Step Forward

S. Artesian

1. It is fundamental to both Marx’s historical materialism and his critique of political economy that the development of capitalism presupposes the establishment and maintenance of a certain advance in the productivity of labor. Given the rural nature of pre-capitalist societies, this productivity has to emerge first in agriculture.  In his Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 2, Marx writes that “A definite stage in the development of agriculture…forms the basis for the development of capital.” Later, in Chapter 24, Marx writes:

Both absolute and relative surplus-value have this in common that they presuppose a certain level of the productive power of labour.  If the entire working-day (available labour-time) of a man (any man) were only sufficient to feed himself (and at best his family as well), then there would be no surplus labour, surplus-value, and surplus produce.  The prerequisite of a certain level of productivity is based on the natural productiveness of land and water, the natural sources of wealth.

[Yes, I know, as if only men performed such labor; as if only men labored to feed a family, in countryside or town, in agriculture or industry]

In the Grundrisse, Marx describes the importance of the productivity of labor to the development of industrial machinery, the fixed capital of production:

Hence, only when a certain degree of productivity has already been reached–so that a part of production time is sufficient for immediate production–can increasingly large part be applied to the production of the means of production….This requires that society be able to wait; that a large part of the wealth already created can be withdrawn both from immediate consumption, in order to employ this part of labour which is not immediately productive (within the material production process).  This requires a certain level of productivity and of relative overabundance…As the magnitude of relative surplus labour depends on the productivity of necessary labour, so does the magnitude of labour time–living as well as objectified–employed on the production of fixed capital depend on the productivity of the labour time spent in the direct production of products.

In Capital, Volume 1, Marx describes the “historical mission” of capital as:

Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth.

In Volume 3, Marx articulates another “historical mission” integral and antagonistic to that accumulation:

Here the capitalist mode of production is beset with another contradiction. Its historical mission is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. It goes back on its mission whenever, as here, it checks the development of productivity.

The development of capitalism is the development of that antagonism and conflict within and coincident with accumulation of the means of production. Immanent to capital, this conflict is expressed cyclically in the “overwhelming” of the exchange networks; through overproduction.  The conflict is expressed structurally through the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.  The conjuncture of cyclical and structure gets us to that condition where and when:

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 fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. (Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.)

The convergence of historical materialism and the critique of political economy is manifested in class struggle for social revolution.  Capital’s development of the means of production is nothing but the expropriation of the productivity of labor.  The expropriation of the expropriators means that those means, that productivity, can now be used to emancipate labor.

2.  So we have a theory of “development,” of “progression”:  improved productivity of labor, development of the forces of production, greater improvement in the productivity of labor, greater accumulation of the means of production as values, and value extracting; conflict between the growth in the forces of production and the relations of production, which relations are the property forms circumscribing the conditions of labor, the conditions under which production takes place, precipitating a social revolution for a more complete, thorough, emancipated productivity of labor.  Take a breath.

That’s the “usual” expression of the dynamic between means and relations of production: the development of the means of production “pre-determines,” calls forth, evokes, a “higher,” more social, organization of labor.

Capital, of course, only conforms to its “usual expressions” in the frequency, and degree, of the deviations, oscillations, variances from the norm, like the way prices deviate from values.  Any account, then, of the overall conformity has to account for the variations, and the unusual expressions, the simultaneity of development and  un-development.  Exceptions not only prove the rule, exceptions are the rule made manifest.

3.  Which gets us of course to the concrete development of capitalism across the globe in uneven and combined development.  The particular, localized expression of uneven and combined development reveals a capital not so interested, or willing, or capable of transforming the relations of land, and landed labor in its own image, or the image that echoes from the emergence of capitalism in the English countryside.  The pre-existing relations and  obligations of both labor and debt service are absorbed into a commercial network– domestic and international markets– that juxtaposes capital’s relations of labor to property alongside relations that veil, circumscribe, limit, inhibit, and distort those capital relations.  So we get the persistence of the plantation, the “big house,” the hacienda, with concomitant peon, share-cropping, tenant, encomienda, and pakyaw, systems for exploiting labor.

The result of this impaired accumulation is that the agricultural productivity is constrained, and while industry can and does expand, the total social development is constrained by the inability of capitalism to “free” labor from the low productivity relations in the countryside.

Then, even where labor has been expelled from rural production, driven out of the countryside by the introduction of machinery, or consolidation of capitalist enterprise, or economic distress, or destruction of subsistence relations, or all of the above, there follows the inability to employ that labor at levels capable of maintaining a population made to be permanently surplus, and persistently less than marginal to the system itself.

The legacy of these systems makes it appear as if  the social revolution has to constitute itself as something analogous to capitalism, undertaking the tasks of development which capital has eschewed;  as if the task of revolution was reproducing in that development, the very relations capital proved incapable of imposing in “developed” form.   This was the path the former Soviet Union took, attempting after the period of war communism, to engage the rural population in commercial relations based on some notion of rational, enlightened, economic “self-interest.”

When that commercial impulse succumbs to its own inability to augment and sustain the productivity of labor, it appears then that forced industrialization established on the basis of agricultural collectivization is the only alternative.  We get the  justifications of expropriation, and the exploitation of rural labor, as “primitive socialist accumulation,” when no such thing as primitive socialist accumulation can exist.

The inability of capitalism to revolutionize social relations, what we call underdevelopment is, after all, no such thing.  It, the “underdevelopment” is the product of capitalist development internationally, where the mass and density of the accumulated capital prohibits the repetition, or reproduction, or recapitulation, of previous history.  The “backward” social relations encountered by capital interlock with backward relation that is capital– that is to say private property.  The resolution of this predicament confronting social revolution is to be found first on an international scale; where the revolution helps itself to all that has been accumulated in the advanced areas.

Coincident with that international appropriation,  uneven and combined development places a specific obligation on social revolution.  That specific obligation is that the “usual sequence” of the established maxim of Marxism– the practical emancipation of labor requires the development of the means of production through the productivity of labor– is  realizable when we encounter and recognize that the development of the means of production, the raising of the productivity of labor, depends on the emancipation of labor.  The most radical, democratic, egalitarian, association of producers is the only social relation of production that does not come into conflict with the forces of production, that does not restrict the productivity of labor.

April 28, 2018


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: