[OPE-L:2049] Elaboration on a theme

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Tue, 30 Apr 1996 13:05:09 -0700

[ show plain text ]

In my ongoing discussion with Fred I have suggested that Marx does
not define the terms "capitalist mode of production" and "capitalist
production" interchangeably, although he often uses them so.
Specifically, I argue that in Marx's usage, where there is cause to make
such distinctions, capitalist production--in which the
process of production is directly controlled by capitalists, in at
least the sense of formal subsumption--is simply one possible
strategic outcome (albeit the overwhelmingly typical one) within
the more general rubric of the capitalist mode of production. Thus,
as I read Marx, the capitalist mode of production does not entail
capitalist production as a matter of *definition* or *formal logic*.

Since this suggestion may strike fellow OPErs as strange, even heretical,
I thought I might explain the basis for this reading.

Consider the following admittedly ahistorical thought experiment
(I'll justify its ahistoricity in terms of Marx's own argument in a
bit): imagine an economy in which the following conditions hold:

1) All production is commodity production.

2) Workers are "free in the double sense": they own no significant
means of production themselves, and are thus compelled as well as
free to sell their capacity to labor. However, note that as a matter
of strict taxonomy they need not sell this capacity as the commodity
labor power; they might also in principle sell the commodity labor
*services*, i.e. specifiable transformations of production inputs into
commodities. Such transactions, e.g., characterized proto-industrial forms
such as the putting-out system. Here, though, workers must secure *all*
of the means of production from elsewhere.

[If your reaction is to insist that as a practical matter
transactions in labor services cannot support the appropriation of
surplus value when workers are free in the double sense, well, I
enthusiastically agree with you, but note that this impracticality is
not a matter of definition or formal logic, and for that matter does
not derive from the equivalence of commodity values and prices.]

3) Capitalists own the means of production and make them available
to workers strictly for the purpose of making profits, i.e.
generating surplus value.

4) Production is social, i.e it involves coordinated productive interaction among
workers in the sense of Volume I, Chs. 13-15, but is not *capitalist*
production, i.e. does not involve even *formal* subsumption of labor
under capital, as defined by Marx in the Resultate.

Question: putting aside for a moment questions of viability, is the
foregoing an instance of the capitalist mode of production?

I argue that Marx manifestly considers it as such. Consider for
example the following thought experiment from Volume III, p. 501(Penguin):

" It is utter nonsense to suggest that all capital could be
transformed into money capital without the presence of people to buy
and valorize the means of production....Concealed in this idea,
moreover, is the still greater nonsense...**that the capitalist mode of
production could proceed on its course without capitalist
production.** If an inappropriately large number of capitalists sought to
transform their capital into money capital, the result would be...a tremendous
fall in the rate of interest..."

The reason that this is "nonsense", by the way, is grounded in
historically specific strategic argument: "On the basis of
capitalist production, the capitalist directs both the production
process and the circulation process. *The exploitation of productive
labour takes effort*, whether he does this himself or has it done in
his name by others." (III, 503).

Note that in the first quoted passage Marx explicitly distinguishes
the terms "capitalist production" and "capitalist mode of
production", and does not for example suggest that elimination of
capitalist production would thereby eliminate the capitalist mode of

That this is a *historically specific* strategic argument is
confirmed in any of several passages in which Marx confirms that
capitalist exploitation *did not* require "effort" in the era prior
to the capitalist mode of production, e.g.:

"Usurer's capital has capital's mode of exploitation without its mode
of production." (III, 732)

Marx also allows that capitalists may appropriate surplus value
within the capitalist mode of production (understood in the general
sense I'm defending here) without directly controlling the means of

"From the published accounts of the cooperative factories in
England, we can see that--after deducting the wages of the manager,
which form a part of the variable capital laid out...their profit was
greater than the average, even though they **sometimes paid out a
much higher interest** than private factories did." (III, 512)

Two final points:

A) Where Marx specifies necessary conditions for the capitalist mode
of production, he refers to conditions (1)-(4) above--most
emphatically condition (2) (see, e.g., I, p. 940), but not capitalist
production per se.

B) Similarly, when Marx lists the fundamental characteristics of the
capitalist mode of production (III, pp 1019-1021), he lists
conditions (1) and (3); capitalist production relations are in
contrast derived from a separate "argument already developed".

Conclusion: in practice Marx often uses the terms "capitalist mode
of production" and "capitalist production" interchangeably, but does
not equate them as a matter of definition. Thus, even granting that
Marx restricts his focus in Volume I to the "capitalist mode of
production", it does not therefore follow that he limits attention
*by definition* to capitalist production, understood in the sense of
at least formal subsumption of labor under capital. Consequently, his
exclusive focus on the latter beginning in Vol. I, Ch. 6 requires a
separate justification, which he provides (invalidly, as it turns
out) at the end of Ch. 5.

In solidarity, Gil