A Certain Stage of Development

1. At a certain stage of development, 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 fetter.  Then begins an era of social revolution.

And the era of social counterrevolution.

Did you ever hear that old one, about Engels being the better historian, but Marx being the better economist?  As if either was either?  Whatever else we want to say about Engels, and Marx, we’re not saying anything worthwhile if we’re not saying that from first to last they were both revolutionists– committed to social revolution as the means by which human emancipation, which is after all the emancipation of the production of social welfare, advances.   

Everything about Marx’s and Engels’ work begins with that–the necessity of social revolution as the method for emancipating social labor from the condition of private property so that social labor can be the condition for the emancipation of all.  

“Then begins an era of social revolution”…and counterrevolution.  We’ve been living that era for 50 years, give or take a year.  And when it goes on for fifty years, it’s not a crisis.  It’s the axis of accumulation.  It’s the business plan of capital.

That conflict that Marx describes between forces and relations of production in developed capitalism is acutely presented in the increased valuation, the accumulation of value, in the fixed assets– the machinery, buildings, means of transport, buildings, essential to production; assets which exist as property, as the condition for engaging human labor.  That is really all there is to capital– that relation, those conditions.  How that relation circulates, realizes itself is vital, but derivative.

The material forces of production, when organized as capital, as private property, or as state property designed to “relieve” private property of its expenses and burdens,  compel the organization of labor itself from an activity and into a property, an object to be aggrandized, consumed, and extinguished behind the screen of free exchange.  That exchange is the condition of labor, that is to say laborers compelled to present their capacity for labor, their time, as a commodity, as an object  to be exchanged for other objects that constitute reproduction of themselves as laborers.  Such exchange can only occur if  a)the products, and the means of producing those products, don’t belong to the laborers themselves b) the laborers have no alternative adequate means of providing for  their individual, minimal needs c) the laborers cannot reproduce, as a class, the means of life necessary for them to no longer be laborers as anything over than exchangeable value.

The potential for labor to be in itself an activity of satisfaction, both the need and the satisfaction,  is buried under the relations of exchange,  under the power of private property owners, who embed the conflict between their private property and the collective, associated, social labor of the workers into the form of the commodity.   Surplus is extracted from labor not simply through enhancing the productivity of labor, but through subordinating, subjugating, that productivity of labor to the needs of private property.  That need is first and foremost, profit; a profit achievable only upon “alienation”– commercial exchange.  After that?  The next need?  Clearly, a police force.

At its core, capital is not simply about accumulation, expansion, but is all and always about  the accumulation and expansion of the necessary conditions for the activity of labor, compressed as the value expressed in machinery, and the increment and velocity of profit, derived from the surplus labor.   Those conditions are  undermined by that productivity as less and less time is aggrandized in production; as more and more of that labor-time is expelled and replaced by the assets of production.  What we call the conflict between forces and relations of production gets expressed as a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, but the tendency of the rate of profit to fall itself is an expression of the decline in the portion of the working day required for the workers to produce the values necessary for their own reproduction.  Necessary labor declines while, for a time, the overall hours of labor increase, so much so that surplus labor increases.  And then inexorably, as production outpaces reproduction, those overall hours decline.  The value and mass of necessary labor declines, and at a certain stage of development, at a certain structural inflection point, the realizable surplus value falls to zero.

Capital has never been, nor will it ever be, an “economy” of equilibrium; has never been, nor will it ever be anything other than a condition of continuing disequilibrium; disequilibrium in  its expansion; disequilibrium in its contraction.

So the wolves tracking our bourgeoisie are not “exogenous.”  They are not imported or exported.  They can’t be kept out now and forever with tariffs or walls; they can’t be mitigated now or forever by organizations legislating, adjudicating,  “equity” “equitable distribution,” or “fairness.”

Not for nothing did that apex of bourgeois anti-thought and miserable deed in the late 20th century, Margaret Thatcher, proclaim that there is no such thing as society.  There are only markets.  She loved dogs, though.  “War on the laborers, peace to the dogs,” was her program.

We know wolves eat dogs.

2.  The Big Slowdown   

“From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetter”

US  Manufacturing Investment in Fixed Assets Average Annual Rates of Growth

1950-1974  9.6%        1974-1997  7.5%      1997-2017  2.65%

    US  Manufacturing Profits (with Inventory Valuations) Annual Rates of Growth

1950-1974  3.68%    1974-1997  7.13%   1997-2017  1.20%

3.   Scratch a bourgeois, and you’ll find a shopkeeper; one bad Christmas shopping season from bankruptcy, trusting no one, convinced that all are out to steal, swindle, extort, as he or she steals, swindles, extorts.  The world isn’t so much Hobbesian- with the war of all against all, as it is a paranoid’s fever dream and awake life, where everybody, even the other paranoids, thinks you’re crazy, but that’s because he and she and the world really are out to get you. 

Back in the day, in the day when the world went from Keynes to Friedman, when laissez-faire raised its bewigged head, there were those who said that laissez-faire was no economic theory, it was a class ideology; that “free markets” were the coded cover for attacks on the living standards of the workers and the poor; that the attacks on the “state” were just a cover for reversing the gains made by workers in the advanced, and not-quite-so-advanced countries of capitalism; that the drumming for “freedom of opportunity” was in reality the attack on equality of access.

There were those who said there was no going back to some imagined golden era.  Rather the only route available was against the system that propagated ideology.

The “economists”  lining up for and against Friedman, or Hayek; for and against Keynes or Samuelson,  presented their “clashes” as debates of theory, of history, of philosophy when their shared allegiance to political economy made the debate meaningless; when their shared distortion of the origins and functions of markets made their history a sham, and their philosophies a crime against humanity.   Vietnam, anybody?

What was left for the economists?  Only what had always been there:  private property and a police force, since profit was becoming harder to come by.

So begins, years ago, the assault on the living standards, and the very lives of workers; so begins the coded attack on racial equality;  so begins the paranoid’s disavowal of the very institutions designed to keep the paranoid tethered, however tenuously, to some reality outside that generated in and by the property of the shopkeeper.

What appears to us today as a mighty river of crackpot, wingnut, conspiracy-mongering, bigotry always was crackpot, wingnut, conspiracy-mongering, bigotry.   It, all that, enters social discourse under the guise of “conservatism” or “liberalism”  or “neo-liberalism”  proclaiming its bedrock “logic” of  “free markets” through its didactic linkage of poverty and sloth and shame; in its “principles” of unrestrained “entrepreneurship;” with the righteousness of its attacks on the weak, the vulnerable.

It enters first as novelty,  as amusement, as entertainment

The mighty river of social paranoia unleashed by impaired capital accumulation sweeps  church, country club, and board room into its stream and deposits all into the very fabric of bourgeois government.  The corporatism that capital pretends at, the “shared value” the “common identity,” is incarnated in the fusion of church and state and business.

Evangelicals, racists, hucksters, thugs, misogynists– in a word abusers are the pillars of corporatism. The “rights,” “liberties,” “freedoms,”  of capitalism give way to “order” and order can only be secured by abuse.

Having spent years  eliminating labor power from the production process in order to save money, the once and future shopkeeper confronts his own handy-work and recoils in horror.  The money-making power itself has been depleted.   

The search for income is eclipsed by the security of wealth as more and more of the income concentrates in a smaller percentage of people.

At the certain stage when the forms of development become the engines of impairment,  when structural decline coincides with, becomes congruent with cyclical contraction,  the institutions of capitalist moderation, its parliaments, congresses, trade alliances, unions, its once-partners, always competitors– all that  attempt at regulating, at adjusting, at distributing profit among the hostile brothers and sisters becomes an obstacle.

At the point where the  paranoia becomes a pandemic, it moves from pathology to policy.   So what used to be nutjob theorizing about tri-lateral commissions,  international banker (Jewish) Bolshevik (Jewish-Slavic-Immigrant) conspiracies expands to obscure, dissemble,  displace and replace the  real critiques of the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union, the WTO, NATO, the FBI, CIA.

All those institutions organized to maintain control, to secure property against the real threat of class struggle and thereby to mitigate the fears of the paranoid class become suspect because of that attempt at mitigation.

The “left” encountering this can do nothing more and nothing less than pretend at an imitation of the bourgeoisie it imagined there once was– tolerant, enlightened, liberal, democratic; producing nothing more and nothing less than defeat and disgust.  First Tsipras, then Corbyn.  And after those defeats…. bring back Lula, Morales.

Meanwhile the combine of money and psychosis gathers greater force, greater currency.  Children in cages? It’s done to protect… us, them, you.  Every migrant is a Palestinian, living in a camp, a prison, infuriating the inquisitor by having nothing left to expropriate. 

That’s where we are today– at that certain stage of development when the most profound advances in the forces of production are but the sum total of the shortcomings, the inadequacies, of capitalism.


S. Artesian


10 thoughts on “A Certain Stage of Development”

  1. The connection between the means of production and the property relations arising therefrom is difficult for me to understand. Could you give me a concrete example of how this works. For instance, the internet is a massive expansion of the means of production. How is that changing the relations of production and how is that leading to a crisis?

    1. The internet is a massive expansion of the means of communication, but anyway– the means or forces of production expand under specific property arrangements. For capitalism, the driving force is profit, accruing from surplus value. The “trigger” relation here is the separation of the producers, the workers, the laborers, from the forces of production which are owned, unlike the laborers themselves, as private property by the capitalists. The ability to labor, labor-power then becomes a commodity to be exchanged for a value equivalent to that of the means of subsistence.

      In order to expand profit, costs must be reduced, which leads to the replacement of the living labor power with machinery. In so doing, the ultimate basis for profit is undermined; the rate of profit falls, the products of labor which are now capital, are destroyed in both their physical and value forms. The capital runs up the inside of the cage of its own making– profit, the exchange relation of capital and labor; the conflict between labor, and the condition of labor.

      1. Yes, I understand all that, but my question is how, specifically, is the internet, a means of production, affecting the relations, or property relations, of capital.

        You say that ” but anyway– the means or forces of production expand under specific property arrangements.” Isn’t it the expansion of the forces of production which change and create new relations of production, new property arrangements? Marx says, somewhere, that it was the steam engine that destroyed feudalism and ultimately led to capitalism. In other words, man (the internet, machinery, etc.) produces consciousness (property relations.)

        The internet makes communication instantaneous, it makes communication instantly accessible between anyone anywhere. Communication has become instantly globalized. Modern capital cannot exist without the internet. But what effect does this have on the relation between worker and capitalist?

      2. You are now asking a different question: how does the expansion of capital affect the relations between workers and capitalists? That’s an absolutely valid question, but quite different than the question of the relations of production, property or the conditions under which labor is appropriated, circumscribing and limiting the forces of production or… how the expansion of capitalist production undermines the aggrandizement of profit.

        I don’t think the expansion of the internet changes the “meta-relation” between worker and capital, the wage relation. However the concentration of technical power, requiring great numbers of trained engineers and managers, also produces large numbers of sporadically, episodically, “part-time” employees, who are paid at rates below that of industrial workers. The ability to employ digital technologies to process immense amounts of data, to automate repetitive processes through algorithms, “de-skills” labor and exacerbates the already growing inequality. But again, that’s not what Marx identified as the motor to an era of revolution when he was speaking of the conflict between means and relations of production.

  2. Marx, in Chapter 32 of volume I of Capital, explains, I think, some of this question. Expanding capital becomes ever more centralized and monopolized, which we can see happening now.

    “…One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime…” [Interesting use of the word ‘net’.]

    ” The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument.”

    Thus, Marx shows how the means of production of capital, centralization, monopoly, and social organization of the labor force becomes incompatible with capitalism itself. Private property (capital) becomes more and more centralized, monopolized and socialized. The means of production of capital transform the relations of production from capitalist to socialist. Centralized monopoly has already occurred. The only part left is the international socialization and organization of the labor force. Which, by the way, can be accomplished by use of the internet.

    Also, the decline in the rate of profit (never mentioned by the defenders of the system) has resulted at the same time in a gigantic accumulation of the mass of profit owned, however, by fewer and fewer capitalists. What happens when the Federal Reserve finally owns everything?

    What do you think?

    1. Chapter 32 is more a description than a proof. The “proof” of the conflict between forces and relations takes its chronic and acute forms in the persistent tendency for the rate of profit to decline. The source of value and profit, wage labor, is minimized, impairing the available surplus-value.

      1. Marx identified the decline in the rate of profit as caused by the increase in the use of machinery in production. The more machines replace labor the lower the rate of production of surplus value, so I guess you could argue that there is a conflict between the use of machines and the capitalist system it self. But I think Marx would have specifically identified this as a conflict between the forces and relations of production. How, for instance, could a tendential reduction in the rate of profit be a relation of production?

      2. “How, for instance, could a tendential reduction in the rate of profit be a relation of production?”

        1. the decline in the rate of profit is the product of the conflict between forces and relations of production.
        2. How could it not be (a relation of production)? Profit is generated by the relation of production, no? That’s like, no, not like, it’s exactly the same as asking how can surplus-value be a relation of production.

      3. I think you are confusing forces of production with the relations of production. It is true that profit, a decline in the rate of profit, money, capital, capitalist and worker are all relations of production. Forces of production are material energies, usually technology, that at a certain point in development reach the stage where they come into conflict with the relations of production and a revolution takes place. Thus, the steam engine forces the replacement of capitalism over serfdom. The waterwheel, according to Marx, replaced slavery with serfdom. The domestication of animals replaced hunting, requiring the use of slaves to work herds and crops. The 20th century has seen massive changes in forces of production: the automobile, airplanes, use of oil, nuclear energy, electricity, and now the internet and the computer. All of these are obviously centralizing, monopolizing and globalizing communication and capital. Supposedly a hundred or so people own more wealth than the entire population of the planet. That is a relation of production, ownership of wealth, which has been exploded beyond all recognition. I don’t think there is anything unusual about saying that; my question was exactly how does it happen?

        Not that there is any specific reason for an answer. Currently, air travel on a scale never before thought possible, and the use of cars and SUVs in the US, are spreading the covid virus to a point where capitalism may finally self destruct. If the virus doesn’t do it, climate change will.

        By the way, the internet, a force of production, makes possible a conversation between anonymous socialists, a change in the relations of production.

      4. You asked how could a decline in the rate of profit be a “relation of production” misinterpreting what I originally wrote in the reply of July 21: “The “proof” of the conflict between forces and relations takes its chronic and acute forms in the persistent tendency for the rate of profit to decline.”

        I repeated that, albeit in different language, in the reply 2 days ago “the decline in the rate of profit is the PRODUCT of the conflict between forces and relations of production.” I then went on to point out that profit is the expression of the capitalist relation of production– labor power exchanged as a commodity for a value equivalent to the cost of its reproduction, which can only occur if the possessors of labor power cannot use that labor power directly to provide for their own subsistence, i.e are separated from the ownership of the means of production.

        I can’t make it anymore transparent than that. Neither could Marx.

        And you got your history all wrong. No the steam engine does not force the replacement of feudalism with capitalism. The commercial deployment of the steam engine is NOT possible prior to a mass of dispossessed “free labor” available for exchange. Capitalism appears, expands, and pushes out against and over that feudalism in England well before that deployment, displacing rural producers.

        And if you think that the steam engine spelled the end of waterwheel feudalism, while the waterwheel spelled the replacement of slavery by feudalism, you’re then going to have a helluva time explaining how capitalism was able to maintain, impose, or restore slavery in the Caribbean and other places, while “marrying” the advanced technology of the steam engine to this “pre-feudal” relation of production called slavery.

        History, real material concrete history, the history that’s at the heart of historical materialism, a history of social labor is not, and does not, present itself in neat little stages where this technology corresponds to that mode of production. The impetus behind the application of a particular technology is the compulsion inherent in the social relation of production, not vice-versa. Take a moment and study Brenner’s work on the transition to capitalism in Europe; Huang’s work on China’s resistance to the penetration of capitalism, and any other number of works about the histories of Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil, etc.

        When you say “the internet is a force of production” what exactly are you referring to? Which sector of the internet? Server farms, “the cloud” providing inventory control processes, data storage? There’s an argument to be made for that. But not the internet represented by the advertising, marketing platforms to Twitter, Facebook, Amazon,.

        You think the internet, making possible “chat rooms” of socialists represents a change in the relations of production? What commodity is being produced that changes NOT the familiarity of socialists with other socialist, but the relations of laborers to the conditions of their own labor. It doesn’t, no more than telephones did. That’s the whole trick to capitalism, the property relations circumscribe and restrain the social impact of the technology, and the conflict MUST be expressed in the movement of profit.

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