In Capital Volume 1 Marx provides an example of how the productive powers of society have come up against restricted relations of production, how they have further developed and in so doing have consequently revolutionised the economic foundation of society.
This involved the movement from what Marx called the formal subsumption of labour under capital to real subsumption. At first, the existing labour process, including the workers labour power, their technology, means of production, and markets, are taken under ownership by a capitalist; where previously individual workers’ families produced and sold (or not) on their own behalf. This latter activity is, of course, not capitalist because no worker is exploited (except perhaps that they exploit themselves) and it is impossible to define a workers’ wage separately from any consideration of profit that the family may be considered to have made.
This, Marx calls “formal” subsumption, under which the whole labour process continues much as before, with previously independent workers now working for a capitalist, perhaps using the same methods, with the capitalist now monopolising the means of production and ownership of the product. The typical example given is of hand-loom weavers, who continued working as before but did so on behalf of a capitalist who puts out the raw material to be worked upon and will take it back in finished form to sell, while the worker and their family carries out their labour in the home.
Considered at this stage, the workers’ means of subsistence may or may not be produced wholly or partly by the workers’ family itself, which if it is, may either give the worker some freedom to refuse demands from the capitalist if they are considered too onerous; or may entail very low wages which on their own would not be enough to maintain the subsistence needs of the worker and family without their own domestic production. In either case the capitalist must be able to make a profit and may be greatly empowered to do so if he can compel the worker to submit to wage-labour through total reliance on it for his or her livelihood and that of the family.
This is therefore capitalism, or rather capitalism in a very limited and undeveloped form, because in its early forms it can either involve the workers’ reliance on their own production of subsistence needs and/or is based upon existing production techniques that are not developed by the capitalist to extract more surplus labour.
We do not yet have the social forces of production in the form of capitalism. Such wage labour has existed for centuries without what we could recognise as something called capitalism as a system in existence. Indeed, pure wage labour has gone further than this without being generalised. It is not therefore the case that we have prior or newly created and fully capitalist relations giving rise to capitalism itself.
Capitalism as such cannot develop on the limited basis it finds in the already existing forces of production. The pre-requisites for capitalism as a system, as a form of truly social production as we now know it, is a capitalist labour process that is the real subsumption of labour under capital, where the instruments of production can only be operated cooperatively and not individually as before.
Only when the forces of production, including the type of division of labour and its organisation, have been radically developed beyond the restrictions of the purely formal subsumption of labour can the whole social relations of production within society become thoroughly imbued with the nature and requirements of capital. Only then does capitalism become generalised, obligatory and a totality.
Only when labour is combined together, and the potential technology appropriate to such combinations developed, can the productive power of capital be unleashed and we can move from more or less isolated, primitive and undeveloped forms of capitalist exploitation to a whole society of commodity production in which the vast mass of potential labour power is dependent on employment by capital. In the words of Marx only then do capitalist relations achieve their “adequate form” and they gain their “totality and extent”.
The superior productivity – productive power – of the developing capitalist forces of production can then destroy less efficient methods of production (if it is allowed to) or it uses the state to enforce ‘free trade’ on less efficient productive arrangements. We then have a society in which every need of the worker and capitalist is provided by wage labour working for capital, and gone are the days when such needs were met by the product of one’s own labour or the trading by oneself of one’s own products for those not self-made. While the latter limits the organisation and division of labour including the application of technology, the employment of wage labour cooperatively together in one place opens up an enormous vista of expanding productivity.
With the real subsumption of labour the expansion of capital involves enormously increased accumulation of labour and the instruments of labour; a previously inconceivable increased division of labour; the centralization and concentration of capital on an gigantic scale and the development of specifically capitalist forms of crisis, which no longer involve a shortage of production but are the result of too much production, overproduction of commodities that cannot be sold profitably.
Before long the exploitation of labour increases not because the working day is extended and its intensity increased, although tendencies to this never cease to be the case under capitalism, but because the division of labour and technology increases labour productivity, so cheapening the products of labour consumed by the worker and therefore reducing the time the worker must labour to reproduce her own wage while increasing the time in which she works to create profit for the capitalist.
By such a process new products and methods of production are created, adding to workers’ needs and the means by which these needs are satisfied, with the latter determining the former. The versatility required of the working class is much increased and the ‘civilising’ process of capitalism can be seen to operate, while the exploitation of labour increases at the same time. In fact, within the massive increase in the productivity of social labour they are aspects of the same process.
The productive forces are developed enormously under the spur of the prevalent relations, these relations having been given full reign by the power of the productive forces corresponding and adequate to their particular form.
But it is Marx’s contention that such correspondence and adequacy is historically limited, just as the previous relations of production were adequate to a certain level of productive forces, but which had to give way when these subsequently became fetters.
Previous isolated wage-labour relations were limited because the productive forces were not sufficient for any further development and/or the production based on wage labour was not for profit but for the increased consumption of the ruling classes.
A society based on generalised commodity production requires productive forces more powerful than were then employed. It is not therefore possible to consider internal contradictions within relations of production as adequate to an explanation of historical development and certainly not of historical progress. The contradiction in feudalism between feudal lord and peasant did not develop a new mode of production (peasant or otherwise); when this new mode did arise it involved development of productive forces that neither class could become the bearer of.
A theory of historical development that considered only relations of production, and subsumed what may be considered the forces of production within them, would efface the reality that production is a result of material processes and constructions that social relations assume but do not define. It leads to a view that the social relations of capitalism are embodied in the material elements of production so that what is materially required for production is already assumed to be capitalist in nature.
So, capital for example, becomes machines and equipment, and people have ‘human capital’, when capital is really a relation between capitalist and worker in which the latter works for the former and the former owns what has already been assumed to be ‘capital’ – the machines and equipment, product of labour and use of labour power. Such a view distorts the fact that worker ownership of this ‘capital’ does not necessarily mean they also become capitalists. A society in which the means of production are owned by those who work it is a socialist one, in which the working class ceases to be a class because they no longer work for capitalists. Incomplete development of such a society may be one considered to be in transition and considered just such a transitional society.
Neither should workers be confused that the skills and knowledge they acquire and with which they may acquire higher wages makes them in any sense a capitalist, earning any profit on their skill – this skill does not allow them to make any money out of other people’s work.
The distinction between forces and relations of production are therefore necessary to understanding capitalism and the possibility of an alternative to it.
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