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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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 22 – forces and relations of production 5

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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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 21 – forces and relations of production 4

I noted in part 18 of these posts that different views exist on the relationship between the forces and relations of production.  For some, the forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development and changes in the relations of production arise from the development of the productive forces, in the manner Marx describes in the 1859 Preface.

An alternative view is that it is the relations of production, in capitalism the capitalist ownership of the means of production and the competition among them, that is the motor of development.  Yet another view considers that it is contradictions within the relations of production alone that drives historical development, and not between these relations and the forces of production.

The latter two views lend themselves to the possibility that overthrowing of capitalist relations, no matter what the level of development of the productive forces, can lead to socialism, and the last can even encompass the view that simple changing from capitalist relations involves socialism in toto.  This is not a purely theoretical view but is one advanced by various varieties of Stalinism and left nationalism.

This still leaves us with the necessity of showing that Marx is correct to advance the argument the forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development and change in the relations of production arise from the development of these forces.

We have already defined the forces of production and stated that they always exist in a particular social form, that is, always exist within and as part of certain relations of production.  Marx says that these relations, that include the drive to exploit labour more intensively and in greater quantities, driven also by the requirements of capitalist competition, show that these relations of production are forms of development of the forces of production.  However, relations of production do not fetter themselves even if in certain senses they could be considered to develop themselves.

This can be seen for example in a geographical sense – through the growth world-wide of capitalism in previously non-capitalist societies, but also to the degree to which commodity production has penetrated previously non-commodity labour – pre-cooked food and restaurants replacing unpaid domestic labour for example.

These however also require productive forces that allow the practical and material possibility of the massive geographical spread of capitalism, including transport and communications, and the technology for the production of massive quantities of pre-cooked food, itself relying on a level of development of the productive forces that allows significant numbers of workers in many countries a standard of living that allows consumption of food not prepared by themselves.

Neither can it be said that the forces of production fetter the relations – the material forces of production, including division of labour, does not act to restrict commodity production or limit the exploitation of workers.  Rather technological development, modes of labour organisation and division of labour are restricted in their existence due to their employment in commodity production or as aspects of the exploitation of workers as wage labour.  How this evidences itself will be shown in a later post.

So, the contradiction in the mode of production cannot lie solely within the relations of production.  The contradictions within capitalism cannot be understood as purely involving unintended consequences both positive and negative, but as immanent and inherent in the system.  For example, the civilising function of capitalism that has been extensively discussed in these posts is not a by-product of some essentially reactionary character of capitalism.  “The simple concept of capital has to contain its civilising tendencies etc. in themselves; they must not, as in the economics books until now, appear as external consequences.  Likewise the contradictions which are later released, demonstrated is already latent within it.” (Marx, Grundrisse)

The alternative translation of what we have denoted as ‘productive forces’ – Produktivkräfte – is that of productive powers (not forces). Whereas a ‘force’ can be conceived as a thing, independent and standing alone, a power is always an attribute of something else and for Marx, the power in question is specifically that of social labour. Productive forces are thus an attribute of human beings in association, their collective capacities, not merely a set of things such as machinery, raw materials, technology or buildings.  It is the human being itself which is the main productive force and concrete labour (as opposed to labour in its exchange value creating role) that expresses this productive power, most powerfully as the cooperative labour of the whole working class.

The mode of cooperation that labour always involves, including the division of labour, is therefore itself a productive force that can be considered to be developed or fettered by the relations of production.  Marxists insist that the nature and scope of conscious cooperation between the direct producers in society, the working class, is retarded and restricted by capitalism in such a way that the productive powers of society are fettered and limited.

In capitalism, the mode of cooperation of labour and the application of technology are closely tied together so that technology can set the requirements for, and limits of, the division of labour.  This is true not just within the workplace or even between different workplaces:

“The relations of different nations among themselves depend upon the extent to which each has developed its productive forces, the division of labour and internal intercourse. This proposition is generally recognised. But not only the relation of one nation to others, but also the whole internal structure of the nation itself depends on the stage of development reached by its production and its internal and external intercourse. How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which the division of labour has been carried. Each new productive force, insofar as it is not merely a quantitative extension of productive forces already known (for instance, the bringing into cultivation of fresh land), causes a further development of the division of labour.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology)

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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

Forward to part 21

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 19 – forces and relations of production 2

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

Forward to part 20