Well I think we have waded into the “deeper waters” of Marx’s complex thought here.
To appreciate what Marx seems to be saying, we need to go back to his fundamental assertion that what makes human labor unique is the creative and knowledge value that human beings add to their work. This is a critical consideration in understanding how capitalism then corrupts, distorts and negates this value - through subsuming labor, objectifying it, abstracting it, appropriating it, alienating it, commodifying it - in this case via mechanical automation. Machines help turn people into predictable, usable, but essentially valueless and non-living variations of fixed capital. At the same time (and here Marx contradicts himself a bit - or at least provides contradictory arguments for similar ends) machinery both reduces the time that human labor is involved in a given measure of productivity, while at the same time prolonging a worker’s capacity to work. In one way or another, Marx sees this as working against capital’s own definition of how wage slaves can enrich themselves, even as surplus value (profit) is expanded for the capitalist. Thus Marx is arguing that both the qualitative and quantitative value of labor is being eliminated in service to capital, and that this is - intuitively, if not obviously - unsustainable and self-defeating.
The second part of Marx’s argument, concerning disposable time, is a bit more subtle. What I think he is getting at is that the increase in worker free time because of automation will result in greater self-development of the individual. And this development, in turn, will inherently set itself against the non-agency of automatic, mindless, lifeless labor - because “real wealth” will then be measured in disposable time, rather than wage income. The irony he points to is that the objective of capitalism is to maximize surplus labor, while a consequence of that very effort is an increase in disposable time, which is antithetical to surplus labor. Further, all of these trajectories - an increase in disposable time, an increase in soulless labor, and a desire for greater profit from surplus labor - are all fundamentally contradictory. And this is what Marx hints to be an inevitable transformative current in society. At least I think this is what he is getting at here. If someone can find the original German for these passages and post it here, I might be able to provide some better insight. Translation is an art…and not always accurate if the person translating doesn’t understand the concepts being discussed.
As to what I think of all this…I think Marx is basically correct, and that history has already proven much his assessment to be valid. I also think that he was essentially inventing language for concepts and dynamics which themselves were relatively new, which is why his wording and reasoning can sometimes be so abstruse.
My 2 cents.
P.S. As I was describing this post to my wife, I ended up summarizing it this way: “Basically if Marx watched Office Space, he would nod knowingly and say ‘Yes, yes, I saw this coming….’”
From Quora post: https://www.quora.com/What-do-you-think-about-Karl-Marxs-Fragment-on-Machines/answer/T-Collins-Logan
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