Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 31 March 2022

 SURPLUS VALUE AND CAPITALIST PLAN (Plusvalore e Pianificazione)


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.(K. Marx in Capital.)


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 unmistakably 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.                      

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