If the production of a surplus over more or less immediate consumption by those who work in a society is small or too hazardous or costly to collect, or slavery (for example) was a better option, development of other classes would be stymied, because any surplus would be inadequate to allow the generalised development of other classes and the instrument of their rule – the state. This includes not just non-producing classes that live off the labour of others but those engaged in production of goods not strictly required for consumption, such as handicrafts or luxury items.
A small surplus that periodically disappeared could not support any permanent class that did not work but lived off the products of the labour of others. This class would be unable to develop its own consumption to allow it to develop the ostentatious wealth to be found today as the artefacts in museums, or to build themselves palaces or Cathedrals and churches that validate the divinity of the rulers.
Historically, the non-existence of a sustainable surplus has meant an egalitarian society simply because appropriation of wealth would leave the labourer who produced the wealth unable to reproduce themselves. No parasitic ruling class could develop because everyone had to work to ensure survival of the community. As productivity improved this surplus was able to support a ruling class that lived off the labour of others and the greater and more sustainable the surplus the greater the social and political edifice that could be created by the ruling class to support its rule.
Sharp increases or deterioration in the level of surplus could lead the ruling classes to either seek to maintain their level of consumption by increasing their exploitation of the exploited classes, or by relaxing it in order that the producing classes may recover, and some historical debate revolves around the conditions that lead to one or the other approach in particular periods in particular places.
On the other hand, the capitalist development of production continually revolutionises the means of production and constantly seeks to expand consumption, even when this may be considered harmful to humanity, either directly or through the destruction of nature. This expansion creates huge deposits of wealth and the most outrageous extravagance, which recent research has suggested the majority of people massively underestimate.
Finally, the development of society’s productive potential can open up the possibility that it is no longer necessary that the level of surplus be monopolised by one class, and that its extent is so great that all can share in the surplus created by the productive forces. Relations of production based on class are no longer necessary in order to divide an inadequate surplus that compels some to work on behalf of others.
It is the Marxist case that capitalism has developed the forces of production to such an extent that the potential surplus that can be produced allows the disappearance of exploiting and exploited classes. A social revolution led by the working class can lead to the abolition of all classes, not immediately and all at once, but over a historical period, achieved through further development of the forces of production, possible through more appropriate relations of production – fully cooperative production by the associated producers.
For critics of Marxism the existence of egalitarian societies in the past really is history, and irrelevant, or alternatively an opportunity to level the old charge that socialism is about levelling down. That so many differently organised societies – from different types of feudalism to different types of oriental despotic societies – can exist with not so very different levels of surplus extraction, is held to cast doubt that the analysis of Marx has much use in understanding society.
Finally, the view that Marx’s understanding opens up the possibility of a radically egalitarian society in the future is labelled utopian. To sum up – history is deliberately narrowed to blinker appreciation of the full course of its development or its future possibilities.
For Marxists, the explanatory power of the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production is not limited to the scale of surplus extracted and the implications of this for the form of class rule, if any. The development of the forces of production, whether it be the replacement of living labour power by machines or, it is increasingly speculated today, by robots, is a powerful contributor to the class struggle, as workers seek to protect their employment and the conditions of that employment, including their wages, which are threatened by reduction due to de-skilling.
Machines make humans agents of their needs and requirements, rather than being the creation of humanity for the purpose of relieving it of the worst aspects of labour. This results in more intensive exploitation as the restful pores within the working day are filled by more intensive and continuous labour, with work sometimes filling all 24 hours of the day. On the other hand, new forces of production develop new skills and, as we have seen, the possibility of an entirely new society.
The development of the forces of production fundamentally involves the development of the working population, the greatest productive power, both within historically developed societies, through for example more women participating in the non-domestic labour process, and geographically, as more and more previously undeveloped countries become the home of growing capitalist production. We are familiar with the development of East Asia and China and also of India, but one can now read reports in business papers noting the potential development of industrialisation in Africa..
For some decades now humanity has become increasingly aware that the uncontrolled increase in productive forces, which pay no heed to the full material effects of their growth, threatens humanity through degrading the planetary environment in which we live. However, while the forces of production develop, it is the relations of production which are key to making a qualitative change to the mode of production as a whole. Humanity’s interface with nature, whilst being itself a vital part of that nature, can only be made complementary and supportive if the relations of humanity to itself are not exploitative and antagonistic.
In these many ways, we see the primacy of the development of the forces of production, not as some autonomous force derived from a disembodied internal logic of the system but from the effects of their material growth, derived from the class relations in which they are sited, and which in turn affects these class relations. Much of the misunderstanding of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production arises from an analytical failure that views them as wholly separate, with material forces such as technology on one side and human relations on the other.
A second misconception is to see the development of the forces of production in history almost automatically and inevitably resulting in changed productive relations. Automatically – no, inevitably – perhaps, but the latter does not mean linear or inevitable progress, and productive forces can be fettered, to use Marx’s term, for a very long time. Marx did not claim to have a “master key of a general historico-philosophical theory” the virtue of which was that it “consists in being supra-historical.”
The relationship between the forces and relations of production will be developed more in the next post.
Back to part 18
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