The general law of capital accumulation

Juan Inigo jinigo at
Sun Oct 2 07:18:01 MDT 1994

The general tendency to the increased pauperization of the proletariat
inherent in capital accumulation has been tangentially brought up in some
recent messages to the list. The question deserves a further consideration
to critically face the conceptions with which the apologists of capitalism
try to mask this, the "general law of capital accumulation," as Marx named

Here, in Argentina, former waged-laborers are selling trinkets, picking
wasted cardboard, or just begging. Former waged-laborers and many of those
that still enjoy the "privilege" of being employed see their children
systematically dropped out from the public schools (a bedrock in the
massive production of a national waged labor-force a century ago, and a
place where many kids go just to get a cup of milk today) with no other
hope than drugs, alcohol, prostitution and crime. The public and the
unionized health-systems are just old stories, since they have been
declining for many decades now. I don't need to go any further here to make
the picture clear. And, still, this is "the paradise" compared with other
places in America, Asia, Africa and even Europe, that clearly show us what
we can expect from the future for ourselves.

This reality is not a consequence of the insufficient advance of the
process of capital accumulation, in brief, of "underdevelopment."

In the first place, capital accumulation is a worldwide process in essence,
and a national process only in its form (Marx). Therefore, the realization
of any general law of capital accumulation can't be circumscribed to the
concrete form it takes on determining each national process of capital
accumulation. On the contrary, the reduction of the whole process to a
national ambit mutilates the unit of its determinations, turning the
concrete form under consideration into an abstraction. It's no secret that
the division of the world into nations whose population mainly belongs to
the currently employed laborers and to the floating reserve army, and
nations whose population mainly belongs to the consolidated
surplus-population, is one of the basis of the global process of capital
accumulation today. The current flow of national fragmentation in the East
of Europe and in the former USSR is quite expressive in this sense. Of
course, the apologists of capital know how to profit from the appearances
created by the national form of capital accumulation: -- In _this_ country
the pauperization of the working-class doesn't happen, so it's not inherent
in capitalism; in _that_ other country, well, ... that's just another

In the second place, capital's concentration and centralization processes
(which certainly express capital's revolutionary potencies) have already
taken and are currently taking place at large scale in Argentina, leaving
many of us out of production forever.

The people that daily starve in Africa are not alien to capitalism itself.
They are one of the most genuine products of capitalism, and not only
because they are constantly reproduced in it as a consolidated
surplus-population. Their ancestors were incorporated to capitalism not
only through the violent destruction of their pre-capitalistic conditions
of production but through being them themselves violently transformed into
directly forced-laborers for capital.

As Marx shows by following the development of the simplest specific
determination of present-day general social relation, value, being a member
of the working-class under capitalism, being a proletarian, means being
free both from any general personal dependency and from the material means
to produce one's own life. Unless the chance to find some roots or garbage
to eat, or to find some rags to cover one's body, is considered just a way
of being in possession of the means to produce one's life, all these people
are members of the proletariat as much as those who own no means to
reproduce themselves as what they are, other than to successfully sell
their labor-power daily. The only difference between them is that the
former are already specifically determined as members of the consolidated
surplus-population while the latter are specifically determined as members
of the proletariat under active exploitation by capital.

This pauperization currently visible is not a cyclical circumstance. Very
briefly, capital accumulation has its dominant cyclical pattern determined
by the necessity to increase production as if it hasn't any limit inherent
in its social form itself, and the progressive manifestation of this limit.
According to price indicators (which have shown to be a reasonable general
indicator of this cyclical movement through capital's history) the most
critical point of the general overproduction crisis has been left behind
for almost ten years now. Still, even the official advocates of capital
publicly admit that present-day "growth" doesn't mean "more jobs" but an
increase in unemployment (read pauperization). And there are only some
fifteen or twenty years left before the cyclical limits in question to
capital accumulation start to openly manifest themselves again.

Still, the apologists of capital may be somewhat right here. There could be
something transitory in the current increase in the consolidated
surplus-population. Perhaps it's just a matter of waiting the time enough
to see all those people killed by decease, hunger, war (that, by the way,
has historically shown to be a normal general form through which the
current phase of the main social cycle develops). Vile as it sounds, this
perspective of massive human slaughtering is one of our nearest realities
today. From its very essence, capitalism is a bloodthirsty violent form of
regulating the process of social metabolism.

The apologists of capitalism want us to believe that the improvement in the
conditions under which an important portion of the currently employed
waged-laborers and a portion of the floating surplus-population live,
"proves" _the general law of capital accumulation_ discovered by Marx to be
wrong. It's not:

Above all, this improvement leaves untouched the absolute constant increase
in the number of the pauperized proletariats, as well as the relative
increase in this number with respect to the total class.

Moreover, as Marx directly shows on developing the necessity of this
general law, the pauperization of the consolidated surplus-population can
perfectly well go hand in hand with an increase in the wages of the active
workers. Obviously, this has been the concrete historical case. Still, even
the part of the proletariat that receives the increased wages hasn't
advanced an inch in its capacity to appropriate the social product it
produces. These laborers are still getting only the value of their
labor-power, that is, the social equivalent of the portion of themselves
which is consumed at the working-place. Obviously there is much more
materialized social labor in the labor-power of, let's say, a
nuclear-engineer than in the labor-power of an unskilled laborer. To become
such an engineer and be useful in production thereafter, one must follow
for many years a professional formation, eat the proper food, be kept in
the proper health, acquire some global vision through "general knowledge,"
have a guaranteed retirement, and of course, be provided with the proper
doses of alcohol and drugs to go through the emptiness the week-end means
in a life devoted to productive-labor without seeing one's labor capacity
affected next Monday. These waged-laborers only receive the part of the
social product that capital needs to give them just to reproduce them as
waged-laborers having them back each morning at the working-place ready to
sell once more their labor-power for its value, as waged-laborers have been
doing since capitalism started to exist. Of course, capital resorts to
these more expensive waged-laborers only when their concrete labor-power is
a condition to increase the rate of (essentially relative) surplus-value.
And, as soon as a worker that renders such a complex labor and with such
intensity can be replaced by a cheaper worker, this replacement immediately
takes place.

The true balance of capital accumulation process is simple: an absolute
increase in the mass of the proletariat, with an increasing proportion of
individuals definitively expelled from production and thus pushed into
consolidated pauperism, and a decreasing proportion of individuals that go
on receiving the value of the labor-power they sell, which renders a
constantly increased rate of relative surplus-value.

Surprisingly, or actually not surprisingly at all, the appearance that the
waged-laborers whose specific labor-power demands a greater amount of
socially necessary labor to be produced have advanced in the appropriation
of the social product beyond the value of that labor-power, is also present
in some marxist critiques to capitalism. I'm referring to the assertion
that the wages of the laborers in question includes a part of the
surplus-value produced by other overexploited workers. Capital pays all
productive waged-laborers strictly the value materialized in the
labor-power of each of them. The difference among the productive laborers
has no other general determination than the concrete sort of labor-power
capital requires in each of the points of its worldwide process of
accumulation: where capital needs relatively long-lasting qualified
workers, it produces them, where it needs unskilled rapidly exhaustible
workers, it produces them, and from all of them, capital extracts as much
surplus-value as they can produce.

By the way, capital makes active waged-laborers constantly renew their
practical knowledge about what to lose one's job means. In its brutal
necessity to appropriate up to the last of human's potencies, it degrades a
person to the extent of making him/her see in the person working next to
him/her, not a possibility to mutually multiply their human potencies, but
-from-to-starve-there. Still, the question of why a part of the active
waged-laborers have seen the conditions of their life improved along the
development of capital accumulation, and from which part of the social
product this improvement comes, completely transcends all moral

In Marx own words:

"..., this growth in the mass of means of production, as compared with the
mass of the labour-power that vivifies them, is reflected again in its
value-composition, by the increase of the constant constituent of capital
at expense of its variable constituent. ... With the growth of the total
capital, its variable constituent or the labour incorporated in it, also
does increase, but in a constantly diminishing proportion. ... The
labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of
capital produced by it, the means by which itself is made relatively
superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus-population; and it does this
to an always increasing extent. This is a law of population peculiar to the
capitalist mode of production; ... The number of labourers commanded by
capital may remain the same, or even fall, while the variable capital
increases. This is the case if the individual labourer yields more labour,
and therefore his wages increase, ... The greater the social wealth, the
functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore,
also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its
labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which
develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour-power at
its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases
therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve
army in proportion to the active labour-army, the greater is the mass of a
consolidated surplus-population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its
torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus-layers of the
working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official
pauperism. _This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation_.
Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances,
the analysis of which does not concern us here. ... Accumulation of wealth
at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony
of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite
pole, _i.e._, on the side of the class that produces its own product in the
form of capital." (Marx, Capital I, Progress Publishers, pp. 622-645)

The apologists of capital would enjoy calling this too "19th Century" out
of fashion ideas, but it actually is "the beginning of the 21st Century"
reality for the largest part of humanity.

Juan Inigo
jinigo at


More information about the Marxism mailing list