October 20, 2008

Working Definition of Capitalism

Filed under: Economics, Keynes, Marx, NP, Politics, Social Theory, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 5:29 pm

I’m feeling a bit behind in economics stuff. So I thought I’d throw up a working definition of capitalism, open to wholesale revision if necessary, of course.

Say that capitalism has two main features.

1) Blind accumulation / consumption.

Capitalism is a system of economic and social organisation oriented toward production as an end in itself. Clearly the ‘profit motive’ is important here. But the ‘profit motive’ is only one of the more important of the various group or individual inclinations created by and sustaining a system oriented to production for its own sake. It’s a secondary question what is produced, and why – which is why Marx talks about people being subordinated to the processes of production, rather than the other way around. Another useful touchstone here is Keynes, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

The immense accumulations of fixed capital which, to the great benefit of mankind, were built up during the half century before the war, could never have come about in a society where wealth was divided equitably. The railways of the world, which that age built as a monument to posterity, were, not less than the pyramids of Egypt, the work of labour which was not free to consume in immediate enjoyment the full equivalent of its efforts.

Thus this remarkable system depended for its growth on a double bluff or deception. On the one hand the labouring classes accepted from ignorance or powerlessness, or were compelled, persuaded, or cajoled by custom, convention, authority, and the well-established order of society into accepting, a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake that they and nature and the capitalists were co-operating to produce. And on the other hand the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice. The duty of ‘saving’ became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion. There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment. And so the cake increased; but to what end was not clearly contemplated.

Another good touchstone here would be Weber on the Protestant Ethic, but it’s a while since I read it. And thinking of Weber, an important point of divergence from Keynes in this passage, I think, should be his analogy with religion. Depending on our understanding of religion, this may be fine – but it’s important to register, I think, that a general social inclination towards blind accumulation need not be produced by any individual or group faith in or orientation towards that end. We ourselves don’t need to believe in the virtues of blind accumulation in order for our actions to part of a social-economic system oriented towards it.

Another question here is what we mean by ‘production’. Capitalism counts certain behaviours as productive and others as non-productive. Indeed, there’s a two-fold division – between those activities that supposedly fall entirely outside the capitalist system of production (say, much of family life), and those in some sense non-productive activities that are universally acknowledged as central (e.g. finance). Not sure I’ve got anywhere to go with this just yet. But worth noting, I think, that lots of stuff that’s supposedly external to capitalism even in the former sense is no doubt important to the reproduction of the social forms that everyone acknowledges as capitalistic.

More should be said on all this, obviously, but moving on…

2) A system of production oriented around wage labour.

This is altogether shakier than #1, I think. Clearly slavery has played and continues to play a profoundly important role in capitalist accumulation. Nevertheless, the reason Marx gives labour such an important role in his economic & political writings isn’t just that he’s participating in and trying to foster a political movement of the working class; and isn’t just because labour as a transhistorical activity is essential to any production at all. Marx also sees wage labour as an essential feature of the capitalist system. (c.f. Diane Elson on The Value Theory of Labour.) My historical knowledge is more than a little shaky – but I think it’s probably fair to see capitalism proper emerging alongside the social upheavals that created a large-scale market in wage labour.


Probably worth noting, however, that we don’t necessarily need to find an essence of capitalism in order to, like, talk about or oppose it. It’s worth at least thinking about what such an essence might be, however, since lots of the central features of capitalism that we want to fucking abolish – e.g. massive exploitation – clearly aren’t specific to capitalism (even if capitalism’s specific forms of exploitation are). Also, contrariwise, because if we have an inaccurate sense of what’s essential to the capitalist system, we may direct our critiques and action against political or social forms that capitalism (and its regimes of exploitation) can operate perfectly well without.

Or it may be unhelpful even to think in these terms, I’m not sure.

[As will become customary, the ‘NP’ tag means that this stuff is… erm… in dialogue with Rough Theory. NP has a couple posts about Diane Elson’s essay here, for instance.]


  1. for defining features, what about:

    a) capital – the specific form of private property
    b) the commodification of labour – (this includes both formally free wage labour and some but not all possible forms of slavery and bondage)
    c) the market organisation of production and consumption – arrangements characterised by reproduction of/through imperatives (competition, profit maximisation, reinvestment of surpluses, increased labour productivity ) which combined drive the peculiar and noticeable “laws of motion” of social production arranged this way

    Comment by chabert — October 21, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  2. Thanks Chabert. You leave the best comments.

    (b) certainly takes care of my “let’s not forget slavery” worry. And, yes, maybe I should have market organisation in there somewhere. I’m not sure. As for (a)… sounds right. 🙂 Without wanting either to be a pest, or to sound too much like the dreaded “does anyone know if Marx ever wrote anything substantial about capital qua capital?” is there any reading you’d recommend on property rights in capitalism?

    Take care…

    Comment by praxis — October 21, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  3. […] does Marx maintain that wage labour is central to capitalism? Praxis points out in a recent post that there are at least a couple of potential ways that capitalism could be defined in dialogue […]

    Pingback by » Many Fragments on the Centrality of Wage Labour — October 21, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

  4. assuming property is a social relation, it’s an historian’s question; i am persuaded by Brenner’s account basically, (and think that is the most in line with Marx also) the social relation that is capital is produced by/within landlord/peasant antagonism that issues in competition for land leases in the late middle ages in the English countryside. Ellen Wood lays out the case clearly and simply in The Origins of Capitalism, but doesn’t answer some historians’ objections…For me the best stuff is the volume “The Brenner Debate” which collects all the original essays from Past and Present in the dispute responding to Brenner’s first presentation of his case, and to go with this, as bg, there is a Verso volume collecting the previous round of the transition debate (hilton, sweezy, dobb). Brenner’s _Merchants and Revolution_ too. Then I think EP Thompson for the subsequent history, the institutionalisation of the capital relation, of capitalist property right, the overcoming of other kinds of rights and customs etc..

    Comment by chabert — October 22, 2008 @ 10:11 am

  5. and while there are definitely some lingering uncertainties about Brenner’s account, I think it is worthwhile pondering with regard to this question of the specificity of capitalism, even if you end up buying a different account of the transition, because just considering the relations that develop in a given historical situation where there are big landlords in control of the principle means of social production and tenants in competition for land leases – not freehold convertible proprietorship of the land itself, but leases – rather than narratives of “unfettering” relations forced by specialised merchant bourgeois around heaps of gold coins or debt and credit instruments in commercial endeavours aiming for gain through arbitrage, makes very vivid capitalism as a particular form of exploitation at the heart of principle social reproduction, (as opposed to just some kind of quantitative become qualitative activity of commerce) one of many forms of exploitative class relations, one of many modes of production in which there are expropriators and producers in conflict, but marking an historical transformation brought about by material antagonism specific enough to deserve its own name and to be examined for distinguishing characteristics. So even if you feel that maybe Brenner is overstating the case and that there is some important aspect of “commercialisation” and the factor of urban-money-mercantile classes which he subordinates without sufficient justification to the capital relation developing prior in the countryside, in the principle sphere of social production, the case can still serve as a cure for a lot of the haze that ahistorical/theoretical/philosophical approaches tend to reproduce (often while attempting to clear it).

    Comment by chabert — October 22, 2008 @ 10:30 am

  6. principAL!

    Comment by chabert — October 22, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  7. Thank you chabert – yes, an historian’s question – that’s exactly what I was after. Will check all this out as soon as I’m in or around a decent library. Saves me a huge amount of flailing around. (So much to read and so little time…) (All such tips greatly appreciated.) 🙂

    Comment by praxis — October 22, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

  8. hi Praxis,
    Nice post. I need to think about this more after I get a free moment. For now, quickly, I wonder if you’d accept as an alternative to “blind” production/consumption something more like production as it’s own end, on a continuing and expanded basis? The reason I say is that blind cuts against your very important point that “lots of stuff that’s supposedly external to capitalism even in the former sense is no doubt important to the reproduction of the social forms” of capitalism. Historically there have been occasions in which capitalists and others have begun to wonder about the effects of this or that sort of production/consumption on the over all existence of capitalism (often expressed in other terms, but I think this concern is a key one) – and then, often using the state as arbiter of the collective capitalist, to try and change or eliminate certain production/consumption practices. I think this touches on the other stuff that’s relevant to capitalism, and the degree to which it is or isn’t really a part of capitalist social relations. For instance, concerns over consumption of alcohol and other drugs by workers, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among workers. Likewise debates about environmental costs, green capitalism and such. These are in many respects debates about the long term future of capitalism. I think these phenomena make less sense if we think of capitalism as blind. This is only partly related, but in case you’re interested there’s an essay by Raniero Panzieri on the role of planning in capitalism here – – Panzieri takes to task what he sees as Lenin’s view of capitalism being antithetical to planning. Panzieri doesn’t take it there but I think this could be extended into a quibble with Chabert on point c), such that market capitalism is one variant of capitalism while command economies may be another – state capitalism. Gotta run.
    take care,
    ps- your final paragraph, “Probably worth noting” is fantastic, I found it very clarifying on a number of issues.

    Comment by Nate — October 28, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

  9. Thank you Nate.

    Some such worry about state capitalism was why I didn’t include markets in the slightly silly definition. Thanks for the link – I haven’t read the article yet, but I will as soon as I’m in the headspace. On blind consumption, these are excellent points – ammendment accepted with gratitude. 🙂 I’d want to footle around with this stuff about directing the capitalist process of production – managed capitalism (which capitalism always is to some extent, of course) the influencing, through policy or collective choices, of a directed process whose direction nonetheless exceeds these intentions, etc. Relation between individual or group intentions and the processes that guide and are guided by them sort of central to understanding what the fuck’s going on. But sorry, I don’t have more to say right now. 😦

    I think you should get twitter, keep us updated on cooking, etc. 🙂

    Thank you again for the comment. Take care…

    Comment by praxis — October 29, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  10. Hi guys. Nate, I’ve always understood “state capitalism” to be the term given to the USSR because the law of value was judged to operate intact. That is, the regulation or suppression of internal national markets is not the same thing as the abolition of market forces operating globally:

    “Let us now find out what importance the analysis of the internal relations in Russia has when abstracted from the influence of world economy.

    “The abstraction has solved one fundamental question: that the source of the activity of the law of value is not to be found in the internal relations of the Russian economy itself. In other words it has brought us so far nearer solving the problem of whether Russian economy is subordinated to the law of value by showing us where not to look for its source.

    “This point has great importance. Nearly all those who say that Russian economy is not subordinated to the law of value (such as Hilferding, Bruno R, Shachtman) do so on the basis of the relations within the Russian economy as abstracted from world economy. Some of the few who say that Russian economy is subordinated to the law of value ‘find’ its source in the internal relations.

    “After eliminating the internal relations in Russian economy as the source of the law of value, we must now examine the relations between the Russian and the world economy. It is here that we do find the source of the activity of the law of value to which Russian economy as a whole is subordinated, and to which, therefore, the internal relations of the economy are also subordinated.” – Cliff

    Thus, “state capitalism”, that label, because labour is in fact commodified, not because it is not.(Praxis, if I’m not mistaken you are not persuaded the law of value operates in any kind of capitalism, so its presence wouldn’t necessarily be any reason to call a mode of production capitalist.) State capitalism is a term marxists have used for certain centralised command economies of countries with red flags; some non marxists use it for the US economy and others like it – which latter would seem to indicate the terminology just stressing what people want to focus on and signalling ideal models hovering. It makes sense for marxists to call some economies state capitalist only if a) the law of value is a defining feature of capitalism and b) it is operating in those economies.

    “Capitalism is a system of economic and social organisation oriented toward production as an end in itself. Clearly the ‘profit motive’ is important here. But the ‘profit motive’ is only one of the more important of the various group or individual inclinations created by and sustaining a system oriented to production for its own sake.”

    I know the case here, and get the issue, but think production for it’s own sake is really problematic (that odious too Hegelian blob is surely in evidence! and the association with Keynes’ apologetics is revealing)… Is there any case in the history of capitalism of unprofitable production pursued “for its own sake”? I’m wondering if you can really square this with history…especially recent history, with financialisation demonstrating pretty clearly that in capitalism, owners of capital have to be dragged kicking and screaming (as Keynes advised the state do) to production (which is risky) and prefer just about anything else, any other way to get returns and gains, when given their druthers (which is not usual). Imperative profit maximisation alone keeps owners of capital investing in production. But perhaps the issue here is “capitalism” – is it implied here as a coherent “society” or recognised as conflict ridden and changing “totality”? If the latter, why must it always be oriented in only one, and always the same, direction?

    The needle of its compass never moves? Perhaps it moves. Since “capitalism” involves conflict, the principal conflict between a producer class which is obliged to sell its labour power to live and a proprietor/expropriator class which owns the means of production as private property, how “capitalism” is oriented vis à vis social production at any one time would depend on the state of struggle between these classes and competition within them, the balance of forces, in this conflict. When income is very unequal, and capital crosses thresholds of accumulation/concentration, and the state is maximally subordinated to finance capital, it is oriented toward speculative bubbles, and production can suffer. As lately. Lots of discouragements to production in capitalism, no sign capitalism has any fixed orientation toward production or really any ability to make judgements or possess motives. Capital certainly cannot be accused of engaging in “production for its own sake”. Can labour? I don’t think so. Does then the conflict between two classes who are indifferent or averse to production as such produce a kind of tendency toward production for it’s own sake? Perhaps the “for its own sake” is a bit abstract on the one hand and anthropomorphising on the other? One could argue capitalism is a system where social production is subordinated to profit for the owners of its means, shaped and directed by profitability and competition for profit, and sustained in these shapes by labour’s lack of options other than participation for wages, and that in the conditions that have thus far existed this requires production (sometimes a lot), as the exploitation of labour is the only way to accumulate value; but it is imaginable, should capital concentration reach another threshold, and ruling class power reach a threshold, that very little production will be needed (just enough to sustain the ruling class in luxury and however many producers and servants it requires), and the orientation of capitalism at that point would be toward destruction of various kinds mainly. If capitalism had an tendency to spur production for it’s own sake rather than for the sake of profit, one would be challenged to explain why there is so much profitable (for winners) activity engaged in by owners of capital that is unrelated to production, and so little unprofitable production.

    Comment by chabert — October 30, 2008 @ 9:19 pm

  11. I think there are some inevitable difficulties when beginning the definition of “capitalism” a couple steps in, as it were, skipping certain things which may be assumed to be too obvious to go over but may also be very unclear. Like one wouldn’t begin listing defining features of dogs before defining mammals before establishing that they were animals, etc., though one would be tempted to do so if one assumed everyone was on the same page there. But if you started with “something with four limbs” you might end including tables and candelabra as dogs, then you’re working backwards or you end up having to explain how a table is latently a dog (or how the relations of production in China are latently Calvinist). What kind of thing is capitalism? Is it a “socieo-economic system”? A class or type of such systems? What is a “socio-economic system”? What other types are/were there? These kinds of questions are probably worth clairfying.

    I would say “capitalism” can refer to features of certain human relations but not all, not everything. These relations are very influential on all aspects of human affairs, but they don’t determine everything and don’t include everything.Not everything nameable has a capitalist and non capitalist version.

    For example, “Capitalism counts certain behaviours as productive and others as non-productive.”

    Are we really talking about capitalism here? Can capitalism count? What’s implicit here? Is it always of the same mind (everywhere, every day)? How can it be established that it is the sort of thing which can form opinions of this kind? Adam Smith had opinions like this but he wasn’t capitalism itself. What is really being described here? Ideology? Foxnews broadcasts? Academic papers? Common sense?

    I think the historical approach is clarifying and necessary. One begins in the absence of capitalism. Already there is production, exploitation, commerce, money, markets, forms of slavery and bondage, formally free people, universities, courts, art, architecture, atheism, christianity, engineering, sovereigns and subjects, citizenship, lots of things.

    I think the notion Mode of Production is very helpful – this is what Marx emphasised. The capitalist mode of production. That is a)the means of production plus b) the relations of production. Defining the capitalist mode of production, capitalism as a mode of production, might be a good way to begin.

    Is there then another bigger “capitalism” one can refer to, a whole social order or “society” that develops wherever this mode of production is dominant? Perhaps. But I think it is difficult to begin the description there, assuming there is an object to be defined, assuming it’s understood what is meant by “capitalism” and “capitalistic”, assuming what kinds of things are part of the object – beginning the definition there, before more basic things are established, seems to court certain kinds of difficulties.

    Comment by chabert — October 31, 2008 @ 2:31 am

  12. These are very rich and interesting comments, Chabert. Reply in the works, I promise…

    Comment by praxis — October 31, 2008 @ 11:49 pm

  13. Hey Chabert. Sorry about the delay. I’ve been messing around with a post about the labour theory of value, but it’s getting horribly involved – so I’ll reply quite telegraphically, with apologies.

    1) You’re right to say I’m not convinced that the law of value operates even in capitalist economies, if by law of value we’re talking about something in the ballpark of the ‘standard’ LTV. I don’t accept the LTV, basically. (Although… it’s complicated. But I don’t think prices are regulated by labour time.) (Which is a big departure from Marx, clearly, but I think you can keep more of Marx’s economistic stuff than one might think even while losing many important aspects of the LTV.) On the other hand, I’d still argue that there’s some sort of law of value which can have the effects described in the Tony Cliff passage you quote (though I’ve not done more than skimmed the rest of the chapter). I.e. I think we can lose much of the LTV and still have the resources to make this kind of claim, if we want to. I haven’t done the reading to have an informed view on whether Soviet Russia can be adequately described as state capitalist, or exactly what it’s best to take that to mean.

    2) I take your point about it being… slightly strange to insist that capitalism is oriented toward production as its own end when we’re seeing right now (and regularly see) ‘negative growth’ etc. I think the basic claim’s probably sound – but plainly lots of other stuff would be required. Which I don’t really have, as yet.

    3) If I understand right, one of your worries about talking like this is the hypostatisation of capitalist (or indeed any) ‘society’, which would be implicitly taken to have agency, intentions, perhaps be teleologically oriented towards some general goal, capable of making judgements and decisions, etc. Obviously I share those worries – big Hegelian / Durkheimian blob. But I think we need to be able to talk about the kind of social phenomena that these sorts of wacky formulas are used to gesture towards. There’s stuff that can’t be captured – or at least can’t be captured all that well – by focussing on isolated individual motives, legal structures, etc. At the end of the day people and stuff is what you’ve got. (No ‘society’ with a separate ontological status, or whatever). But it does make a certain amount of sense to talk about a society being oriented towards things, or indeed valuing things, even though we don’t want to anthropomorphise society – and even though we’re aware of the massive elisions, violently produced and enforced in reality, that go into the creation of that idea of society. One analogy I tend to… reach for here is Darwinism: a form of scientific explanation that can cash out intentional or teleological language (dogs are made for barking and for biting) in terms of non-teleological and non-intentional operation of natural laws. The analogy’s obviously massively imperfect, because you’re (mostly) dealing with social ‘laws’, in the analysis of capitalism. And also because a dog’s an actual thing, whereas a ‘society’ isn’t. But this is the ballpark I’m after, when I complain about certain uses of ‘totality’, yet also talk (perhaps kinda sloppily) about capitalist society in language that seems to implicitly attribute to ‘capitalism’ powers of agency, decision-making, etc.

    4) So, yeah, I definitely agree when you say that talking about some sort of essence of capitalism without having half-decent (materialist) social theoretic resources that can cash out that talk is, potentially, problematic. (And, yeah, alarm bells should probably start ringing if I get to close to Keynes.) But I’m sort of working on the assumption that it’s possible to cash this stuff out in some more or less acceptable way. If not, of course, back to drawing board.

    I should probably say more, but I’m not sure what. I hope that hits at some of what concerns you. All this is, as I say, open to wholesale revision.

    Anyway, thank you for your comments. Sorry it takes me so long to process and reply. The brain turns slow.

    Comment by praxis — November 3, 2008 @ 7:56 am

  14. hey y’all, I only have a moment, but – I don’t get the objection to production for its own sake. Can someone explain that to me? If “production” means “value production” then I think that production for its own sake is a pretty good definition of capitalism. (I think Harry Cleaver refigures this such that capitalism is a system of social control via the imposition of work, that works pretty good for me too.)
    take care,
    ps- Praxis, looking forward to that post on the LTV.

    Comment by Nate — November 4, 2008 @ 5:01 am

  15. thanks praxis

    lots of things

    “I don’t think prices are regulated by labour time”

    the ltv is a theory of value, very simply that value, which is the totality of relations between commodities in generalised exchange, is the relation between proportions of dead labour, the labour, the human life, consumed by their production.

    Nate; “I don’t get the objection to production for its own sake.”

    I find persuasive the case that Marx makes in Capital that there are fundamental structural contradictions in the capitalist mode of production, among them this one, which I think one can see operative in real history:

    “The contradiction, to put it in a very general way, consists in that the capitalist mode of production involves a tendency towards absolute development of the productive forces, regardless of the value and surplus-value it contains, and regardless of the social conditions under which capitalist production takes place; while, on the other hand, its aim is to preserve the value of the existing capital and promote its self-expansion to the highest limit (i.e., to promote an ever more rapid growth of this value). The specific feature about it is that it uses the existing value of capital as a means of increasing this value to the utmost. The methods by which it accomplishes this include the fall of the rate of profit, depreciation of existing capital, and development of the productive forces of labour at the expense of already created productive forces.

    “The periodical depreciation of existing capital — one of the means immanent in capitalist production to check the fall of the rate of profit and hasten accumulation of capital — value through formation of new capital — disturbs the given conditions, within which the process of circulation and reproduction of capital takes place, and is therefore accompanied by sudden stoppages and crises in the production process.

    “The decrease of variable in relation to constant capital, which goes hand in hand with the development of the productive forces, stimulates the growth of the labouring population, while continually creating an artificial over-population. The accumulation of capital in terms of value is slowed down by the falling rate of profit, to hasten still more the accumulation of use-values, while this, in its turn, adds new momentum to accumulation in terms of value.

    “Capitalist production seeks continually to overcome these immanent barriers, but overcomes them only by means which again place these barriers in its way and on a more formidable scale.

    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.”

    I understand that if you don’t accept the conception of value, though, in Capital, then this case would not make any sense. So to return then to a “society” “oriented toward” “production for its own sake”.

    Re: “society”. I agree, Praxis, that this term means something, it has a referent seems to me, though there is one use that seems more dubious (and praxis you introduced it before with the objection to nation states as appropriate units), and I have the same caveats as Thompson to Williams when it the word is used in such a way as to give the impression of coherence and the identity of society with its ruling class. “Society” could describe a feature or features, an aspect, of a material human group. Or it could designate the totality of relations of a group as “a society”. Is there one society today? More than one? Is “capitalism” a society? Is “capitalist” an adjective that can intelligibly modify the noun “society”? Is there one or more than one capitalist society now? Has there always been just one capitalist society at any one time? If there is market capitalism and state capitalism simultaneously, do they each have their own society? Each have several? Etc.

    I meant before to suggest that “capitalism” is a more restricted object than, say, “modernity” – that it refers to specific relations in “society” (are we all really more vulgarly determinist than we admit, since we colloquially use “capitalism” to describe the totality of social relations among human beings globally?)

    Nate re: Cleaver – I read that recently, its really good. But it doesn’t seem to me that the imposition of work for the sake of social control or social control for the sake of the imposition of work is the same as social control for the sake of production or the imposition of work for the sake of production or production for the sake of production. A system of social control via the imposition of work could exist for the sake of profit and class rule. Cleaver seems to see it this way:

    “The genesis of the book
    The motivation for this exploration lay partly in the changing terrain of class struggle
    in the early and mid 1970s and partly in a growing dissatisfaction with my understanding
    of Marxism in those years. I had begun studying Marx, and the Marxist tradition, in
    reaction to the inability of mainstream economics to usefully interpret either the war
    against Vietnam or the social engineering that made up a considerable component of
    the ‘nation building’ that the United States was undertaking in Southeast Asia to
    expand its influence in the 1950s and 1960s.
    As part of the anti-war movement, in the years that I was a graduate student at
    Stanford (1967–1971), I investigated the role of the university within the complexity
    of the whole US counterinsurgency effort. That investigation led me, along with a
    number of others to form a study group to focus on the introduction of new highyielding
    rice to the area. That introduction was being done with the purpose of
    increasing food production
    in order to undercut peasant discontent and support for
    revolution against the neocolonialism of the time.

    Productiin increased in this case for the sale of counterrevolution, the maintenance of capitalist property, profit, power and rule. He continues:

    “In order to grasp theoretically
    political use of technology to transform rural Asian society

    I was led to Marx and to
    Marxist analyses of the transformation of precapitalist modes of production by
    capitalism through processes of more or less primitive accumulation.2 Unfortunately,
    the more I studied the history, the more one-sided and narrow this analysis seemed
    to me. While it highlighted and made some sense of what US policy makers were
    it virtually ignored the self-activity of the peasants in Southeast Asia
    whose struggles the new technologies and ‘nation/elite building’ were aimed.

    During this same period of the early 1970s the cutting edge of capitalist strategy
    on a world level was also shifting. Policy makers were replacing Keynesian growth
    management with a more repressive use of money: cut backs in social spending,
    flexible exchange rates, financial deregulation and eventually severely tight monetary
    policies and an international debt crisis. Studying this shift, I saw that just as the
    introduction of new agricultural technology in the Third World had been
    a reaction
    against peasant struggle,

    so too was the shift from Keynesianism to monetarism
    reaction against popular struggle,

    in this case the international cycle of struggle that
    swept the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a cycle of which Vietnam was only
    one moment.
    What these two sets of observations forced me to recognize was that the kinds of
    interpretations of Marx that I had been using involved
    an overly one-sided focus on the
    dynamics of capitalist exploitation.

    Precisely because of this focus, the interpretations
    failed to grasp the initiative of those resisting and attacking capital and,
    by so failing,
    they could not even accurately understand the actions of capital itself — which always
    developed in an interplay with that resistance and those attacks.

    Taking this perception
    seriously meant for me nothing less than the need for a complete rethinking of Marxian
    theory to see if it could be understood in a way that was not one-sided and which
    grasped both sides of the social conflicts I had been studying and involved in.

    By that time my work on Marx had led me to be certain about at least one thing:
    that the labour theory of value was the indispensable core of his theory.

    The fact that
    some had set aside that theory and still called their analysis ‘Marxist’ made no sense
    to me. Because his concepts of value were the fundamental conceptual tools and
    building blocks from the 1940s onward, any rethinking had to begin with those
    concepts. The usefulness of his theory as a coherent whole, it seemed to me, depended
    on whether I could find an interpretation of his value theory that helped me to
    understand and to find ways of intervening in the dynamics of struggle.”

    It seems to me production in capitalism occurs for everything but its own sake – for profit principally, for the satisfaction of producers’ needs sometimes (and with difficulty, and inevitably coming under attack from the capitalist ruling class), for aesthetic aims etc.

    Comment by chabert — November 4, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  16. Cleaver succinctly: “It [capital] seeks, and tends, to constantly
    expand itself — forever bringing more and more people, materials, and production
    under its control — endless growth,
    whose only aim is expanded social control.

    (Reading Capital Politically, page 146)

    Comment by chabert — November 4, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

  17. Colonel, that’s much clearer. Thanks for laying that out. I don’t think we disagree, I think this was a word thing.
    take care,

    Comment by Nate — November 6, 2008 @ 2:30 am

  18. I’m still in a travel-induced fog, and so not following at all properly. Just wanted to say that my ears pricked up at the following, chabert:

    meant before to suggest that “capitalism” is a more restricted object than, say, “modernity” – that it refers to specific relations in “society” (are we all really more vulgarly determinist than we admit, since we colloquially use “capitalism” to describe the totality of social relations among human beings globally?)

    I think this is incredibly important – the tendency to conflate these things, or to treat capitalism as more than an aspect (however important, etc.) of social experience tends, in my experience, to spill over into fairly mystical conceptions of capitalism. I’m happy to write about relationships between the practices that enact the production of capital, and other sorts of things that get regarded as characteristic of modernity in some broader sense, but things tend to take a wrong turn – either into reductionism or (not unrelated) a sort of deification of the “social” – when capitalism is treated as everything that is going on.

    On the issue of “production for its own sake”: I’ve always heard this phrase as a specification of the qualitative character of the sort of social control being exercised, rather than as a phrase intended to replace or substitute for a notion of social control. It captures certain “ascetic” dimensions of the reproduction of capital, even for those who grossly benefit from this process, it captures the drive to vault over existing levels of material wealth (that this drive can fail, production can shrink and material wealth go backward in crisis doesn’t contradict the specification of the peculiar qualitative character of social power being reproduced in the production of capital), and therefore the immaterial (social – political – not in any way intrinsically material) dimension of what is being reproduced here, and it provides resources to thematise the moments when individual capitals can find themselves sacrificed, as aspects, rather than contradictions, of the reproduction of this distinctive form of social power. Like Nate, though, I suspect the issue here is more terminological than substantive: certain formulations, in certain contexts, spiral off into associations that might not be triggered in other contexts: our terms tend to reflect the problems and misunderstandings we’re most used to having to fend off…

    Where this sort of formulation can spill over into hypostatisation is if there is no notion of how this sort of compulsion is itself produced by human actions. So: Marx in places makes a sort of gestural meta-commentary that the production of capital generates qualitative characteristics similar to those Hegel attributes to the Geist – which is a nice gesture, but in some interpretations can lead to theories of the production of capital that take this a bit over-literally. What for Marx is a gesture intended to show how a certain “apotheosis” – Hegel’s Geist – can be generated from a certain set of “given relations” – can become, in some interpretations, just a sort of apotheosis of its own, in loosely Marxist guise. I am sympathetic to reacting against that kind of apotheoisisation, but see this as deriving from a sort of failure to link the analysis back to actual practice.

    Apologies for the vagueness – too jet-lagged for precision…

    Comment by N Pepperell — November 7, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  19. thanks np…

    “captures the drive to vault over existing levels of material wealth ”

    this though, is a myth about capitalism set a’ going by political economists promoting capitalist enterprise (smith, mandeville, steuart etc). Marx wasn’t the first to notice this was a myth, but he offered the first explanation for why the myth could never be made true. There have been modes of production that have tendencies toward increasing wealth, and societies whose arrangements have encouraged great increases in standard of living and also in long term wealth production, but the capitalist mode of production has a tendency toward increasing immiseration and the production of garbage because the tendency to increase the “forces of production” – technology for labour saving – coexists in capitalism with the private property of the means of production and of the surplus in the form of capital, of hoarded surplus, in the possession of individuals of a class with concerns to increase the value of their property individually (and in competition with one another) and increase the ability to extract surplus as well. This is why capitalism overwhelmingly produces poverty and desitution rather than wealth, poverty on a scale never known before, perpetual famines, a global standard of living perpetually falling, and tremendous inequality between the majority and those small pockets of the population who enjoy the surplus (also unequally). For material wealth creation, capitalism is not particularly notable; a lot of disposable things, things with no use other than people control, and emphemeral commodities are produced, and there is an overriding drive on the part of the ruling class who owns capital – power – to immiserate everybody else even though its own ability to continue to extract surplus – to realise that surplus – is always at risk in the drive to immiserate. But empirically we can see the drive to immiserate is strongest, for political reasons, and over hundreds of years capitalists have learned about value production enough to make up for the downside for themselves in this ongoing immiseration with direct expropriations (including from one another) and manipulations of the ability to destroy value (Cleaver’s book is largely about money as the class struggle itself and monetary policy as a weapon in the class war).

    Capital has not invented surplus-labour. Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working-time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working-time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production, whether this proprietor be the Athenian [well-to-do man], Etruscan theocrat, civis Romanus [Roman citizen], Norman baron, American slave-owner, Wallachian Boyard, modern landlord or capitalist. It is, however, clear that in any given economic formation of society, where not the exchange-value but the use-value of the product predominates, surplus-labour will be limited by a given set of wants which may be greater or less, and that here no boundless thirst for surplus-labour arises from the nature of the production itself. Hence in antiquity over-work becomes horrible only when the object is to obtain exchange-value in its specific independent money-form; in the production of gold and silver. Compulsory working to death is here the recognised form of over-work. Only read Diodorus Siculus. Still these are exceptions in antiquity. But as soon as people, whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labour, corvée-labour, &c., are drawn into the whirlpool of an international market dominated by the capitalistic mode of production, the sale of their products for export becoming their principal interest, the civilised horrors of over-work are grafted on the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, &c. Hence the negro labour in the Southern States of the American Union preserved something of a patriarchal character, so long as production was chiefly directed to immediate local consumption. But in proportion, as the export of cotton became of vital interest to these states, the over-working of the negro and sometimes the using up of his life in 7 years of labour became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products. It was now a question of production of surplus-labour itself: So was it also with the corvée, e.g., in the Danubian Principalities (now Roumania).

    The comparison of the greed for surplus-labour in the Danubian Principalities with the same greed in English factories has a special interest, because surplus-labour in the corvée has an independent and palpable form.

    So, a couple things happen to transform the extraction of surplus labour into the capital relation. And in Brenner’s account of the develoment of competitive land lease market, we can see this transformation without any political or social revolution, that is, without an active agent of the revolutionary sort, without a mercantile bourgeoisie possessing money wealth overthrowing a landed aristocracy or replacing it, but instead through the transformation of the relations between a landed and monied expropriator ruling class and a class of producers. Relations of domination and surplus extraction are already in place between tenants-peasants-serfs-slaves and landlords. What’s new is a situation where this surplus extraction is insatiable, where the possibility of accumulation is practically limitless because of access to a world market for the surplus product and concurrent development of forms in which to hold property in this surplus (and future surplus realised in the present). That is -the tendency is no longer geared toward the production of material wealth but toward the extraction of surplus labour itself, held in new forms, some forms a kind of pure power over people and things. So we see the development of the capital relation – exchange value, the commodity form itself, money – and its necessary condition (world market, generalised exchange, inherited relations of property and domination). At the same time we can see other aspects of “society” in complicated relations with capital; an instructive case is 19th century Ottoman Palestine from the Napoleonic invasion through early Zionism.

    “the qualitative character of the sort of social control being exercised”

    Cleaver makes from a different angle and with a different approach many of the points you have illustrated recently in taking your reader through the dramatic structure of capital volume one to show how Marx reveals the fetishism of the commodity to be the exploitation of labour by capital. Not a metaphor but literally, the commodity is this exploitative relation, lived, enacted, concrete. Cleaver then goes in the direction of showing how money, as the class struggle itself, as this relation between labour and capital itself, is a form in this specific condition – the form of value for which labour power is exchanged and in turn the form which labour must exchange for repurchase of commodified use values – can be manipulated by the ruling class in control of the state to increase exploitation, even retroactively. His suggestion overall is that the political needs of a class conscious capitalist ruling class, well aware of the dynamics of the mode of production, dominate, despite all other tendencies which arise from the process of surplus extraction and valorisation in capitalism, and that class struggle – actions of workers who are also part of anything we could rightly call “society” and also are a crucial element of the capitalist mode of production – impacts on such things as increase and decrease of production (the cheapness or costliness of capital for enterprises, the rising and lowering of different forms of capital, different assets) and the development of technologies etc.

    The main apology for capitalist mode of production, for capitalist private property, has always been that these arrangements, of individual private ownership of social surpluses and the means of production, is a situation which tends to increase wealth, to increase material wealth production, and a rising tide can be expected to lift all boats. What Marx replied to this was yes, indeed, there is this tendency to increase the forces of production, to increase the productivity of labour, but that there was also, and more importantly, a tendency, due to the private ownership of the surplus and competition among its owners, a countertendencies, so that the overall result was not increasing wealth production but increasing immiseration concurrent with centralisation and concentration of accumulated wealth. A small elite gets very rich and if you only look at them you’d think humanity was getting wealthier in capitalism, but in fact the class struggle in the capitalist mode of production tends toward the total immiseration of humanity, the constant destruction of wealth, the constant despoilation. Cleaver’s book shows how one set of policies achieves this massive destruction of the wealth held by the majority and the inflation of the value of the wealth held by the minority – these policies are geared toward the contraction of production.

    (We can’t confuse economic growth as it is currently measured with production of material wealth.)

    Comment by chabert — November 8, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

  20. oh and speaking of Hegel, it’s perhaps Marx’ passionate indignation and annoyance at Hegel since 1844 that really grounds certain things we have to hear throughout, (whether one accepts them or not) as for example that “a plantation and five hundred slaves” is not unequivocally an instance of “material wealth” but also, and principally, and most importantly, poverty and immiseration, and this would apply to a nuclear arsenal as well.

    Comment by chabert — November 8, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

  21. Hey guys – thanks. I’ve not had computer access for a few days and the conversation has moved on. To just quickly pick up on the LTV stuff. I’m happy to see the LTV as being about about the totality of commodities in generalised exchange. (Though I have some doubts about the way that’s developed in some sections of Capital. (E.g. – can a fall in the general rate of profit really be explained (even as a trend with lots of counteracting factors) by the ratio between constant and variable capital? What would the causal mechanism be? Is there much in the way of empirical evidence to support some such correlation?))) But my main problem is when the LTV’s used to do what looks a lot like microeconomic work. I’m pretty confident that Marx is inconsistent about the scope of the LTV – sometimes it’s used to do such work, sometimes he seems to imply that it shouldn’t be. But I’ll do more reading and thinking about this, and try to put up a post (a way off yet, I think) with more developed thoughts. Sorry to be so brief.

    But I of course didn’t mean to suggest that there aren’t contradictions in the capitalist system, or that there aren’t contradictions between the general drive to ever-greater valorisation and the means by which that valorisation is accomplished. I think I agree with everything or almost everything Marx says in the passage from chapter 15 you quote. I mean – in this passage Marx is talking methods of production that “set [capital’s] course towards an unlimited expansion of production, to production as an end in itself”. I don’t think I’m making a stronger claim than Marx’s here – you can still accept all the contradictions, conflicts, etc that both attack/undermine and can help to reconstitute that drive. I guess I’m just saying that I think I agree with Nate that this is a word thing.

    Anyway, I still haven’t read Cleaver or Brenner and don’t really have anything worthwhile to say about material wealth / immiseration. The same old refrain: so much to read and so little time…

    Cheers –


    Comment by praxis — November 10, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  22. thanks praxis – i didn’t mean to suggest you reject the existence of contradictions, or this one – its a question of the upshot. I think Marx’ point is not that capitalist arranegemtns of social production realises a tendency toward increase of production or production for the sake of production, but that it thwarts and blocks this (just as it thwarts upward wage pressures); not just as a glitch, but systematically – capital itself is the barrier to production. (One reason why socialism would be better). But also a very appealing thing about the cleaver book is that he acknowledges that just as marx could know all this, and you and I can know it, everybody living in this can know it, including the owners of capital and state bureaucrats, and they can even know it in better detail per situation than most of the rest of us having large resources for information gathering. And these dynamics of the process of surplus value extraction exist embedded in social relations where people can react to them in different ways, so that the sort of clockwork in capitalism is not the whole story but the conditions; its not a secret, after all, so people can act consciously, conscious of these dynamics and of conflicting interests, etc..

    ‘can a fall in the general rate of profit really be explained (even as a trend with lots of counteracting factors) by the ratio between constant and variable capital?’

    it can be described this way; i guess it isn’t really an explanation (the explanation precedes it). but again, you have to accept the account of value creation. if you do then it is merely a description of the falling rate of profit. that is, more constant capital (more expenditures by the capitalist that are only recoupable) per unit of variable capital (exploited labour, surplus labour, profit). higher constant capital is a way of saying it costs the capitalist more to exploit a certain amount of labour. if exploiting labour is where profit comes from, then this is less surplus per quantity of capital expenditure and less potential profit. The capitalist spends more on the plant, the machines, the raw materials, per exploited worker. Say once it cost you 10 dollars to exploit a worker for a day. Now it costs you 100. That labourer is much more productive of commodifites. He used to make ten pins and now makes a thousand. But each pin has only a wee little bit of labour in it, of new exchange value. As the productive forces increase, and labour saving machinery increases, it costs the capitalist more in outlay, in investment, to exploit labour. so its a description of decreasing profit on capital. but not an explanation unless you accept the assumptions about what exchange value is and how surplus labour is alienated in production.

    Comment by chabert — November 10, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

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