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.

Because this surplus is based on inducing workers to expend much more labor power than required for their reproduction, it requires capitalist hegemony of the political and ideological superstructures to enforce the relation of capital and labor.

The fundamental means for capitalists to enforce the maximum possible expenditure of labor power include:

  • The prolongation of the workday.
  • The fixation of wages so the worker is forced to work more hours. This tendency was principal at the early stage of capitalism but still remains important nowadays, including in many social formation dominated by imperialism.

The essence of the absolute form of the production of surplus value is for capital accumulation. This shows the importance of the struggle of the working class around wages, which is waged on the economic front in the fundamental antagonism between capital and labor. Thus May Day with the struggle of the working class for an eight-hour workday was a popular democratic struggle.

At the level of popular democratic struggle, the struggle of workers on the economic front is objectively the only starting point of anti-capitalist struggle, since it is dealing with the fundamental form of capital accumulation. This is to demarcate from the “anti-capitalism” of the petit bourgeoisie, which can only address the side-effects or consequences of the antagonist relation between capital and labor. This struggle of the petit bourgeoisie can be progressive and anti-imperialist, but it cannot be actually anti-capitalist except insofar as it can assist in advancing the struggle of the working class.

Capitalist accumulation of absolute surplus value is limited by the need to preserve the working class. History constantly teaches us, quite eloquently, the flexibility of that limit. As soon as competition of labor power is introduced, and if the organization of the working class is weak, the relation of forces becomes quite unfavorable for the working class. Inversely, the organized resistance of the working class can narrow the capacity of capitalists to accumulate absolute surplus value.

The resistance of the working class constantly forces capital, in order to preserve that absolute form of producing surplus value, to enter other arenas. One of these arenas is the production of relative surplus value.

The production of relative surplus value is an inverse principle of the absolute production of surplus value. In this case, the augmentation of a labor surplus is not accomplished by the prolongation of the workday, but rather through decreasing the value of labor power by decreasing the value of goods necessary for its reproduction.

During early capitalism in Europe, Protestant churches produced relative surplus value in the interests of industrial capital by feeding and housing workers and potential workers. Churches, NGOs and other humanitarian entities continue to play that role today. Providing necessities to workers reduces the need for wages to do so. Additionally, serving potential workers and even the lumpenproletariat keeps the reserve labor force healthy and competitive in the interest of industrial capitalism. This practice is an objective act of privatization, with these entities bailing out the state apparatus and local state institutions from the need to step in.

All methods used by capital for the relative production of surplus value are determined by the struggle and unity inside the capitalist class itself, which regulate the opposing interests of different fractions of that class.

The theory of the production of relative surplus value was constructed at a time when industrial capital was hegemonic. Then, inside the relation of the power bloc (meaning the unity and struggle in the power bloc), all movement of capital was determined by and based on the interest of the absolute production of surplus value. In line with this, the production of relative surplus value was commandeered by the absolute production of surplus value.

The capitalist mode of production can’t develop solely on the basis of sufficient productivity of work. The productivity of work is also dependent on the advancement of technologies and production techniques. These two do not have to work together, especially in small fields of production (for example, textiles), or if they do they can be very lopsided.

Capital uses many methods to produce relative surplus value. Even with their opposing interests, the concurrence among capitalists unifies their bloc in the process of exploitation of labor power. In addition to the economic field, many of their methods are also employed in the superstructural fields, including:

  • The politics of misery in social formations dominated by imperialism. This is to force the working class and all potential workers (such as peasants transitioning to the working class), to accept abject living conditions.
  • The constant replenishment of the labor force. A USAID official in Haiti, for example, suggested five years as a target for destroying labor power and replacing it with a younger, more vigorous labor force.
  • Mass forced sterilization and forcing young women to take birth control.
  • Hiring teenagers and pre-teens.
  • Heightened repression to further pacify the masses.
  • Techniques of production (like modules) to disorganize workers.
  • Outright thievery of supplementary time.

The absolute form of surplus value, produced by exploitation in the industrial sector, is the only productive form of accumulation of capital, because it is the only form based on the creation of new value. But nowadays, industrial capital is no longer hegemonic in the global economy. The current unity and struggle of the power bloc is waged and maintained under the leadership of a fraction of finance capital. In addition, capital is constantly seeking and finding new ways of (fictitious) accumulation which are outside the framework of absolute surplus value. These realities create constant cyclical crises that have developed into a structural crisis.

The analysis of relative surplus value confirms the proletarian theory of the social relations of production as the driving force of the ceaseless transformation of society. It demonstrates the social nature of the productive forces, which include human labor power. It is a refutation of the mechanical “theory of the productive forces” (which argues that the development of the productive forces determines the advancement of history), and shows instead how capitalism historically requires the constant development of the productive forces as their means of producing surplus value.

Marx’s analysis demonstrates that the development of the productive forces under capitalism is relatively demarcated from all previous modes of production. The productivity of work is based on the quest for maximum profit for each capitalist. This development is not confined to any pre-determined upper limit. It is bounded only by internal contradiction, and determined by the antagonistic social relations of production.

The relations of production constantly feed class struggle. This struggle is present on many fronts and takes many forms, each of which is irreducible to the “technical” organization of the labor process. In the capitalist mode of production, the development of the productivity of labor imposes its own necessary conditions: the intensification of labor, the prolongation of its duration, the splitting up of tasks, the disqualification of labor (especially in dominated social formations), the tendential aggravation of the division between manual and intellectual labor that guarantees to capital absolute control in the usage of the means of production, and increasing unemployment due to mechanization.

This quest for maximum profit also dictates an international division of labor. In addition, it is pushing non- proletarian classes into the working class. This proletarianization is occurring especially to dispossessed and poor peasants plus the lower strata of the petite bourgeoisie in dominated social formations, as well as the latter inside imperialist centers.

There is a dialectical relation between the absolute and relative form of production of surplus value. The absolute form is determinant. A global economy increasingly detached from it now is fueling deep problems and aggravating the overall contradiction inside capital and capitalism.

Only the struggle of the working class can correctly address the deformation in that dialectical relation in the production of surplus value, by offering an alternative totally autonomous from capital.


Points for Reflection

By Kiki Makandal, December 2014

It is probably more accurate to conceptualize two methods used by capitalism to increase or to effect capital accumulation through surplus value appropriation in terms of the inherent necessity of capital to increase surplus value expropriation by increasing their exploitation of the proletariat.

Because of free market competition and because of the constant need to provide additional sources of surplus value to sustain the profitability of “reinvested profits” (capitalized surplus value), capitalism is compelled to always seek to increase the amount of surplus value it extracts from the exploitation of proletarian labor.

Rather than conceptually dividing surplus value into “absolute surplus value” and “relative surplus value”, one can conceptualize the methods used by capitalists in a dynamic cycle of reproduction of capital to achieve their profits. If you take a snapshot in time of a particular cycle of capitalist production, you cannot distinguish “absolute surplus value” from “relative surplus value”. These concepts only take on meaning only when looking at the dynamic of capitalist accumulation.

When capitalists extract additional surplus value by extending work hours, by intensifying production rates, by increasing the productivity of labor, by reducing wages (or because inflation translates to an equivalent effect…), by lowering standards of living,… they do this by effecting a higher “absolute rate of exploitation” and thus increasing the “absolute surplus value” extracted from their exploitation of workers.

When capitalists extract additional surplus value by reducing wages (through inflation or otherwise) because overall gains in productivity have reduced the amount of labor necessary for the reproduction of the labor force (thus lowering the value of wage labor as a commodity), or higher “social subsidies” (free education, subsidized healthcare, housing, or retirement plans…) have reduced the component of wages in the total costs of social reproduction of workers, they do this by effecting a higher “relative rate of exploitation” and thus increasing the “relative surplus value” extracted form their exploitation of workers.

It is only in that dynamic that we can conceptualize “relative” and “absolute” surplus value.

The proletariat, in its limited wage struggles, seeks inverse changes and is able to achieve some gains under certain historical conditions. While necessary as a building block towards radical transformation in terms of their ability to challenge the system, radicalize the engagement and provoke the exacerbation of class contradictions, these struggles for reform, in and of themselves, do not and cannot challenge the nature of capitalist exploitation.