Perhaps it’s not hard to visualize a ragged and moth-eaten Karl Marx traipsing from Dean Street to his British Museum hide out. He’d be shuffling along, incognito, through Soho’s crowded backstreets, headed for the Reading Room to plot capitalism’s downfall, forever on the lookout for creditors and police spies. Revolutionary hopes sustained him through the acute penury; Marx’s political calling was more important to him than anything else, he’d said, more important than even his health, his happiness, and his family. He’d pass up Dean Street, across Soho Square, through narrow Sutton Row onto Charing Cross Road, up to New Oxford Street and then Coptic Street, northwards towards Great Russell Street and, finally, climb the steps of the Museum’s majestic entrance. At a good lick, it’d take fifteen minutes.
Soho in those days was densely populated, seedy and sordid, full of poverty and slummy housing and not the trendy gentrified neighborhood it is today. (Underneath Marx’s old place nowadays is an upscale restaurant, Quo Vadis, where private diners can hire “The Marx Room”—“an elegant, airy and versatile space, perfect for lunches and dinners, weddings and drinks parties.” A smoked eel sandwich will set customers back 10 quid. Fixed menus begin at £55; a nice bottle of Burgundy costs around £175.) In the 1850s, Soho was inhabited by hard up bohemian types (like Marx), writers and artists, as well as poor immigrants from Italy and Greece (hence Greek Street), and French Huguenots. There were market tradesmen (along Berwick Street) and silversmiths and tailors and other artisans with workshops. And, of course, the ubiquitous pubs.
In 1854, a cholera epidemic broke out there, killing over six hundred people. It would be one of the last to plague London. The well-known physician John Snow was on the job, studying this outbreak. He formulated the hypothesis that, in fact, the disease resulted from water-base germs not airborne miasmata. Soho’s drinking water was contaminated by a sewer, Snow thought, and by an antiquated pump in Broadwick Street. Cholera wasn’t picky about social class. Thus, Snow’s discovery prompted developments in public health and improvements in sanitation infrastructure.
Any reader of Charles Dickens, meanwhile, would also know that in those days the other plague striking central London was fog. Bleak House, very much rooted in Marx’s Dean Street era, famously opens with a set piece on the fog engulfing London, especially engulfing the poor London of “Tom-all-Alone.” Everywhere, fog reigns. Fog up the river, Dickens says, fog down the river. Fog in the eyes and throats of London’s denizens; “a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.” On a raw afternoon, fog is rawest, and “the dense fog densest.” The fog allowed people to see everywhere as a whole, as an egalitarian mass; but in seeing everything in shimmering white, you saw nothing. Here was a foggy world shrouded in mysterious impenetrability, an enigma for all to see yet to little comprehend. Such was the giant London of Marx’s and Dickens’s day. In Bleak House, to resolve the foggy murder mystery, Dickens’ sleuth, Inspector Bucket, had to find his forensic way through the opaqueness.
Inspector Bucket was one of Dickens’ more likeable characters, an honorable man, dedicated and practical. He went about his craft with dignity and honesty, was “affable in his manners,” and “innocent in this conversation—but, through the placid stream of his life, there glides an undercurrent of forefinger.” “Time and place cannot bind Mr. Bucket,” says Dickens. “Like man in the abstract, he is here today and gone tomorrow—but, very unlike man indeed, he is here again the next day.” And like the natural scientists of his day, such as Darwin, Bucket was on the lookout for clues, for forces and processes that aren’t visible to the naked eye, but which nevertheless structure and disrupt events, and which have their own seemingly inscrutable logic.
Inspector Bucket mightn’t have been lost on Marx. His own cold case, after all, was a similar mystery he wanted to solve, and sometimes murder was implicated—even if, often, the perpetrators weren’t actually breaking the law, because they made it. Marx wanted to understand those invisible laws and enforce new laws. The fog wouldn’t be lost on Marx, either, and it could easily be a metaphor for capitalist society’s opaqueness, for its ability to dissimulate and occlude. It’s a mist-enveloped plot involving bad guys and good guys, villains and witnesses, victims and bystanders, judge and jury. Yet it’s a thoroughly modern crime, Marx said, in which social processes decouple from human agents, making it a systematic mystery where sole perpetrators aren’t always guilty.
Inspector Marx felt inclined to spell out the difficulty of resolving such capitalist crimes: “To prevent possible misunderstandings, let me say this,” he declared in his preface to the first edition of Capital. “Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interests. My standpoint from which the development of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he remains, socially speaking, however much he may subjectivity raise himself above them.” Marx isn’t interested in pointing his forefinger at individual miscreants; it is more widespread and organized criminal activity he wants to indict. He’s interested in bringing down the whole capitalist mafia.
After penetrating the white foggy wall of London town, once in the museum Marx set himself the task of penetrating the “mystical veil” of bourgeois society, breaking through its “misty realm,” its dense ideological fog. Sat at his favorite pew—G7–Marx dedicated himself to a complex analysis of economic forms in which “neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance.” Instead, he said, “the power of abstraction must replace both.” It was thought and practice that had to plunge into the fog and had to come out the other side with the truth, with perceptibility.
But Marx couldn’t sit long studying and writing before his carbuncles played up. So he had to stand up periodically, move around, stretch his legs, take the pressure off his backside. He suffered from piles, too, and from rheumatism. And in winter, he’d have to cut his day’s work short, to around 3:30pm, because Sydney Smirke’s great Reading Room had no artificial light. By day, natural light flooded in. In the fog, it might have been just as radiant as bright sunlight. Yet by afternoon, the light receded, eventually getting lost.
One of Marx’s brightest concepts, perhaps his profoundest dialectical construct in Capital, is the “fetishism of commodities.” Appearing at the end of the first chapter, it tells us plenty about the “commodity-form” under capitalism; yet it also has tremendous purchase on life and knowledge in general. It emphasizes something very important about the foggy world of appearances and how we can forget what lies within, behind what is immediately apparent. We can read it as a parable in which Marx tries to bring to life (and light) the “secret” of the ostensibly trivial commodity, the genie that exists within the magic bottle.
On one level, at the level of sensuous appearance—of touch, smell, sight, taste—there’s nothing mysterious going on. It is as it is, a thing satisfying a need, a use-value. A strawberry is a fruit and a fruit it remains despite being embalmed in plastic on a supermarket shelf. Wood, too, continues to be wood long after it has been converted into a saleable table. On another level, though, once these useful items step forth as commodities, they “transcend sensuousness.” Then, Marx says, they “stand on their head, and evolve out of their wooden brains grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if they were to begin dancing of their own free will.”
These grotesque ideas make commodities “mystical” and “enigmatic,” Marx says. A commodity is created (or picked) by the actual labor of living people, who’re brought together in “concrete” labor activities, employed by someone and paid a wage by someone, a capitalist. This labor is privately owned and controlled, making social items for sale and for profit. The concrete “thing-appearance” of a commodity is real enough: shoes, shirts, books, iPhones, computers, automobiles—all have very real “thing existence” in our world; we wear them, read them, touch them, tap them and drive them. They bear quantitative price tags that adjudicate their qualitative identity. In the sensuous, perceptible realm of everyday experience, we think and deal with these objects in terms of things—exchanging one thing (money) for another thing (the commodity). This activity is very straightforward, and we seldom ponder it at any length.
But this is merely one part of the story. There’s another tale to tell, says Marx, so listen up, because a commodity’s physicality, its palpable thing quality, bears little or no connection to the social relations that made and distribute it. We learn nothing, from the commodity, about productive relations between workers and owners, between minimum wage toilers and rich bosses, between factory hands and corporate CEOs, between Nike sole-makers in Vietnam and stockbrokers on Wall Street, between 14-year old Foxconn girls making iPhones in China and the gleaming, billion dollar Apple stores across the world. Inter-subjective human relations, relations emerging through a particular social organization and mode of production, get perceived by people as objective.
A commodity’s thing-like character disguises its social content, occludes its process basis. Form belies content. We perceive a thing while the process and social relations are somehow beyond our grasp, invisible and untouchable. The masking effect, the blurring of content by “mist-enveloped” form, essence by “mystical” appearance, Marx dubs fetishism. “It is precisely this finished form of the world of commodities,” he says, “which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.” “It is nothing but the definite social relation,” Marx says, “between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”
The working class Marx described in Capital is still our working class; his commodity fetishism remains our commodity fetishism. Perhaps even more so. Often it involves a working class far removed from our own work lives. The Taiwanese company Foxconn has 1.3 million labourers on its payroll and employs 450,000 at its “Foxconn City” plant at Shenzhen, China, where young women put in exhausting twelve-hour shifts piecing together iPhones. Most employees last only a year before burn out; worker suicides are common; survivors tell of long, grueling working days, compounded by callous managers who humiliate workers for slip ups. 350 iPhones a minute are churned out. The product itself is sleek, clean and sexy, bearing no trace of the grubby labor conditions that went into its production. And the billion-dollar Apple Inc. washes its hands of its subcontractor far, far away.
Everything is forgotten, occluded behind the high-tech glitz, concealed within the brand and fetishized in the store. Meanwhile, at the warehouses of Amazon’s $800 billion empire (headed by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man), workers clock up brutal sixty-hour work weeks; ambulances are frequent sights, treating maimed workers who scurry at breakneck speeds up and down windowless warehouse aisles. They’re an unseen thousand-fold army of toilers, ensuring millions of parcels of books and other paraphernalia are distributed and delivered every day, for which they’re lucky to earn a minimum wage.
Marx thought conceptual analysis could demystify fetishistic visions of human experience. Like Inspector Bucket, he follows up on clues, leaves nothing unturned. But while Marx’s strategy might be effective at exposing the skeletons in capitalism’s closet, his urging to lay bare the real truth of our society isn’t likely to go down well with the bosses. The ruling class, Marx says, is content to deceive, is “happy in its self-alienation.” It has a powerful interest in maintaining the fog, in concealing what it does behind the scenes, in preventing perspicuity. It’ll do everything to propagate its myths, to emit ideological smokescreens, everything to ensure nothing interferes with its pursestrings. Thus, the millions upon millions it spends bombarding the world with glossy ads and sophisticated campaigns to promote its goods, never letting up. All this enshrines products with the thickest, most impermeable aura that encourages us to simply go with the fetishistic flow.
Ever since his early existential days, Marx has interested himself in money. His vision of money was always counter-intuitive, not just because he wrote about it without having any, but also because his theory of money was at odds with the classical political economists of this day—and, indeed, with the classical economists of our day. His was never a “quantitative theory of money.” For Marx, it isn’t so much that money permits the circulation of commodities as the circulation of commodities expresses itself through the circulation of money, ensuring that commodities burst through all barriers as to time and space, launching themselves into an orbit that is somehow, and necessarily, limitless.
Marx had his favorite refrains about money, like those he’d known as a young man in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:
Thou visible god.
That solder’st close impossibilities
And mak’st him kiss! That speak’st with every tongue,
To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!
This is Timon of Athens, and Marx would footnote the work twenty years later in Capital. And the “visible god” in question is, of course, nothing other than money. “Shakespeare paints a brilliant picture of money,” Marx insists, vividly shows the alchemy of money, how nothing is immune from money, not even “the bones of the saints can withstand it.”
Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold,
Thus much of this will make black, white; foul, fair; wrong, right; base, noble; old, young;
What this, you gods? Why this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads;
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions; bless t’accurst;
Make the hoar leprosy adored; place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench: this is it,
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again:
Come damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind.
Around money matters, penniless Marx also liked to recite Goethe’s Faust, as well as Aristotle, the Ancient Greek. Aristotle, says Marx, contrasted economics with so-called “chrematistics.” The former was the “art of acquisition,” of obtaining articles necessary for existence, useful things for the household. They’d likely involve money to acquire them. But money here was a mere token of exchange, a facilitator that extended barter. As money became more widespread, trade became more widespread. Money became instrumental, a means towards enlarging ends. With money you could get stuff. After a while, money unleashed those immanent contradictions that Shakespeare harked about, growing into another way of acquiring things; simple barter and a nascent money economy morphed into a more complex money-making economy, called chrematistics. No longer a means towards an end, money now became the end, the thing desired—the acquisition of riches for the sake of acquiring riches.
Aristotle was onto a new breed of moneybags: a capitalist, a person who wants to extract money from money. Aristotle never used the term capitalist; the label hadn’t been invented then. In Aristotle’s slave society, there weren’t capitalists. Not yet. They were lurking around the historic corner, taking another several thousand years to really burst through. Capitalism emerged out of a kind of chrematistics, even if the capitalist has a deeper money mania, a more modern chrematistic sickness: the unceasing compulsion to generate profit, to acquire more and more money, to accumulate more and more capital. Before long, there’s a new species of money grabber in our midst: “the rational miser,” Marx calls them. Still, money circulating as mere money, and money circulating as capital, is, Marx says, “palpably different.”
Indeed, Marx called his book Capital for good reason. Capital is more than money, even though capital secretes money, realizes itself in money. Capital is money in process, money that “enters into circulation, emerges from it with an increase in size, and starts the same cycle again and again. ‘M-M, money which begets more money,’ such is the description of capital given by its first interpreters, the Mercantilists.” Buying in order to sell dear—the mantra of the merchant. Alongside the merchant, meanwhile, comes the finance capitalist, the moneylender, the loanshark, the personification of “interest-bearing capital,” who fixes the terms of any money transaction at the going rate of interest—or at their going rate of interest. Marx thinks a merchant’s and financier’s wealth are “derivative forms of capital,” antediluvian in the development of capitalism, not the primary type of capital for modern times.
For one thing, they operate exclusively in the sphere of circulation, and Marx is adamant that “capital cannot arise from circulation.” On the other hand, “it is impossible for it to arise apart from circulation.” Marx likes his riddles, liking even more to resolve them: “capital must have its origin in circulation and not in circulation.” The other problem here is that the capitalist system cannot grow, can’t expand, through merchant and finance capital alone. Neither merchant nor finance capital create new value. Their functioning is redistributive rather than generative, not like industrialists. These forms of capital, Marx insists, involve a certain legalized cheating—cheating the consumer at the supermarket, cheating the borrower on the money market.
To generate capital, something at once more subtle and brutal is required. “In order to extract value out of the consumption of a commodity,” Marx says, “our friend the money-owner must be lucky enough to find within the sphere of circulation, on the market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption is therefore itself an objectification of labour, hence a creation of value. The possessor of money does find such a special commodity on the market: the capacity for labour, in other words labour-power.” “The process of consumption of labour-power is,” Marx says, “at the same time the production process of commodities and of surplus-value. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the market, or the sphere of circulation.
Let us therefore, in the company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow them into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare.
Accessing this “hidden abode,” crossing its threshold to spy on capitalist production, on industrial capital’s daily workings, requires negotiating more fog, groping through more dense opaqueness. On the inside, things are gloomier, frequently windowless and suffocatingly hot. The scene of capitalist manufacturing is mysterious and mystifying, ideologically obfuscating, purposely designed to throw any faint-hearted sleuth off the trail. Part of fog derives from the bourgeoisie’s own claims, the kind of immunity it pleads, tries to create for itself, around itself. It maneuvers for its own legitimation, hides behind a contractual basis that Marx calls a “legal fiction.”
This legal fiction haughtily expresses the “innate rights” of man, of Freedom, Equality, and Property. “Freedom,” says Marx, “because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labor power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law.” Equality, “because each enters into relation with one another, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent.” Property, “because each disposes only of what is his own,” and “because each looks only to his own advantage.”
Marx caps off this conceptual shift from circulation to production with a passage that exhibits the typical wit peppering Capital, making its seriousness funny:
When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris’ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as a worker. One smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing else to expect but—a tanning.
We’re not sure if Marx ever went into a capitalist factory, whether he ever entered or saw the hidden abode with his own eyes. Chances are, on his visits to see Frederick Engels in Manchester, he did. Perhaps Engels showed his friend around then, showed him the oily cogs and worker sweat of his father’s textile manufacturing business, Ermen & Engels, in Salford. Engels had spent twenty odd years running the plant. By day, as a capitalist, he’d applied himself to dad’s factory, using some of the proceeds to subsidize Marx. By night, the communist Engels dedicated himself to overthrowing everything dad’s firm stood for. (Like everybody else living under capitalism, Engels had to deal with his own personal contradictions; and in dealing with them, he became a double agent.)
The other way Marx built up his critical insider image of capitalism was through testimonies. He made his case for prosecuting capitalist production by summoning up the evidence of people who were nearer the crime scene. He’d assemble eye-witness accounts, examine written reports, interrogate old material, introduce new material. He’d follow up on leads, check quotes against other quotes, cross examine and re-cross examine. Then he’d piece each bit of the puzzle together, before drawing his own conclusions. Afterwards, he’d make policy recommendations and revolutionary prognostications. And he did it all without ever having to leave his speck in the museum, at G7.
One of the amazing things about Capital is the sheer number of voices we hear talking. Marx wanted to give everybody their say, and usually he let them speak in their own tongues, frequently forked, oftentimes at length. Some people, like the economists, are sectarian and use a language only intelligible to themselves. Other voices, like the mill, mine and factory owners, grate, and come across as callous and inhuman; Marx lets the tape run, and the more they talk, the more they dig their own graves. Still more voices are those of politicians and civil servants. They’re either indifferent about committing themselves or else apologists for a system that’s clearly feathering their nest. Here and there we also snatch the broken words of workers themselves, who, rather than moan indignantly, appear resigned to their lot.
Marx never deals with his characters unfairly, never quotes them speaking words they never said. He makes value judgements, for sure, intervenes in the flow of their narratives; yet nothing in Marx’s larger narrative seems non sequitur; nothing is fabricated. He handles his subject matter as skillfully and as adroitly as the great novelists of his generation. Only this isn’t fiction. Marx’s integrity is for real reality, to be truthful about it. In this regard, his greatest resource was the “Reports of the Inspectors of Factories,” Parliamentary reports “that provide regular and official statistics of the voracious appetite of the capitalists for surplus labour.” Generated under the Home Secretary’s directive, appearing twice-yearly since 1835, Marx seemed to have waded through every one of them, past and present, citing vast chunks in Capital.
They were a gold-mine of information, one of the few advantages of his living in England, perhaps the only advantage; a country not only “the classic representation of capitalist production,” he says, but also “the only nation to possess a continuous set of official statistics relating to the matters we are considering.” To boot, they’re openly accessible, readily available to anyone, even to the scruffy émigré Marx. (One wonders who else in his day ever studied them so attentively?) Above all else, the Inspectors’ Reports shape the English Factory Acts, which, says Marx, “curb capital’s drive towards a limitless draining away of labour-power by forcibly limiting the working day on the authority of the state.”
Marx has no illusions about the role of the capitalist state as the executive committee managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. But he’s a revolutionary who recognizes that without the Factory Acts, and without the factory inspectors, things would be a whole lot worse for the working class. Smarter bourgeois know, too, that to temper their cut-throat drive to extend the working day beyond humanly possible lengths, will prevent them killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Limiting the working day ensured that a less exhausted workforce became a more productive workforce. And if that weren’t enough, some factory inspectors warned that if the government didn’t properly enforce the Ten Hours’ Act (1848), “class antagonisms would reach unheard of degrees of tension.”
Marx portrays the manufacturers like the cast of a gothic horror story, with a “werewolf-like hunger for surplus labour,” “vampire-like, living only by sucking living labour, and living more, the more labour it sucks.” The inspectors get a walk on part as Jekyll and Hyde characters, fulfilling an ambivalent role within the state, acting as both advocate and critic. Not a few inspectors had their blood sucked out of them long ago. They turned a blind eye to their masters’ infringements, to the manufacturers’ drives beyond the legal limit, to the nibbling and quibbling at worker mealtimes, pilfering minutes that should be lunch breaks and recreation times. Five minutes a day’s increased work, multiplied by x-number of weeks, equals several days extra labor per year. Moments are the elements of profit.
Not all inspectors, though, were dishonest. Several were even upright, trustworthy souls, liberals who steadfastly sought to uphold the law. They dedicated themselves to their duty and to doing the humanely right thing. Amongst the latter was Leonard Horner, whose testimonies fill the pages of one of the pinnacle chapters of Capital, perhaps the pinnacle chapter, the tenth, on “The Working Day.” Leonard Horner is one of the unsung heroes of his era (1785–1864), although Marx does his utmost to sing his praises. Marx could be damning of people, viciously critical, never taking fools gladly; yet, at the same time, he wasn’t afraid to give credit when and where it was due. And, for Marx, Horner’s “services to the English working class will never be forgotten. He carried out a life-long contest, not only with the embittered manufacturers, but also with the Cabinet.”
We don’t know a huge amount about Leonard Horner.1 He never lived long enough to receive Marx’s compliments. Maybe, like Darwin, he’d have taken them grudgingly, been flattered yet guarded, maintaining his distance from a notorious foreign agitator. Interestingly, Horner, as a member of the Geological Society, was on friendly terms with Darwin; the author of The Origin of the Species became a sometime visitor to the Horner household. Leonard himself was born in Edinburgh in 1785. His father was a prosperous linen merchant and Leonard entered the family business for a while. Later he worked as an underwriter in London for Lloyds insurance and then had a four-year stint (1827–31) as Warden of the newly-formed University of London. The Horners were Whigish and Protestant but progressive in their belief in science and Enlightenment ideals. Thrift, hard work and moderate asceticism were family virtues; Leonard stuck fast to this value system throughout his life.
Like Marx, he was intellectually precocious. He attended Edinburgh University as a 14-year-old, studying moral philosophy, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Geology. He read lots of classical literature, too, and around the political and social issues of his day. A talented linguist, Leonard taught himself French, German and Italian. He soon became a man of “formidable erudition.” But Horner will be remembered, if he’s ever remembered, as the longest serving and most honorable of all the early factory inspectors—a “tireless censor of the manufacturers,” Marx said—on duty between 1833 and 1859 in Lancashire, the epicenter of the textile industry. By then, he was living off a private income, though probably a modest one, since his father’s business had declined. Horner’s employment had never been a big payer, either. Yet money doesn’t appear to have been any sort of interest or motivation; Horner was driven, rather, by a sense of public duty.
He was often seen as “ruthless” by his manufacturing antagonists, and much maligned by them. Incorruptible, he was never afraid to speak his mind in the many reports he compiled. Without his input, it would have been difficult to imagine the Ten Hours’ Act ever becoming law; nor limiting child labor. Before Horner, 9-year-olds regularly put in fourteen-hour days! It was always an uphill struggle, he’d said, full of conservative obstacles and political foot-dragging. And once the legislation was enacted, somebody had to regulate it, had to keep tabs on those laws being respected. Horner was an ex-businessman himself, so in no way hostile to capitalism, nor to the desire of the mill-lords wanting to make a buck. But he was morally committed to the belief that profitability could arise from good working conditions and from educating the masses.
He had his run-ins not only with the manufacturers, but also with some of the best-known political economists of his day, who balked at the idea of government intervention, especially intervening to curtail the working day. Horner’s economic philosophy probably had more in common with J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism than with Marx’s socialism. Horner believed the aristocratic system of monopoly and privilege had to be fended off. Strong government was necessary, he said, to protect the “free market” from the unscrupulous greed that can distort it. His was a laissez-faire economics worlds removed from Milton Friedman’s, and from the avaricious neoliberal deceit we know today, which has bought off most governments and created not-so-free markets everywhere. Like Mill, Horner believed markets could only ever be “free” if wide-ranging government regulation took place, assuring social as well as individual liberty.
Horner’s most famous run-in around regulation was one of Marx’s most famous run-ins: with the Oxford political economist Nassau W. Senior. Horner’s views on factory legislation were most forcefully articulated in his “open letter” to Senior, published in 1837, and endorsed by Marx. The theme was the so-called “Last Hour” of the working day. Both Horner and Marx had questioned the validity of Senior’s thesis, even questioned the validity of Senior himself, the integrity of a “scholar” who acted like a mouthpiece for the cotton trade. Here Horner had to remind a renowned economist, a teacher with an Ivy League Chair, that children weren’t “free agents” on the labor market and needed the state to protect them from brutal factory employment. No matter where children worked, Horner told Senior, “their having a fair chance of growing up in full health and strength or with the opportunity of receiving a suitable education,” was a moral right.
Senior, for Marx’s part, embodied everything loathsome about English political economy, with its class bias masquerading as rigorous scholarship. This was pure ideology, Marx said, channeled through the authority of a rich, internationally renowned bourgeois institution. Thus, it implicitly bore the stamp of “science,” of “economic science.” Marx, conversely, was an outsider, a trained philosopher yet autodidact in economic affairs. Unaffiliated and frequently destitute, sitting alone in the British Museum, he had no institutional status, no professional badge of credibility to invoke. But as an “amateur” he took to task Senior’s infamous “Last Hour.”
Marx states explicitly what Horner had only politely implied: that Oxford credentials are mobilized to legitimize flimsy scholarship; that with Senior we were witnessing the time-served ties between the academy and industry, how each scratched the other’s back, how each continues to scratch the other’s back. Senior had been summoned to Manchester, the seat of international textile trade, to battle for the manufacturers as their chosen “prize-fighter” (as Marx put it); Senior’s economic science was just the ammunition needed to silence struggles to reduce the factory working day. But Senior hadn’t reckoned on Horner.2
Senior went to great technical lengths, invoking much numerical data, to argue that if the working day were reduced from twelve to ten hours all the manufacturers’ profit would be destroyed. It would equally destroy the manufacturers’ ability to pay their workforce, because along with profits, money for wages would go, too. Everybody would lose out. In the eleventh-hour, Senior said, the worker reproduced their wages and in the twelfth—the so-called “Last Hour”—the manufacturers’ profit. To cut the working day to ten hours would thus eliminate both. As Marx says, “and the Professor calls this ‘analysis!’”
These are “extraordinary notions,” Marx writes, and spends pages carefully denouncing prejudice dressed up as economic science. Senior grovels before the manufacturers, Marx says: “The heart of a man is a wonderful thing, especially when it is carried in his wallet.” At one point, the Oxford professor even tries to give scientific credence to exploiting child labor. There’s a “warm and moral atmosphere in the factory,” Senior says, which keeps children out of mischief and vice, beyond the grip of their idle parents. Marx, like Horner, questioned the accuracy of Senior’s figures. And, he says, “apart from errors in its content, Senior’s presentation is confused.”
Profit results from “surplus labor time,” of course, the time workers spend beyond the “necessary labor time” of earning their wages and recuperating manufacturers’ overheads. The longer the working day, and the lower the wages, the greater the surplus labor amassed. Surplus labor time is the source of “surplus value,” and surplus value is, in turn, the real source of profit—all of which has absolutely nothing to do with any “Last Hour” of work. Thus “this faithful ‘last hour,’ about which you have invented more stories than the millenarians about the Day of Judgment, is,” Marx concludes, “all bosh.”
Overwork remains a major problem for working people. So long as capitalism sucks blood from living labor, it persists as a death-warrant for producing surplus value. In his “Working Day” chapter, Marx recounts the demise of Mary Anne Walkley, a 20-year-old garment worker who, in June 1863, toiled on average sixteen and a half hours a day without a break, often as much as thirty hours straight. The “flow of her failing ‘labor-power,’” Marx says, “is maintained by occasional supplies of sherry, port and coffee.” Mary Anne was busy “conjuring up magnificent dresses for the noble ladies invited to the ball in honour of the newly imported Princess of Wales.” After twenty six and a half hours of straight toil, done in a small, stifling sweatshop, with thirty other girls, Mary Anne fell ill on a Friday and was dead by Sunday, “without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having finished off the bit of finery she was working on.” “Death from simple overwork,” was the verdict in the following day’s newspaper.
On March 8, 1997—on International Women’s Day—Carmelita Alonzo, a 35-year-old mother of five, suffered a similarly gruesome fate at a Philippines factory, stitching garments for VT (Vitorio Tan) Fashion Image Inc, a subcontractor of the clothing chain Gap. She died at the Andres Bonifacio Memorial Hospital in Cavite, Philippines, after eleven days in intensive care. According to her co-workers at VT Fashion, “Carmelita was killed by her fourteen-hour workday every day plus overtime of eight hours every Sunday.”
In July 2013, Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old journalist, working for Japan’s public broadcasting corporation, logged up 159 hours of overtime and took only two days a month off on the run up to her death from heart failure. In April 2014, likewise in Japan, Joey Tocnang, a 27-year-old trainee at a metal casting company, died in the firm’s dormitory, after a similarly punishing work schedule finally took its toll. Japanese authorities said his “death was directly related to the long hours of overtime he was forced to perform.” He’d been working between 78.5 and 122.5 hours of overtime every month, cutting steel and preparing casts of molten metal, sending home his meagre salary to his wife and 5-year-old daughter in the Philippines.3 In April 2015, Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old employee at the Japanese advertising conglomerate Dentsu, did herself in before work got to her first, committing suicide after regularly working more than a one hundred hours a month overtime. She posted a message on social media a few weeks before she died, saying, “I want to die…I’m physically and mentally shattered.”4
The Japanese have a name for this—Karōshi: death from overwork. Japanese companies expect employees to put in long hours in a fiercely competitive workplace culture. Workers are cajoled into clocking up mammoth hours, proving their dedication to the job, as well as their loyalty to the company. The government says one in five workers in Japan are now at risk from overwork—from strokes and heart attacks to mental illnesses and suicides. The Japanese health ministry reported ninety-three cases of suicides or attempted suicides in early 2016, directly linked to work pressure. And the national police agency said overwork was likely responsible for 2,159 suicides in 2015.
Overwork is rife in Britain as well. In 2016, 40 percent of working Brits didn’t take their full holiday entitlement; one in six employees have a full working week of unused holidays spare. Seven out of ten British workers drag themselves out of their sickbed to go to work (the majority presumably because they’re not paid otherwise). The number of people working over forty-eight hours per week has doubled in Britain since 1998, up from 10 percent to 26 percent. Overwork problems hit the working privileged—who feel they must rack up the hours to advance their careers—as well as the working desperate—who have little choice but to toil to make ends meet, often at more than one job. Studies illustrate how output significantly trails off after a fifty-hour work week, and nose dives after fifty-five hours. (They also show that people who regularly work more than forty-nine hours a week are at a significantly higher risk of a stroke.)
In the United States, there’s no such thing as Senior’s “Last Hour” simply because there’s no obligation for employers to limit the working day. The limit, one assumes, is when you drop. Leonard Horner would have had his work cut out as a labor inspector; but given there aren’t regulators, nor any future openings for labor inspectors, his own hours would be drastically slashed! Americans, on the whole, work longer hours and have more stress-related work illnesses than their European counterparts, even more than their Japanese counterparts, which is hard to imagine.5 Reasons are due to stagnating wages and to hopelessly outdated overtime laws.
But the problem is writ large, too, in the tech industry and in finance jobs, which are always trying to motivate workers to hustle more and work harder. No matter how seductive and “happy” the workplace is, today’s reality remains Marx’s reality: employees are human widgets used and discarded at the behest of bosses. What counts for a firm is your VORP—“Value Over a Replacement Player.” You’re as indispensable so long as there’s nobody else around who can perform better, who’s more compliant, and who’s more able to work even harder and longer than you. “Companies burn you out and churn you up when somebody better, or cheaper, becomes available.”6
At HubSpot, a high-tech start-up in Cambridge, Mass, there’s a slick and happy veneer “with beanbag chairs and unlimited vacation—a corporate utopia where there’s no need for work-life balance because work is life and life is work. Imagine a frat house mixed with a kindergarten mixed with Scientology, and you have an idea of what it’s like.”7 But despite the cool office interior there’s no job security. It’s a typical digital sweatshop where young workers, packed side by side at long tables, hunch over laptops rather than sewing machines, staring into them for hours and hours, barking commands into headsets, trying to sell software, selling themselves in the process. “The free snacks are nice,” one ex-employee said, “but you must tolerate having your head stuffed with silly jargon and ideology about being on a mission to change the world…Wealth is generated, but most of the loot goes to a handful of people at the top.”
Tech software work pales, however, compared to tech hardware work, which is usually just that—hard—frequently done thousands of miles away from any hip Silicon Valley paradise. Over in China, at Foxconn again, in Shenzhen, there’s been a spate of worker suicides, all related to overwork. One male worker hanged himself in a Foxconn toilet in 2007; another, in 2009, threw himself from his apartment window, after being beaten by Foxconn managers. In 2010, fifteen (eleven men, four women) employees killed themselves. In 2011, four; in 2012, one; in 2013, two. The latest, on January 6, 2017, Li Ming, jumped to his death in Zhengzhou, where he worked for Foxconn, no longer able to endure his working life there.
Meantime, Foxconn’s child-labor practices take us back to Capital. The company was recently found recruiting more than a thousand school children to work nights, making Amazon’s Alexa devices—the virtual voice gadgets used to control lights and domestic appliances. These kids are classified as “student interns,” there to cover labor shortages and to trim costs. 16-year-olds toil ten hours a day, six days a week, on the production line, receiving 16.55 yuan (£1.93) an hour, compared to the 20.18 per hour for regular employees. They’ve little choice in the matter. If students refuse to work the designated hours, including the compulsory overtime, their teachers tell them it’ll affect their graduation chances and scholarship opportunities. Foxconn defends its use of school children: “it provides students,” they say, “who are all of a legal work age, with the opportunity to gain practical work experience and on-the-job training in a number of areas that will support their efforts to find employment following their graduation.”8
This notion that hard work is healthy for kids harks back to the workhouses of a certain “Dr.” Andrew Ure, another quack bourgeois political economist from Marx’s day—and ardent cheerleader of Nassau Senior. Ure, said Marx, “argued that if children and young persons under 18 years of age, instead of being kept the full twelve hours in the warm and pure moral atmosphere of the factory, are turned out an hour sooner into the heartless and frivolous outer world, they will be deprived, owing to idleness and vice, of all hope of salvation of their souls.”9 The Foxconn of Capital’s era was Sanderson Bros. & Co., a steel rolling-mill and forge in Sheffield. Boss E. F. Sanderson admitted “great difficulty would be caused by preventing boys of under 18 from working at night. The chief would be the increased cost from employing men instead.” Besides, it would be impossible, Sanderson said, to leave such expensive machinery idle half the time, working only throughout daylight hours. The training that his company gave to an apprentice, he bragged, should be considered “part of the return for the boys’ labour.… Boys must begin young to learn a trade,” and to learn their station in life…
Back in the mid–1990s, when I lived in central London, I used to walk past the British Museum nearly every day. More often than not, I’d pop in, did so for years, getting thrilled by a couple of things. The first, obviously, was entering the great Reading Room, for which I had a Reader’s Card, glimpsing and even sitting in space G7. I never ordered any books, had no need to order anything; all I wanted was to sit there, in Marx’s seat, and try to feel the vibe. Usually, there wasn’t any vibe, only the hushed shuffling and page-turning of others close by, mixed with the odd cough and splutter. The atmosphere was bookish and musty. No PCs were in sight. It was pencil and paper stuff in those days. I tried to imagine Marx scribbling away, muttering to himself, piling up those Inspectors’ Reports in front of him, working frantically on Capital. Doing so, I remember, was strangely comforting.
Afterwards, my other great delight was visiting the “old” Reading Room, with its permanent display of “literary treasures.” Glass cabinets housed original handwritten drafts of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, William Wordsworth’s poem Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. But the treasure that thrilled me most was one of James Joyce’s notebooks of Finnegans Wake—at that stage, in the 1930s, Joyce was still cagey about its title; for years he’d called it simply “Work in Progress.” The writing, in soft pencil, was chaotic and sprawling, and as mad as Marx’s handwritten scrawl. Like the drafts of Capital, there was as much crossed out as left legible. Joyce used thick colored crayons (orange and green were favorites) to score out sentences, sometimes whole pages that he seemed not to want—until he informed someone that he crossed out what he wanted, but had already used elsewhere, in another more definitive version.
In those years, Marx and Joyce were my heroes; they still are. But it’s perhaps only now that I realize curious similarities between each man. After all, they both had an obsession with wanting to include everything in their work, constantly adding to it, expanding and inserting material, making it seemingly impossible for them ever to finish anything. Like Marx, Joyce was a publisher’s nightmare, forever making last minute insertions into the proofs. After he’d eventually published Ulysses, his benefactor Harriet Weaver asked him what he planned on doing next? Joyce responded that he wanted “to write a history of the world.”
Marx had a similar lofty ambition for Capital, likewise attempting to write a history of the world, incorporating everything, seeking the same organic unity and wholeness that Finnegans Wake sought. Capital circulated through Marx the same way as the Liffey circulated through Joyce; “a commodius vicus of recirculation.” In a sense, each book is a “hyper-text,” a big, intricately entangled, introverted yet expansive text, historical yet somehow universal, exuberant and imaginative and at times colossally difficult to understand. Joyce said his principal character H. C. Earwicker was a “fargazer,” whose “patternmind” dreamed the vastest dream, whose sigla H. C. E. meant “Here Comes Everybody.”
Capital was Marx’s dreaming fargazing, his Here Comes Everybody, a condition, he thought, where all countries were headed, his image of everybody’s future. He’d sketched it out for us, the historical and geographical mission of the capitalist mode of production, with its need to create industrial cities, to move mountains, to dig canals, to connect everywhere, to nestle everywhere. Within it all, Marx thought that a physical and emotional proximity of workers would be created, workers beside one another, workers sharing a common experience, even if they were hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. This common experience would be a sort of cosmopolitanism, a common awareness, a global solidarity, a Here Comes Everybody.
This summer, I returned to the British Museum. A lot had changed since the mid-1990s; a big, postmodern overhaul had taken place there, a sparkling new design, a sort of canopy had been spread across Sydney Smirke’s Reading Room. Everything was now bright cream and a new skylight enclosed an open public forum—“The Great Court,” Europe’s largest covered square, inaugurated in 2000—which was packed full with tourists. Dominated by a sprawling Museum store, it felt like a glorified shopping mall. I tried to get into the Reading Room, through a puny little corridor, following the route I used to know; but barriers where placed across, preventing any public entrance; “No Entry” signs were emblazoned everywhere. In fact, everybody, staff included, seemed barred.
I asked one of the museum ushers what was happening, “Why can’t you access the Reading Room anymore?” “It had been closed for ages,” he said. “Is it being refurbished?” I wondered. He didn’t know. “They don’t tell us anything.” I mused on who “they” might be? I asked someone else at the “Information” booth. She was sourly, seemed suspicious of my questioning, and didn’t know anything, repeating what I’d earlier heard: “They don’t tell us anything.” I asked a third member of staff, at the “Membership” zone, who was friendlier. In her heavy Eastern European accent, she told me the Reading Room had been closed since 2000, since the time of the refurbishment. “For nineteen years!” I exclaimed. “Yes,” she said. She didn’t know what was happening, either. I asked her who employed the staff at the museum and she said a subcontractor; only a minority of people actually work “in-house” for the museum. Cleaners and other auxiliary staff are mostly outsourced labor.10 I felt the alienation in the air, alienation in the place where Marx wrote about alienation, and departed despondent, struck by the irony, and disillusioned about the times in which we live.
The entire book and manuscript collection, once stored in the Reading Room, had been relocated up the road, in 1998, to the new British Library, next to St. Pancras Station. The pressing problem, apparently, was lack of shelf space at the old British Museum. It had been a “legal deposit,” meaning it received every book published in the United Kingdom, including many overseas titles. It needed an extra two kilometers of shelving every year, which the new British Library, reputedly the largest national library in the world, can now offer. All the “literary treasures” have been transferred to the British Library, too, and that got me wondering about my old Finnegans Wake treasure, those notebooks from years ago?
So I wandered over to the library, but in the new display section, impressively organized and expanded—to include the Magna Carta and rare editions of The Bible—there was no Joyce. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were new additions, “younger” writers added to the modernist canon; yet it seemed Jim had been bumped off. Somebody told me at the Information desk that if he wasn’t on display then he’s probably in storage. Some texts, she said, needed a “rest,” so Joyce was likely resting. Finnegans Wake needing a rest? It was about a sleeping man! No Marx’s seat, no Finnegans Wake notebook; the times were a-changing; it didn’t seem to me they were moving in the right direction, changing for the better.
Somehow, the experience of Marx in the museum began to strike me as more vital than ever. And I’m not just talking here about Marx the revolutionary; I’m talking about Marx the dedicated scholar, Marx the dedicated reader of texts, Marx the restless yet patient analyst of reports and documents; Marx the inquirer of truth, I mean, the Dickensian sleuth searching for answers, the solver of mysteries, the man who wants to cut through the fog. Indeed, so much of what he presents in Capital involves the lies and misinformation of others, the bourgeois propaganda that lurked behind the apparent seal of knowledge—that dense, intentionally-created fog, which enveloped everything then, and still envelops everything now. Marx wanted to expose these kinds of made-up ideas, these ideological smokescreens. He wanted to pry them open, to cut through them with his razor mind. He wanted to demonstrate a certain truthfulness. He got pilloried by his right-wing antagonists for it.
Marx had his own special notion of ideology. For him, ideology is “information” that transmits an implicit message. It doesn’t seem like a lie, doesn’t appear like a fabrication; at first blush it seems plausible, and first blush is often enough for it to be believed. Reactionaries, on the other hand, dismissed Marx’s knowledge as ideological because it had an explicit political message, which, if you think about it, is always easier to dismiss. Marx conceived a body of thought that was openly honest about where it was coming from, a mode of thinking that explicitly tried to frame things from the standpoint of the proletariat. This is how capitalist society appears, he said, how it operates if you view it from the perspective of a worker—not from the perspective of a greedy boss or parasitic landlord. Yet, for all that, what endures about the analysis in Capital is Marx’s rigor, his intellectual honesty, his desire to tell it how it really is, yet to tell it fairly, within the rules of legitimate knowledge. Not make-believe, not ideology, not deliberate obfuscation or deceit. Not on anybody’s payroll.
I say that we need this more than ever now because, in recent years, we’ve had assorted demagogues who’ve persuaded masses of people that they have nothing in common anymore. These demagogues have been rather frivolous with the truth; in fact, they’ve profited from a plurality of truths, many of which aren’t truthful at all but are misinformation and falsities; and not a few are peddled on social media. It’s especially hard now to pass rational critical judgement. Telling the truth requires courage and great skill, and often considerable energy to sift through the lies ringing out morning, noon and night and much of the time in between. Truth seems to hobble along lamely compared to the lies that fly in the face of the public. What seems most disturbing of all, perhaps, is people’s willingness to believe these political falsehoods, even when they know they aren’t true.
Marx had no illusions about the struggle around knowledge production and its dissemination. He knew that we can never prevent our politicians and businesspeople from lying. They have the means and the media to do so. But Marx hoped that, maybe one day, we could create the social conditions whereby people’s need to believe in the miraculous lie might dissipate, might somehow wither away. To call on people to give up foggy illusions about our condition is, he thought, to make a call to give up a condition that requires illusions. We live in foggy times. The Nassau W. Seniors, Andrew Ures and E. F. Sandersons are still amongst us, those characters we hear in Capital, those moneybags and ideologues and mill-lords accumulating capital at other people’s expense. Their names are different, they look different, but what they do isn’t so different: it was, always will be, simply a pretext for profit-making, for extracting surplus value. Marx conceived this in a museum that is no longer accessible. The museum has effectively gone. The need for Marx has apparently gone. He has no seat amongst us anymore. But his vision of what is wrong and what might be right with our society gathers no dust. It is far from antiquated.
- ↩ Horner did write a memoir in two volumes, published privately and posthumously, in 1890. In 1969, the historian Bernice Martin wrote a portrait of Leonard Horner in the International Review of Social History using this memoir. My own brief sketch of Horner here draws upon Martin’s article. Bernice Martin, “Leonard Horner: A Portrait of an Inspector of Factories,” International Review of Social History 14, no. 3 (1969).
- ↩ Other factory inspectors were equally incredulous of Senior “fatal hour.” In one report, dated May 21, 1855, Marx cites Inspector Howell talking: “Had Senior’s ingenious calculation been correct, every cotton factory in the United Kingdom would have been working at a loss since the year 1850.” Evidently, they weren’t; business was in fact booming.
- ↩ See Justin McCurry, “Death from Overwork: Japan’s ‘Karoshi’ Culture Blamed for Young Man’s Heart Failure,” Guardian, October 18, 2016.
- ↩ See Justin McCurry, “Japanese Woman ‘Dies from Overwork’ After Logging 159 Hours of Overtime in a Month,” Guardian, October 5, 2017.
- ↩ See “The US Is the Most Overworked Country in the Developed World,” Forbes, March 1, 2018.
- ↩ See Dan Lyons, “Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired,” New York Times, April 9, 2016.
- ↩ Lyons, “Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired.”
- ↩ See Gethin Chamberlain, “Schoolchildren in China Work Overnight to Produce Amazon Alexa Devices,” Guardian, August 8, 2019.
- ↩ It’s scary that such drivel actually made it into a so-called scholarly text: Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufacturers was published in 1835, to considerable acclaim.
- ↩ Until quite recently, a lot of museum staff were Carillion employees. In early 2018, after the giant management and construction services company went belly up with £7 billion in liabilities, some of the staff were brought in-house again, but only because of loud public outcry and a series worker protests outside the museum. The dispute brought to light the deeper concern of the privatization of Britain’s cultural institutions and the misguided decision made by the British Museum’s trustees—the “they” in question, presumably. Since 2013, Carillion had negotiated a controversial deal at the museum, where it’d been instrumental in offering zero-hours contracts and slashing staff benefits.