Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 27 May 2021


The expropriation of the direct producers was accomplished by means of the most merciless barbarism, and under the stimulus of the most infamous, the most sordid, the most petty and the most odious of passions. Private property which is personally earned, i.e. which is based, as it were, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent working individual with the conditions of his labour, is supplanted by capitalist private property, which tests on the exploitation of alien, but formally free labour.1 As soon as this metamorphosis has sufficiently decomposed the old society throughout its depth and breadth, as soon as the workers have been turned into proletarians, and their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, the further socialization of labour and the further transformation of the soil and other means of production into socially exploited and therefore communal means of production takes on a new form. What is now to be expropriated is not the self-employed worker, but the capitalist who exploits a large number of workers.

The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation 929

This expropriation is accomplished through the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production itself, through the centralization of capitals. One capitalist always strikes down many others. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by a few, other developments take place on an ever-increasing scale, such as the growth of the co-operative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the planned exploitation of the soil, the transformation of the means of labour into forms in which they can only be used in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialized labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime. Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.


For capitalism to exist as a mode of production, workers must be legally free to work for the highest wages. This legal requirement entails the existence of legally separate capitalist employers competing for the workers’ services. It entails also the legal freedom of workers from one another and from the means of production so that their only means to produce for their own livelihood is by offering their living labour to the competing capitalists individually, worker competing against worker. But the competition between capitalists for the use of the workers’ living labour cannot be such that the entire product of that labour is returned to the workers as wages. There must be a difference between the dead labour produced by workers and the dead labour paid to workers in exchange for the provision of their living labour such that the capitalists are able to command more living labour for the next round of production from the surplus dead labour. (How this “difference” between dead labour paid in wages and surplus dead labour is made effectual in monetary terms, and thence in political terms, is a matter with which we shall deal later.)

It is entirely obvious that such an “exchange” – living labour for dead, objectified labour – is entirely fictitious and can be only the outcome of either fraud or violence or both! Furthermore, the capitalists must be able to decide what is produced and how and when so as to be able to enforce this false and violent “exchange” between dead and living labour politically. Thus, it appears that the productive power of social labour is to be credited entirely to the ability of the capitalist to bring together the fictitious “individual” living labours of workers with the means of production owned by the capitalist in such a way that social labour appears as the sum of individual labours, of labour powers to be rewarded with individual wages.

The essence and purpose of the wage – the “exchange” of dead for living labour – is to secure institutionally the reduction of living labour to labour power, to abstract labour. Only by securing the political, institutional, conventional objectification of living labour to labour power are capitalists able to compare their command over living labour in a manner that is trans-latable or homologated or homogenized across very heterogeneous and incommensurable concrete living labour activities. It is obvious that this homologation cannot occur at a local, circumscribed level but must rather extend throughout all branches of industrial capitalist activity by means of the centralized control and regulation of wages. This constitutes the antagonism of the wage relation and thence the class antagonism between workers and capitalists. The aim of the capitalist is to maximize the difference between the dead labour offered to the worker and the dead labour produced by the worker – between necessary and surplus labour – such that the portion of the working day going to necessary labour is reduced to a minimum and the portion going to surplus labour is maximized. This difference is called surplus value or profit. Surplus value can be maximized relatively through the compression of the working day going to necessary labour by means of new machinery (relative exploitation) or absolutely through the expansion of the mass of workers (absolute exploitation).

The contradiction at the heart of capitalism lies precisely in this: - that at one and the same time capital must seek to minimize necessary labour so as to maximize surplus labour, and yet capital cannot eliminate necessary labour because its very existence and essence is the perpetuation and expansion of necessary labour and of the wage relation!

The ultimate limit or barrier to capital is therefore the length of the working day and consequently the absolute size of the working population compatible with the reproduction of human society. The survival and expansion of capital, of the wage relation, depends entirely on the expansion of the working population and indeed on the presence of an ever-larger reserve army of the unemployed – and thus on overpopulation and overconsumption. As capital reaches the limits of overpopulation, of the absolute extension of the necessary labour day by the multiplication of contiguous labour days, and its simultaneous relative suppression or diminution through the employment of machinery to maximize surplus labour, the rate of profit – the ratio of surplus labour to necessary labour as exhaustive complementary portions of the working day – must fall. This is what Marx calls “the tendential fall of the rate of profit” in capitalism. This is the most fundamental of “the immanent laws of capitalism” to which Marx refers.

The capitalist answer to the tendential fall of the rate of profit is and must be the centralization of capitals, for at least two reasons: the first is that by eliminating excess capitalists, capital can reduce the wage bargaining power of workers dependent on inter-capitalist competition and increase the relative size of the unemployed by reducing the labour force. The other reason is that capitalist centralization cuts back on transactional costs going to non-capitalist disbursements (a kind of “leakage” the avoidance of which is at the core of the bourgeois economic “theory of the firm”): the capitalist firm “internalizes” costs (Marx’s faux frais), as it were, and thereby reduces the impact of non-capitalist costs and transfers.

The temptation might arise to dismiss hastily this particular “immanent law of capitalism” as yet another instance of Marxian eschatology – the inevitable “breakdown” (Zusammenbruch) of capitalism and the teleological advent of communism. This would do Marx a great wrong: the tendential fall of the rate of profit for capitalist industry may not result in its final catastrophic crisis, but it is most certainly a “tendency” that is intrinsic (hence, “immanent”) to its essence and modus operandi, to the wage relation. – Nothing eschatological or teleological in that! It is simply a practical historical tendency or process that results – is a consequence of – the practical historical operating conditions of the capitalist mode of production. Nothing more, nothing less. If eschatology there is in Marx – and we insist that there is -, it lies in the fact that Marx goes beyond the historical “tendencies” of capitalism and travesties them instead as inevitable. What we are arguing is that “tendency” does not mean “inevitability” or “inexorability” (Wittgensteinian or Kafkaesque) or (Leibnitzian) “pre-determination”. Not only is it perfectly legitimate for Marx to theorize the historical tendencies of capitalism from a “scientific” standpoint; it is also a legitimate activity when one considers that all “scientific” activity is and must be simultaneously “political” – and therefore “tendentious” – because all scientific activity, as human activity, is inextricably and ineluctably political!

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Marx’s summation in this crucial chapter of Capital is the clear nexus he draws between the centralization of capitals and the socialization of production – both of which are also for him integral part of “the immanent laws of capital”. For Marx, it is the intensification of the Sozialisierung – of the interconnectedness and vital interdependence of social activities essential for the reproduction of “the society of capital”, that is, of a human society whose very survival is entirely dependent on the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production -, it is this socialization that becomes tendentially inconsistent with the increasingly “private” ownership of the means of production concentrated in fewer and fewer capitalist hands (and heads) as the centralization of capitals proceeds. Here Marx highlights the classic inconsistency or “contradiction” between the division of social labour or “socialization of labour”, which is an ineluctable aspect of all human societies, and the “plan-lessness”, the lack of social planning or “anarchy” of social production dependent on the antagonistic decisions of capitalist owners solely intent on maximising profits and on perpetuating the antagonistic wage relation. Thus, whereas the “socialization of labour” tends toward and indeed necessitates the planned co-ordination of the division of social labour and of production, the increasingly monopolistic centralization of capitals makes the successful reproduction of human society dependent on the “private’, and therefore potentially “un-planned” and indeed “anarchical”, chaotic decisions of a few capitalists intent on preserving their antagonistic self-interest!

Here, in a nutshell, is the apocalyptic and catastrophic Marxian opposition, or “contradiction”, between the Sozialisierung and the Plan-losig-keit (plan-less-ness) of the society of capital, likely to result in catastrophic crises that endanger the very reproduction and viability of human societies that have now been transformed into “societies of capital” – that is to say, societies whose survival is dependent on the reproduction of the antagonism of the wage relation. But whereas Marx is quite justified to refer to “historical tendencies”, his insistence on the “dialectical contradiction” between the Sozialisierung and the Planlosigkeit – both brought about by the intensification of wage-relation class antagonism – is suspect and unwarranted because there is no contradiction, logical or dialectical, between the two historical tendencies. Marx assumes, indeed presumes, that capitalism is intrinsically “anarchical” and therefore “unplanned” and consequently always “crisis-prone” because there is a contradiction between the increasing interdependence, interconnection of productive activities due to the growing centralization of capitals and the inherently “private” character of capitalist ownership and production. The problem with this characterization of capitalism is that it misses what is the very hallmark of this mode of production – not just its tendency to crisis, but indeed its utterly essential dependence on crisis! In other words, bluntly put, Marx forgets that ultimately all social reproduction is based on “social labour” and its division – on the Sozialisierung. Yet, this does not prevent capitalism from institutionalizing crisis as a constituent essential element of its social relations of production! Marx fails to see that “crisis” under capitalism is not necessarily an element of weakness or imminent collapse but rather an intrinsic part and factor of capitalist transformation or trans-crescence that allows capitalist relations of production to survive and endure and indeed even thrive and expand! Crisis is endemic to capitalism: it is part of a process that, provided it does not destroy its society, allows its mode of production to persist. (As Nietzsche put it, “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger”.) We have invoked the term “trans-crescence” to insist on this meta-morphic function of capitalism – as against the more “linear” notions such as “growth” or “development” or even worse “evolution”, which all denote a linear qualitative progression of capitalism in a positive direction. Aside from the more jejune interpretations of Joseph Schumpeter’s work along the – again, linear and progressive or “evolutionary” - lines of “innovation” or “creative destruction” (but why must capitalist destruction or innovation be “creative”, why can’t it be instead “destructive creation”?), interpreting the import of his work at a deeper level, the Austrian economist was perhaps the first to perceive the crucial role of “crisis” in the reproduction and expansion of capitalist industry. (Indeed, it could be said that the phrase “creative destruction” [schopferische Zerstorung] adopted by Schumpeter was meant to be intentionally ambiguous or ambivalent in terms of assigning a “positive”, “progressive” evolutionary value to capitalist innovation or, as we prefer, trans-crescence.)

Marx did not capture the centrality of “crisis” to capitalist social relations of production for the evident reason that he held a “linear” progressive and evolutionary view of what he called “economic formations”, leading dialectically in Hegelian fashion to the ineluctable triumph of communism:

The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

It is not surprising, then, that he should understand capitalist “crisis” as an essential or “immanent” and yet unmistakeably negative, disruptive, and anarchical characteristic of capitalist development which would prove to be its ultimate undoing because, evidently, once the Sozialisierung reaches an extreme level, then the Planlosigkeit can only be catastrophic. The “incompatibility” of social labour and private ownership is a classic trope of Marx’s use of the dialectic, equivalent to the Hegelian Aufhebung or “supersession” or “negation of the negation”. And although this supersession is dialectical, nevertheless it reaches “a point” at which the contradictions (“incompatibility”) of the capitalist mode pf production “burst asunder this integument”. In this view, Bernstein’s controversial insinuation of the existence of a Zusammenbruchstheorie (general crisis of capitalism) in Marx becomes more justifiable and credible.

It may be also possible to interpret and so to understand Marx’s view of capitalist crises in the opposite direction, that is to say, as not so much falling short because of its “negative” view of crises, but rather because of its “positive” view of capitalist “development” – as leading infallibly toward some kind of communist civilization. As we just suggested, it was the “Nietzschean-Weberian” Joseph Schumpeter who saw better, interpreting capitalist crisis or “disruption” as a necessary and indeed “intrinsic” part of capitalist trans-crescence (Entwicklung – definitely not to be translated as “development” or even less as “evolution”!). What Schumpeter’s theory of capitalism lacks – and this is a lack which Max Weber attempted to supplement – was a theory of the State as a specific political power-machine (the German word Macht, power, cognate with machen, to make, conveys this subtle connection between power and machinery, capitalist machines as embodying capitalist power or better, command). Schumpeter’s insistence on the very subjective “entrepreneurial spirit”, the innovative charge of the captain of industry, almost completely obscures the all-important role of the capitalist State as something far more significant than even Marx’s characterization as a “managerial committee of the bourgeoisie”. We shall turn to this pivotal point presently.

No comments:

Post a Comment