Variable Capital, Variable Capitalists, and the Fictions of Capital
"The way to get farm labor is to get it. Get it where it is to be had. Get it just as you would any other commodity."
--A California farmer in The Pacific Rural Press, 1917 (quoted in McWilliams 1939: 174)
It is 1917 . . . or 1893 . . . or 1921. No matter. So long as we understand that the social relations of the wage have gripped California agriculture, let us venture a few simple abstractions.
In the act and time of labor, the bodies of wage workers circulate capital and momentarily trap it. Waged laborers, as variable capitals/quasi-commodities in farm production, become temporarily joined to the productive capital of the farm on all sorts of scales. During select portions of the year, a single grower might purchase dozens of other people's body-time, directing labor power toward sowing seeds, coordinating irrigation flow, thinning crops, climbing ladders, or picking fruit. Over an entire crop region, thousands of these bodies will repeat these acts in uncounted combination. They will become extensions of thousands of farm tools and machines, while tools and machines will become extensions of thousands of bodies. In a single year, throughout the San Joaquin Valley, Southern California, the Imperial Valley, legions of bodies will tramp the ground that feeds the roots; they will temporarily interrupt sunlight as they lean over and work their fingers through stems or vines to find ripe berries, harvest grapes, or cut asparagus. Sometime during the heat of the day, these legions will pause for some food and drink. A portion of agrarian capital will come to a halt.
Employed as variable capital, a body, in the singular and plural sense, becomes a geographical space for circulating capital, no less than a crop district, an irrigation network, or even a branch-banking system. Yet, circulation must pause for these bodies, as it must for crops in the ground, irrigation canals under construction, or seasons of price deflation. As we saw in the previous chapter, there simply is no circulation without a barrier to circulation. The laborer becomes possessed by capital but also possesses, moves capital forward, but derails it, too. This