Karl Marx’s Alternative to capitalism part 25 – forces and relations of production 8

For Marx in the 1859 Preface “the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”

At this stage, it is useful to let Marx’s writings themselves set out what he means.  Explaining the nature of this conflict in Capital Vol III: “the contradiction in this capitalist mode of production consists precisely in its tendency towards the absolute development of productive forces that come into continuous conflict with the specific conditions of production in which capital moves, and can alone move.”

“On the other hand, too many means of labour and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of labourers at a certain rate of profit. Too many commodities are produced to permit of a realisation and conversion into new capital of the value and surplus-value contained in them under the conditions of distribution and consumption peculiar to capitalist production, i.e., too many to permit of the consummation of this process without constantly recurring explosions.”

“Not too much wealth is produced. But at times too much wealth is produced in its capitalistic, self-contradictory forms.”

“The limitations of the capitalist mode of production come to the surface:

“1) In that the development of the productivity of labour creates out of the falling rate of profit a law which at a certain point comes into antagonistic conflict with this development and must be overcome constantly through crises.”

“2) In that the expansion or contraction of production are determined by the appropriation of unpaid labour and the proportion of this unpaid labour to materialised labour in general, or, to speak the language of the capitalists, by profit and the proportion of this profit to the employed capital, thus by a definite rate of profit, rather than the relation of production to social requirements, i.e., to the requirements of socially developed human beings. It is for this reason that the capitalist mode of production meets with barriers at a certain expanded stage of production which, if viewed from the other premise, would reversely have been altogether inadequate. It comes to a standstill at a point fixed by the production and realisation of profit, and not the satisfaction of requirements.”

The barriers to development of the forces of production that would threaten its continued existence are explained.

“The rate of profit, i.e., the relative increment of capital, is above all important to all new offshoots of capital seeking to find an independent place for themselves. And as soon as formation of capital were to fall into the hands of a few established big capitals, for which the mass of profit compensates for the falling rate of profit, the vital flame of production would be altogether extinguished. It would die out. The rate of profit is the motive power of capitalist production. Things are produced only so long as they can be produced with a profit. . . . Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital.”

“At any rate, it is but a requirement of the capitalist mode of production that the number of wage-workers should increase absolutely, in spite of its relative decrease. Labour-power becomes redundant for it as soon as it is no longer necessary to employ it for 12 to 15 hours daily. A development of productive forces which would diminish the absolute number of labourers, i.e., enable the entire nation to accomplish its total production in a shorter time span, would cause a revolution, because it would put the bulk of the population out of the running.”

“This is another manifestation of the specific barrier of capitalist production, showing also that capitalist production is by no means an absolute form for the development of the productive forces and for the creation of wealth, but rather that at a certain point it comes into collision with this development. This collision appears partly in periodical crises, which arise from the circumstance that now this and now that portion of the labouring population becomes redundant under its old mode of employment. The limit of capitalist production is the excess time of the labourers. The absolute spare time gained by society does not concern it. The development of productivity concerns it only in so far as it increases the surplus labour-time of the working-class, not because it decreases the labour-time for material production in general. It moves thus in a contradiction.”

Marx contends “that the bourgeois mode of production contains within itself a barrier to the free development of the productive forces, a barrier which comes to the surface in crisis and, in particular over-production – the basic phenomenon in crisis.”  (Theories of Surplus Value Vol !!)

“In world market crises, all the contradictions of bourgeois production erupt collectively; in particular crises (particular in their content and in extent) the eruptions are only sporadical, isolated and one-sided.  Over-production is specifically conditioned by the general law of the production of capital: to produce to the limit set by the productive forces, that is to say, to exploit the maximum amount of labour with the given amount of capital, without any consideration for the actual limits of the market or the needs backed by the ability to pay . . . “

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 24 – forces and relations of production 7

Not only do increases in production often require machines to replace living labour but the increase in productivity necessarily increases the share of materials purchased and incorporated into the increased number of products produced.  Materials which pass only their own value into the final product and no new surplus.

Marx is explicit on this general point – “Moreover, it has been shown to be a law of the capitalist mode of production that its development does in fact involve a relative decline in the relation of variable capital to constant, and hence also to the total capital set in motion.” (Capital Volume III p 318)

Of course, there are often efficiencies created in the use of materials and also in the value and cost of machinery, which again is also a result of increased productivity in the industries that produce them. As Marx says “We see here once again how the same factors that produce the tendency for the rate of profit to fall also moderate the realisation of this tendency.” (Capital Volume III p 343)  And, of course, while the number of workers may reduce, the time they spend creating value purely for the capitalist will increase.

These all offset any fall in the share of surplus value in the total value of production but irrespective of this, the compulsion to increase productivity and reduce the employment of labour and its cost, impels individual capitals to seek these improvements because individually they will be able to undercut costs in relation to rivals, while perhaps selling at the same or slightly lower price than competitors while making a more significant profit.

Should their new methods of production become generalised among the majority of capitalists in their sector of production, or the less productive ones fail and exit production, then the overall share of labour in that sector of production will fall and so will the share of surplus value and of profit.  What makes sense for an individual capitalist reduces the share of profits for everyone in the sector – the development of the forces of production conflict with the relations of production which are based on seeking the greatest possible expansion of surplus value.

Such a fall in the amount of living labour in production can be offset by increased levels of exploitation but a rise in level of exploitation can check but may not cancel the fall in the rate of profit, and this is particularly so at high levels of organic composition of capital; although the latter assumes technological development that can do this across more and more industrial sectors, and increasingly so to new sectors and any new independent capitals thrown up.

A falling rate of profit may also be compensated by growth in the absolute size of surplus value although augmentation of this would decline if the absolute amount of living labour (variable capital) declines, or much more likely, its augmentation declines relatively if the quantity of living labour fails to grow at the relatively high rate commensurate with the growth of constant capital – machinery and materials etc.

While the rate of profit may fall, it may thus be the case that the mass of profit still rises, indeed given that capitalism involves the accumulation of more and more capital this mass must increase.  Marx allows that the absolute size of variable capital and surplus value may rise – in fact it “must be the case . . . on the basis of capitalist production.” (Volume III pp 322 – 324) This is certainly the reality of capitalism since Marx developed his analysis.

“Capitalist production is accumulation involving concentration of capital is simply a material means for increasing productivity.  Growth of the means of production entails growth in the working population and creation of a surplus population. (p324 – 325)

“As the process of production and accumulation advances, therefore, the mass of surplus labour that can be and is appropriated must grow, and with it too the absolute mass of profit. . . The same laws , therefore, produce both a growing absolute mass of profit for the social capital, and a falling rate of profit.”  (p 325) “A fall in the profit rate, and accelerated accumulation, are simply different expressions of the same process, in so far as both express the development of productivity. . .” (p349)

“Thus, the same development of the social productiveness of labour expresses itself with the progress of capitalist production on the one hand in a tendency of the rate of profit to fall progressively and, on the other, in a progressive growth of the absolute mass of the appropriated surplus-value, or profit; so that on the whole a relative decrease of variable capital and profit is accompanied by an absolute increase of both. This two-fold effect, as we have seen, can express itself only in a growth of the total capital at a pace more rapid than that at which the rate of profit falls.” (p329 – 330)

It will also be the case, to a greater or lesser extent, that new industries develop that require large amounts of living labour for their production, labour that can only be displaced by technology and machinery over a future, longer or shorter period of time.

New industries widen the range of commodities that capital can produce, and that can be used to produce them, which can create profit, i.e. that can become capital.  The mass of material labour that capital can command depends not only on the value of capital but on the mass of use values that can act as consumption for workers or as means of production and materials of production.  If the latter grows so can the quantity of labour employed, and therefore the accumulation of capital that can proceed, allowing capitalism to continue to develop the forces and relations of production.

It is argued that the growth of these new industries, increasingly ‘service industries’ involve higher relative amounts of living labour than the more mature manufacturing or other industry.  Increased productivity in service industries does not generally involve increased consumption of raw materials even as productivity is increased, or at least not nearly to the same extent.  Increased consumption of circulating constant capital (materials), which simply has its value transferred into the final product and does not add any surplus value but must be advanced as capital, does not occur to the same extent and so does not lead to a reduction in the rate of profit on that account.

Of course, it must be understood that many industries are described as service industries that actually produce physical commodities and these are subject to the same tendencies of development as classical manufacturing industry.

Infrastructure industries are sometimes considered as service industries but the water and sewerage industry for example produces a physical product and then transforms it.  I recall visiting a new sewerage works that had a large bank of electronic equipment.  When I asked the manger how many staff worked at the plant he said there was five, but these were all going to be transferred elsewhere because the plant could work remotely and required only a regular visit by one member of staff to check everything was ok.

Even health services, which in the UK has traditionally had a budget in which over 60 per cent is spent on staff salary and wages, relies more and more on expensive drug treatments and the use of high-tech equipment.

No contradictions are therefore escaped by the development of new industries, even some ‘service’ industries, they are simply reproduced, but then any expansion of capitalism must by definition reproduce its essential nature, which is riven by contradiction.  However, it is not that nothing has thereby changed. The effect of these industries that develop upon a lower average organic composition of capital and higher rate of surplus value is to raise the average of both across the wider economy.

Marx at one point quotes six reasons why decline in the profit rate does not reduce accumulation. “Jones emphasises correctly that in spite of the falling rate of profit the inducements and faculties to accumulate are augmented; first, on account of the growing relative overpopulation; second, because the growing productivity of labour is accompanied by an increase in the mass of use-values represented by the same exchange-value, hence in the material elements of capital; third, because the branches of production become more varied; fourth, due to the development of the credit system, the stock companies, etc., and the resultant case of converting money into capital without becoming an industrial capitalist; fifth, because the wants and the greed for wealth increase; and, sixth, because the mass of investments in fixed capital grows, etc.”

At a recent meeting on Marx’s Capital, one speaker supported the view that the rate of profit did exhibit a tendency to fall and cited, among other reasons for this view, that such a situation confirmed the temporary character of the capitalist system in an objective way.  This, even if it were true, would not thereby equally confirm the inevitability of socialism or even that the seeds of socialism had grown equally as strongly as capitalism was gripped by its objective contradictions.

There are no absolute, predetermined limits which set the boundaries on the development of capitalism such that the contradiction between the development of the forces of production and relations of production just described can be said to lead to a terminal crisis or ending of the capitalist system.  The release of the forces of production from the fetters to their growth, arising from the requirement that such growth requires sufficient profitability that capitalism can no longer deliver, is not something that Marx foresaw as the resolution to the contradictions of capitalism.

The point rather is that the tendency for the rate of profit to fall is a fundamental one within capitalism that is inevitably associated with its equally fundamental drive to increase productivity through increasing relative surplus value.  Both stem from the combined development of the forces of production and relations of production and from the need for capital to accumulate by increasing the appropriation of surplus value. This includes new production with new sources of human labour as well as both increases in absolute and relative surplus value.

It is not necessary for a fall in the rate of profit to be evident at all times, the process by which it falls proceeds regardless and is important in this respect.  If the tendencies that counter this fall outweigh its effects this does not entail its unimportance, since the law exhibits the fact that new value is created only through labour power and the tendency for the fall in the rate of profit reflects this.  The expansion of capitalism, both in terms of the forces and relations of production, requires masses of additional labour, in other words expansion of the numbers and social power of the working class, the gravediggers of the system as Marx saw it.

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 23 – forces and relations of production 6

Related imageThe contradiction between the forces and relations of production is extreme under capitalism because the relations of production, while tending to promote the unlimited development of the forces of production, force the latter against the limits of these relations.  Capitalism seeks to expand without limit through the creation and appropriation of surplus value expressed most immediately as the need to make profits.  This is enforced through increased exploitation of labour and the competition of different capitals to capture market share.  No previous mode of production has displayed such rapid development of its own logic of expansion, with such power, and with such effect across the world.

Since the material forces of production and the relations of production within which they are encased are simply two aspects of the same thing it is not the case that their contradiction sees one develop and the other not.  The contradictions that develop within them lead to crises expressed both in the fettering of the forces of production and curbing of capitalist social relations, expressed in economic, social and political crises.

Capitalist forces and relations of production, once established, produce relative surplus value through increased productivity of labour that reduces the time required by workers to create the amount of value that is consumed by them through their wage, so increasing the (surplus) value created and appropriated by the capitalist.  This relative increase is surplus value is consistent with rising living standards of workers because relative surplus value only exists by increasing the productivity of labour, increasing the amount of goods produced and a corresponding reduction in their costs.

The greater share of the value of production appropriated by capital allows still greater expansion of production under its control and yet greater appropriation of profit. Capitalist accumulation advances through investment in machines and hiring of labour: both the material forces of production and specifically capitalist relations of production between capital and wage labour increase in scale.

For each individual capital, the limit of production is presented by the whole of the market for its goods, although this cannot obviously be the case for all capitals in that market.  While the goods and services produced are relevant to the capitalist pursuit of profit, this is only the case in so far as they have an exchange value and can be sold for money.  But they must also have a use for their customer, and even with growing real incomes due to the price of goods having fallen, there are limits to how many of a whole range of goods any individual may want or be able to afford.  The increased production arising from development of the forces of production can lead to the overproduction of commodities in relation to the effective demand available that can realise their sale at a profit, and this structure and limitation of demand is determined by the ownership of the means of production and appropriation of the fruits of production, including the surplus product.

This can lead to economic crises as the scale of commodities produced cannot be sold profitably and the contradiction between the greater development of the forces of production, and the capitalist relations within which they grow, is expressed in economic crises of overproduction, evidenced in the cyclical economic crises that have existed since 1825.  If such crises encompass a number of vital or fundamental commodities, and if they severely affect the circulation of capital, for example either the extension of credit or purchase of labour power, recessions or depressions will result in bankruptcies and unemployment.  Both the forces of production are held back or even reduced while some capitalists cease to be capitalists and workers cease to work.  Periodic recessions leave productive forces unused while human needs, which these forces could fulfil, is unmet because the relations of production demand that these forces only be employed at the requisite profit.

Increased productivity of labour arises primarily through the application of science and technology, that leads more and more to the replacement of human labour with that of machines.  While the capitalist pursuit of absolute surplus value continues even today, in forms such as a “long-hours” culture – especially notorious in Japan or “presenteeism” in many offices – there are social and biological limits to this that conflict with the possibilities contained through increases in relative surplus value.  Increased productivity in the production of goods and services consumed by workers can allow their money wage to fall at least relatively, while maintaining or increasing their real wage in terms of the number of commodities they can buy.

In doing so the relative amount of living labour in the value of production may decline so that the source of surplus value in this human labour also declines relatively, which can produce a decline in the share of surplus value in relation to capital advanced, and therefore of profit. “The progressive tendency for the general rate of profit to fall is thus simply the expression, peculiar to the capitalist mode of production, of the progressive development of the social productivity of labour.  (Capital Volume III p318 – 319)

“The rate of self-expansion of the total capital, or the rate of profit, being the goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose), its fall checks the formation of new independent capitals and thus appears as a threat to the development of the capitalist production process. It breeds over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population. Those economists, therefore, who, like Ricardo, regard the capitalist mode of production as absolute, feel at this point that it creates a barrier itself, and for this reason attribute the barrier to Nature (in the theory of rent), not to production. But the main thing about their horror of the falling rate of profit is the feeling that capitalist production meets in the development of its productive forces a barrier which has nothing to do with the production of wealth as such; and this peculiar barrier testifies to the limitations and to the merely historical, transitory character of the capitalist mode of production; testifies that for the production of wealth, it is not an absolute mode, moreover, that at a certain stage it rather conflicts with its further development.”

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