A Circle of Circles (Part One of n)

A Circle of Circles (Part One of n)


Many people find the economic studies and critique of Karl Marx to be difficult to understand. There would seem to be two main reasons for this. Capital volume 1 is over a thousand pages long, volumes 2 and 3 each also stand at over a thousand pages long. You’d also be missing quite a lot of essential Marx if you overlooked The Poverty of Philosophy (240 pages), The Grundrisse (another thousand odd pages), or the Economic Manuscripts of the 1860’s (another thousand odd pages). Simply put, Marx isn’t necessarily difficult, but he is voluminous, and not many people have the time to go over six thousand or so pages of Marx’s economic writings several times.

Where we discover difficulty in the writings of Marx, we do so because of the subject material Marx is dealing with. Capitalism, like every mode of production, is a circle of circles with each moment presupposing and anticipating the other. In addition to this, Marx straight up tells us that

Bourgeois society is the most advanced and complex historical organisation of production.

Production under capitalism does not make sense without exchange, which, of course, can only be the exchange of products (except when it isn’t), these products or not-products are then consumed. Consumption, of course, exerts its influence back upon production, but production also dictates to consumption what it can consume. Therein lies the difficulty, it is impossible to understand one part of the circle without understanding the whole circle as a circle in motion. And the larger circle is itself composed of smaller circles which affect that larger circle. One simply has to begin somewhere in order to begin connecting the pieces. Marx begins, in Capital volume 1, with the commodity and so starts from the viewpoint of exchange to develop value in to capital. We quickly find that capital cannot be understood from exchange alone and requires a look at production. What is never outlined explicitly is the fact that what we are looking at is a giant circle in motion itself composed of smaller circles. The closest that Marx comes to an explicit discussion of the entire unit in motion is contained in his Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, therefore we will be quoting it heavily. Marx tells us himself why he did not pursue this attempt, and in fact excised this introduction before A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy was published.

A general introduction, which I had drafted, is omitted, since on further consideration it seems to me confusing to anticipate results which still have to be substantiated, and the reader who really wishes to follow me will have to decide to advance from the particular to the general.

This larger top-down view is what I hope to provide with this article series. Once we have established an understanding of the circle of circles that is capitalism, I believe it will be easier to come to a comprehension of Marx’s critique of political economy. Any further unattributed quotes originate from Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

So what on Earth is this large circle I keep referencing?


To begin with, the question under discussion is material production.

But haven’t I already said that the circle is composed of four ‘moments?’ Production, distribution, exchange, and consumption are the four points, or ‘moments’ that make up the circle, but production is the predominating moment.

Production thus appears as the point of departure, consumption as the goal, distribution and exchange as the middle, which has a dual form since, according to the definition, distribution is actuated by society and exchange is actuated by individuals.

What is produced dictates to consumption what it can consume. How it is produced dictates to distribution which social classes shall partake in the products and in what proportions. When and where production takes place (that is, questions of time and space) dictates to circulation what products an individual is likely to encounter.

So what is production?

Thus when we speak of production, we always have in mind production at a definite stage of social development, production by individuals in a society. It might therefore seem that, in order to speak of production at all, we must either trace the various phases in the historical process of development, or else declare from the very beginning that we are examining one particular historical period, as for instance modern bourgeois production, which is indeed our real subject-matter. All periods of production, however, have certain features in common: they have certain common categories. Production in general is an abstraction, but a sensible abstraction in so far as it actually emphasises and defines the common aspects and thus avoids repetition.

At this point in our attempt to condense Marx, we will simply be discussing production in general as an abstraction. In a later article we will discuss the alterations that production under capitalist society undergoes. And of course when I say condense Marx I mean re-arrange Marx quotes and add possibly confusing but hopefully enlightening commentary.

Before we talk about the common features that each mode of production has, I’d like to point out the significance of production. When we speak of production we are not concerned with a purely physical, or chemical, or biological, or geological process. Indeed, what we are discussing when we discuss production is humanity’s metabolism with nature. Because that metabolism works both ways, we will need to look at it more closely when we consider the difference between production and consumption. For now, I merely wish to note that the process of production cannot be abstracted to the level of physics or chemistry without leaving behind the essential character of production, humanity’s metabolism with nature.

A precise analysis will always reveal that all labour involves the employment of a material of labour and a means of labour.

The means of labour, in contrast to the material of labour, comprise not only the instruments of production, from the simplest tool or container up to the most highly developed system of machinery, but also the objective conditions without which the labour process cannot occur at all, e.g. the house in which the work is done or the field on which sowing takes place, etc. These do not enter directly into the labour process, but they are conditions without which it cannot occur, and therefore necessary means of labour. They appear as conditions for the occurrence of the whole process, not as factors enclosed within the process. The means of labour equally include substances consumed in order to make use of the means of labour as such, like oil, coal, etc., or chemical substances used to call forth a certain modification In the material of labour, as e.g. chlorine for bleaching, etc. There is no point in going into details here.

With the exception of the production of raw materials the material of labour will always have itself already passed through a previous labour process. What appears as material of labour and hence raw material in one branch of labour appears as result in another. The great majority even of things regarded as products of nature, e.g. plants and animals, are the result, in the form in which they are now utilised by human beings and produced anew, of a previous transformation effected by means of human labour over many generations under human control, during which their form and substance have changed. As we have already noted, the means of labour in one labour process is the result of labour in another.

Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63

Thus we have three common features across all modes of production, labour, the means of labour, and the material of labour. The latter two categories are objects external to humanity, while the former category is the active existence of humanity. The objects external to humanity come to take the form of various types of property depending upon the mode of production. Some examples include feudal property, communal property, and private property. The active existence of humanity comes to take the form of various types of laborers. Some examples include serfs, slaves, and wage-workers.

As to the process in motion.

The labour process is therefore a process in which the worker performs a particular purposive activity, a movement which is both the exertion of his labour capacity, his mental and physical powers, and their expenditure and using-up. Through it he gives the material of labour a new shape, in which the movement is materialised. This applies whether the change of form is chemical or mechanical, whether it proceeds of itself, through the control of physiological processes, or merely consists in the removal of the object to a distance (alteration of its spatial location), or only involves separating it from the body of the earth. Whilst labour materialises itself in this manner in the object of labour, it forms it and uses up, consumes the means of labour as its organ. The labour goes over from the form of activity to the form of being, the form of the object. As alteration of the object it alters its own shape. The form-giving activity consumes the object and itself; it forms the object and materialises itself; it consumes itself in its subjective form as activity and consumes the objective character of the object, i.e. it abolishes the object’s indifference towards the purpose of the labour. Finally, the labour consumes the means of labour, which likewise made the transition during the process from mere possibility to actuality, by becoming the real conductor of labour, but thereby also got used up, in the form in which it had been at rest, through the mechanical or chemical process it had entered.

All 3 moments of the process, whose subject is labour and whose factors are the material on which and the means of labour with which it operates, come together in a neutral result — the product. In the product labour has combined with the material of labour through the agency of the means of labour.”

Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63

Marx also goes on to remark that the product thus obtained can, in turn, be used as either material or means of labor in a new labor process, depending upon the product. Thus we can see how, outside of the large circle of production, distribution, circulation, and consumption, we have encountered our first smaller circle in production whose three moments consist of labor, the means of labor, and the material of labor.


Distribution according to the most superficial interpretation is distribution of products; it is thus removed further from production and made quasi-independent of it. But before distribution becomes distribution of products, it is (1) distribution of the means of production, and (2) (which is another aspect of the same situation) distribution of the members of society among the various types of production (the subsuming of the individuals under definite relations Of production). It is evident that the distribution of products is merely a result of this distribution, which is comprised in the production process and determines the structure of production. To examine production divorced from this distribution which is a constituent part of it, is obviously idle abstraction; whereas conversely the distribution of products is automatically determined by that distribution which is initially a factor of production.

When considering distribution, Marx instructs us to look beyond merely the distribution of products, and look at the relations of production. Distribution corresponds with the role each part plays in production. It may seem absurd to say that a certain amount of the social product is distributed to property, say in the form of a machine, but if society wishes to continue using that machine in that form of property this is precisely what occurs. Likewise with the various forms of labor. If society wishes to continue using labor in the form of slaves, or serfs, or wage-workers, then the social product must be distributed in such a way that reproduces those forms. In the case of slavery, for example, the entire social product will fall to the master who owns the slave as a mere machine to be maintained. The slave has no independent existence outside of the production process to which he or she belongs. By contrast, the employer of a wage-worker will receive the entire social product and exchange a portion of this product for a specified period of time from the wage-worker who is otherwise ‘independent’ from his or her employer.

But just what is the content of the social product? In other words, what is being distributed? By phrasing the question in this manner we have already screened out a potential error. Namely, because we are talking about the social product, we will not waste time analyzing the physical characteristics of the product. Instead we will ask what social substance is being distributed.

But time is in fact the active existence of the human being. It is not only the measure of human life. It is the space for its development.

Time, or more specifically labor-time, is the content of distribution and just as with the categories of production, time also takes different forms corresponding to different modes of production. From the amount of slaves, to the amount of land (and therefore amount of serfs), to the number of man-hours worked, time can appear in various more or less disguised forms, but always what is distributed is the same social product; the material for the development and sustenance of the human being. What is important in understanding this is not the result that is being distributed, but the process by which the distribution is arrived at. The slave is fed and maintained as a slave because he or she functions in the production process as a slave. Likewise with the master. Because the master owns the life of the slave, he or she also owns the entirety of the time of the slave including any and all products that are created during this time. Similarly with the capitalist who owns the wage-worker for a specified period of time and thus owns all of the results obtained during that time.

the encroachment of capital over the time of labour is the appropriation of the life, the mental and physical life, of the worker.

Over the course of the discussion (see the end of this article) it became clear that the above explanation of distribution was lacking in clarity. To be perfectly explicit, in the production process where slave labor is utilized, the slave is presupposed to the process. That is to say, the process of production with slave labor can not take place without slaves who expend slave labor. The slaves themselves cannot exist without various kinds and amounts of products such as bread. Dealing with bread as a specific product, however, brings us in to the sphere of circulation where specific products are circulated. The bread itself requires a given amount of time to produce, say, an hour. If this hour of time requisite to produce bread was enough to satisfy all of the needs of the slave as a slave then we could simply say, from the standpoint of distribution, that an hour of labor-time falls to the slave. Stated more provocatively, the hour needed to produce the bread which sustains the slave could simply be reduced to saying that an hour is needed to produce the slave.

It may appear as backwards to view distribution as antecedent to circulation given that we had to arrive at distribution by looking at the circulation of a specific product, namely bread, but before the bread existed it needed to be produced and in order to produce it a certain amount of labor time needed to be distributed to the production of bread. In sum, the process of production based on slave labor presupposes slaves which presupposes the products necessary to sustain slaves which presupposes the labor-time necessary to produce those products.


If distribution is the distribution of time, then circulation is the conversion of that time to a specific product for a specific individual. Marx has remarkably little to say about circulation, and where he does speak of circulation he speaks of it in reference to exchange which is a form best corresponding to the capitalist mode of production and thus diverts us from our analysis of modes of production in general.

Circulation is merely a particular phase of exchange or of exchange regarded in its totality.

Since Exchange is simply an intermediate phase between production and distribution, which is determined by production, and consumption; since consumption is moreover itself an aspect of production, the latter obviously comprises also exchange as one of its aspects.

Jumping straight to an example of circulation outside of the capitalist mode of production, we can consider the distribution of land (and therefore serfs) as the form of distribution of time. Further, that time is converted to a specific product in the form of various types of rent and tithes. If circulation appears stunted and limited in prior modes of production, this is merely because the variety of specific forms that labor-time can take is itself stunted and limited which corresponds to a stunted and limited productive power.


If we had surprisingly little to say about circulation, we will have even less to say about consumption. Marx, luckily, has something to say about consumption which can guide us further, however.

In consumption’ objects acquire a subjective aspect.

What this means is that consumption is the realm for the development of humanity. We had little to say about circulation in general because circulation had not developed very far as a moment outside of the capitalist mode of production. Likewise with consumption, the development of the human being has, as of yet, not been the central focus of any mode of production. Thus consumption has been limited to consumption which more or less only satisfies our cruder needs.

In the next article of this series, we will look at the interactions between these four different moments.

The above article was initially written and edited and then discussed with readers of Anti-Capital before further revisions were made. You can find the discussion here. If you are interested in participating in future discussions please contact us.

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