The use of labour and machinery in production

The use of Labour and machinery in production is the heart of economic performance of the modern industrialised world, during pre-capitalist in Europe there was no organised system to mass produce goods and other services, food and clothing were the basic thing they were able to produce but not in a great amount. But with the emergence of capitalism everything changed it transformed Europe and made it the most important continent in the world. This essay is going to argue and try to answer how Capitalist economy was different from the previous forms in terms of labour and machinery and how some of the great thinkers of past would have examined.

Labour in pre-capitalist economy

Unlike a capitalist economy medieval economy was largely an agricultural economy manned by forced labour such as serfs and slaves. In medieval societies serfs were form of property owned by a lord or guild master. Serfs were tied to their land by custom they could not move or leave without the permission of a lord if the land on which they work is sold the serf goes with it. Serfs were obliged to work on the lord’s fields and to contribute some of what they produce, in return the lord provided protection (Heilbroner & Milberg, 2002). During antiquity production of large scale which can sustain all the people was limited for example, an antiquity labourer although “self-sufficient” did not had the capability to support none agricultural population nor the capacity to mass produced as pointed out by Heilbroner & Milberg ( 2002:16) “by and large the ability of medieval economy  to maintain none agricultural society was limited compared to capitalist economy”.

The second form of labour that existed was slavery like capitalist slavery on large magnitude was important to pre-capitalist economy unlike serfs though who were relatively free, slaves were not. In ancient Rome for example slavery was important for the growth and the economy of the Empire, similarly slavery was also fundamental to the growth of the capitalism a good example of this is the sugar and cotton plantation in America (Beaud, 2001). In fourth century in ancient Athens  at least one third of its inhabitants were slaves (Heilbroner & Milberg, 2002). This shows how important slavery was to capitalist and pre capitalist economies. During antiquity or feudalism serfs owned what they produced whereas in contrast, a worker under capitalist lost the right of ownership to what he produced instead he became a wage earner (Heilbroner & Milberg, 2002).

Under capitalist economy, labour became a free “commodity” to be sold in the markets for the highest possible price if the wages offered were not enough the worker was free to go to sell his labour to another employer. (Heilbroner & Milberg, 2002). Therefore labour could move to its most productive use for example, instead of being tied on the land when they are not needed any more they could cause more growth by working mines, textile, mills or factories. Paradoxically, under capitalist labour was not free at all like previous economies capitalist continued to practice a force labour as demonstrated during the slave trade in Africa. Millions of African slaves were forcibly removed from their homes and exported to a distant land far away from theirs to be exploited by the capitalist. Therefore slave labour considerably helped the development of capitalist in Europe (Beaud, 2001). Furthermore as Braveman (1974) suggested, Marx argued that, capitalist has adopted three principles first, “the dissociation of labour process from the skill workers” second the “separation of conception from execution” and third the “managerial use of this monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labour process”. Thus the separation of hand and brain of labour is most decisive single step in division of labour taken by the capitalist mode of production (Braverman, 1974, pp.113,114,119).

One other thing that differentiated pre-capitalist from capitalist is use of guilds; these were institutions that controlled the tools and other materials needed to produce a product a worker had to stay with guild master for number of years with little or no pay. One could not run a business without being belong to or being a member of guild (Heilbroner & Milberg, 2002) therefore guilds were another form of obstacle to the progress of the labour.


In terms of machinery the big change between these economies is that under capitalist machinery was continually improved,  and new steam powered machines was invented for example John Lombe (1693-1722) stole  the secrets of spinning from Italy and built  a mill in England in 1717(Beaud, 2001). Furthermore, the steam powered machines was used to drain water from the mines (Beaud, 2001). The introduction of powerful machinery was a major turning point in human history and had a big impact on workers because the use of machinery multiplied labour’s productive energy (Heilbroner , 2000). Furthermore many workers felt that machines are taking away their work and as result some resorted to violence against this form of production for example, in 1733 John Kay (1704–1780) invented the “flying shuttle” which made easier textile production in larger numbers and as result his house was destroyed by angry works and skilled craftsmen (Beaud, 2001).

Marx and labour

Marx argued that the capitalist exploited the worker by separating the worker from what he produced, and by alienating the worker from the labour process as well as his fellow workers therefore as Marx put it, “the worker sank to the level of a commodity and became the most miserable commodity” (, 2009). Furthermore he developed “labour theory of value” which stated that the “exchange value” of any goods or services is really made up of “congealed” human labour. He argued that capitalists paid workers significantly less than the true value of what they produced. He called the difference between what workers produced and what they were paid “surplus value” (Singer, 2000 p59-70 ). What we commonly call profit is the surplus value extracted from labour and taken by capitalist (Singer, 2000).  Thus Marx argued that capitalism was motivated by the accumulation of surplus value. “The worker does not necessarily gain when the capitalist gains, but he necessarily loses with him Marx argued”  (, 2009).

Smith and labour

Smith also talked about labour his main focus was increasing “division of labour” through the “specialization” of the labour force into specific roles basically breaking down big tasks into many small tasks, under this system each worker focuses his or her attention on one small part of the production process therefore, a worker becomes specialist in one specific area of production thus increasing his effectiveness (Smith, 2008, p.12)



Marx and Machinery

On machinery Marx argued that although machinery produces larger scale production  than the worker, it displaces trained workers by untrained workers it also replaces “men by women, and adult by children” (, 2009).Marx further believed that machines enslaved man so much so that man becomes part of the machines  (, 2009). And whenever a new machine is introduced it leads mass unemployment and therefore, more machines will result less workers. Marx further argued that the more the capitalist develops the more it widens the application of machinery which further reduces the skills and wages of the worker. (, 2009). This is a similar view that was held by David Ricardo when he said that “the use of machinery could harm wages and reduce the demand for labour which further reduces productivity” (Samuelson, 1988) Furthermore Marx believed the machines are another form of alienation because the introduction of powerful machines reduced the role of the worker this leads what Wendling (2009, pp2-10) called “technology alienation” this means as Wending further explained the worker is not only controlled by the commodities he or she produces the very tools or machines with which those labours work dominate them. (Wendling, 2009, pp2-10)

In conclusion pre-capitalist economies were largely based on agriculture their ability to sustain none agricultural population was limited. Forced labour such as serfs and slaves were the backbone of this economy. Whereas serfs were relatively free, slaves were not. During feudalism serfs owned what they produced however, under capitalism labour lost the right to own his or her produce but unlike previous economies labour became free commodity to be sold freely and was able to move around freely without any restrictions.

During pre-capitalist economy there was little or no machinery. The emergence of capitalism led the introduction of new powerful machinery such machines had positive and negative impact on society for example machinery greatly  increase the production thus benefiting the capitalist and on the other hand, poor workers felt that machines decreased the demand for labour. Karl Max argued that capitalist exploited the worker and alienated from his produce. On the other hand Smith focused increasing division of labour into specific roles so that each worker dedicates himself on a specific area of the production.

Marx acknowledged that machinery helped and made possible large scale production but, he was also very critical to the use of machines in production. Marx believed that machines replaced skilled worker by unskilled worker he further believed that the use of machines could result unemployment, this was further supported by David Ricardo by agreeing with Marx and saying that machines could harm wages and reduced the demand for labour. Indeed, the emergence of capitalism transformed the way the modern society conducts its day to day economic and social activities, the question is how long will capitalism last and what type of economy will replace it?


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