Where did all that stuff come from? Marx, surplus profit, and the seemingly inexhaustible rise in the productivity of labour in capitalist production

‘[…] [E]verything is expressed upside down in competition, and hence in the consciousness of its agents […].’

 

Summary

In Capital, Marx argues that, in a given sector of production producing a given class of commodity, should one capitalist production unit introduce a productive technique based on a higher level of productivity of labour than that obtaining in the rest of the sector, that production unit will be able, through lowering the per-unit value of its commodity product, to reap a surplus-profit – a rate of profit higher than the sectorally-obtaining rate. Marx strongly suggests that the ability to reap this surplus profit why capitalists introduce more productive techniques in the first place (even though, once introduced, competition between production units forces the adoption of the new technique through the sector, and the innovator’s advantage disappears). Given that Marx imputes to capitalist reproduction a constant and consistent rise in the level of labour productivity, and given that this secular rise explains the key characteristics of capitalist reproduction itself (accumulation, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the very unstable dynamism of capitalist reproduction), the quest for surplus profit must lie at the heart of what is constitutive to capitalist production and reproduction. It is surprising, therefore, that the literature commenting on Marx’s theory almost in its entirety attributes the drive to adopt innovative and more productive techniques to competition. I reject this argument, and insist that, for Marx, it is the quest for surplus profit that drives capitalists to adopt innovative production techniques, not competition.

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