Absolute and relative surplus value, technology & booms

Hugh Rodwell m-14970 at mailbox.swipnet.se
Sat Aug 10 07:29:06 MDT 1996

A couple of things in Zeynep's long riposte to Rahul.

First the confusion regarding absolute and relative surplus value. I don't
think they're alone in this.

>... Marx does not say that absolute value relates
>only to increasing the length of the working day, in his great monument to
>scholasticsm. Intensification of labour and prolonging the working day are
>equal in effect, they raise absolute surplus value. Productivity of labour
>(which is increased by either new methods of organising labour -like a more
>efficient division of labour-, or employing more efficient machinery, new
>technologies) increases relative surplus value.
>I truly apologise for not providing quotes, but I happen to be lacking a
>copy of Das Kapital in English, another book I seem to have left somewhere
>in my rather scattered life. Perhaps other list members will oblige.

Here's what Marx says, Capital I, Part V, Ch 1 Absolute and relative
surplus value (where else?):

        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 the 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 pre-supposes 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 wages is
        produced in less time.

In other words, absolute surplus value is produced by adding labour to the
working day beyond that needed for the worker to replace the value of his
or her labour-power, ie wages. With labour surplus to the worker's own
requirements, the working day is divided into one part for the worker and
one for the capitalist. The boss's part of the worker's labour, created by
such a prolongation of the working day, produces absolute surplus value.

Relative surplus value *starts* from this division into worker's and boss's
labour, and does everything it can to shorten the worker's part and
consequently lengthen the boss's part.

Marx continues:

        The production of absolute surplus-value turns exclusively upon the
        length of the working day;

So Zeynep was wrong on this.

Marx adds:

       the production of relative surplus-value revolutionises out and out
       technical processes of labour, and the composition of society.

and (as he is viewing the concepts in a historical perspective) he
emphasizes that in the course of the transition from the prevalence of
absolute to that of relative surplus value

        the formal subjection is replaced by the real subjection of labour to

The following paragraph goes a long way towards explaining the confusion
we've seen:

       From one standpoint, any distinction between  absolute and relative
       surplus-value appears illusory. Relative surplus-value is absolute,
       since it compels the absolute prolongation of the working-day beyond
       labour-time necessary to the existence of the labourer himself.
       surplus-value is relative, since it makes necessary such a
       of the productiveness of labour, as will allow of the necessary
       time being confined to a portion of the working-day. But if we keep
       mind the behaviour of surplus-value, this appearance of identity
       vanishes. 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
       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
       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
       if the wages are not to fall below the value of labour-power, pre-
       supposes a change either in the productiveness or in the intensity of
       the labour.

Then Zeynep gives a good account of the tendency of the rate of profit to
fall even though the mass of profits increases:

>What you are confusing is the fact that the level of capital accumulation
>allows for the *mass* of profits to be greater than compared to pre-war era.
>In fact this is true for each era, compared to the previous one.
>Simple. You have 10% profit rate, say, but have 100 units of capital. When
>you have accumulated 100,000 units, you can have a 1% profit rate, and 1000
>units of profit. The general, overall trend of the productivity of capital
>(which means nothing else besides profit generation, self-valorising since
>English lacks a better word for it) is downward with small fluctuations on
>the overall trend, depending on what point of the cycle capitalism is in.

The discussion of technology revolutionizing society needs a thread of its own.

There's altogether too much technological cretinism around, as if it's
lifeless machines that shape social relations rather than the people who
use them. It all depends on how a machine is used within given
relationships of exploitation. Under capitalism, a machine can be an
instrument for exploiting me the worker at the same time as it is a tool
for enriching its owner, my boss. The fact that a machine may be socially
beneficial or harmful is subordinate to the social relationship within
which it is used. This means that nuclear power, or the automobile, say,
will be a much greater threat to life under capitalism because the profits
generated make it much more difficult to phase out the one or tame the
other than it would be under socialism (not the parody of socialism enacted
in the degenerate workers' states), where the individuals making the
decisions on the economy as a whole will be responsible and responsive to
the people affected by its operations. Plutonium will still be immensely
dangerous under socialism, but the conditions for containing it and keeping
people as much out of harm's way as possible will be incomparably better --
and no more will be produced.

Zeynep rounds off with a reference to the crisis pressuring the capitalists
to increase exploitation:

>If you don't take my word for it, take the capitalist's word. They would
>prefer a world in which their profits rose, as well as real wages. Why rock
>the boat by attacking the working class so viciously? They aren't stupid,
>the welfare state era was during a boom era, which I think was rather
>comfortable for capitalists.

The only problem is, that she's got the dependencies mixed up. As a matter
of fact, the postwar boom era came about largely because of welfare state
policies, immense concessions to the working class managed for the benefit
of the bourgeoisie. After WII two huge areas of demand had to be supplied.
One was the classic case of reconstruction to replace the capital destroyed
during the war, and the other was the huge new social demand created in the
imperialist countries by welfare state and New Deal policies. At the same
time the capitalists were more firmly in control than ever because of their
deals with Stalin at Yalta and Potsdam, so they were guaranteed social
peace to develop their exploitation undisturbed. The CPs were willing
watchdogs alongside the Social-Democrats, keeping the unions and political
organizations under control so long as sufficient crumbs fell from the

No revolutionary political opposition to capitalism (or even imperialism),
a war-torn world to rebuild, a new ocean of solvent consumer demand -- all
once-off conditions for a once-off boom that lasted a couple of decades.

And now? Growing revolutionary opposition to capitalism within the working
class (linked to the rotting away of Stalinist and Social-Democrat
control), far too much non-destroyed capital knocking about, and attacks on
the buying power of the working class that will drain the ocean of demand.
A crisis of political rule, of overproduction and of falling demand all at
the same time. In other words, back to imperialist normality.



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