Capital & Surplus Value

Students, Workers and the Specter of Surplus Value




By Vincent Kelley
November 2015

Workers in the industrial belt in Gurgaon. Photo by Vincent Kelley, 2015.

Workers in the industrial belt in Gurgaon. Photo by Vincent Kelley, 2015.

It’s six in the morning in Delhi, India. The smog sits above the sprawling city as I and some friends take the long auto-rickshaw ride to the industrial belt on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. We left early to help distribute workers’ newspapers to the thousands of workers walking to their morning shifts. As we approach the industrial belt—shielded from the eyes of the city’s increasing and increasingly isolated middle class—the smog gets thicker. Already the most polluted city in the world, the air in the industrial belt is suffocating. It’s no wonder why. Just past where we stand to distribute the papers, an interminable line of factories stretches out into the distance, guarded by bouncers. Many of these factories are where raw materials are fused with human labor to produce products for U.S. multinational capital. Indeed, this setting is where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative is being realized, as the country surpasses China and the U.S. as the number one global destination for foreign direct investment.


The constant stream of workers walking to these factories for hours at a time seems more reminiscent of early 19th century London than it does 2015 in a leading “developing” economy, one in which the Prime Minister tells the country’s dispossessed, “achhe din aane waale hain” (the good days are about to come). As I was distributing papers along with three other students and the publishers of the newspaper, I realized on a visceral level that this was the setting in which the core exploitation to fuel global capitalism was happening. I also began to reflect on my position as a student in relation to these workers. Far from the peaceful green environment of the campus space where I was studying, the industrial belt literally felt like a whole other world. Upon returning to the U.S., I wondered if these two worlds may have a parallel even in the imperial center of the globe.


Switch contexts to Grinnell, Iowa, home of Grinnell College and, despite the College’s efforts to downplay the fact to prospective students, roughly 9,000 rural Iowans. As I was in town distributing leaflets and a workers’ newsletter on a crisp fall evening, I met a man smoking a cigarette outside of a dilapidated house behind a grocery store. After striking up a conversation with him, I quickly found out that he worked at one of two plastics factories in Grinnell. Shortly after meeting me, the worker said in a suspicious and even accusatory tone, “Are you studying here or something?” As a senior, I was already well aware of the stark “town-gown” divide between Grinnell and Grinnell College, but it is always a clear reminder of this physical and social partition to hear it implied so strongly after just meeting a “townie.”


Scientific Socialism




Jan Makandal

September 20, 2015



System Creation vs. Proletarian Revolution


Lately, due to the structural crisis of capitalism, the radical left petite bourgeoisie has increasingly been in the business of initiating system-creating schemes. While most of these creations are totally absurd, none of these models are historical, or even reflective of actual tendencies in the existing contradictory processes of the capitalist mode of production. They exist only in the wild imaginations of certain sectors of the radical petite bourgeoisie, those who are in a race against the working class to produce a new mode of societal organization.


The petite bourgeoisie, in particular the most radical sectors of that class, is attempting to offer its own alternative, and even to claim Marxism (albeit with a myriad of sectarians definitions, as branding) and Marxist-flavored theories. They are driven to do so because as a class, they are dominated by capitalism. For the petite bourgeoisie (in contrast to the working class), this domination is not antagonistic, but it still weighs them down, leading them to struggle to become a leading force among all the popular classes for a societal alternative.


To achieve that goal, this petite bourgeoisie needs to attempt to displace the only class that does have an antagonistic relation to capital, under capitalism including in social formations dominated by imperialism: THE PROLETARIAT.


While struggling for its own leading role, the petite bourgeoisie in fact rejects, in theory and in practice, the leading role of the proletariat. But since it is based solely on a non-antagonist relation to capital, their own struggle for a societal alternative can only be external to capitalism’s fundamental antagonistic contradiction between capital and labor. Thus the only alternative it can produce is to make the living conditions under capitalism more bearable. They seek a more equitable or egalitarian society, which would involve an amelioration of the super-structure but not a radical transformation of the capitalist mode of production.


The petite bourgeoisie is very persistent and resilient in their attempt to offer their own societal alternative. This is resulting in their obsolescence. Since their alternative to capitalism is non-antagonistic, even the most radical sectors of that class are progressively being replaced by liberal sectors of the capitalist class.


Two Forms of Surplus Value




By Jan Makandal

(November 2014)

Part of a series on Surplus Value

In many of his writings, Marx distinguishes between two typical forms of production of surplus value, according to which class struggle is unfolding:

  1. The production of an absolute surplus value.
  2. The production of a relative surplus value.

The production of the absolute surplus value corresponds to the productivity of social labor, to the value of the labor power. This designation is to show that the extraction of a surplus is the essence of capital accumulation. This surplus value is termed absolute, because it is the only productive form of accumulation of capital. So far, history has not produced any additional forms of productive surplus value. (more…)

A few brief and partial observations on the economic laws and the contradictions of capitalism




Jan Makandal

December 2014

The proletarian theory of capitalism is the concentration of all revolutionary innovations, with contributions by many, and Marx at the center pole. It is in constant development. Even Marx recognized his work as unfinished. In Das Kapital, he did not completely elaborate on a series of capitalism’s economic laws, but presented them as presuppositions, theorems or consequences of the production of surplus value and of the reproduction of social capital.

For example, the law of value is generally stated as a law of exchange of goods to their value, which corresponds to the socially necessary quantity of labor time required for their production. This formulation is based on the principle that the objective determination of the value of goods is realized by the labor time necessary for their production.

This formulation is not entirely correct; it is inexact, and it is the same argued by bourgeois economists, who have all been (like Marx) unable to scientifically develop it. So attempts have been made to explain value using other principles. One of these was by putting the problem into the context of mercantile circulation and basing the argument (an empirical argument to say the least) on a consequence of the mercantile circulation: competition. This leads to the theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, from which some draw the erroneous conclusion that the demise of capitalism is inevitable.


A Brief Discussion of the Origin of Surplus Value




(October 2014)

Part of a series on Surplus Value

To understand how capital accumulation is accomplished, we must address the origin of surplus value.

Capital and value are not simply added sums, but rather exist at a social level. Thus surplus value is not a physical form in which an added sum is produced. Capital is interested solely in increasing its quantity of value; the objects of capital (goods, money) are irrelevant, mere means to an end. The movement of capital is essentially the constant growth of a monetary quantity, a developed form of circulation of money.

What capital pursues is that constant growth. For example, Apple periodically issues new versions of its iPhone. Though Apple may advertise its goal as making its customers happy through product improvement, its only actual interest and reason for existence is the constant accumulation of value.

Surplus value can’t be produced in mercantile circulation, including any specific operations of mercantilism. Nor can it be produced in any specific operations of finance capital. Even while these forms generalized by capitalism are essential to its functioning, they do not produce value. Rather, at the level of the social formation as a whole, mercantile and money circulation are both endemically governed by the rules of exchange between equivalent values, which are imposed on every individual act of exchange. In all exchanges in the spheres of circulation and finance, no new value is or can be created. Surplus value requires the creation of new value.


On Value




Kiki Makandal

(November 2014)

“… the emergence of a completed socialist society, with the withering away of classes, commodities, money and the state.” (Page 92)

What we mean by value and how is value determined by the social context

Value is determined by the context of appropriation.

When appropriation is collective, value refers to collective social priorities and is resolved through collective prerogatives to influence social decisions (by the collective) dealing with integrated social activities that combine activities necessary for the production of necessary goods and services (necessary for social reproduction and welfare) with activities that engender cultural flourishing at its highest potential (“épanouissement”). Values refer to the process of collectively determining social production and distribution of goods and services according to need and ability to reflect the most harmonious, equitable and socially nurturing intents. As such, there are no commodities that have to be individually possessed or acquired or produced, but rather there are social needs that have to be addressed and collective social resources allocated to meet those needs in activities that no longer alienate labor from other social practices but that integrate the production of socially necessary goods and services within socially nurturing cultural practices. There is no longer a distinction between work and leisure; there is no longer a distinction between labor and culture, people can fish leisurely, people can farm leisurely… The concept of value refers not to “worth” but to relative social importance. It is completely different from “value” in the context of individual appropriation. There is no need to compare the relative “worth” of objects or services. There is only a need to collectively determine their production and allocation in the interest of the common good.


A Synopsis of Accumulation




(November 2014)

Part of a series on surplus value

2015-05-04-so-hungry-woThe movement of capital produces surplus value with the sole purpose of turning itself into more capital, to reproduce itself on an ever-widening scale.

The simple reproduction of capital, for example through circulation, creates no new value, but instead adds to the existing value. This resulting fictitious value is consumed by the capitalist bloc in an unproductive manner. Individual capitalists consider it the ideal form of reproduction, because it provides quick and easy profits without the hassle of building and maintaining infrastructure or dealing with a workforce. But for the capitalist class as a whole, unproductive reproduction is very problematic.

The true objective of capitalist production is its own accumulation. This is both an end and a means—only through concentration can capital increase its productivity—both by increasing the productivity of labor (relative surplus value) for the production of absolute surplus value (on which all forms of capital expansion and accumulation depends).

To our sensory perception, it seems that in each cycle of production capital and labor come from two distinct poles. The capitalist and the wage earner, both owners of merchandise, appear to conduct an exchange between equivalent values: wages for labor power. In reality, it is not an equivalent exchange. When we consider the transformation of surplus value into capital, and the reproduction of capital in cycles of production, then it becomes apparent that new capital is constituted from previously accumulated surplus value. Capital is surplus that has already been extorted, stolen to be used for the further extortion of another new surplus. This is what accumulation is all about.


A Historical Materialist Definition of Capital




(December 2014)

Capital is a cyclical process unrolling at the level of the whole society. The principal moment is that of production. It is in that process that the transformation of nature and the production of surplus value are simultaneously carried out; it is where labor is performed under the conditions that allow it to furnish surplus labor.

Capital is not the juridical designation of the privately owned means of production itself. Private property, institutionalized legally, is indeed indispensable for the functioning of capital, and will take different historical forms relating to a range of capitalisms from individual to monopoly to state.

These juridical forms are seemingly distinct from wage labor. But they are required for the functioning of capitalist social relations of production. These relations are the real process of the appropriation of labor, accomplished by controlling the means of production in which the capitalist cycle is unceasingly reproducing. As a social relation, capitalist private property is historically bound to wage labor; one can’t exist without the other.

Capital is a system of social relations of production, which exists solely to recover surplus labor.


Notes on Surplus Value and Labor Power




by Jan Makandal

Much debate on the left is based on an eclectic usage of concepts such as capital, labor power and surplus value. This eclectic usage allows a totally descriptive approach, leading to a very simplistic analysis that is unable to consolidate further in the elaboration of previous revolutionary militants, in particular Marx. This approach is incapable with deepening these concepts. Instead it causes a reverse effect of reducing these concepts to simple questions of accounting and numbers, and even worse, reducing these theories/concepts (for example the theory of surplus value and all its forms such as exploitation) to a simple theory of profit. This is exactly what Marx fought against from Ricardo, a bourgeois theorist—the tendency to constantly define surplus value and the process of capitalization of surplus value as a simple form of making a profit.

A Brief Definition of Imperialism

(Last edited 6/19/2012)

The historical development of capitalism drives inexorably (though not uniformly) toward the concentration of capital. This is expedited by increasing the scale of production, dominating markets, and improving technology. Concentrations of capital form monopolies that can exert proportional power (control) over the economic and political arrangements of the social formations they dominate.

When capital, ruled by its growth imperative, inevitably reaches limits to the accumulation of surplus value within the territory (nation, or social formation) it already controls, it must expand beyond its borders to conquer other areas. It uses the state(s) of its home base(s) to wage politics (up to and including war, the most extreme form of politics) on other social formations—to subjugate the ones it can, as well as to compete with others over how to carve up the world.

Brief Notes on Imperialism, Capital and Surplus Value

(Last edited 3/13/13)

Periods of Imperialism

Imperialism is the contemporary stage of capitalism, which has developed into an integrated global system. Imperialist social formations compete among one another for dominance over the rest of the world (for control of resources, labor, and markets). Imperialism has led to the political and territorial division of the whole world by the capitalist powers.

Imperialism is historically determined (shaped by its own development over time). It is important to consider the dominant and hegemonic fraction of capital during each period of imperialism. We can identify three distinct periods (not mechanically, but as a complex process where during each one, all forms exist but one tends to dominate):

Capitalism: Brief Definitions of Concepts

by Stephanie McMillan
(Last edited 3/9/13)

To eliminate capitalism, we have to develop a strategy that goes beyond resisting its painful effects, that targets its underlying mechanisms. This is a very brief and preliminary introduction to several concepts that can help us understand the nature of our enemy, which is in many ways obscured. These definitions are extremely limited and constantly evolving (interpretations of reality are always constrained by the boundaries of our own thinking; in addition they can never catch up to reality itself, which is ever-changing).


Mode of production: The matrix of social relations (economic, political, ideological) that define the nature of a social formation, determined by the dominant ways that items for social consumption are produced, accumulated and distributed. Capitalism is the dominant mode of production in the world today, developed from 10,000+ years of class-divided society.