(Dys)Function at the (Con)Junction

S. Artesian

An audio version of this article is available on Soundcloud

Impasse at the intersection of Value Boulevard and  Accumulation Avenue

The accumulation of capital is first last and always the accumulation of the means of production as capital, that is to say as values seeking more values; as values expanding values;  as value extracting more value from labor power constituted itself as value.


…for the  means of production to exist as values, their utility as the means of labor has to be expressed, and  suppressed– mediated– as and by private property.


…then the means of production confronts laborers, and labor-power, not as things, objects, but as a condition of their own labor, as a condition of their own existence, subsistence, reproduction.


…then the laboring time becomes the means of exchange, becomes the material substance, the frozen breath, identified as value.

…then all products, all product, exists as value; all production exists only to realize surplus value.

The transformation of labor, and the power to labor, if not complete, is at least thorough, in that its social expression now recapitulates its own loss, that loss is the loss of the usefulness of labor as a common power of human beings rather than as the power  belonging to the commodity.  Capital subordinates all social reproduction to the demands of value accumulation.

There is a peculiar “dynamic,” an “anti-serendipitous” non-reciprocity within capital’s configuration of labor power as a commodity: to extract value capital requires the deconstruction of labor-time into components of necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time.  To maximize the surplus labor time, capital must drive the necessary labor-time toward the minimum, the minimum being zero.  In order to drive the necessary labor-time toward zero, capital has to expel labor-power from the process of production.  To expel the labor-power from the process of production, the surplus labor-time has to be recapitalized “disproportionately” as means of production.  The very foundation of value production is undermined in the process of its maximization.  The accumulation of value in, of, as the means of production as a private property drives profit down as it drives labor-power out.

Perturbations in the traffic flow

The ultimate expression of this relation would be that moment when necessary labor approaches and then finally reaches…zero.  At the approach to that moment, this “event horizon” at the limits of capital, it appears that surplus value expands toward infinity,except… necessary labor approaches that limit when there is no longer any need for the laborers to work; to exchange their labor time for a value equivalent to the means of their own subsistence.

Without necessary labor, the creation and expropriation of surplus labor collapses inward.  The anti-red giant is at one and the same time the white dwarf.  Accumulation leads to the devaluation capital assets.

Property can be preserved,but no longer simply through the capitalization of surplus value. Rather it’s preserved through marginalization, through successive reductions of  the potential for socially productive labor.  It’s preserved behind a gate topped with barbed wire, a water cannon, a tear gas grenade, a privatized prison, behind a prescription pad for hydrocodone–

Marginalization is the measure of capitalist progress. Labor power is marginalized.  The increments of new, or additional, value extracted decline in relation to the already existing value, the pre-existing once surplus, now capitalized, value, simply being passed through, transferred through the production process.

Capitalist valorization runs headlong into the wall built of mirrors.

Bumper to bumper

This conflict is immanent to the composition of capital.  We can track, measure, chart this conflict in the relation of labor power to fixed assets.  We can measure the relative decline of production worker hours over time.  We can track the accumulation of the value embodied in the fixed assets of production.  We can track the decline in the relation of living labor to the expansion of those fixed assets in the decline in the rate of profit.

We can and we do and we will, and that’s important.  However, like the means of production themselves, those ratios are but a “passive” portrait of the reproduction of capital. They’re just numbers, right?  They’re just objects, relations that appear as things, “free” of the messy fluids of human existence– the blood and fat and acid and oil that are consumed in the production of, and the struggle to overcome the production of, value.

Political economy might deserve the sobriquet of  a “miserable science,” if it were science.  It isn’t. It’s ideology– like religion; a skeleton not built from bones, but recomposed from the dust of bones shattered and fragmented by the machinery of accumulation.  The loss of  blood, of flesh, is sanitized, made presentable, by and as numbers.  Presentation, for capitalism, really is everything.

We’ll start with the numbers.  We’ll get to the blood. There’s no way to avoid it.

–numbers (see fred.stlouisfed.org index of aggregate weekly hours of production and nonsupervisory employees:manufacturing)  So……..production hours.  Post World War 2, production worker hours for US manufacturing achieved their greatest mass in  1978, marking also the high point of the recovery from the 1974-1975 recession.  Prior to than 1978 mark, a post-war (pen)ultimate peak had been reached in 1974, marking the recovery from the 1971 recession.  And prior to that, the pre-(pen) ultimate peak was reached in 1968-1969, just prior to the 1970 recession.

Each of these three cycles marked a recovery distinguished by increases in the mass of production hours.

Since 1979, no recovery has displayed an increase of production hours greater than, equal to, or even close to, the levels achieved in 1978, 1974, or 1969.

 In fact recoveries have been distinguished by progressive (nice oxymoron, huh?) reductions in production hours, such that in 2015, production hours were below those measured at the trough of all prior post WW2 recessions except that of 2009.
Index of Production hours 2012=100

The index of industrial output, of course has not so declined, and even in sectors where output has declined from the post-war peak, the reduced output has not been proportionate to the decline in production hours.

As opposed to price, the value, and in particular the component of “new value,” the component that alone generates surplus value, has declined and declined disproportionately.

(see bea.gov  fixed assets table 3.1ES1, manufacturing) The greater proportion of value that has been that in fact drives the accumulation of capital, has been embedded in the fixed assets of production.  Regardless of how slowly this portion increases, it increases as it expels living labor.

(see bea.gov, GDP and Personal Income, table 6.16B for corporate profits by industry)Like baseball, capital has numbers and stats for everything, but don’t blame baseball.  It’s the product of its social environment, not the producer.  It’s a great game, no matter how the bourgeoisie have worked to distort, destroy, capitalize, it.

The relation between the expulsion of labor-power and the expansion of fixed assets manifest itself in the ratio of profit to the fixed assets.  This, after all, measures the successful transformation not only of surplus value into capital, but the successful transformation of capital into surplus value by labor power.

Where there are numbers, there are graphs, and here it is, the graph of annual profits in manufacturing as a portion of the fixed assets, in 3 year increments 1961-2015.

US Manufacturing: Profit as % Fixed Assets

This is not a pretty picture…to the bourgeoisie, even if, for most of them, most of the time, they can’t see it.  They, the bourgeoisie, don’t have to see it.  They feel it, where they feel everything all the time, in the wallet.  That’s not a big gun in their emptying  pockets you can’t feel, and they’re not happy.  The specter haunting the bourgeoisie may not yet be communism, but the shadow pursuing them is always of their own making.

Stuck in my car…

Marx’s critique of capital derives its accuracy and its persistence in that it is based in the real condition of labor.  Marx expresses that real condition as and in abstractions, as he must– wage-labor, free labor, the commodity labor-power, necessary labor-time, surplus labor-time. 

The abstractions represent, measure, and explain the transformation of product into value. There is no other way to express the “common,” universal, social conditions that determines the tendencies and the actual moments in the various and specific expressions of capital.

Capital, the Grundrisse, the other Economic Manuscripts 1857-1864 are not in and of themselves historical materialism, but they are the decoding of the information first recognized, then distilled and extracted, by historical materialism.  Not for nothing, class struggle, the revolutions of 1848-1849 precede Marx’s critique of political economy.

The “reconciliation” of this abstract material with the concrete manifestations of capital’s laws; the comprehension of the different adaptations made by  “bodies” carrying this coded material, and expressing those laws gets us to the moment that Marx describes as the conflict between the means of production and the relations of production; the conflict between the augmented productive capabilities of labor and the property that constrains those capabilities; the conflict between the valorization process and the production process; the conflict between value and reproduction.

The antagonism between accumulation and social reproduction is inherent in capitalism.  It’s chronic, but it doesn’t just “come and go.”  It’s manufactured, and it assumes its acute and persistent formation in those areas and countries where capital intrudes upon, but is not strong enough to overturn the pre-existing relations of property, land, and landed labor; where capital finds itself constrained by its own allegiance to private property, in the so-called “less developed” countries.

Here capital encounters the limits to reproduction, in its necessary accommodation to the already existing relations of private property that constrain access to labor.  All that we know about “less developed” capitalist countries– the impaired development of infrastructure, the persistence small-scale subsistence, or “subsistence plus surplus”agriculture coincident and simultaneous with  large scale landed production; with plantations, haciendas, the manors, the “great houses;” the restrictions on education, health care, transportation; the export of workers to “developed capitalism” — all are derived once from capital’s need to preserve the unity of private property,  repeatedly from capital’s indifference to accessing a mass of “free labor,” and ultimately from the logic, the code of accumulation itself– expulsion of labor power from production.

We get the enclave, the maquiladora; we get the great migrations to urban areas overwhelming the ability of the “economy” to provide large-scale, social employment.   

We get the great migrations to the metropolitan centers of advanced capitalism, which centers are but themselves enclaves.

We also get the  ideology of “economic recovery” which is not only indistinguishable from, but is the presentation of contracting reproduction, continued marginalization.

We get a world of gated communities.

Accumulation with impaired social reproduction, not without cyclical movement, not without periods of expansion, is the default condition resulting from advanced capital’s penetrations beyond Europe, beyond the north of North America.

Accumulation with impaired social reproduction, not without cycles, not without “recoveries;” and “recoveries” not without continued marginalization, not without continued increases in poverty, is the persistent product of this latest highest stage of  capitalism in Europe, North America, and Asia.

Death Race 2050

The reproduction of social value is a concept unthinkable, nonsensical to the bourgeoisie tethered as they are, to private property;tethered as commodity production is to the means of production as private property. No less a personage than the  Margaret Hilda Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, FRIC, RIP,  gave voice to the organizing principle of political economy  and categorically, “There is no such thing as society,” which does make you wonder where all the money came from to pay for her state funeral, but only for a second.

Value is always and only realized socially, when it confirms its claim as value in exchange with other commodities.

Exchange realizes value only when the whole universe of commodities can command the commodity of labor-power.  Value has no life beyond the re-appropriation of labor-power.

The accumulation of capital would be Dorian Gray’s picture, if Dorian Gray had been born the butt-ugliest bastard of all time.

At a certain moment in its development, in its reproduction,  capital required a bit of literacy, a bit of public education, a bit of public health, a bit of sanitary drinking water, not because capital needed workers to consume— but rather so that labor-power could be appropriated and re-appropriated, so that the labor-power was accessible, “moveable,” available for exploitation.

The expulsion of labor-power from production makes that moment………obsolete for capitalism.

At the same time as profitability becomes more difficult to generate, and impossible to sustain, the “public wealth” sectors become targets for liquidation, and platforms for privatization.

This process is somewhat different than the devaluation of capital, or the stripping of assets involved in production.  This process is structured as  the vehicle for the transfer of wealth through essentially the converting the public wealth into special investment vehicles, through the use of vouchers, coupons, private accounts.

Education, medical insurance, social security, will devolve into coupons; trade-able, circulating, with the goal being the exchange itself, which can only be supported through the greater segregation of services, with greater portions of the population receiving reduce services in type and quality, and the wealthiest sectors claiming “exclusive use” of the means to maintain life.  This is the arbitrage inherent in capitalism’s origin which only becomes manifest in its dotage, in its dementia; in its “weaponized”expression.  This is the big clawback, re-appropriating value by transferring and  any wealth accumulated by workers; by liquidating the value embodied in social reproduction.

We get the chartered school.  The state under funds public education, takes its vengeance on teachers through layoffs, and then awards vouchers for students to attend charter schools.  The charter school, like the private school, the religious school is wielded as a weapon against the social reproduction of labor-power. It excludes, expels, prevents access to social wealth.  Some might recall that the origin of the charter school is in the reaction against Brown v. Board of Education.  That same spirit, desire, need, of the bourgeoisie to prevent access, to enforce the restrictions essential to private property drives the weapon of chartered schools.

Free, quality public education is not a “right,” and it is not a privilege.  It is an obligation that the working class must assume on behalf of all. We begin, and only begin, discharging that obligation through the workers’ program that opposes all  charter schools, all tax breaks for religious or private schools or schooling, all subsidies to privatized education.

This era is the era of value accumulation in conjunction with restricted, attacked, social reproduction.

Our project is the expansion of social reproduction to the highest degree when in fact even maintaining the most modest level of that social reproduction, that social wealth, requires the complete abolition of value production, and the complete elimination of capitalism.

Please direct all comments to this Red Marx thread