Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 20 – forces and relations of production 3

History develops through the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, the forces representing the material, including human, organisation of productive powers and the relations representing the social relations between the classes entailed by the productive forces.

Socialists have always recognised that socialism will have more developed and powerful productive forces than capitalism and will have radically different relations of production, within which classes themselves will disappear.

So, in general terms, Marx identifies human progress in history as the development of individuals and society’s productive powers, their productivity.  At any point in time these productive powers take on a particular form, with a particular configuration of classes corresponding to the historical development of the productive forces.

In general terms, it can also be said that humanity seeks to reduce the burden of labour while securing its reproduction with the highest possible quality of life, in other words there is an incentive to develop the forces of production.  This however is constrained, or rather is developed, through the relations that humans have with each other, as we have said – all human labour is social labour – and this social labour gives rise to particular classes.  The form that these classes take determines the “forms of development of the productive forces”, as Marx says in the 1859 Preface.

In capitalism, the capitalist class seeks to maximise profit through the extraction (as exploitation) of surplus labour, and in so far as this means maximising production it has been a powerful spur to the development of humanity’s productive powers.  Capitalism strives to develop the social surplus, the surplus of production over and above that consumed by the direct producers, the working class, so that this can be accumulated as profit.  As the capitalist class exists as many fractions and individual units, this drive to maximise the surplus is also driven forcefully by capitalist completion which, on pain of extinction by their rivals, the different units must accept and follow.

Contradictions arise from production for use and production for profit, as the commodities produced are both useful to their purchasers, being use values, and have exchange value, that is they have commensurate values, which different use values do not, that allows their exchange with each other on account of their all being the products of human labour.

Marx in Capital explains how this contradiction lies at the heart of the development of the capitalist system and its contradictions.  It is therefore clear that this contradiction at the level of society is expressed in the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production, in production for use and production as a consequence of the capitalist nature of society and pursuit of profit.  So also it is clear that this can be understood as the conflict between the different classes that inhabit these relations of production, or rather embody these relations.

It’s therefore also clear that criticising Marx for saying in one place, like The Communist Manifesto, that history is the history of class struggle, but saying in another place, the 1859 Preface, that history is the history of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, is to fail to recognise how these concepts arise and relate to each other in historical development.

Understanding that they are all aspects of a Marxist understanding of historical development is important and it is my argument that, for many Marxists, history understood as the history of class struggle has made them at least partially sighted as to the import of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production.  For example, while it is correct to see class struggle between workers and capitalists as a battle simply to be won, it is also clear that the development of the forces of production, i.e. the development of capitalism, is not something to be deplored, or more often ignored, on the basis that this might signal acceptance of some still progressive content to capitalism.  To recognise this progressive side would be no more than continued recognition that capitalism produces not only for profit but also for use, since commodities must have both a use value and an exchange value.

This is also reflected in the tendency to see crises at every time and everywhere, when by definition the forces of production are not developing as they could, while failing to appreciate what has developed, what has “matured within the framework of the old society”, and that heralds not simply crisis but the ready potential of an alternative.  In my life time Marxists have gone from disseminating their ideas through typed-up, ink-smudged duplicated leaflets produced on Gestetner machines to internet blog posts created on powerful laptops stored in massive data servers, all the while proclaiming capitalist crisis and stagnation!

The simple focus on class struggle and political revolution, without stating how the contradiction between the forces and relations of production also signals the end of capitalism, has encouraged a failure to look reality in the face, to ignore the continuing growth of capitalism, in favour of a reactionary dismissal of actual progressive developments in society, understood in the way Marx did and as explained above i.e. the continuing development of the forces of production.  For those who like their politics and theory orthodox, one attraction of such recognition is to accept that Marx’s analysis in the 1859 Preface retains its validity.

The corollary of this is that the relations of production still act as “forms of development” of the productive forces” in the words of Marx, with all the attendant civilising achievements and barbarism that this has entailed for the last two hundred or so years.  As stated a number of times, capitalist progress is still progress, even if we understand as Marxists that it can only be through exploitation, inequality, violence and destruction, and that the full potential of humanity can only be realised through its supersession, which is not its simple destruction.

The alternative is to see capitalism as a system in stagnation, and for a longer or shorter future period – permanently in such a condition.  Beside this not at all corresponding to Marx’s analysis – which of course can be considered out of date if one wants to hold this view – this alternative implies that history has in some sense either halted or gone into reverse.  At the very least, the understanding by Marx of the drive to increase the forces of production contained within capitalism would have had to have been drastically impaired.  The stagnation of capitalism would, according to Marx, also imply that its progressive features, including the development of a class conscious working class, could not be expected either.  There is, after all, no reason to expect a stagnant capitalism, with attendant degenerating social relations, to be the herald of socialism.

Since the development of the productive forces that undoubtedly has occurred has taken place in a certain social form, a certain set of productive relations, it is understood by most people in the world that the economic development that we have witnessed historically is the growth of capitalism and due to it.  To believe that the material gains that workers have achieved over the past 100, 50 or 25 years is due only to their own struggles or through (in certain countries where it exists) a welfare state, is to entertain unconscious belief in the efficacy of reform of the system and the potential beneficence of the capitalist state. Above all, in this context, it misses the dynamic development of capitalism upon which the Marxist conception of socialism rests.

Of course, Marx said the relations of production can retard the forces of production; that these forces can “come into conflict with the existing relations of production”, which become a “fetter’ on the forces.  We still have to understand what these forces are, how they come to be fettered, if they do, despite the massive growth of capitalism, and how in this process we can still hold to the view that within capitalism, within this fettering, there develops the alternative to capitalism, one that does not simply arise more or less out of nothing from a purely political revolution, but one developed within the base and heart of the system.

Back to part 19

5 thoughts on “Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 20 – forces and relations of production 3

  1. Incidentally, its because many reformists/syndicalists etc. fail to understand the real nature of class struggle as a struggle between different forms of property, and rather see it purely in superficial terms of a struggle between different groups of human beings, unanchored to any objective socio-economic foundation, that they end up reducing class struggle to being merely economistic trades union struggles over pay and conditions, rather than a struggle to assert the interests of co-operative, worker owned property over private capitalist property.

  2. “It’s therefore also clear that criticising Marx for saying in one place, like The Communist Manifesto, that history is the history of class struggle, but saying in another place, the 1859 Preface, that history is the history of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, is to fail to recognise how these concepts arise and relate to each other in historical development.”

    There is no contradiction, because for Marx, as the last Chapters of Capital III demonstrate, class is actually class of property. Human beings are merely personifications of these different forms of property, mere economic agents on the stage of history, as the objective interests of these different forms of property come into conflict with each other.

  3. “In capitalism, the capitalist class seeks to maximise profit through the extraction (as exploitation) of surplus labour, and in so far as this means maximising production it has been a powerful spur to the development of humanity’s productive powers. Capitalism strives to develop the social surplus, the surplus of production over and above that consumed by the direct producers, the working class, so that this can be accumulated as profit. As the capitalist class exists as many fractions and individual units, this drive to maximise the surplus is also driven forcefully by capitalist completion which, on pain of extinction by their rivals, the different units must accept and follow.”

    But a further contradiction arises with the development of the productive forces, and of the subsequent social relations, as they have now arisen.

    The very process of concentration and centralisation of capital led to individual capitals growing to larger and larger units. As Marx sets out in Capital I, this meant that the monopoly of private capital became a fetter on its further development, a fetter that had to be “burst asunder” by the expropriation of the expropriators. In other words, just as the private capitalists had expropriated the means of production of the petty producers, and the bigger private capitalists expropriated the smaller private capitalists, so now the larger private capitalists were expropriated by socialised capital. The large capitals became socialised capitals, in the form of joint stock companies, co-operatives, and corporations.

    The private productive capitalists were relegated to those forms of small capitalist enterprise that big capital had not yet got round to dominating, or else felt no need to do so, as it could dominate the small capitals in those spheres by making them subordinate to it, and dependent on it. In fact, as marx says in Capital III, this relation between this large socialised capital, and these subordinated smaller capitals establishes an antagonism between them.

    Meanwhile, the big private capitalists, by this very process were removed from the production process entirely, and became purely coupon-clipping money-capitalists, who lend their money-capital to the large socialised capitals, including the state, by the purchase of shares and bonds, and now various derivatives.

    The owners then of the actual productive-capital today are now capitalists, but workers, including those workers who take on the day to day role as functioning capitalist, the professional managers who carry out the job of being floor managers, line managers, on assembly lines, or in purchasing and sales departments etc. and who are paid a wage as with any other worker. The owners of this socialised capital have a vested interest in developing those productive forces rationally, and indeed of raising the rate of exploitation, by raising productivity – one reason also why Lenin, Gramsci et al favoured the use of Taylorist methods. But, currently, the owners of that socialised capital do not exercise control over it. The big money-lending capitalists, the shareholders, exercise that control, via the appointment of Boards of Directors and executives as tiers above the functioning capitalists.

    They exercise this control, because of the continued political power of the capitalist class, which has ensured that the laws on Corporate Governance enshrine, or at least do not preclude this control over capital that they do not own.

    It is true that ultimately, the interests of these money-lending capitalists also lies with the maximisation of surplus value, the extraction of surplus labour, because it is from that source that their dividends and other forms of interest on the money-capital they lend depends. But, in the short-term, that is not at all the case, and as Marx sets out in Capital, in describing the antagonistic relation between this money-lending capital and the productive-capital, those interests are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, the money-lending capitalists, shareholders/bondholders want to maximise the payment of dividends and other forms of interest, and that reduces the amount of profit available for capital accumulation. The shareholders and bondholders, therefore, stand in the same kind of parasitic and antagonistic relation to the productive-capital as do the landlords.

    And, today the buzz word that typifies this relation is the call for the maximisation of shareholder value. Not only has it resulted in the share of dividends rising from 10% of profits in the 1970’s to around 70% today, but this has gone along with an ever shrinking yield, despite these higher absolute levels of dividends, because large chunks of the revenues paid out as dividends, rents, and interest have been fed back not into productive investment, but into the speculative purchase of existing financial assets, i.e. existing shares, bonds, property and derivatives, which has resulted in the blowing up of astronomical asset price bubbles, whose other side, is the declining yield.

    Because, the major form of wealth of the capitalist class today is in the form of this fictitious capital, and not in the form of productive-capital, the capitalist class, particularly that portion of it that holds its wealth in this form – as opposed to the plethora of small private productive capitalists – their main concern has been to prevent those asset price bubbles from bursting, which is what central banks and the state have done over the last thirty years, even where the measures undertaken to do that, via QE combined with fiscal austerity, for example, damage productive-capital itself, and undermine its accumulation.

    But, precisely because, ultimately, the dividends, rents and interest depends upon a continued expansion of capital, and thereby an expansion of the production of surplus value, that strategy sows the seeds of its own destruction, a glimpse of which destruction was seen in the financial meltdown of 2008, and whose full manifestation grows nearer by the day, as we see these bubbles become more ridiculous with each day, such as with the phenomenal rise in the price of literally worthless Bitcoins, and the 400% rise in the share price of furniture producing companies, who changed their name to include blockchain in it!

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