Capital I. Chapter 12: The Concept of Relative Surplus-Value

In the previous chapter (ch. 11), Marx made the assumption that “[t]hat portion of the working day which merely produces an equivalent for the value paid by the capitalist for his [i.e., the worker’s] labour-power . . . [is] a constant magnitude. And so it is”, Marx comments, “under given conditions of production and at a given stage in the economic development of society”, but “although the necessary labour-time was constant . . . the total working day was variable.” (p. 429)

But what if we assume, as Marx does in this chapter, that the length of the working day is made constant, e.g., 12 hours, but the proportions made to vary between that fraction of the day in which the worker produces value equivalent to the value of his labour power (necessary labour-time) and that fraction of the day in which he or she produces surplus value?

Marx’s point in this chapter is to show that the capitalist’s interest, other things being equal, is in maximising the amount of surplus-value produced in a working day under conditions in which the length of the working day remains constant; this becomes especially important for the capitalist given the physical constraints on workers working long hours and its effects on output, and also because of limits which may be imposed on the length of the working day by legislation. Under such circumstances, “[t]he prolongation of surplus labour would correspond to a shortening of necessary labour; i.e. a portion of the labour-time previously consumed, in reality, for the worker’s own benefit would be converted into labour-time expended for the capitalist. [Thus] [t]here would be an alteration, not in the length of the working day, but in its division into necessary labour-time and surplus labour-time.” (p. 430)

Given Marx’s thesis that “The value of labour-power, i.e. the labour-time necessary to produce labour-power, determines the labour-time necessary for the reproduction of labour-power” and that this is equivalent to the means of subsistence the worker needs to consume daily, then the value of labour-power can be calculated. Of course, the capitalist can pay the worker an amount less than the value of the means of subsistence, i.e., less than the value of his or her labour-power, but “The labour-power would in this case be prolonged only by transgressing its normal limits; its domain would be extended only by a usurpation of the domain of necessary labour-time.” (p. 431) However, Marx points out that although this does happen in practice, “we are excluded from considering it here by our assumption that all commodities, including labour-power, are bought and sold at their full value.” (p. 431) Thus, “it follows that the labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power, or for the reproduction of its value, cannot be lessened by a fall in the worker’s wages below the level of his labour-power, but only by a fall in this value itself.” (p. 431)

“A fall of this kind in the value of labour-power implies, however, that the same means of subsistence formerly produced in 10 hours can now be produced in 9 hours. But this is impossible without an increase in the productivity of labour.” (p. 431) If, e.g. the productivity of a cobbler is doubled, “this cannot be done except by an alteration in his tools or in his mode of working, or both” and “[h]ence the conditions of production of his labour, i.e. his mode of production, and the labour process itself, must be revolutionized” to achieve this result. (p. 431)

Now, an increase in the productivity of labour endows “a given quantity of labour with the power of producing a greater quantity of use-value” (p. 431), and has the important effect of shortening the labour-time socially necessary for the production of a commodity. In previous chapters, Marx had operated on the assumption

“that the mode of production is given and invariable. But when surplus-value has to be produced by the conversion of necessary labour into surplus labour, it by no means suffices for capital to take over the labour process in its given or historically transmitted shape, and then simple to prolong its duration. The technical and social conditions of the process and consequently the mode of production itself must be revolutionized before the productivity of labour can be increased. (p. 432)

As a consequence, “with the increase in the productivity of labour, the value of labour-power will fall, and the portion of the working day necessary for the reproduction of that value will be shortened.” (p. 432)

Absolute surplus-value is Marx’s term for “that surplus-value which is produced by the lengthening of the working day”, as discussed in the previous chapter. Relative surplus-value, in contrast, is Marx’s term for “that surplus-value which arises from the curtailment of the necessary labour-time, and from the corresponding alteration in the respective lengths of the two components of the working day” (p. 432), while keeping the length of the working day constant.

There are various ways in which value of labour-power can fall. One way is by a rise in the productivity of labour “in those branches of industry whose products determine the value of labour-power, and consequently either belong to the category of normal means of subsistence, or are capable of replacing them.” (p. 432); another way is “by an increase in the productivity of labour, and by a corresponding cheapening of commodities in those industries which supply the instruments of labour and the material for labour, i.e. the physical elements of constant capital … required for producing the means of subsistence.” But, as Marx points out, “an increase in the productivity of labour in those branches of industry which supply neither the necessary means of subsistence nor the means by which they are produced leaves the value of labour-power undisturbed.” (p. 432)

Now, “[t]he total sum of the necessary means of subsistence . . . consists of various commodities, each the product of a distinct industry; and the value of each of those commodities enters as a component part into the value of labour-power”, the value of which “decreases with the decrease in the labour-time necessary for its reproduction.” Hence “[t]he total decrease of necessary labour-time is equal to the sum of all the different reductions in labour-time which have occurred in those distinct branches of production.” (p. 433)

Marx distinguishes between the individual value of an article and its social value. (p. 434) If “some one capitalist” manages to increase the productivity of his workers above the “currently prevailing productivity” in that industry, then the value of each article produced will be lowered, and “[t]he individual value of these articles” will now be “below their social value” because “they have cost less labour-time than the great bulk of the same article produced under the average social conditions.” However, Marx adds significantly that “[t]he real value of a commodity . . . is not its individual, but its social value; that is to say, its value is not measured by the labour-time that the article costs the producer in each individual case, but by the labour-time socially required for its production. If, therefore, the capitalist who applies the new method sells his commodity at its social value . . . he sells it . . . above its individual value, and thus he realizes an extra surplus-value.” But if the output of his workers is increased, the capitalist must sell the extra units to realise their value, and “[o]ther things being equal, the capitalist’s commodities can only command a more extensive market if their prices are reduced. He will therefore sell them above their individual but below their social value” and “[b]y these means he still squeezes an extra surplus-value out of each.”(p. 434) This extra surplus-value “is pocketed by the capitalist himself, whether of not his commodities belong to the class of necessary means of subsistence, and therefore participate in determining the general value of labour-power. Hence, quite independently of this, there is a motive for each individual capitalist to cheapen his commodities by increasing the productivity of labour.” (p. 434-435)

Nevertheless, when extra surplus-value is increased, “this extra surplus-value vanishes as soon as the new method of production is generalized, for then the difference between the individual value of the cheapened commodity and its social value vanishes.” (p. 436)

“The value of commodities stands in inverse ratio to the productivity of labour. So, too, does the value of labour-power, since it depends on the values of commodities. Relative surplus-value, however, is directly proportional to the productivity of labour. It rises and falls together with productivity.” (p. 436)

“Capital therefore has an immanent drive, and a constant tendency, towards increasing the productivity of labour, in order to cheapen commodities and, by cheapening commodities, to cheapen the worker himself.” (p. 436-437)

“Now, since relative surplus-value increases in direct proportion to the productivity of labour, while the value of commodities stands in precisely the opposite relation to the growth of productivity; since the same process both cheapens commodities and augments the surplus-value contained in them, we have here the solution to the following riddle: Why does the capitalist, whose sole concern is to produce exchange-value, continually strive to bring down the exchange-value of commodities?” (p. 437)

In sum, “[t]he objective of the development of the productivity of labour within the context of capitalist production is the shortening of that part of the working day in which the worker must work for himself, and the lengthening, thereby, of the other part of the day, in which he is free to work for nothing for the capitalist.”

Questions (ch. 12)

1. Drawing on your working experience, and other sources of information, what are some examples of the ways in which relative surplus-value is increased without extending the hours of the working day?

2. Marx presents the working day as broken up into socially necessary labour-time — i.e., the time the worker needs to work to produces value equal to the value of his or her labour — and the rest of the day in which surplus labour is expended. Is this way of seeing the working day misleading, and if so, why? If not, why not?


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Reading Capital in Sydney records reading notes on Marx's Capital I, II and III, and other bits and pieces.

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