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from surplus value to the state as national capitalist: some rambling thoughts on marxist stuff

November 7, 2013

Every once in a while, I find the time to pick up David Harvey’s Limits to Capital and read a chapter or two, which really impresses upon me the complexities of the capitalist mode of production, as well as my own rather simplistic understanding of that process. It’s easy to forget that Marx’s Capital describes the logic of capitalism in its totality, that his penetrative critique is much deeper than merely unequal employer/employee social relations.

Take, for instance, the production and realization of surplus value and profit. While the exploitation of an employee by an employer can be a source of surplus-value extraction at a specific point of production, and which can be a source of profit for said employer, Marx’s analysis goes much further than this and details how the realization of surplus value and profit is often (and perhaps even primarily) realized via the whole process of capitalist commodity production.

Production and distribution themselves aren’t discrete, autonomous spheres as they’re sometimes treated; they are, in the context of capitalist society, part of an organic whole. Moreover, the expansion of value in this process occurs via the production of surplus value by capitalists who employ wage labour, a social relation in which the worker — who gives up their rights to control over the production process, the product of their labour, and the value incorporated in the production — receives the value of their labour power and nothing else (42-3).

And this is important because this is the point where the surplus value created in the labour process is appropriated by capitalists who are forced to internalize the profit-seeking motive due to the coercive laws of competition to purchase workers’ labour time with the sole purpose being the accumulation of profit (accumulation for accumulation’s sake), i.e., how they transform money (M) into commodities (C) and then back into money plus a surplus (M + ∆M), the added value being the result of the additional amount of labour time capitalists can extract/contract out of the worker in excess of what it takes for them to produce the value of the wages they receive.

More broadly speaking, however, workers generally seek (and one could rightly even say compelled) to purchase commodities with the money they earn through their role in the production of commodities (C-M-C); and through the maintenance and reproduction of the working class (primarily through their role as consumers of commodities), the reproduction of capital is created. Surplus value, then, is produced via the production process and realized via market exchange, where workers as producers and consumers give of themselves twice to capital—first as what’s conventionally viewed as unpaid labour and second as wages for commodities (as well as things like rent, etc.) (56).

So it’s not simply limited to a single exchange between capitalist and worker, but between the overall interaction between the capitalist and working classes as a whole. Distribution, then, can be seen as the mediation point between the creation of surplus value and its realization in exchange, which means that even national boundaries are no impediment to this process.

But within this process, there are a number of contradictions that give rise to imbalances and crises. And when due to these, both the mass of superfluous (i.e., unproductive) capital and labour increase in conjunction with efficiencies in production, they cause the rate of profit to fall and a shrinkage in the absolute mass of profit created, compelling capitalists to find ways to overcome this, whether through encouraging debt spending, the opening of new markets, the ‘creative destruction’ of superfluous capital (mostly through state consumption), or creating ways to increase the mass of profit that via evolutions (i.e., innovations) in the means of production and finance that, in turn, set up the conditions for further overaccumulation and crises.

From a Marxist perspective, I think these material conditions tend to affect and ultimately direct both domestic and foreign economic policies far more than political ideologies despite how these issues are often framed by the media or politicians. And this, in my opinion, goes a long way towards explaining, among other things, Washington’s growing role as national capitalist a la Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific—and here I’m thinking specifically about Jehu’s analysis of Washington’s increasing role as manager of the national capital/surplus absorber on a global scale.

There’s a silver lining to all of this, however. If we except the arguments of Engels and Jehu, then Washington’s ever-growing role in managing the productive forces of society signals that the productive forces of society are developed enough, and the social nature of production pervasive enough, for the socialized character of the means of production to be given “complete freedom to work itself out,” meaning a possible end to wage labour and the beginning of a new historical epoch.


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