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 […].’



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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But Still It Falls: On the Rate of Profit

With regard to the rate of profit ( s/C , where s = surplus-value, and C = total capital laid out), and the factors that influence it, the fundamental relation that Marx establishes (in chapter 3 of volume 3 of Capital) is π = δ.v/C , in which π = rate of profit, δ = rate of surplus-value ( s/v ), and v = variable capital (capital laid out as wages): ‘The rate of profit is thus determined by two major factors; the rate of surplus-value and the value composition of the capital.’ The rate of profit increases in function of a rise in the rate of surplus-value, and falls in function of an increase in the constant part of capital with respect to variable. Marx’s purpose in this chapter was to delink the rate of surplus-value from the rate of profit: to show that the same rate of surplus-value can find expression as different rates of profit, and that the same rate of profit can arise from different rates of surplus-value.

It is intrinsic to capitalist production that the productivity of labour rises. This is because it is inherent on each capital to seek a surplus profit, and a surplus profit is achieved by increasing the productivity of labour over that of competing capitalists in order to reduce per-unit output prices (most importantly as set out in Capital volume 1, chapter 12; and volume 3, chapter 10). A capitalist that achieves this is able to realise a surplus profit because the per-unit cost price of her commodity product falls below that of her competitors’, allowing her, if she sells at the old price, or even below it (which she will almost certainly have to do to fulfil conditions of social demand) to achieve a rate of profit on her capital higher than that her competitors do. Yet when the new productive technique is generalised in the sector of production in question (and then beyond it), when a new level of productivity of labour is reached, when the socially-necessary value (labour-time) of the commodity in question falls to a new level – ignoring for the moment the question of social demand and the realisation of the commodity value – what happens then?

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On ‘Essence’ and ‘Appearance’

Marx once observed that ‘alle Wissenschaft wäre überflüssig, wenn die Erscheinungsform und das Wesen der Dinge unmittelbar zusammenfielen’ – that all science would be superfluous if the form of appearance and the essence of things coincided directly. If accepted as true, the remark would suggest that what science is is that which is necessary to bridge this non-coincidence of the essence and appearance of things (it should be remembered that the context of Marx’s comment is a scabrous criticism of ‘vulgar’ political economy for its inability to escape the ‘estranged world of appearances’ of economic conditions). But this definition of ‘science’ is of course in turn dependent on how we understand the terms ‘essence’ and ‘appearance’, and therefore on how we might conceive of how and why their non-coincidence might come about should it do so.

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De Omnibus Dubitandum: Why business as usual is no longer an option for the revolutionary socialist left

I am convinced that there is little force left in the original Marxist stimulus to revolution. Its impetus is petering out as the practical failure of the doctrine becomes daily more obvious. It has failed to take root in the advanced democracies. In those countries where it has taken root – countries backward or, by tradition, authoritarian – it has failed to provide sustained economic or social development. What is left is a technique of subversion and a collection of catch-phrases. The former, the technique of subversion, is still dangerous. […] As for the catch-phrases of Marxism, they still have a certain drawing power.

Margaret Thatcher, Foreign Policy of Great Britain Speech, December 18, 1979


At the level of general society, socialist ideas – ‘socialist’ here understood in the specific sense as the proposition of socialism as a form of organising society distinct from and opposed to that of present, capitalist, society – not only enjoy less currency than they did, say, twenty or thirty years ago, they are probably as marginal as they have been ever since the idea of socialism itself first manifested itself alongside the appearance of a working-class political movement in its modern form.

Within this general context, what I would call ‘serious’ socialism – a socialism that would present itself as the product of a concerted and conscious struggle against capitalist society; a socialism as the objective dynamic of partial oppositional struggles within existing society; a socialism which justifies its actuality through a dispassionate investigation of the nature of existing society and its historical genesis – is today granted the kind of respect previously normally accorded the more exotic fauna of religious discourse. This kind of socialism – in its most refined and developed form Marxism – once perceived as an ideologically legitimate but politically dangerous ideology to be, under normal conditions, subsumed – and therefore tolerated – as a minority opinion within the political organisations and academic institutions that have afforded stability to the existing capitalist order, and, under the whip of crisis, to be crushed by the police, the prisons, and the concentration camps, not only today enjoys a level of mainstream credibility of the same order as that accorded the partisans of the idea of the Flat Earth, but is considered equally innocuous for the existing social and political order.

This ideological marginalisation of socialism in its various stripes sees itself accompanied by an institutional decline within mainstream bourgeois politics. Those social-democratic parties that still maintain an electoral position in the classical bourgeois democracies do so increasingly less on the basis of, or even despite, their opposition to the existing order – be that opposition real or perceived – than on their being seen as more credible administrators of that order: even the traditional high day and holy day acknowledgement paid to socialist ideas by these parties has largely been jettisoned as either no longer necessary if not actively counterproductive to their present-day concerns. And where smaller oppositional parties, be these of Communist origin, or emanating from the non-Communist revolutionary left, or the products of splits from mainstream social democracy (or some combination of such developments), have previously enjoyed a mainstream political legitimacy, a diminishing electoral base, an increasingly marginal institutional role and an ever greater tendency to be stricken by recriminatory infighting and political splits all combine in a vicious circle of decline and irrelevance. Political currents previously susceptible to socialist ideas – nationalism, ecologism – find themselves increasingly drawn to a perspective of seeking better concessions within the system rather than one of mounting an opposition to it. In good part, the vacuous psycho-babble that passes for mainstream political discourse in the advanced capitalist democracies nowadays stems from the fact that there is no longer any meaningful antisystemic project worthy of being polemicised against.

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On Postone

Postone’s project – as he explains it – is to identify, or rethink, what is capitalist about capitalism. He notes that capitalism has assumed various ‘social-political-economic-cultural configurations’ in its history, and Postone enquires as to what is common – ‘core’ – to each of them. But this procedure, even if carried out ‘retrospectively’, is problematic; the question, in that it already assumes what it seeks to explain, is circular. If what is core to configurations of capitalism needs identifying, by what standard are these ‘capitalisms’ capitalist?

The difficulty is that Postone rules out a non-circular approach to this problem with his judgement that that the ‘mature’ Marx historically relativised what were for him previously ‘transhistorical notion’, restricting their validity to the capitalist mode of production. Thus, by situating his project within a rethinking of Marx in which ‘Marxist’ categories apply to where the operation of capitalist production predominates and here alone, Postone is left without categories by which to judge capitalist society (if I can for the moment use such a question-begging term) against other ones. Capitalism can only be analysed within its own terms of reference, and, as such, has to be assumed into existence.

Now, not to make too much of a fuss about it, I simply think that to say that Marx did historically relativise his concepts in this way is just wrong – wrong, in the sense of what it was that Marx said.

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Twenty-Nine Theses on Language

The property that marks human beings as unique in nature is their capacity to regulate their own relationship with the material world. Constitutive to this capacity is their capacity to think. The sense-impression that is their immediate contact with the material world is not only processed in the form of instinctual perception but is also manipulated so as to be able to form an abstract and theoretical representation of material reality in thought.

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Marxism and Translation

One of the aspects of this book which doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves relates to the general question of translation. If we are to talk about the ‘classics’ of Marxism it appears to be that we often forget that, for a reader of English, practically in their entirety we are not reading what the original author wrote, but what the translator(s) of that author wrote, i.e. what the translator thought the author wrote and how that could be best expressed in English (or any other target language). One of the reasons Lih’s book is as long as it is is because of the fact that he (apparently) goes into in some depth the question of how What Is To Be Done? has been translated, discusses Lenin’s original Russian terminology and includes is own retranslation of Lenin. Not having read Lih’s book (and given its ridiculous price I doubt I ever will be able to either) I am unable to judge his arguments, but the central point remains that, when we discuss, say, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? in English, we are not discussing Lenin’s text but someone (who?) else’s translation of that text, and that translation is never going to be semantically or formally identical to, and even may be semantically and formally quite different from, the original. For the more exegetical among us, who are over fond of quoting the ‘classics’ and splitting terminological hairs in them, this is something worth bearing in mind.

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