A Circle of Circles (Part Two of n)
In the previous article we looked at production, distribution, circulation, and consumption as isolated moments and considered in the abstract. The goal of this article will be to look at each moment in relation to the other, still considered in the abstract, which is to say, not tied to one specific mode of production. We will still be quoting from Marx’s Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and as such any unattributed quotes originate from that work.
Production and Consumption
The most striking relationship is that between production and consumption. Production, of course, is the starting point which has as its goal consumption. Even this simple statement becomes confused in the hands of the typical political economist and requires further elaboration and working out.
“The act of production itself is thus in all its phases also an act of consumption. The economists concede this. They call productive consumption both production that is simultaneously identical with consumption, and consumption which is directly concurrent with production. The identity of production and consumption amounts to Spinoza’s proposition: Determinatio est negatio.
Consumption is simultaneously also production, just as in nature the production of a plant involves the consumption of elemental forces and chemical materials.
Production is thus at the same time consumption, and consumption is at the same time production.”
This viewpoint of production and consumption amounts to reducing these categories to mere categories of creation and destruction, mere physical processes. This analysis takes the viewpoint of thermodynamics which essentially posits that all acts of creation of a more orderly product come about as a result of an increase in total entropy in the universe. Marx himself tells us what is really going on here.
“Production is always appropriation of nature by an individual within and with the help of a definite social organisation.
In production persons acquire an objective aspect, and in consumption’ objects acquire a subjective aspect.”
Stated more explicitly, the dialectic between production and consumption is the dialectic of humanity’s metabolism with nature. Production puts humanity in to a natural form (objects external to us appear as a result of the expenditure of our life-time) while consumption extracts humanity from objects of consumption. If we reverse the order the confusion becomes clear. Production is the ‘consumption’ of humanity by nature, and consumption is the ‘production’ of humanity by nature.
The political economists who cannot differentiate between production and consumption cannot do so because they miss the significance of both. Their reduction of the process to a mere physical process devoid of any social properties tells us what their blind-spot is. The inability to conceptualize production or consumption as anything more than acts of creation or destruction is due to the inability to see modes of production as the transitory historical phases that they are. Instead, a given mode of production is taken as natural and eternal, and thus devoid of all social significance. As a result of this, all of the different moments contained in the mode of production, production, distribution, circulation, and consumption, also lose their social significance to the political economist and become reduced to mere physical processes.
When the process of production is bestowed its proper social content it becomes clear that what occurs is the loss of life-time intentionally incurred in order to expand the scope for the development of humanity. On the flip-side, when consumption is given its proper social content, what actually occurs is the development of humanity for the loss of the object so consumed. To put it in unequivocal terms, production is the loss of humanity to nature, and consumption is the growth of humanity from nature. Both parts of the statement are rather provocative given that production has as its aim a useful effect whereas our definition also includes the case of pure waste. However, merely because an act of production is unsuccessful at creating a useful product does not render the act anything other than a failed act of production, but an act of production nonetheless. Likewise, consumption need not be the consumption of products modified by humanity. Air, or at least air from several hundred years ago, was not the result of human productive activity and yet was still consumed. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find anything today consumed which has not been at least modified by human production. The only thing that springs to mind is sunlight.
The above conception of production merely as loss is still rather one-sided. When considering only the individual, it is true that the individual experiences loss of lifetime in exchange for the creation of a product. But humans are not individuals, we are social beings, and for the species, the act of production represents the creation of possibilities for expanding the scope of human development. The loss of the individual is the expansion of the species, nothing says species-being quite so much as this.
Production and Distribution
Further, the political economists conflate whether or not the animating moment is production or distribution.
“The question as to the relation between that form of distribution that determines production and production itself, belongs obviously to the sphere of production. If it should be said that in this case at least, since production must proceed from a specific distribution of the means of production, distribution is to this extent antecedent to and a prerequisite of production, then the reply would be as follows. Production has indeed its conditions and prerequisites which are constituent elements of it. At the very outset these may have seemed to be naturally evolved. In the course of production, however, they are transformed from naturally evolved factors into historical ones, and although they may appear as natural pre-conditions for any one period, they are the historical result of another period. They are continuously changed by the process of production itself.”
This confusion over whether or not distribution determines production or production determines distribution arises because of the fact that the result of production is an object external to humanity which thus appears natural and antecedent to human activity. The results of one ’round’ of production appear as the prerequisites for the next ’round.’
Production and Circulation
The most significant thing to remark on the relationship between production and circulation is precisely that circulation can only develop to the same extent that the scope of production expands. If the entire productive life of the species is dedicated to producing subsistence, then circulation will exist only in the periphery. Consumption will more or less immediately follow production given that what is produced is immediately necessary. This is, of course, merely a restatement of Marx when he writes.
“Trading nations, properly so called, exist in the ancient world only in its interstices, like the gods of Epicurus in the Intermundia, or like Jews in the pores of Polish society. Those ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent. But they are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection. They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and Nature, are correspondingly narrow.”
With the growth in the scope of production, the immediate producer has less and less need of what is directly produced and thus the sphere of circulation must expand to transform the labor-time of the producer to a form which best corresponds to their needs.
Distribution and Circulation
There was much confusion arising from the last article on the difference between distribution and circulation which naturally occurs given that both distribution and circulation have as their goal the movement of products. In the case of distribution, the motion is more or less abstract, labor-time is distributed. In the case of circulation, the motion is more or less concrete, specific products are circulated. The difficulty arises that, because production has as of yet been so undeveloped, the distinction between distribution and circulation is subtle to the point of incoherence. With a limited scope of production, the labor-time distributed can only take a limited number of forms corresponding to circulation. In contrast to a fully developed capitalism, a given amount of labor-time may be distributed to ‘luxuries,’ but what physical products those ‘luxuries’ consist of are as diverse as can be imagined. The difference between distribution and circulation is thus made more stark as production develops.
Distribution and Consumption
Distribution and consumption hold a similar relationship as do distribution and circulation in that the sphere of consumption is today as underdeveloped as circulation was in prior modes of production. One certainly wouldn’t confuse distribution and consumption with one another, but consumption appears at such a primitive level that we can only really speak of two kinds of consumption that labor-time has been distributed to in history. Speaking more broadly of distribution of labor-time, it must fall to the three categories of production previously defined, the means and materials of labor, and labor itself. The former two concern production, the latter concerns consumption. If the distribution of labor-time is sufficient only to maintain the labor, it is mere subsistence. If surplus labor-time exists after this subsistence has been accounted for, it can fall to ‘luxuries.’ As of yet, this is the most concrete distinction we have, and even this distinction is fleeting and ephemeral. Yesterday’s ‘luxuries’ are transformed in to today’s necessaries. One can imagine rather than the simple distinction between ‘necessities’ and ‘luxuries’ a more developed form of society drawing up distribution in such a way that the category of ‘luxury’ splits off in a million different directions each intentionally developed. For instance, the development of the human eye in the form of visual arts, the development of the human ear in the form of music, the point being that rather than labor-time simply being converted in to whatever form ‘luxury’ takes in a given moment, the labor-time would be intentionally distributed in such a way that develops humanity in a specific direction.
Circulation and Consumption
The trick in the relation between circulation and consumption was alluded to in the previous section. Circulation corresponds to the specific forms that consumption is allocated. For instance, the necessities encountered by an ancient Egyptian farmer take quite a different form than those encountered by an ancient Chinese farmer. Chance is more or less the defining characteristic here, questions of time and space are of paramount importance. As before, however, the scope of the productive power will drive and shape what forms are available to circulation and consumption.
A Circle in Abstract Motion
Now that we have gone over all of the different moments in their abstract form and their relation to one another, lets give the abstract wheel a spin shall we?
A human being emerges in to a world which existed prior to themselves. The means and materials of labor which this given labor encounters are also pre-existing, whether these take the form of a nearby sharp stone and herd of mammoth, or a hot forge and hammer and the instruction of a guild master. During the process of production, time must be spent such that the means and materials of labor involved in the production process are reproduced. In the more primitive state this could literally be reproducing a spear or arrows consumed in the hunt, in a more advanced state this could mean saving a portion of the profits made to re-purchase raw materials. The product left over after reproducing the means and materials of labor can be consumed to reproduce the laborer, again, depending upon the level of society this could literally mean spending time preparing food from killed game or it could mean paying a wage-worker money to purchase food from a store. Any additional product above and beyond that necessary to reproduce the laborer and means and materials of labor is surplus and distributed according to the relations of production. In the case of a free peasant, for instance, any surplus product belongs to the peasant, on the other hand, a slave is forced to surrender every part of the product and receives back only that which is necessary for the reproduction of slaves. Once each part of the production process has been successfully reproduced, the process repeats. If any amount of the surplus is utilized to alter or in some way improve the production process, these alterations and improvements will subsequently appear as did the initial conditions of production, as given and natural rather than derived.
In the next article of this series, we will finally move away from the abstract and start talking about capitalism.
The above article was initially written and edited and will be discussed with readers of Anti-Capital. The discussion will take place here on 03/14/18 7 p.m. EST.