Text message: what does Marx have to say about Jamie Oliver style school lunches?

At the beginning of chapter 16, more than half way through the first volume of Capital, Marx seems very often to be thinking of food. We have seen him worried about a coat, perhaps shivering in the reading room of the British Museum, but here he turns his attention to education and school dinners. Well, perhaps not school dinners, but dinners and schooling of the workers. For several chapters he is working out the ways capital seeks to extract greater surplus value through modifications of the skill base of the working class. Primarily this means education, training, discipline, but can also mean increasing productivity by means of the robust health – nutrition – of the workforce. An army marches on its stomach of course, and Marx by chapter 24 is quoting John Stuart Mill on wages as a necessary fund for consumption. Then there is an anonymous eighteenth century authority who complains that the workers consume too many luxuries – if only ‘our poor’ would live less luxuriously, consuming ‘brandy, gin, tea, sugar, foreign fruit, strong beer, printed linens, snuff, tobacco etc’ (An Essay on Trade and Commerce, 1770 p44-46, Marx 1867/1967:748). Not to deny the workers such pleasures out of sheer spite, the effort here, Marx notes, is to ‘force down English wages’. Some twenty years later, a certain Count Rumford (a ‘remarkable philosopher’ and ‘American humbug, the ennobled Yankee [also known as] Benjamin Thompson’) goes so far as to suggest cheaper substitutes for the expensive tastes of the workers and prepares a soup recipe which Marx details with the care of a post-Dickensian Jamie Oliver advising the Labour Party on school meals: ‘5 lb. of barley-meal, 7&1/2d.; 5 lb. of Indian corn, 6&1/4d.; 3d. worth of red herring,; 1d. salt 1d. vinegar, 2d. pepper and sweet herbs, in all 20&3/4d.; make a soup for 64 men, and at the median price of barley and of Indian corn … this soup may be provided at 1/4d. the portion of 20 ounces’ (Thompson quoted in Marx 1867/1967:749 – Marx then adds a footnote on Scottish workers who are ‘better’ educated than English workers and do not refuse to live. ‘very comfortably, for months together’ upon oat-meal mixed with water and salt – Eden quoted in Marx 1867/1967:749n).

Marx confirms that the adulteration of food in advanced capitalism has rendered such Rumfordian measures superfluous. We have already seen Marx reporting on bread mixed with flour, sawdust, vermin and the like, in the 1873 version of Capital now also records the innovations of capitalist medicine that were revealed as part of the inquiries relevant to the Parliamentary Commission Select Committee on the Adulteration of Food Act 1872, where ‘adulteration even of medicines is the rule, not the exception. For example, the examination of thirty-four specimens of opium, bought from the same number of different chemists in London, showed that thirty-one were adulterated with poppy-heads, wheat-flour, gum, clay, sand etc. Several specimens did not contain an atom of morphine’ (Marx 1867/1967:750n). It is no doubt some comfort to junkies in London today to know that the Afghan wars have increased poppy production and street heroin is at least not worse than that which was once sold legally on the high street.

Further comments then on workers being paid in part in bread – and other examples of ‘direct robbery from the worker’s necessary consumption fund’ (Marx 1867/1967:751).

Consumption of food by workers tends towards the most measly portions. Although the reproduction of labour-power is left ‘to the worker’s drives for self-preservation and propagation, this is continually under threat since all the capitalist cares for is to reduce the worker’s individual consumption to the necessary minimum’ (Marx 1867/1967:718). In the South African mines this can be a crude minimum of beans and bread, all the better for being substantial rather than less substantial (tastier) fare, since these workers must carry heavy loads of ore to the surface. ‘The consumption of food by a beast of burden does not become any less a necessary aspect of the production process because the beast enjoys what it eats’ (Marx 1867/1967:718). But to maintain itself, and to reproduce itself, the workers are only indirectly managed – though more and more by the nanny state of present times, so also in the Parliamentary Reports of Marx’s day – these are but ‘invisible threads’ (Marx 1867/1967:719) binding wage-labourers to their puppet-master owners.

Alongside the forcing down of wages to levels of French and Dutch workers (Engels adds that the lower remunerated Chinese workers had become the standard – third German edition Marx 1867/1967:749n), the innovations of science and technology which increase the pressure under which the workers work, the ‘main burden’ of the partial depreciation of fixed capital through competition and innovation ‘falls on the worker, in whose increased exploitation the capitalist seeks compensation for his loss’ (Marx 1867/1967:754). The consequence of civil war amongst competing capitals is ever more malnourished workers, even as these workers must be accustomed to greater skills, efficiencies, streamlinings and co-ordinations.

For the capitalist, this is a necessity in several ways – an initial drive for self-enrichment – avarice – then becomes ‘a business necessity’ as the ‘exhibition of wealth’ enters as luxury into capital’s ‘expenses of representation’. This attracts credit, since the capitalist must expand: ‘Moreover, the capitalist gets rich, not, like the miser, in proportion to his personal labour and restricted consumption, but at the same rate at which he squeezes out labour-power from others, and compels the worker to renounce all the enjoyments of life’. But while we can be sure that bastard money-bags is enjoying this luxury, it is somehow also a farce of contradiction, his enjoyment restrained by ‘sordid avarice and anxious calculating lurking in the background … a Faustian conflict’ (Marx 1867/1967:741). Of course there is no need to feel sympathy for this pact with the devil.


So back to chapter 16, Marx is thinking of food but also education. An insightful passage compares different ways of producing what is essential for the capitalist – the production not of commodities, but of surplus-value. Workers are employed by capital to produce surplus-value, not just to produce. And the capitalist does not care so much what work or what commodities are made, so long as surplus-value, and increasing amounts of it, is the consequence. Then this citation, which deserves to be entered on the statues of every university today:

‘a schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation’ (Marx 1867/1967:644).

Of course today a university and many schools are run by the state, and while a lecturer does not produce surplus value through lecturing, but rather adds value to the students future labour by way of increased productivity, university today is also a teaching factory insofar as degrees are sold for international income, training programs are delivered for industry free of charge, and a massive infrastructure – a knowledge industry – arises upon the very idea of education.

The value of labour-power is in part determined by the ‘cost of developing that power, which varies with the mode of production’ (Marx 1867/1967:654). The economies of labour-time earnt by increased productivity are of course soon adopted by other capitals and become standard – the value of labour power varies in cost – ‘an increase in the productivity of labour causes a fall in the value of labour-power and a consequent rise in surplus-value’ (Marx 1867/1967:657) – even as factors such as training, instruction, even education become more important and increase the cost of labour-power – though of course also vary across different processes of production. The university today can be said to produce differentially trained levels of workers – alpha knowledge workers, beta service workers, Delta drones (see Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or the film Gattica).

So there is organisation, maintenance, training and reproduction (sex, childrearing, housework, community) of the workforce as crucial factors that modify rates of surplus-value extraction. It should be no surprise then that the capitalists as a class – the State – take a direct interest in such matters: labour regulation, national health, education and training, family. In addition, as we shall see later, migration and unemployment are concerns that become greatly important to capital at different times.

Yet also continually:

‘The reproduction of the working class implies at the same time the transmission and accumulation of skills from one generation to another. The capitalist regards the existence of such a skilled working class as one of the conditions of production which belong to him (Marx 1867/1967:719-720).

The next part of the discussion should be about discipline of the workforce,
Invention – p 677. Especially innovation as a tool for suppression of the workers, and R&D, City Planning, Science parks, maybe even Graduate Schools etc…

{Picture is a Deutsche Telecom ad from 1997}

9 thoughts on “Text message: what does Marx have to say about Jamie Oliver style school lunches?”

  1. That is quite simply an excellent post. This will definitely get a mention in my blog round up when I get round to writing one. Btw, you’re now on my blogroll.


  2. thanks – been reading yours for a while – I adapted your tag ‘rants’ to mine which are ‘gripes’ – so thanks again. -J


  3. ‘Moreover, the capitalist gets rich, not, like the miser, in proportion to his personal labour and restricted consumption, but at the same rate at which he squeezes out labour-power from others, and compels the worker to renounce all the enjoyments of life’.

    This is why I took up shoplifting when I was on welfare, and continue to do so to this day, even tho I don’t need to do it any more.

    I really don’t care what you think of the so-called “Evasion culture”, I know that shoplifting fed me well when I was on welfare. True, I could’ve sucked dick like a whore for money to buy food, as some are known to do, but lo behold, I am a feminist and cocksucking4money to buy food was no option; stealing was, so I just forewent the cocksucking4money and headed straight into and out of the store.

    This will sound blasphemous, but to this day, I respect shoplifters more for their survival skills than I do hookers (“Of course there is no need to feel sympathy for this pact with the devil”, indeed). Unfortunately, feminists still seem obsessed with the latter than with the former. When was the last time you read a feminist book about “self-love through shoplifting”? Oh, we have feminist self-love through masturbation”, but nothing about putting a meal on the table by robbing food from X. X. and X. (names of shopliftable stores left out).

    As a dedicated shoplifter, I just don’t understand why these hooker broads, rather than sitting there separated from each other behind red windows, don’t just form a big shoplifting-gang together and just go out robbing stores. No one would have to cocksuck4money if they did!

    As the anonymous Evasion author said about stealing food:

    “It tastes better when it’s stolen”.

    “Take it from me”, truer words have not been spoken.


  4. Hi Maria – I guess there in Netherlands you missed the guide to shoplifting, variously published by different groups over the years in Australia. I can dig out a copy and put on my links page sometime I guess. Very close friends of mine saw court cases over such publications. That said, your messing up my pristine blogspot with your spurious comments about the efforts/labour-power of those workers you call ‘cocksucking hooker broads’ is, well, somewhat lacking in both humour and respect, and thereby is in quite bad taste/not blasphemous enough by far. No need surely for you to join in with the anti-sex-worker bandwagon – there’s plenty of christians doing that work already. I mean dissing whores, not working as them – though I guess pimping for Jesus amounts to pretty much the same thing.

    There is a whole discussion of proletarian shopping [ie group ‘self-reduction’ of prices] on the autonomist scene as well. Me, I prefer to never pay retail like any wise Johnson. – be well – J


  5. More for Maria: its ‘Steal Something Day’ November 26th. A critique of the AdBusters lame Buy Nothing Day. But I would point out, poe-face, that the bosses steal something from us EVERY day – even if you produce fairly small amounts of surplus value, its still a gift to Money Bags. So while usually I do not forward these one off gestures, given the forgoing shoplifting theme, why not…

    “…a few self-described “culture jammers” from Adbusters Magazine have dubbed the last Friday in November “Buy Nothing Day.” From their stylish home base in Vancouver’s upscale suburb of Kitsilano, the Adbusters’ brain trust has encouraged conscientious citizens worldwide to “relish [their] power as a consumer to change the economic environment.” In their words, Buy Nothing Day “[p]roves how empowering it is to step out of the consumption stream for even a day.”

    The geniuses at Adbusters have managed to create the perfect feel-good, liberal, middle-class activist non-happening. A day when the more money you make, the more influence you have (like every other day). A day which, by definition, is insulting to the millions of people worldwide who are too poor or marginalized to be considered “consumers.” It’s supposed to be a 24-hour moratorium on spending, but ends up being a moralistic false-debate about whether or not you should really buy that loaf of bread today or … wait for it … tomorrow!

    Well, this year, while the Adbusters cult enjoys yet another Buy Nothing Day, accompanied by their fancy posters, stickers, TV and radio advertisements and slick webpages, a few self-described anarcho-situationists from Montreal’s East End are inaugurating Steal Something Day. Unlike Buy Nothing Day, when people are asked to “participate by not participating,” Steal Something Day demands that we “participate by participating.” Instead of downplaying or ignoring the capitalists, CEOs, landlords, small business tyrants, bosses, PR hacks, yuppies, media lapdogs, corporate bureaucrats, politicians and cops who are primarily responsible for misery and exploitation in this world, Steal Something Day demands that we steal from them, without discrimination.

    The Adbusters’ intellegentsia tell us that they’re neither “left nor right,” and have proclaimed a non-ideological crusade against overconsumption. Steal Something Day, on the other hand, identifies with the historic and contemporary resistance against the causes of capitalist exploitation, not its symptoms. If you think overconsumption is scary, wait until you hear about capitalism and imperialism. Unlike the misplaced Buy Nothing Day notion of consumer empowerment, Steal Something Day promotes empowerment by urging us to collectively identify the greedy bastards who are actually responsible for promoting misery and boredom in this world. Instead of ignoring them, Steal Something Day encourages us to make their lives as uncomfortable as possible. As we like to say in Montreal: dranger les riches dans leurs niches!

    And remember, we’re talking about stealing, not theft. Stealing is just. Theft is exploitative. Stealing is when you take a yuppie’s BMW for a joyride, and crash into a parked Mercedes just for the hell of it. Theft is when you take candy from a baby’s mouth. Stealing is the re-distribution of wealth from rich to poor. Theft is making profits at the expense of the disadvantaged and the natural environment. Theft is taxing the poor to subsidize the rich. Stealing is nothing more than a tax on the rich. There is solidarity in stealing, but property is nothing but theft.

    So, don’t pay for that corporate newspaper, but steal all of them from the box. Get some friends together and go on a “shoplifting” spree at the local chain supermarket or upscale mall. With an even larger mob, get together and steal from the local chain book or record store. Pilfer purses and wallets from easily identified yuppies and business persons. Skip out on rent. Get a credit card under a fake name and don’t pay. Keep what you can use, and give away everything else in the spirit of mutual aid that is the hallmark of Steal Something Day.

    Download our detourned poster here, make copies and stick it up wherever you can. And don’t forget, send your scamming and stealing tips to us at [log in to unmask] See you next Steal Something Day which, unlike Buy Nothing Day, happens every day of the year”

    Thought crime, its a Joy. – JH


  6. More for Maria: its ‘Steal Something Day’ November 26th.

    What do you mean “steal something *DAY*”? If only my welfare grant were that sufficient that I’d only need to steal something for *one* day out of a whole year! Tsk tsk tsk! I can assure you that what I did had nothing whatsoever to do with Adbusters or anarcho-situationists from Montreal. It also had nothing to do with wanting to combat “overconsumption”. I wasn’t consuming too much but too little: a severe iron deficit was detected! Instead, it had everything to do with being on welfare and not having enough money to buy food… and having read Evasion. Evasion is Adbusters’ biggest nightmare.

    “Journal of Militant Unemployment”

    This is what inspired me to do something about my iron deficit. And this iron deficit was NOT a protest against overconsumption. It was from not eating enough (and what I was eating was inadequate).

    Instead of ignoring them, Steal Something Day encourages us to make their lives as uncomfortable as possible.

    This I totally disagree with. I don’t think that stealing from them makes them feel uncomfortable. These big chain stores I was stealing from, they have a kind of special “insurance coverage”, where losses from stealing are all-in, calculated into the coverage! So they are basically insured against theft! So, no one was really hurt in the end. Hell, they EXPECT people to steal from them!!!

    Besides, every good activist (if this is what you’d wish to call a welfare person with an inadequate grant) knows that for a “protest” to be effective, it has to be determined, consistent and involving a mass (of people, or stolen goods). But that’s sort of like saying: for stealing to be effective, you have to have lots of people on welfare starving most of the time!

    I’ll be hard pressed to conceptualize stealing food as some kind of a protest, cos, as you say, the Adbusters joke “ends up being a moralistic false-debate about whether or not you should really buy that loaf of bread today or … wait for it … tomorrow!”. The promise of capitalism is that “something greater is almost within reach of every loser leech lowlife”, so Adbusters unwittingly endorses the same false promise propagated by capitalism: sometime “tomorrow”, you will be able to buy bread.

    What I did not tell you was that apart from food I also stole medicines (not illegal drugs, over-the-counter drugs) while I was on welfare. This was after the Xian govt privatized the healthcare coverage. I couldn’t afford a certain medicine (30 euros a bottle), it was available off-the-shelf at a big chain store, and so… we can watch Moore’s SICKO in the big movieplex, if we’re lucky he’ll fly us over to Cuba so we can purchase some cheap drugs, or we can go out and steal the drugs we can’t afford from the big chair stores. Cuba is no option for me, stealing is. But you can’t steal X-rays, and you can’t steal a life-saving operation. You can’t steal healthcoverage either. Hence why they use your health (your own body) against you to suck you into the system. It’s like healthcare is now a reward for being a good capitalist. It’s Xian body-hatred enforced by means of a capitalist privatized health-care system.

    The Adbusters’ intelligentsia tell us that they’re neither “left nor right,”

    And this is why I would totally ignore them, every time someone claims they are beyond left/right you know you are dealing with an idiot.

    Stealing is when you take a yuppie’s BMW for a joyride, and crash into a parked Mercedes just for the hell of it.

    I never stole from individuals. Never. That was actually one of the most persistent critiques against Evasion. A lot of people worried that once you start stealing from stores, you will slip into a moral downward spiral, and will end up start stealing left and right indiscriminately. So I resisted and argued against stealing from individuals. I didn’t steal from little pop-n-mom stores either. Not because I support enterpreneurism (I do not) but because most of these stores are run by foreigners, and gawd knows they are barely making enough to survive. I only stole from the big chains. And I never stole any so-called luxury goods (computers, stereos, mobile phones, etc). Only food and drugs.

    There is solidarity in stealing, but property is nothing but theft.

    That’s one of the best things about it, actually: feeding yourself and your friends and family too!



  7. Great lecture yesterday. I really enjoyed it. It made me think of a
    couple of things.

    First, this article in McGill’s student paper that I read one afternoon in undergrad over a coffee:

    Second, my time in Ciudad Juarez, the infamous Us/Mexico border town, continuous with El Paso, where women are slaughtered in the desert (raped, one breast ritualistically cut off, corpse abandoned) on their way to and from the sweatshops. I
    wrote a paper while I was there discussing why it might be in the
    interest of the multinationals to pay such ridiculously low wages;
    basically arguing that it was to ensure the reproduction of cheap
    labour since people aren’t paid enough to leave, to be educated, and the economy of Juarez has been crashed, ghettoized by NAFTA and the proliferation of maquiladoras. Minimum wage is by the day in Mexico, not the hour, and it’s at 50 pesos the day (2.5 quid). Working 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, people bring home about 15£. Which is not enough to live on no matter where you live. I was staying with a family with three girls (2, 4, 6) in a two room cement house, gun fights in the street at night, literally.



Comments are closed.