A few weeks ago I wrote a post exploring how animals appeared in Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. I drew attention to how Marx claimed that there was a fundamental difference between human and animal labour, and then suggested that other aspects of his argument could be used to historicise the division between humans and animals. A few chapters on, and animals are again invoked, but in a different way — one that acknowledges that definitions of ‘human’ and ‘animal’ are contingent and change over time.
In his chapter ‘Cooperation’, in the section ‘The Production of Relative Surplus-Value’, Marx outlines the utility for capital of employing labour to work cooperatively, in order to increase the extraction of surplus-value. Describing one benefit of having more workers working together, Marx writes:
Apart from the new power that arises from the fusion of many forces into a single force, mere social contact begets in most industries a rivalry and a stimulation of the ‘animal spirits’, which heightens the efficiency of each individual worker. This is why a dozen people working together will produce far more, in their collective working day of 144 hours than twelve isolated men each working for 12 hours, and far more than one man who works 12 days in succession. This originates from the fact that man, if not as Aristotle thought a political animal, is at all events a social animal.
Here Marx is not so much distinguishing the human from the animal, as in the passage I discussed before, but he is instead pointing out the animal-like traits of humans. And in positive terms. People working together become more like animals in their energy, because of the particular sociability of the human-animal. What caught my attention however, was a footnote at the end of this passage.
The real meaning of Aristotle’s definition is that man is by nature citizen of a town. This is quite as characteristic of classical antiquity as [Benjamin] Franklin’s definition of man as a tool-making animal is characteristic of Yankeedom.
Although Marx does not go on to elaborate quite why Aristotle’s definition is characteristic of antiquity or why Franklin’s definition is characteristic of ‘Yankeedom’, the note reveals his awareness that definitions of what it means to be human are historical.
So, I was wrong when I suggested that Marx had a fixed definition of the animal-human division. Instead, in Capital, and other writings, there seems to be more ambivalence and fluidity in his understandings.
[N.b. The quotes I have used has been taken from: Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), pp. 443-444.]