prices to other prices has an immense indirect effect on the composition of the working class and organization of exploitation. Consider these relative price changes (graph #5):

All throughout the post-WWII period up until 1973 a rough equality obtained between price increases in the industrial and energy sectors. From 1973 to the present a major structural change occured. Though both price series went up, the industrial price index rose by approximately 100% while the energy price index rose by more than 200%. Along with these price changes have gone parallel changes in the relative “sales” and “profits” of the two sectors.

These numbers are the hieroglyphics of capital’s response to the struggles of the late-60s and early 70s, they spell the end of the assembly-line-auto-home political economy, the end of the “blue collar” line worker/housewife nexus, the end of the delicate machine of Keynesian society. By giving primacy to the energy sector, capital can command an enormous amount of work because this command takes place away from the actual scene of exploitation. It almost feels ghost-like and it short-circuits the nodes of class power accumulated in the factories, mines and streets. For this reorganization centralizes the accumulation process while at the same time enormously decentralizes the exploitation process. By developing the energy sector capital is able to exert its magnetic command and extract surplus from every “pore” of the social fabric; every coffee shop, every apartment, every sweat shot must pay for energy costs.

The very image of the worker seems to disintegrate before this recomposition of canital. The burly, “blue collared” line worker seems to blur in the oil crisis, diffracted into the female service worker and the abstracted computer programmer. The large concentrations of factory workers that proved so explosive are dispersed, the specific gravity of the worker’s presence is dramatically reduced. And it all feels so different! Your wages go up but they evaporate before you spend them, you confront your boss but he cries that “he has bills to pay”, and, even more deeply, you don’t see your exploitation any more. On the line, you literally could observe the crystalization of your labor power into the commodity, you could see your life vanishing down the line, you could feel the materialization of your alienation. But in the service industries your surplus labor seems to be non-existent, even “non-productive”, “just” a paid form of “housework", cleaning bedjtans, massaging jogger’s muscles, scrambling eggs. While in the “energy/information” sector you seem to be engulfed by the immense fixed capital surrounding you, it feels as if you were not exploited at all, a servant of the machine, even “privileged” to be part of “brains of the system”. These feelings disorient struggles as the vast spatial migrations “to look for a job” disagregate militant circles, the old bastions are isolated and appear archaic, almost comic.

Finally, these price indicies summarize the beginning of a shift in the organization of reproduction. A “society” built on autos is not like a “society” built on computers, McDonalds and nukes, where by “society” we mean the entire reproduction process. The new form of life dictated by the primacy of the energy/information sectors, like the struggles against it, is only beginning to be formed.

The “rationality of the energy crisis” for capital as a response to (and an attack on) working class struggles against the poles of Keynesian “auto- industrial” society will be shown below. However, an important objection to this account could be made immediately: if capital can, at will, change and manipulate energy and industrial prices on the basis of multinational corporate power, i.e., independent of the amount of work that goes into the production of commodities, then we must abandon work and surplus value (exploitation) as our basic analytical categories. Marx would be an honored but dead dog. We would have to accept the position of Sweezy and Marcuse that monopoly organization and technological development have made capital independent of the “law of value”, (viz, that prices, profits, costs and the other numerology of accounting are rooted in (and explained by) the work-time gone into the production of the commodities and reproduction of the relevant workers). Capital, it would seem, can break its own rules, the class struggle is now to be played on a pure level of power, “will to domination”, force against force, and prices become part of the equation of violence, arbitarily decided like the pulling of the trigger. We disagree with these “monopoly power" theorists; work and exploitation still remain the basic determinates of motion in capitalist development whether you deal with computers and nukes or spades and cotton gins.

How then, do we explain the apparent freedom the capitalists seem to have in setting oil prices independent of the labor that goes into the production of oil (i.e., its value)?

The divergence of prices and values is nothing new. On the contrary, it has always been an essential aspect of capitalist rule. Values (work-time) must be transformed into prices and this transformation is never one-to-one. The essence of the transformation of values into prices is that though capital extracts surplus value locally, it does not let those who do the extracting command and expend this surplus value. The hand of Capital is different from its mouth and its asshole. This transformation is real, but it causes illusions in both the brains of capitalists and workers (including you and me!) It all revolves around mineness, the deepest pettiness in the Maya of the system. For capital appears as little machines, packets of materials, little incidents of work, all connected with little agents of complaint, excuse and hassle. Each individual capitalist complains about “my" money, each individual workers cries about “my" job, each union official complains about “my" industry; tears flow everywhere apparently about different things, so that capitalism’s house is an eternal soap opera. But mineness is an essential illusion, though illusion all the same. Capital is social, as is work, and pitiless as Shiva to the complainers, but needs their blindness to feed itself. It no more rewards capitalists to the extent that they exploit than it rewards workers to the extent that they are exploited. There is no justice for anyone but itself.

The transformation of values into prices is ruled by capital’s instinctual demand to “get its just recognition”. For the body of capital has many different limbs, organs, arteries and veins, nerve strands, sensors and processors, each with its organic composition, its own need to be fed-back. The needs, balances, proportions and ratios they imply must be met — or else it would not see its illusions.

How much surplus value goes to a particular organ of capital is determined by its organic composition: the mixture of dead and living labor that is found there. Lets take three examples: a nuclear plant, an autoplant, and a local “greasy spoon” restaurant and bar. Each is a machine with different needs and different products. The bar needs Jack Daniels, while the nuke needs refined U- 235; the restaurant and bar needs an easy-talking bartender and a speed-freak grillman, the auto plant needs welding bonders and line workers. All these “needs” have histories derived from struggles. The nuke “needs” to have a “two man rule” in monitoring all vital operations; the autoplant “needs” guards at the gates and computers assessing the speed of flow to detect slowdowns; the restaurant “needs” dishwashers that can’t talk English. The struggles are written in the machine; they create the need for redundancy since the struggles are a noise that keeps the message the machines send out from being reliable and eternal.

Each of these mixtures of living and dead, animal and mineral, energy and work, can be measured in a mathematical proportion roughly corresponding to the ratio of the value of constant capital (the value of the means of production) and the value of labor power (the value of the wages). A typical nuclear worker works with about $300,000 worth of equipment, a typical autoworker mixes with about $30,000 worth of other machines, while a typical restaurant-bar worker uses $3,000 worth of “means of production”. Yet, the wages of the typical- autoworker and nuke plant worker are almost the same, while that of a restaurant-bar worker is officially half (although the inclusion of tips would increase it). Clearly the differences in capital per employee swamp out the differences in wages and we see a segmentation in the skeleton of capital delineated in the exponential powers of the organic composition; 10^3, 10^4, 10^5. Let us call these the low, average and high sectors of capital and consider the following chart (graph #6):

There is much to say of these vertebrae of capital, but let us concentrate on the work/energy relation in each of these sections. In the average section there is an obvious relation between the energy put in, the work that comes out and the profit gotten from it. It is clear to the autoworker that a speed-up increases the flow of cars off the line and GM’s profits. There appears to be here a one-to-one relation between increased investment in machinery and the productivity and intensity of work. This is the range of relative- surplus value. The worker here can see his exploitation via the speed of the line. In the low sector the length of the work day becomes important. This is the area of absolute surplus value where the work comes by storing the energy of the worker within the job as long as possible. The problem here is that the worker cannot see the surplus. The local restaurant might kill its employees with overwork and still look like it’s making “no money”. The boss may be as depressed as his workers and poring out his energy “for nothing”. Thus the tears of the small business types, the “hard working” sector of capital. Finally, there is the high sector. There enormous profits are made, but not off the workers who operate the nuke plants per se. True, they earn their wages on the way from the parking lot to the control room, but the amount of surplus value “produced” in the ensuing eight houses is absolutely minescule, though relatively enormous! Where do their profits come from?

Surplus value is transformed into the nuclear industry by the divergence of prices and values. As Marx points out, social capital needs an average rate of profit while individual capitals must be rewarded differentially according to the amount invested in each organ. But each organ has a different amount of constant capital in it. Those organs with a high capital investment per worker need an above average amount of surplus value fed- back into them, those with an average amount of investment per worker requires an average feed¬ back, while those with a low amount of capital ‘need’ only a low return.

“Equal weights and Equal measures”, says social capital over the lamentations of its Jobs in restaurants, sweatshops and construction companies. “I only recognize myself,” “I am I” booms capital out of the whirlwind and the petty bosses slink away with their boils. This feed-back justice is determined by prices. Commodity prices in the High industries are always greater than their values. Low industry commodity prices are always below their value. High industries “suck up” the surplus value produced at the bottom of the system through this price structure. The diversion of price and value makes it clear that extraction of surplus value and command over the expansion of the surplus are different operations. The boss of Alice’s restaurant can complain but he must still pay his electricity and heating bills (though he tries hard to avoid it). Like Job, the petty boss recognizes a higher power he cannot deny for though it hurts him he would be annihilated if it abandoned him. So he must pay this power tribute, however unjust it appears. He perhaps even glimmers on the deeper, larger schemes of the Savage God, though it crusheth him.