Capital 1, Part 5: The Production of Absolute and Relative Surplus Value. Chapters: 16, 17 & 18

In Part 5 Marx articulates in greater detail the characteristics of productive labour under capitalism, developing further the relationships between productive labour, the production of absolute and relative surplus value, and the conditions of formal and real subsumption. The general understanding of the labour process articulated earlier in the book here gives way to the more detailed analysis of the conditions of the capitalist process of production.

Chapter 16: Absolute and Relative Surplus Value

Chapter 16 begins with a discussion of the individual worker and the collective worker, and productive and unproductive labour. The labour process, which to the extent that it was purely individual, involved the mental and physical aspects of labour in unity in the individual. Later, “the product is transformed from the direct product of the individual producer into a social product, the joint product of a collective labourer, i.e. a combination of workers each of whom stands at a different distance from the actual manipulation of the object of labour” (p643). As the labour process becomes increasingly social, that is as the individual producer is increasingly less responsible for the direct production of their own livelihood, the functions necessary for production become separate, and this separation becomes an antagonism.

The increasingly cooperative character of the labour process has a paradoxical effect upon the category of productive labour. In the first place, the activities of productive labour extend, in that one no longer needs to produce the entire finished object to be productive. Rather, one can act as a single aspect of the overall collective labour process, “to be an organ of the collective labourer” (p644). However, at the same time, with capitalism, the concept of productive labour also becomes restricted, as capitalism “is not merely the production of commodities, it is, by its very essence, the production of surplus-value” (p644). Thus to be considered a productive worker, one must be involved in the production of surplus value, contributing to the self-valorisation of capital.

Marx here provides some interesting comments on the conditions that constitute productive labour, which are developed further on pp1044-1049, in the “Results of the Immediate Process of Production”. The point here, on p644, and in the later appendix, is to demonstrate that labour that is not material in the obvious sense is productive if it is involved in the production of surplus-value. Here Marx uses the example of a school headmaster. The headmaster becomes productive when involved not only in hassling the kids, but when working to enrich the owner of the school. “That the latter laid out his money in a teaching factory instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation. The concept of a productive worker therefore implies not merely a relation between the activity of work and its useful effect, between the worker and the product of his work, but also a specifically social relation of production, a relation with a historical origin which stamps the worker as capital’s direct means of valorisation” (p644). The concept and condition of the working class, and more specifically, productive labourer, rests upon the relation to capital.

The concept of productive labour seems to be deceptively simple: if one is involved in the production of surplus-value, then one is a productive worker. But this poses a series of problems in terms of understanding just how it is that forms of labour become productive, that is, how is labour fed into the valorisation of capital? Is it purely through the wage? It seems clear, and Marx states elsewhere, that one can be paid a wage and not be a productive worker. Can one be a productive worker whilst not being paid a wage? Other theorists have taken up these questions, arguing that the concept of productive labour is too restrictive, that is, work ‘outside’ of the concept of productive labour offered above, to is involved in the production of value. Perhaps, in another sense, it is also the case that any number of forms of work are not productive, but that the political struggles that emerge from these areas are as equally important to any communist project. On another note, perhaps the idea that legitimacy rests upon one’s labour, or better, one’s productivity, needs itself to be problematised.

Having clarified the concept of productive labour, Marx moves into the articulation of the categories of absolute and relative surplus-value, both of which relate directly to conditions of formal and real subsumption, (a further discussion of the concepts of formal and real subsumption can be found on pp 1019-1038). The production of absolute surplus-value occurs through the extension of the working day beyond the point at which the worker would produce the equivalent of the value of their labour-power, and “forms the general foundation of the capitalist system, and the starting point for the production of relative surplus-value” (p645). The production of relative surplus-value depends upon the shortening of time necessary for producing the value out-laid in the wage for labour-power. Where absolute surplus-value depends upon the length of the working day, relative surplus-value functions through revolutionising “the technical processes of labour and the groupings into which society is divided” (p645). Thus, the production of relative surplus-value emerges through the real subsumption of labour to capital, which “arises and develops spontaneously upon the basis of the formal subsumption of labour under capital” (p645). Although it appears that the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value is false, Marx points out that “once the capitalist mode of production has become the established and universal mode of production, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value” (p646).

The capacity to produce beyond the means of subsistence provides the conditions for superfluous, or better, free time, and also the conditions for the emergence of class division. The conditions allowing for class division arise from the social productivity of labour, however the ‘naturalness’ of this class division, or class rule, exists at only the most general level. Where the different stripes of the bourgeoisie see the naturalness of capitalist rule it is clear that “surplus-value rests on a natural basis, but only in the very general sense that there is no natural obstacle absolutely preventing one man from lifting from himself the burden of labour necessary to maintain his own existence, and imposing it on another, just as there is no unconquerable natural obstacle to the consumption of one man’s flesh by another” (p646). As the social productivity of labour increases, so to does the capacity for people to live off the labour of others, and the number of these people grows absolutely and relatively (p646). On the following page Marx comments that “just as, in the case of the individual worker, the less his necessary labour time, the more surplus labour he can provide, so , in the case of the working population, the smaller the portion of it required for the production of the necessary means of subsistence, the greater the portion available for other work”. In another sense, “the productivity of labor…is a gift, not of nature, but of a history embracing thousands of centuries” (p647). Marx provides an analysis of the relationship between the productivity of labour and the natural conditions within which it occurs. In each of these examples, there is expressed conditions of class rule, and the imposition of work on some for the benefit of others, and yet there is also expressed the struggle over time, and distribution of time and means of living.

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1 Response to “Capital 1, Part 5: The Production of Absolute and Relative Surplus Value. Chapters: 16, 17 & 18”


  1. 1 Kristina 24 April 2014 at 2:13 pm

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    understand it. Therefore that’s why this piece of writing is perfect.
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