Friday, 14 December 2012

Capital I, Chapter 16 - Part 2

Marx summarises his definition of Absolute and Relative Surplus Value.

The prolongation of the working-day beyond the point at which the labourer would have produced just an equivalent for the value of his labour-power, and the appropriation of that surplus-labour by capital, this is production of absolute surplus-value. It forms the general groundwork of the capitalist system, and the starting-point for the production of relative surplus-value. The latter presupposes that the working-day is already divided into two parts, necessary labour, and surplus-labour. In order to prolong the surplus-labour, the necessary labour is shortened by methods whereby the equivalent for the wages is produced in less time. The production of absolute surplus-value turns exclusively upon the length of the working-day; the production of relative surplus-value, revolutionises out and out the technical processes of labour, and the composition of society. It therefore presupposes a specific mode, the capitalist mode of production, a mode which, along with its methods, means, and conditions, arises and develops itself spontaneously on the foundation afforded by the formal subjection of labour to capital. In the course of this development, the formal subjection is replaced by the real subjection of labour to capital.” (p 477-8)

Marx refers to intermediate forms of production, where capital has not yet subordinated labour to it, but where a surplus product is still extracted from the producers.

By the side of independent producers who carry on their handicrafts and agriculture in the traditional old-fashioned way, there stands the usurer or the merchant, with his usurer’s capital or merchant’s capital, feeding on them like a parasite. The predominance, in a society, of this form of exploitation excludes the capitalist mode of production; to which mode, however, this form may serve as a transition, as it did towards the close of the Middle Ages.” (p 478)

Marx points out that although these modes of production, where Merchants' and Usurers' capital predominate, exclude the possibility of capitalism, after capitalism has developed, these older forms can still arise alongside it. That is the case with domestic industry, for example, but is probably even more striking in the case of slavery. But, as Marx points out, in these cases, “their physiognomy is totally changed.” (p 478)

Formal subjection of labour, whereby the previously independent producer became a wage labourer is sufficient for the production of absolute surplus value. But, it is when this becomes a real subjection of labour to capital i.e. when the worker can only sell their labour-power as factory labour, that it coincides with the extraction of relative surplus value.

This begins on an individual basis, as a means of extracting relative surplus value by individual capitalists, who do so by reducing the Value of their commodity below its social value i.e. below its Exchange Value. But, this feature of capitalism ends when this method has become generalised across all the major branches of production. This then becomes the predominant form of production, and means of extracting relative surplus value. Then relative surplus value in its previous specific sense can only arise where capital seizes upon areas of production not previously subject to capitalist production, or by further revolutionising the methods of production.

Once the capitalist mode of production is established and become general, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt, whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value. Assuming that labour-power is paid for at its value, we are confronted by this alternative: given the productiveness of labour and its normal intensity, the rate of surplus-value can be raised only by the actual prolongation of the working-day; on the other hand, given the length of the working-day, that rise can be effected only by a change in the relative magnitudes of the components of the working-day, viz., necessary labour and surplus-labour; a change which, if the wages are not to fall below the value of labour-power, presupposes a change either in the productiveness or in the intensity of the labour.” (p 479)

Given that we have seen previously the process by which the duration of a normal working day becomes fixed, it is clear that any rise in the rate of exploitation can now only be secured through the extraction of relative surplus value. The intensity of labour can be raised, but this implies a reduction in the number of hours worked, if it is to be permanent, and vice versa.

However, in periods of high unemployment, or where capital may be able to access new reserves of labour, through immigration etc. it may for a time be able to still combine an increase in intensity with an increase in the length of the working day, because it can simply wear out the labour faster, and replace it from the reserve. The extension of the day can be achieved openly, or by encouraging workers to take work home, to work on the train in to work and so on. It can also be achieved by raising the retirement age thereby increasing the working life, rather than working day.

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