Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Dynamic of Capitalist Accumulation: Uneven Development and Global Conflict

We open Karl Marx’s Grundrisse at the part dealing with surplus value. Marx is trying to elucidate to himself in these notes the ultimate meaning of profit - and therefore of capitalism. The essence of capitalism, at least superficially and tangibly and visibly and measurably is the production of use values for profit. Use values, explains Marx, are not necessarily exchange values; they are not necessarily “goods” or “commodities”. The production of use values becomes one exclusively of exchange values (goods, commodities) only in a capitalist system of production whereby use values are produced not for use but for exchange. And this exchange must take place in such a manner that the capitalist can derive a “profit” from the production and sale of the goods: in other words, the revenue derived from the final sale of the goods must be superior to the value invested in the means of production (tools, raw materials, and labour-power) for their production. But where does this “surplus value” (the difference between the end value of the goods and the original value of the means of production) come from? Marx says, quite correctly as ought to be obvious, that value cannot arise from the objects used in the process of production. Instead, value can only be created by a use value that has a political element to it: - labour-power, the commodified form of human living labour. 

It is a law of capital, as we saw, to create surplus labour, disposable time; it can do this only by setting necessary labour in motion—i.e. entering into exchange with the worker. It is its tendency, therefore, to create as much labour as possible; just as it is equally its tendency to reduce necessary labour to a minimum. It is therefore equally a tendency of capital to increase the labouring population, as well as constantly to posit a part of it as surplus population—population which is useless until such time as capital can utilize it. (Hence the correctness of the theory of surplus population and surplus capital.) It is equally a tendency of capital to make human labour (relatively) superfluous, so as to drive it, as human labour, towards infinity.

One important consequence arises from this: for if indeed surplus value - all value - can arise only from living labour, then it is equally obvious that value - and therefore profit - can only have any meaning at all if and only if it is applied to the command of human living labour. Of course, the monetary equivalent of surplus value, profit, can be applied to the purchase of goods other than labour-power (the commodified form of living labour). But such a purchase can b applied capitalistically (for the purpose of making a further profit, that is, for the purpose of capitalist accumulation) if and only if it goes toward the production of goods that, in turn, yield more profit - and therefore ultimately only if they yield more command over living labour.

Value is nothing but objectified labour, and surplus value (realization of capital) is only the excess above that part of objectified labour which is necessary for the reproduction of labouring capacity. But labour as such is and remains the presupposition, and surplus labour exists only in relation with the necessary, hence only in so far as the latter exists. Capital must therefore constantly posit necessary labour in order to posit surplus labour; it has to multiply it (namely the simultaneous working days) in order to multiply the surplus; but at the same time it must suspend them as necessary, in order to posit them as surplus labour. As regards the single working day, the process is of course simple: (1) to lengthen it up to the limits of natural possibility; (2) to shorten the necessary part of it more and more (i.e. to increase the productive forces without limit). But the working day, regarded spatially—time itself regarded as space—is many working days alongside one another. The more working days capital can enter into exchange with at once, during which it exchanges objectified for living labour, the greater its realization at once. It can leap over the natural limit formed by one individual's living, working day, at a given stage in the development of the forces of production (and it does not in itself change anything that this stage is changing) only by positing another working day alongside the first at the same time - by the spatial addition of more simultaneous working days.

The result is that whilst capitalist accumulation - profitability - depends on the reduction of the proportion of production that goes to workers in wages (necessary labour), for the capitalist to be able to reinvest the profit or surplus value there needs to be a corresponding increase in the population of workers! But because human beings work for the capitalist - that is, sell their living labour as labour-power to him - if and only if they are forced to do so - in other words, if they are still subject to necessary labour -, then it is obvious that an increase in the population is also an increase in necessary labour. On one hand, workers seek to increase their wages and reduce their working hours, and so lower the surplus value available to the capitalist by making more of their labour “necessary”; on the other hand, the capitalist seeks to reduce the wages of his own workers, and so the necessary labour, and increase the surplus value or profit available to him. Thus, the greater surplus value or profit can be reinvested by the capitalist only by employing more workers with less of the goods they produce - with lower wages. 

This is why capital solicits the increase of population; and the very process by means of which necessary labour is reduced makes it possible to put new necessary labour (and hence surplus labour) to work. (I.e. the production of workers becomes cheaper, more workers can be produced in the same time, in proportion as necessary labour time becomes smaller or the time required for the production of living labour capacity becomes relatively smaller. These are identical statements.) (This still without regard to the fact that the increase in population increases the productive force of labour, since it makes possible a greater division and combination of labour etc. The increase of population is a natural force of labour, for which nothing is paid. From this standpoint, we use the term natural force to refer to the social force. All natural forces of social labour are themselves historical products.) It is, on the other side, a tendency of capital—just as in the case of the single working day—to reduce the many simultaneous necessary working days (which, as regards their value, can be taken as one working day) to the minimum, i.e. to posit as many as possible of them as not necessary. Just as in the previous case of the single working day it was a tendency of capital to reduce the necessary working hours, so now the necessary working days are reduced in relation to the total amount of objectified labour time.

The result is that capitalist profitability or accumulation is essentially the increase of “simultaneous working days” by a growing working population - whether that population is located in the nation where the capitalist invests or in a foreign nation. The ultimate purpose of the capitalist is to maximise surplus value (profit); the ultimate aim of the worker is to maximise wages by working less and increasing leisure time. But the aim of the capitalist in maximising surplus value is not and cannot ever be to increase the leisure time of workers! Emphatically no! The aim of the capitalist is to increase the number of individual workers that his accumulated capital can command! The purpose of capitalism is to increase the command of dead labour (goods) over living labour (the population of workers). And the more the capitalist increases profit by reducing the length of the working day through productivity growth - and therefore paying less wages for the same amount of product -, the more the same capitalist will need an ever greater number of workers to exploit for his capital to be reinvested profitably! The net effect, paradoxically, is that while the capitalist seeks to reduce the amount of necessary labour for the reproduction of his own workers, at one and the same time either the single capitalist or the class of capitalists as a whole will need to expand the workers that they employ by a proportionately higher number so as to be able to accumulate more profit.

The devastating conclusion is that capitalists need to perpetuate necessary labour by constantly growing the excess working population - the army of the unemployed - so as to be able to command more workers at lower wage costs. This is the complex process whereby capitalism expands the global population to ecologically unsustainable levels! Capitalists can increase their exploitation of workers either “absolutely” by forcing the same number or a greater number of workers longer with the same machinery (technology). Or else, capitalists can increase the productivity of workers “relatively” through more advanced machinery if the antagonism of workers over wages is especially high. In this second case, the antagonism of workers (a) forces capitalists to replace machinery and, (b), forces capitalists to increase the population of workers to a higher degree proportionate to the bargaining power of workers in raising the “necessary” part of the working day.

Surplus time is the excess of the working day above that part of it which we call necessary labour time; it exists secondly as the multiplication of simultaneous working days, i.e. of the labouring population. (It can also be created - but this is mentioned here only in passing, belongs in the chapter on wage labour - by means of forcible prolongation of the working day beyond its natural limits; by the addition of women and children to the labouring population.) The first relation, that of the surplus time and the necessary time in the day, can be and is modified by the development of the productive forces, so that necessary labour is restricted to a constantly smaller fractional part. The same thing then holds relatively for the population. A labouring population of, say, 6 million can be regarded as one working day of 6×12, i.e. 72 million hours: so that the same laws applicable here.

The repercussions of this dynamic on inter-national relations are obvious: capitalists in a given nation-state seek to unload the antagonism of the wage relation in their state to the working populations in other states. This dynamic works on several levels. For one, capitalists select those countries other than their own (!) where working conditions and governance are worst - either dictatorships or authoritarian countries; and especially nations with large and growing excess populations. The advantage for capitalists is, first, that nominal wage payments in their nations can be kept low; second, at the same time, real wages in their nations can grow through the import of cheap products from the less emancipated nations. By virtue of this process, capitalists buy social peace at home and “export” class antagonism to other more repressive governments and their workers.


  1. I can see how population growth benefits capital, but by what means does capital actually cause population growth? Most things I've read attribute the explosion in population to 1) advances in nutrition and healthcare that have reduced mortality rates coupled with 2) limited access to contraceptives and/or limited opportunities for women to pursue lives outside of childrearing. Obviously, the first factor is a good thing that we wouldn't want to do away with. As for 2, in the West, women have been brought into the workforce in great numbers, and the birth rate has dropped. If capital is promoting higher population growth, it must be doing so in developing countries somehow. Of course we are increasingly seeing nationalists coming out and complaining about the low white birth rate, so the prevailing practices in the West may change...

    1. Hi Dan. You are quite right: it can never be said that “capital causes overpopulation”. What can be said, however, is that capital requires overpopulation because, without an expansion of those “simultaneous working days” (Marx), surplus value and profit would have no social efficacy whatsoever! Think of a capitalist who invested profits in acquiring more “things” (land, properties, jewels): these objects would require unproductive labour (“unproductive” for capital, in the sense that Smith, Ricardo, Marx all used the word) - in other words, “servants” - to maintain. But these “servants” would not be able to sustain....more workers (!) - which is why such “investment” would be “unproductive” if not indeed counter-productive!
      Furthermore, though capital does not cause yet requires overpopulation, there is no doubt that the living labour of workers, their antagonism to wage labour, forces capitalists to adopt more “productive” technology which facilitates the sustenance of an expanding working population. Thus it can be sai that the antagonism of the wage relation...facilitates or enables or even perhaps en-genders overpopulation.
      Obviously, if capital does not strictly “cause” overpopulation, it certainly benefits from it - in whatever way it can, say through the spread of religious beliefs encouraging procreation (Christianity, Islam).
      The more emancipated workers become, women especially, the harder is the task of capital to find new “markets” - that is, living labour to exploit.
      I know from your previous comments that you are entirely aware of the dire environmental consequences of this “dynamic” of capital, so I will not go into those.
      The aspect of capitalist dynamics (“development”, “growth”) that will be the subject of my next posts is perhaps the most pressing, urgent one at the moment: - the interaction between access to exploitable working populations under the political control of regimes not entirely open to the “formal freedom of labour” which is essential to the most legitimate form of capitalism - “market” capitalism (China, most notably) and the relation of “democratic” and “liberal” capitalist parliamentary regimes to these other autocratic, despotic regimes (“emerging markets”) that, whilst supplying the “markets” necessary to capital, yet quite openly threaten its survival as a globally dominant mode of social production and reproduction.
      This aspect of capitalist dynamics relates quite obviously to trade and exchange rate regimes, monetary and financial policies and, of course, “labour mobility” or immigration which was central to the theory of Optimal Currency Areas in the 1980s and 1990s.
      My thesis is that “democratic parliamentary regimes” where the “formal freedom of labour” is guaranteed constitutionally (“market capitalism” where the “market” is guaranteed fundamentally by the formal freedom of workers) are absolutely essential to the survival of capitalism - which is why we should always fight with a Roosevelt against a Hitler, and with US democracy against the Chinese and Russian dictatorships, to be perfectly blunt.
      So, there you have it: these are the political and economic knots that I will attempt to untie summarily over the next few days and weeks. Thanks again for your much-appreciated sharp and perceptive comments, Dan! Ciao.