New Criticals

Killing Time, Pt. [3] - Machinery and The Factory Floor


Some crippling of body and mind is inseperable even from the division of labor in society as a whole. - Karl Marx

The logic of capitalism orients all things towards valorization. Workers not working are not generating value and, likewise, “a machine which is not active in the labor process is useless.” [1] That is, a machine not being worked is not working, at least properly, in industrial manufacture. Time not at work is time lost. Capitalism has always understood that time off is just as essential as time on. Machines unused will fall “prey to the destructive power of natural processes. Iron rusts; wood rots…[and so] living labor must seize on these things, awaken them from the dead, change them from merely possible into real and effective use values.” [2] Without labor, even the utility of the most advanced machine is negated. In a perfectly productive world, well-integrated machines would align with diverse and innumerable laborers in perpetual activity. [3] Machines, which had abolished “the role of the handicraftsman as the regulating principle of social production,” assert themselves as that very same regulating principle, rising to prominence in the realms of economic, industrial, and social production. [4] All said, machinery occupies a vital position to not only capitalism and its functioning but to humanity; it is created by, interacts with, shapes, and is shaped by humans and their labor at every turn.

Machinery under capitalism was not designed to decrease the average workers toil but to “cheapen commodities…by shortening the part of the working day in which the work works for himself [and lengthening] the other part, the part he gives to the capitalist for nothing.” [5] Capitalist developmental ideology tells us: “We are working hard to make work easier on you.” The stress here is the relationship between machines, capitalism, labor and the character of machines in industrial capitalism. Even if manufacturing disappears from view, machines will not, though that does not mean that machines will always look and work the same. A machine can essentially be anything, so long as it possesses certain characteristics, is technological, fits into a system of capitalism that employs it as a means of production, and, as a means of production, works first and foremost for capitalism by making labor more efficient and productive.

A factory full of machines working in unison is co-operation, not unlike that which takes place between laborers brought together under the capitalist on a factory floor. The collection of machines “in an organized system…where one machine is constantly kept employed by another” establishes a fixed relation “between their number, their size, and their speed,” resulting in a “collective working machine, [an] articulated system composed of various kinds of a single machine, and of group of single machines, [becoming] all the more perfect the more the process as a whole becomes a continuous one.” [6] This continuity is perfected the more the passage of raw material is uninterrupted, by way of machinery, from beginning to end.

In other words, the mechanization of the production process reaches optimization when the human role is most minimal. The industrial worker should initiate and conclude the process, but the stages of production in between – namely the most laborious steps, the hard work – should be handled by the machine; the less human intervention in the systematic functioning of the machinery, the better. A well-oiled machine and a well-articulated machine network will run smoothly. This is not to say that humans can, or even should be, replaced – they remain the catalysts and controllers. [7] Once a machine or system of machines “executes [movements to elaborate raw material or accomplish a particular task], without man’s help…and needs only supplementary assistance from the worker, we have an automatic system of machinery, capable of constant improvement in its details.” [8] Any 19th century factory worth its salt would serve as an example of seamlessly integrated automatic production. Perfection is in the details.

From the beginning of the industrial revolution that saw the introduction of machinery and factories into the means of production, capitalism embraced wholeheartedly principles of networking and distribution. To maximize labor-power, and exploit the dormant (social) value of labor, the capitalist brought together man with man in one restricted space to work together. This is the first step in establishing an industrial network, generally followed by a complex system of supply chains for raw materials and import/export networks for reaching markets. Collective work was distributed among bodies and machines in a proto-network that emphasized communication and coordination. The worker need not worry about the quality of an individual commodity and can focus with intellectual energy and communication on perfecting the machine that makes many commodities.

Though the basic network of a factory is a hierarchical one, with the capitalist at the head, it also contains within it a multitude of networks – between workers, between machines, and between the two – that operate in the most productive capacity by utilizing multi-directional connectivity. A factory full of machines is a proto-network that achieves perfection in the computers of today, wherein all activity between enter and return is communicated to, truncated, processed, and run by the computer instantaneously, so much so that even the functions of “enter” and “return” are unified on a single key. These computational actions are obscured from view, mystified, then produced and distributed throughout an individual computer’s system and/or its associated network, a network that, like the machines of the industrial revolution, extends back outward to the human operator.


[1] Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, and Ernest Mandel. Capital. a Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin in Association with New Left Review, 1990. Print., 289.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Though we are speaking on an industrial production - having the character of manufacturing material goods for mass consumption within a traditional labor-capital relation of a standardized working day and waged factory labor - the ideal does not shift much going forward.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 492.
[6] Ibid., 502.
[7] They also exert mental energy, all through pre-planning and execution, which increases in value and importance as skill becomes less critical and production more mechanically automated.
[8] Ibid., 503.