1. Capital is a specific condition for the development, appropriation, distribution, and accumulation of surplus product. That specific condition is the condition of value, where the products are exchanged in proportion to the social human labor time necessary for their reproduction. The historical basis for that condition is the separation of the forces of production from the producers themselves. The separation is then embodied, and reproduced, in an antagonistic exchange relation in which the more capital exchanges of itself with labor power, the more it accumulates; and the more capital accumulates, the less proportionately of itself it exchanges with labor power.
The producers become laborers, and for the laborers, the exchange is consummated in and through the wage– a sum of value in money form or as an equivalent– that compensates the laborers for the time necessary for reproducing themselves as laborers, while securing, for the owners of the forces of production, the laborers’ capacity for labor for a total working day, which includes a time surplus to the time necessary for reproduction.
Surplus labor-time produces surplus product, by definition. Surplus labor-time yields a surplus value as a social relation, value, a relation both hidden and manifest by and relations of exchange.
The “trick” of course with capitalism is that all product is surplus production; or rather, all of production has to be realized in order to realize the surplus product as value.
In the transformation of surplus labor to surplus value, we also find the origins of that moment so peculiar and particular to capitalism, overproduction.
We know that the transformation of surplus labor into surplus value means that the laborers cannot possibly exchange their labor power for the entire product, the entire value of the working period. Surplus value would not, could not, exist under that condition. The ability of capital to effect the conversion of labor power into value also means that that production will bump up against the limits of that exchange.
Overproduction, in that the commodities, the values, cannot be realized through the exchange with aggrandized labor power is intrinsic, necessary, critical, to capital.
It is intrinsic to capitalism that surplus value can only be made manifest, realized, as exchange value, when and if the surplus value is re-appropriated, reabsorbed into production. This is accumulation.
Sooner or later there comes that moment when the overproduction at the heart of capital overtakes the re-appropriation and reproduction of surplus value that is accumulation.
And as always, its the sooner and the later that really matter. The time and timing of the overtake make all the difference in the world. Overproduction may always be immanent, like revolution, but it’s not always manifest.
What is overproduced, however, is not and not ever, milk, safety pins, automobiles, cellphones, or natural gas. It is always milk as value; safety pins as values; automobiles as values; natural gas as value. The overproduction of commodities is the overproduction of capital.
Marx, refuting the notion of an “overproduction of capital” as different from the overproduction of commodities, writes in Capital Volume 3, Chapter 15:
Over-production of capital is never anything more than over-production of means of production– of means of labour and necessities of life– which may serve as capital, i.e. may serve to exploit labour at a given degree of exploitation; a fall in the intensity of exploitation below a certain point, however, calls forth disturbances, and stoppages in the capitalist production process, crises, and destruction of capital.
The failure to exploit labor at a sufficient intensity to…..what? To offset the decline in profitability brought about by the very accumulation of capital itself? Sounds reasonable doesn’t it, given that Marx is writing in the chapter titled “Development of the Law’s Internal Contradictions,” the law being the law of rate of profit to decline.
Declining profitability is both product and producer of the accumulation of capital. It is the moment, the sooner or later, when the immanence of overproduction becomes material.
2. Surplus product enables the division of labor, and the division of labor allows for the creation of new sectors of production. The apportionment of surplus is the basis for class distinctions, while the mode of that apportionment is specific to the particular classes.
But what is it that gets us from the base of surplus product to the condition of, the mode of, overproduction? Is it a restriction on consumption?
If, and there are no ifs about it, capitalist production is the production of exchange values for the purpose of exchange, if production is mediated by exchange, then so is consumption.
In chapter 17, Theories of Surplus Value, Marx, again refuting the opposition of an overproduction of capital to the overproduction of commodities, provides this:
What then does overproduction of capital mean? Over-production of value destined to produce surplus-value, or if one considers the material content, over-production of commodities destined for reproduction–that is, reproduction on too large a scale, which is the same as over-production pure and simple.
The critical significance of overproduction has to reside where and when commodities cannot be realized as exchange value, can’t make that holy transfiguration from the particular earthly form to the radiant glory of the universal form, money. This failure leads to the great devaluations of capital that constitute economic contractions, and recessions.
At one and the same time, there is too much value and too little valorization. At the very moment when the happy days are here again, when the bourgeoisie are making money hand over fist, the money starts to slip through their fingers, leaving behind the dead weight of diminished, unrealized, but overproduced, value. Not for nothing did Marx call capital contradiction in motion.
While surplus may be intrinsic to social labor, surplus product as surplus value, has a shelf-life. This perish-ability is not just that of a physical product subject to erosion, corrosion, and decay from internal or external forces. All of capital’s commodities come with internal clocks in that the commodities represent both a portion of “sunk value”– embedded in the production process– and an increment, a rate of expansion of the valorization process. The rate of return marries both the sunk and incremental portions of the value process into a pulse of sorts for capitalist economy. The rate of return has to be sufficient in speed and size to maintain the continuity of the production process. The reduction in that rate due to overproduction marks the opposition of the production process to the valorization process.
Capital realizes itself in exchange with other capitals. It has to be a system of multiple nodes, of multiplying nodes, separated in space and time, so that capital can realize value in the very process of overcoming that separation. Hence the massive expenditures devoted to research in, and construction of, networks of communication and transportation. These networks themselves are particularly sensitive to overproduction, to in fact, the immaturity, the unevenness, of capitalist development in light of intensity and extensiveness of the investments in communication and transportation infrastructure. Nothing requires fixed investment, fixed assets, like the circulation of capital.
3. Clearly (I hope) overproduction is systemic in capitalism. It is the acute moment that belies, and becomes, the chronic condition. All its manifestations point to a single source, the value relation, and a single resolution, the overthrow of value production. That requires the abolition of wage-labor, and the initial step to that abolition is the unification of the class around a single, universal wage, at the highest level.