Forms of Passage
Comparison of the paths of cultural development in Germany and Britain teaches a paradoxical lesson about the possible advantages of relative underdevelopment for the articulation of economic thought. In Germany the conception of the commodity of labor which proved so suitable for analyzing the utilization of labor in the mechanized factory depended not only upon the commercial logic of a free market but upon the cultural model of feudalism. Many historical analyses emphasize the manner in which the exceptionally rapid economic growth in nineteenth-century Germany outpaced cultural change as a result of the relatively late dismantling of the corporate-feudal order there. The present study evaluates the unusually strong feudal template as a helpful resource for the construction of Germany's factory institutions in the image of fully realized capitalist categories. The compressed progression from feudalism to the market-industrial order in Germany, far from creating a lag or an imbalance in economic categories, was distilled in a pure capitalist form: it propelled the Germans to place special emphasis on the timed subordination of labor power per se. Thorstein Veblen wisely appreciated the advantages of initial backwardness; at the level of the economic infrastructure, as is well known, he highlighted the benefits of starting with only up-to-date technology, and at the level of cultural resources, he noted that the Germans' unusual combination of ideas from the medieval and mechanical ages created the potential for "an acceleration of change."
In Britain the precocious development of a unified national market with formally free exchange in finished products bestowed upon the country a pioneering role in economic reasoning. But the development of a set of commercial assumptions centered on labor before labor power itself became a freely marketable commodity led to the installation of practices in the workshops that revolved around the exchange of materialized labor. Nineteenth-century capitalists and political economists in Britain, who emphasized labor as the generator and regulator of value, did not develop
categories for assessing the significance of labor's systematic use in the classical age of the factory. Their commercial ideology of practice remained within the social perspective of exchange relations between juridically equal property owners. The introduction in Germany of officially free market transactions in products only when juridically free markets in labor power were created, and the survival of feudal templates of the appropriation of labor services, together allowed the Germans to incorporate asymmetric social relations at the point of production into the economic specification of the labor transaction. The precipitous introduction of free exchange relations into the feudal-corporate order afforded German political economists a position from which they could critique the social outlooks centered upon the equalitarian sphere of exchange. Marx's penetrating theory of the exploitation of labor power, intriguingly similar to that of other German economists of his time in its treatment of labor power in production, relied upon the peculiar experience of late and rapid development in his homeland as a reference point for the development of critical social theory. As Marx drew upon British assumptions about labor in the sphere of exchange and compounded them with German assumptions about labor at the point of production, he incorporated the combined and uneven development of capitalism across Europe into the very core of his economic theorems.
Britain's early development of an integrated national market and the country's subsequent weakening in the world economy of the twentieth century have prompted vigorous debate about the distinctive features of Britain's movement to a capitalist regime. Many analysts, from Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn to Martin Wiener, have attributed Britain's modern industrial descent to its early and "incomplete" development of a capitalist social order under the auspices of a commercially minded, yet aristocratic, landed elite. Ellen Meiksins Wood has departed from this view in her notable work The Pristine Culture of Capitalism. Wood suggests that Britain's industrial fate can be attributed to the consummation of capitalist culture in Britain rather than to the system's unfinished incarnation. In Britain, where free-market principles left entrepreneurs to their own devices, people of business focused upon short-term profit in the consumer
goods sectors rather than upon the transformation of technique in heavy industry. In Germany, fewer of the business and political elites converted to the culture of liberal "free enterprise." The Bismarkian state drew upon the authoritarian and military traditions of the precapitalist past to organize technological innovation and to coordinate longterm industrial investment for geopolitical advance. In Wood's opinion, it is not accidental but paradigmatic that state-guided industrialization in Germany proved economically superior to the "pristine culture of capitalism" in Britain.
Likewise, in the present study, the British factory system exemplified "pure" capitalist categories. In the British case the concept of the sale of labor as a commodity was shorn of traditional relations of subordination for its content. In this sense it depended less upon precapitalist forms of labor appropriation than its counterpart in Germany did. Yet, as we have seen, the focus upon the equalitarian realm of product exchange in Britain grew out of the protracted suppression of a market for the transmission of labor power itself after the recognition of a market in goods. The selection of the peculiarly commercial and liberal specification of labor as a commodity in Britain developed as a result of the long survival of the "archaic" corporate administration of wage labor in Britain, not because of a relatively early or clean supersession of the medieval-corporate order. In a word, the pristine cultural outcome emerged from a corrupted transition. In Germany, the protection of contractual relations in industrial wage labor occurred relatively early compared to a recognition of an integrated market in products. The conjuncturally early establishment of a formally free market in labor power in Germany permitted the carryover of feudal relations of domination into the understanding of capitalist wage labor. In my study, Germany's feudal past does not figure as an obstacle to the expression of a purely capitalist culture; rather, the strong legacy of feudal relations of labor defined the fundamental concept of wage labor itself.
By returning Marx's well-known analysis of the capitalist labor process to its home in German practice, this study helps us to appreciate how the past shaped an economic theory that is alive in the present. Does the contextualization of Marxist categories as the representation of a particular cultural experience also differentiate between past and present by restricting the applicability of Marx's nineteenth-century theory of exploitation to the era in which it originated?
Recent developments in Marxist theory have removed from scholarly discourse that part of Marx's theory which initially derived from the German context, and, in fact, have jettisoned the concept of labor power in toto. In Kapital , Marx counted the employer's control over the execution of work as the first defining feature of the production process under capitalism. Like nineteenth-century German employers and workers, Marx unified the relations of domination and appropriation at the point of production. Contemporary Marxist theory has disengaged the exercise of authority in the workplace from the appropriation of surplus. John Roemer, among the most influential Marxist economists at present, has offered an intriguing reanalysis of the mechanisms by which surplus is transferred between workers and capitalists. In A General Theory of Exploitation and Class , Roemer concludes that surplus labor can be transferred from one class to another if productive assets are unequally distributed among classes, even if the classes with the lesser assets still own the means of production that they employ for their labor. Roemer's demonstration has even led theorists to remove wage labor from the necessary design of capitalism. Adam Przeworski has participated in this analytical shift by turning away from the analysis of the actors' locations in the production process and emphasizing the distribution of labor surplus. Erik Olin Wright has also contributed to this continuing realignment of theory. In a revision of his earliest parsing of class categories, Wright eliminated authority over the labor process as a criterion of class position in capitalist relations
of production. The ongoing process by which capitalists rely upon their domination at the work site to extract surplus from living labor power is losing its centrality in the leading Marxist analyses of contemporary economic functions.
This sea-change is telling because it alters the way Marxist theory connects the functioning of the capitalist system to the understandings of the economic agents. In Marx's perspective, the sale of labor power comprises an encounter between the functional requirements of the valorization of labor for the capitalist system on the one side and the lived experience of the producers on the other. Labor power for him is both an analytic mold and a category in the producers' social consciousness. The shift of contemporary Marxist analysis away from the experienced moment of the use of labor power means that the operation of the economic system is theorized without reference to its constitutive and governing forms of understanding and experience. To be sure, Marx assumed that only one definition of labor power emerges in capitalist culture, in keeping with his premise that its apparent form is an inseparable expression of the essence of the capitalist system. Yet he believed that the lived experience of the monetization of labor is essential both for the system's reproduction and for struggles to change it. The appearance of abstract human labor as a category shaping the practices of production establishes at the outset the cultural foundation for the agents' pursuit of their interests. The present study reaffirmed the constraining effect of the form of abstract labor in the example of the Huddersfield weavers, who were unable to recognize and measure their own activity except under the guise of the objective properties of the fabric itself.
For this comparative study of culture I am interested only in ascertaining what the producers themselves believed was true and in identifying the origins and consequences of their beliefs. This is not a blind strategy of convenience. On the contrary, the truth value of Marxism depends on the interpretations of the producers. Their categories of understanding prompt the development of economic processes, shape the course of change, and continue to alter the relevance of theory. It is not up to theorists to decide with equations from afar whether Marx's definition of the commodity of labor as labor power remains valid at the end of the twentieth century. How the producers themselves interpret the labor process will resolve this fateful question. The history of practice on the shop floor suggests that the concept of labor as a commodity may have long ago lost its position as the center-point of a constellation of practices.
The two decades leading up to the First World War comprise the last days of the classical factory system that was established in the heyday of commercial liberalism. Until the onset of the war, there was little evidence that the cluster of practices based on labor's commodity form was losing its coherence. Yet German and British producers could not inhabit unconnected and uncompared conceptual worlds forever. As they came into tighter contact, they inadvertently reaffirmed their distinctive cultural starting points. In the weaving branch, the diffusion of the so-called pick clock, a technical contrivance mounted on looms in order to count the motions of the shuttle across the warp, caused British managers closely to examine German procedures for executing work. On the very eve of the war, managers in Britain became aware that the philosophy of remunerating weavers by shots in Germany marked the major difference between the two countries' pay systems. In Germany, the concept of pay by shots had preceded the technology of the pick clock, whereas in Britain it happened the other way around. The first batch of pick clocks to arrive in Yorkshire, purchased for inspection and experimentation in 1911 by the Huddersfield employers' association,
came from Germany. Before that date, contemporaries claimed, not a single loom in Yorkshire had a pick clock.
Even after they began testing the pick clocks, the British were unsure whether they would restructure their pay scales or would use the clocks just to measure cloth length more precisely. A change in one element of the technical environment did not call into question the overall view of the labor process. The concept of pay by shot in Germany made the usefulness of the pick clock apparent from the start. The slow adoption of pick clocks in Britain resulted not from technical backwardness but from a particular outlook upon labor. The emphasis on measuring production by the length of the output made it difficult for the British to envisage how such clocks could be used until after German industry had provided a complete demonstration. Decades earlier, British technicians had discussed the feasibility and usefulness of assembling pick clocks for looms. A mechanic in Britain had inquired as early as 1879 in the Textile Manufacturer , the central forum for technical discussions for British textiles, whether a gadget existed for registering picks as they were inserted. The magazine dismissed the notion of building a pick clock. "We are almost certain that no instrument is in the market specifically intended for this purpose," its technical editors replied, "and if there were, it is a moot point whether there would be a great demand for it." Thoughts of a pick clock disappeared until foreigners reintroduced them.
In the Lancashire cotton district, the idea of remunerating weavers by the total shots inserted appears to have occurred only among managers who, after 1902, installed American-designed Northrop automatic looms with pick clocks. In 1914 only 1 percent of the looms in Britain were of this type. The Gregs of Styal, Cheshire, began to install these new looms in 1909. The surviving account books indicate that the machines alone did not bring about a revised appreciation of weaving. This company placed Northrop looms with pick clocks next to its older weaving equipment. Only weavers on the new machines were paid by thousands of shots, since pick clocks were measuring
their output. British weavers on the Northrops contested the number of looms each of them would operate as well as the total amount of their wage, but they did not resist the new principles on which their piece earnings were based, another indication that survival of the old piece-rate systems cannot be attributed to organizational inertia or rigidity in industrial relations. The bookkeepers at the Greg firm maintained the accounts for the old and the new machines in the same volume. They awkwardly divided the pages into different sets of columns for the two types, because they calculated the net efficiency only of the new looms. The categories used to measure output and efficiency with the alien technology on new looms were not generalized to the mill as a whole. Their introduction did not lead to revision in the symbolic apparatuses of production for old looms. When the British came into contact with imported technologies, they lost some of the techniques that reproduced their own construct of labor as a commodity. But given the stability in the other parts of the ensemble of practices, the established concept of labor was reproduced.
When the British adopted methods for calculating an efficiency ratio on new looms, their methods did not always conform to the cultural framework in place in Germany. At the firm of Benjamin Thornber and Sons in Burnley, records show that managers began calculating the efficiency of production no later than 1919. Unlike German managers, however, they did not begin with the maximum production possible in a given unit of time. They calculated the hours required to complete a piece of cloth of a fixed length with uninterrupted operation of the loom and then compared this with the actual number of hours used to produce cloth of that length. To be sure, the formula expressed efficiency as a percentage of the maximum possible, as in Germany. Yet fabric partitioned time, not time fabric; British practitioners
reasoned in this instance from hours per cloth, not, as the Germans did, from cloth per hour. Even when the British analyzed the use of labor in time, then, they sometimes began with the length of cloth, not the motions executed, as labor's denominator, a sign that change did not necessarily push them toward the German perspective of transmission of labor as a commodity.
Whether the systems of industrial practice in Germany and Britain contained endogenous forces for change that would have revealed themselves but for the intervention of the First World War, no one is in a position to determine. In the event, the force summoned to dislocate the systems was the organizational influence of the state, which broke the liberal-capitalist occultism of commodity production. In both Germany and Britain, during the war the state assumed greater responsibility for determining the rate at which workers were paid. In Germany, the workers' receipts from employers for piecework were adjusted to provide additional allowances, regardless of performance, to men for each dependent child. Government intervened to decide not just the social benefits workers received as citizens but the wages they received as wage laborers, which now diverged from the quantity of labor power expended. The state determined not just the amount of pay but the formula by which it was calculated. The purchase of labor as a commodity through the autonomous workings of the market was not circumscribed; rather, it was completely undermined.
In Britain the breakdown of a market in raw materials and labor is illustrated by the policies of the Cotton Control Board, an association of textile manufacturers appointed in 1917 by the government Board of Trade. The Control Board allocated raw cotton at controlled prices to manufacturers, who were required to purchase a license to operate all their standing machinery. The more equipment the mill owners operated, the greater the levies they owed to the Cotton Control Board; the funds were used to provide unemployment relief for operatives in the industry. The board also controlled wage agreements. When the spinners, weavers, and card-room workers began negotiations in 1918 for large pay raises, the Cotton Control Board threatened (with great effect) to eliminate unemployment relief. Clearly, the bargaining no longer revolved around the sale of materialized labor, but centered on the collectively managed maintenance of labor power.
The war brought about a fundamental shift in the symbolic apparatuses of production in Britain. Perhaps because manufacturers had to purchase a license for each machine they wanted to run, they began to abandon the custom of locking tardy workers out; instead, they threatened to make latecomers put in a full day of labor by working past quitting time. Government-sponsored costing principles made it superfluous to reckon expenditures on overlookers' labor as an input embodied in the cloth; instead, overlookers received a guaranteed wage whether or not they or their underlings worked. In Germany, workers' struggles in the postwar period were no longer played out through the anonymous
mechanisms of the market, but shifted to the political and state administrative sectors. The revolutionary conflicts over the state constitution and over employee management of factories upon the conclusion of the war allowed struggle between employers and workers to appear for an instant on the ground of their "own mutual personal relations."
The intensifying governmental responsibility for the constitution of the labor process since the First World War suggests that the principle of labor as a commodity has lost its salience as the primary mechanism that both integrates social exchange as a whole and organizes the lifeworld of the producers. Perhaps, then, the disappearance of labor power as a category of human experience in contemporary Marxist theory at the end of the twentieth century was only to have been expected. Perhaps, too, labor power could be rediscovered by scholars as a lived category of nineteenth-century production only through a retrospective inquiry: so long as capitalism appeared as a unitary system with an historical dynamic of its own, researchers would conceive of labor's specification, not as a culturally variable form, but as a universal form of understanding that emanated from the essence of the system. But to investigate the symbolic constitution of practices on the shop floor at the end of the twentieth century, the question may no longer be what form labor takes as a commodity on its own terms, but how that form is intertwined with categories that supplement the role once played by labor alone. As Habermas has emphasized, the commodity of labor has been supplanted by the juridical categories, increasingly salient for citizens and clients of state bureaucracies, that autonomously connect the parts of society apart from the mechanism of exchange value.
Although the effective forms of culture may have changed, the past still offers guidance for the exploration of the institutions of manufacture in the present. From the geometry of the factory portals to the denominators of fabric, labor's commodity form in the nineteenth century did not lie underneath practice but in it. Likewise, for researchers of the present, as for poets and theologians, divinity is contained within life's humblest details. To find the treasure in the concrete, investigators of factories in our own age require neither faith nor dogma, only theory, as Marx's fading categories continue to show us.