Saturday, August 21, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XIII: Capital volume III, chapter 15

Chapter 15 of volume III, "Exposition of the Internal Contradictions of the Law [of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall] is iconic. Sensationalists and contrarians will no doubt be drawn to the chapter on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But true aficionados know that the real meat is in the counter-tendencies (chapter 14) and contradictions. One of the counter-tendencies was relative over-population of workers. It plays an even larger role in the contradictions of the tendency.

The paragraph immediately preceding section III of chapter 15, "Excess Capital and Excess Population," has a familiar ring to it:

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move -- these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means -- unconditional development of the productive forces of society -- comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.

What does this remind me of? This paragraph from the Grundrisse fragment on machines:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

Then comes the section on "Excess Capital and Excess Population." Excess, incidentally, is a translation of our old friend, überfluß (as in überflüssig). Surplus population and surplus capital, excess capital and excess population. We appear to have a match here with the section given the heading of "Necessary labour. Surplus labour. Surplus population, Surplus capital" in the English translation of the Grundrisse. Or, to be more consistent with a previous post, the three fragments on machines.

Socially necessary labour time is implicated in the first sentence of "Excess Capital and Excess Population":

A drop in the rate of profit is attended by a rise in the minimum capital required by an individual capitalist for the productive employment of labour; required both for its exploitation generally, and for making the consumed labour-time suffice as the labour-time necessary for the production of the commodities, so that it does not exceed the average social labour-time required for the production of the commodities.

Come to think of it "average social labour-time required" would have been a less confusing name for it than socially necessary labour time. A little later in the section, Marx explained that:

This plethora of capital arises from the same causes as those which call forth relative over-population, and is, therefore, a phenomenon supplementing the latter, although they stand at opposite poles — unemployed capital at one pole, and unemployed worker population at the other.

As Marx commented later on, "It is no contradiction that this over-production of capital is accompanied by more or less considerable relative over-population." It is no contradiction because the surplus capital cannot employ the surplus population unless it can produce sufficient surplus value. In short, there is superfluous superfluity (capital, population) on the one hand because there is deficient superfluity (value) on the other. 

Marx summed up the excess capital, excess population contradiction brilliantly in a series of stark rhetorical reversals. I have abridged the text somewhat to emphasize the form of the argument:

There are not too many necessities of life produced, in proportion to the existing population. Quite the reverse. Too little is produced to decently and humanely satisfy the wants of the great mass.

There are not too many means of production produced to employ the able-bodied portion of the population. Quite the reverse. ...

On the other hand, too many means of labour and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of labourers at a certain rate of profit. ...

Not too much wealth is produced. But at times too much wealth is produced in its capitalistic, self-contradictory forms.

The limitations of the capitalist mode of production come to the surface...

It comes to a standstill at a point fixed by the production and realisation of profit, and not the satisfaction of requirements.

This sequence reprises the argument made in the Grundrisse -- needs without the means to satisfy them; the relation of necessary and surplus labour turns into its opposite:

Labour capacity can perform its necessary labour only if its surplus labour has value for capital, if it can be realised by capital. Thus, if this realisability is blocked by one or another barrier, then (1) labour capacity itself appears outside the conditions of the reproduction of its existence; it exists without the conditions of its existence, and is therefore a mere encumbrance; needs without the means to satisfy them; (2) necessary labour appears as superfluous, because the superfluous is not necessary. It is necessary only to the extent that it is the condition for the realization of capital. Thus the relation of necessary and surplus labour, as it is posited by capital, turns into its opposite, so that a part of necessary labour – i.e. of the labour reproducing labour capacity – is superfluous, and this labour capacity itself is therefore used as a surplus of the necessary working population, i.e. of the portion of the working population whose necessary labour is not superfluous but necessary for capital.

This is the penultimate installment of my examination of Marx's category of socially necessary labour time. The final post will be anti-climactic. I will be dealing with some "general remarks on differential rent" in chapter 38 of volume III and chapter 49, "concerning the analysis of the process of production." There is nothing really new or unusual about those commentaries, as far as I can see, but it will be useful to go through the exercise for the sake of completeness.


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