[OPE-L:1586] Re: definitions and capitalist relations of produc

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Wed, 27 Mar 1996 11:20:15 -0800

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I'm still playing catchup since my return from Vancouver. Mike
raises a number of interesting questions in #1420 as to the
appropriate definitions of "capitalist relations of production" and
"capitalist exploitation". I'd like to carry this discussion
forward, but to do so I need to raise a concern I neglected earlier.

Mike writes:

> Some of my disagreement with Gil appears to stem from our definitions. I
> argued, for example:
> >> What does Gil
> >> understand by the term, "capitalist relations"? I've argued
> >> (cf, Science and Society, Summer 1988) that it is necessary
> >> to distinguish between capitalist property relations (KP)
> >> and capitalist relations of production (KRP), which *by
> >> definition* mean "the worker works under the control of the
> >> capitalist to whom his labour belongs" and "the product is
> >> the property of the capitalist and not that of the worker".

I'd like to raise a question about this characterization of KRP. I
grant that KRP entails that "the worker works under the control of
the capitalist" (i.e. that KRP entails at least formal subsumption of
labor under capital) and certainly that "the product is the property
of the capitalist and not that of the worker." However, I think the
condition that the worker's *labor* belongs to the capitalist is
severely problematic on both theoretical and empirical grounds.

At the theoretical level, labor is neither a commodity nor even an
alienable good; indeed KRP are best understood as a strategic
*response* to the problem that levels of labor cannot in general be
specified in enforceable contracts. Thus the sense in which the worker's
labor "belongs" the capitalist is special at best.

Moreover, Marx states that in purchasing labor power for a given
period the capitalist "has acquired the right to make the worker work
for him during one day" [I, 341-2, Penguin], not that the worker's
labor is owned by the capitalist. Indeed, his subsequent remarks
indicate that this labor is something that *cannot* be owned, by its
nature: "We see then that, leaving aside certain extremely elastic
restrictions, the nature of commodity exchange itself imposes no
limit to the working day, no limit to surplus labour...There is here
therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing
the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force

On empirical grounds, the legal doctrine on employment
relationships--at least in this country--does not suggest that
capitalists own their workers' labor; the law indicates that
capitalists have a right to insist that labor power is made available
in certain favorable ways, but not that a particular number of ergs
of productive labor can be dictated.

This caveat matters in what follows. Mike continues:

> >> KP are necessary but not sufficient for KRP. I reject--- and
> >> believe Marx did--- the idea that where workers work under
> >> their own control, where their labour belongs to them and
> >> where the product is their property that we are talking
> >> about the same relations of production that Marx explored in
> Gil responded in 1309, however, that my argument was tautological:
> > according to Mike, Marx proceeds as he does on the
> > grounds that only the purchase and subsumption of labor power under
> > capital ensures the reproduction of the purchase and subsumption of
> > labor power under capital.
> > In other words, A is necessary for A. This is a tautology.
> >
> I probably was not as careful in my wording as I should have been to
> avoid misunderstanding. Define capitalist relations (B) as above. Then, the
> argument is simply that the purchase of labour-power (A) is necessary for
> (B). My point was that insofar as Marx was concerned to explore only the
> tendencies, laws of motion, etc inherent in B, he considered only A (even
> though A is not the only option where there are differential property
> endowments). This is not a tautology.

I agree that this statement, as clarified, is not a tautology. But I
would rather put it that the purchase of labor power (A) and KRP (B)
are in general simply two sides of the same coin: that is, the same
strategic problems that push capitalists to adopt KRP also limit them
to gaining access to surplus labor through the indirect means of
purchasing labor power. The reason this usage is preferable is that the
purchase of labor *power* is in fact *not* universally necessary for
KRP, as amended above.

That is: under certain informational conditions capitalists might
contract for labor *services* (i.e., the performance of certain
specifiable tasks), and yet require oversight of production to
guarantee that these services are carried out in a manner most
favorable to capitalists (e.g., if there is an unobservable quality
dimension to output).

Thus, capitalist property relations (KP) might be more general than
Mike's formulation suggests. This relates to the following, where
Mike writes:

> Gil, however, does not accept this definition of capitalist relations of
> production.

Putting aside the emendation suggested above, my disagreement is over
what constitutes capitalist relations, not necessarily capitalist
relations *of production*. I'm willing to agree that the capitalist
mode of production entails capitalist relations of production. But
I'd also insist that capitalist exploitation as Marx understood the
term does not entail capitalist relations of production understood in
this sense. Thus one can have "capitalist relations" of
exploitation--capitalist exploitation--between capitalists and
workers without having the capitalist mode of production.
Which is what I said:

> > Suppose instead we interpret "capitalist relations" as relations of
> > *capitalist exploitation*, defined (following Marx) as the
> > appropriation of surplus value based on some circuit of capital.
> > Then Mike's claim is no longer tautological, but it is also no longer
> > true in general, as confirmed by Marx's historical analysis and
> > Roemer's theoretical analysis, and as I argue in my earlier response
> > (1166) to Mike.
> >
> Here, however, is the nub of the argument that Gil has been advancing,
> buttressed by quotations from Marx talking about, eg, usurer's capital as
> having "capital's mode of exploitation without its mode of production" (Vol
> III, 732, Penguin):
> > I argue that *capitalist exploitation*, as Marx
> > understood the term, does not in general require KRP, as explicitly
> > affirmed in Marx's historical analysis and corroborated by Roemer's
> > theoretical analysis.
> Is "capitalist exploitation", though, the same as exploitation by
> capitalists? In developed capitalism, there is exploitation of simple
> commodity producers by capital via unequal exchange, monopoly pricing, etc.

But Marx *explicitly distinguishes* between these forms of interest
and commercial profit based on mere redistribution of value from
those based on appropriation of newly created value (i.e. based on
usury extended to small producers and proto-industrial capital). And
he explicitly labels the latter instances of capitalist
exploitation--without the capitalist mode of production (Mike has the
citations I'm referring to--I can provide them to others upon

> I think such exploitation needs to be distinguished from capitalist
> exploitation much in the same way as original accumulation and accumulation
> within capitalist relations are distinguished. Indeed, Marx's discussion
> of usurer's capital in Vol III, Ch. 36 is explicitly one of "pre-capitalist
> relations" (which is the title of the chapter!) and thus usurer's capital
> seems to be a rather poor candidate for a definition of
> '"capitalist relations" as relations of
> *capitalist exploitation*, defined (following Marx) as the
> appropriation of surplus value based on some circuit of capital.'

I think this point is suggestive but not compelling. First, I would
guess that Engels and not Marx provided the chapter titles to Volume
III. But even if this is not the case, "Pre-capitalist relations"
could refer to "pre-(capitalist mode of production) relations", which is
consistent with both my point and Marx's conclusions given in the
chapter, where Marx explicitly states that "Usurer's capital
[extended to small producers] has capital's mode of exploitation
without its mode of production", a point Marx makes consistently from
the GRUNDRISSE onward.

> Simply stated, I think we need to understand by "capitalist
> exploitation"--- exploitation which occurs within and through and because of
> capitalist relations of production; and we need to distinguish this from
> exploitation such as that by merchants and usurers (merchant capital and
> usurer's capital), which occurs via the sphere of circulation. Gil may
> regard this as a definitional coup (and, indeed, I think such a definition
> would undercut much of his argument), but seeking precision in definitions
> is a step forward rather than backward.

Four points about this:

1) Where the term first comes up in Ch. 9 of Volume I, Marx does not
define capitalist exploitation so as to include KRP, in the manner
Mike indicates here.

2) As indicated above, Marx's repeated and explicit usage, beginning
in the GRUNDRISSE and continuing through the Economic Manuscript of
1861-63 and Volume III of CAPITAL, indicates that he does *not* define
capitalist exploitation so as to include KRP.

3) I agree that precision is desirable, but my definition of
capitalist exploitation, i.e. appropriation of surplus value on the
basis of a circuit of capital, is at least as precise as the one
suggested by Mike, and further,

4) I suggest my definition is preferable, since it allows us to keep
the terms "capitalist exploitation" and "subsumption of labor under
capital" analytically distinct in a manner consistent with Marx's
usage. If we didn't maintain this distinction, we'd have to invent
new terms to describe the appropriation of surplus value (i.e., newly
created value enabled by the direct or indirect provision by
capitalists of means of production) via circuits of capital that do not
entail KRP. But why bother, since the usage I've suggested is consistent
with Marx, internally consistent, precise, and analytically tractable?

In solidarity, Gil