When Karl Marx reviewed his career in 1859 he highlighted four works that he had written – The Poverty of Philosophy, Communist Manifesto, Wage-Labour and Capital and a pamphlet on Free Trade. The last was given as a speech in 1848 at a time when the Corn Laws had recently been repealed in Britain, a sign of the triumph of industrial capital over landed interests, who had stood in the way of free trade and the interests of manufacturers in reducing wages through cheaper food imports.
Since the purpose of free trade was to reduce the price of corn upon which workers depended, and so allow a reduction in their wages, it might seem that Marx would either oppose the repeal of these Corn Laws or at best take the view of “a plague on both their houses”, and take no side between industrial capital and landlords. As Marx noted:
“The English workers have very well understood the significance of the struggle between the landlords and the industrial capitalists. They know very well that the price of bread was to be reduced in order to reduce wages, and that industrial profit would rise by as much as rent fell.”
Perhaps, in fact, Marx would oppose this strategy of the workers’ most immediate, growing and more important class enemy and oppose free trade?
Today a similar situation arises in the debate over leaving the European Union. Why should workers concern themselves with either side of a debate over a European free trade arrangement when again it is one carried on between different fractions of the class enemy?
After all, it is argued that the EU is irreformably neoliberal, although those that argue this often point out that it hasn’t always been such; although this also immediately raises the issue that some sorts of capitalist arrangements are better for workers than others – an anti-austerity policy is better than a neoliberal one for example.
For others, as I have noted, it all “depends”, and the question of free trade is bound up with a range of other issues, often involving development of less industrialised countries, national oppression, “unfair” trade and super- exploitation of workers in less developed countries. However none of this prevents one from forming a view on the question of free trade itself and facing the implications for workers of such a policy.
This was the approach taken by Marx. In doing so he was abundantly clear what the nature of the argument was for free trade put forward by the economists representing industrial capital:
“The whole line of argument amounts to this: Free trade increases productive forces. When manufactures keep advancing, when wealth, when the productive forces, when, in a word, productive capital increases, the demand for labour, the price of labour, and consequently the rate of wages, rises also.”
“The most favourable condition for the workingman is the growth of capital. This must be admitted: when capital remains stationary, commerce and manufacture are not merely stationary but decline, and in this case the workman is the first victim. He goes to the wall before the capitalist. And in the case of the growth of capital, under the circumstances, which, as we have said, are the best for the workingman, what will be his lot? He will go to the wall just the same.”
“The growth of capital implies the accumulation and the concentration of capital. This centralisation involves a greater division of labour and a greater use of machinery. The greater division of labour destroys the especial skill of the labourer; and by putting in the place of this skilled work labour which any one can perform, it increases competition among the workers.”
“This competition becomes more fierce as the division of labour enables a single man to do the work of three. Machinery accomplishes the same result on a much larger scale. The accumulation of productive capital forces the industrial capitalist to work with constantly increasing means of production, ruins the small manufacturer, and drives him into the proletariat . . .”
“Finally, the more productive capital grows, the more it is compelled to produce for a market whose requirements it does not know—the more supply tries to force demand, and consequently crises increase in frequency and in intensity. But every crisis in turn hastens the concentration of capital, adds to the proletariat. Thus, as productive capital grows, competition among the workers grows too, and grows in a far greater proportion. The reward of labor is less for all, and the burden of labor is increased for some at least.”
For some modern Marxists many of these words of Marx make no sense – how many today would repeat his remark that “the most favourable condition for the workingman is the growth of capital”? How many would welcome the increased accumulation of capital though it leads to crises and increased concentration of capital, because it adds to the proletariat? When was the last time the growth of capital was welcomed even though it increases competition among workers?
Instead the depredations of capital are opposed on the basis that the effects of capitalism can be much reduced through trade union action, its evils ameliorated through state intervention, while confused notions are retained that revolution will spring naturally from capitalist crises and destroy the same state that introduced the reforms.
On only one aspect of his argument has it been widely accepted that it is not the job of socialists to prevent the development of capitalism, and this is the view that workers must be protected from the replacement of their labour by opposing the increased use of machinery. As Marx notes – “there is no kind of manual labour which may not any day be subjected to the fate of the hand-loom weavers” whose labour was replaced by machinery, with the consequence that “the hand-loom weavers are on the verge of that state beyond which human existence can hardly be sustained. . .”
Yet today the view that free trade should be opposed in principle to protect workers from capitalist competition would be more widely held than the views expressed above.
For Marx, free trade was a moment in the accumulation of capital, as he set out in Capital Volume II in chapters one to three. In the circuit of money capital, Marx sets out that money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are then exchanged for another sum of money (M). Obviously this has no purpose for a capitalist unless the second sum of money is larger than the first, or why bother?
Since at each stage in the exchange of money for a commodity and the commodity for money it is the exchange of equivalents, no one is short-changed, so where could a profit arise? As Marx explains, the commodities purchased by money by the capitalist include machinery, raw materials etc. and labour power, which all go to create the newly created commodities which the capitalist sells for a larger amount of money than spent on buying the commodities used in production. The increased value of the commodities sold for money by the capitalist arises in production so that in the circuit M – C – M’, the second M’ is larger than the first M and the whole point of the circuit for the capitalist becomes clear.
The sum of money M’ is larger than the original amount of M invested and the increase arises in production, from the employment of labour power, which is remunerated by wages. Again the assumption is that wages equate to the value of labour power so that we again have an exchange of equivalents and no one is ‘cheated’. The worker will receive wages to a value that will allow her or him to turn up for work every day in such a condition as will allow her or him to produce to the efficiency, quality and standard required in the particular society that exists at that time and place, and will allow new generations of workers to do the same.
However the value created by the worker in production, through their labour, is greater than the value they are paid in wages for their capacity to work, which is their handing over to the capitalist of their labour-power that the capitalist can direct with a view to producing a profit. The circuit of capital is therefore better set out as M – C . . P . . C’ – M’; where the first C in the circuit includes the purchase of labour power for wages, P equals production carried out by the worker; the second C’ are the commodities produced by the worker and the second sum of money M’ includes the additional value created in production and included in the second C’. This is the output of production that can then be sold for a bigger sum of money that now includes the profit of the capitalist.
The inequality in capitalism, including different levels of exploitation and power, and the resulting insecurity, stress and degrees of poverty are a result of what arises in production and the class relations that are founded in this production. To seek to right the wrongs of capitalism through opposition to trade, through trying to make it ‘fair’, or to seek to limit in any fundamental way the inequality and exploitation that capitalism gives rise to through changes to trade, is to miss the point. All these are a result of the class relations resting in production. To seek to limit trade is to seek to disrupt C’ – M’; to disrupt the accumulation of capital – or to make it ‘fair’ – when the problem lies within the whole circuit of capital, with the existence of production based on capital itself.
As Marx explained, in all the exchanges within this circuit we have the exchange of equivalents; before the commodities denoted as C’ are produced for sale other commodities, including machinery, raw materials and labour power are also sold and purchased. Trade unions try to determine the level at which labour power is sold through fighting for “a fair days’ work for a fair days’ pay”, but even they cannot overturn the way capitalism works and cannot fundamentally alter the drive for profit that animates the circuit of capital. Trade unions can no more make capitalism fair than demands for fair trade can prevent exploitation or inequality in the class relations based on production.
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