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(sup) (en) The Utopian Vol. 2 Anarchist's criticism of KARL MARX'S THEORY OF CAPITAL by Ron Tabor II. (1/2)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 8 Jun 2003 17:08:05 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

> An Anarchist Critique of Marxism - Marx's Theory of Capital, Part II By RON TABOR
[Ed. Note: See part I. at http://www.ainfos.ca/sup/ainfos00303.html
Note to readers: This article is the continuation of a piece
that appeared in the previous issue of this publication.
There I sketched the role of the theory of capital in the
Marxian worldview, Marx's method of investigating capi-
talism and the initial components of his theory. These
included his analysis of commodities, his conception of
value and his understanding of the nature of exploitation
under capitalism, the production of surplus value. I also
discussed some of the implications of Marx's approach
and worldview. My main contentions in this regard are
two: (1) that Marxism is a philosophic doctrine, rather
than a scientific theory, as Marx claimed; and (2) that the
belief in its scientific nature, particularly Marxism's insis-
tence that socialism is the "necessary" outcome of history,
and the strategic steps that follow from Marxist doctrine,
lead Marxists to establish totalitarian regimes instead of
the liberated-classless and stateless-societies that
Marxism advocates and predicts. In this article, we will
focus on the crux of Marx's theory, his analysis of capital. I
would like to remind readers of what I wrote in the first
installment of this essay. I do not claim to be able to prove
my contentions about the nature of Marxism. What I am
putting forward is my own interpretation of what
Marxism is and why it has led to the historical results it
has. In addition, I do not pretend to cover the entirety of
Marx's vast and elaborate theory. A great deal of his analy-
sis, for example, his treatment of the reproduction of cap-
ital, and of rent, commercial capital and fictitious capital,
that is, much of the material found in volumes 2 and 3 of
Capital, has been either omitted or touched on very
briefly. I have instead focused on the focal point of Marx's
theory, his conception of capital.


To understand Marx's analysis, it is essential to remember
that in the Marxist view, all class societies are based on
exploitation, the appropriation of an economic surplus,
produced by a laboring class or classes, by a non-laboring
ruling class. This surplus consists of a portion of economic
production above that necessary to maintain the laboring
class and to enable it to reproduce itself.

Although capitalism, like other class-divided modes of
production, is based on exploitation, the precise nature of
this exploitation is unique. Under social systems that exist-
ed prior to capitalism, such as ancient slavery and feudal-
ism, exploitation took explicit, obvious forms: either the
open appropriation by the exploiting class of the specific
surplus product produced by the exploited class or the
direct utilization of its surplus labor. In contrast, exploita-
tion under capitalism is hidden, occurring through the
exchange of commodities of apparently equal value. It is
through this exchange that the capitalist class appropriates
a surplus of abstract, general labor (value), what Marx
calls surplus value.

Yet, according to Marx's theory, it is not merely the nature
of this surplus and how it is produced that are unique to
capitalism. How this surplus is utilized also distinguishes
capitalism from previous systems. In those societies, the
surplus was primarily dedicated to the consumption of the
exploiting class, as well as to the maintenance of its rule,
e.g., the state and military. Under capitalism, in contrast,
most of the surplus value is reinvested in production.
There it is used to expand and modernize the process of
production itself, usually in the form of more and
improved machinery and other means of production. In
doing so, the capitalists' goal is the production of ever
greater amounts of surplus value. In contrast to earlier sys-
tems, whose motto was "production for the sake of con-
sumption," capitalism's motto is "production for the sake
of production." Marx put it this way:
...as personified wealth he [the capitalist-RT] pro-
duces for the sake of production, he wants to accumu-
late wealth for the sake of the accumulation of wealth.
Insofar as he is a mere functionary of capital, that is,
an agent of capitalist production, what matters to him
is exchange-value and the increase of exchange-value,
not use-value and its increase. What he is concerned
with is the increase of abstract wealth, the rising
appropriation of the labor of others. (Karl Marx,
Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, Progress Publishers,
Moscow, 1969, p. 282.)

This increasing production of abstract wealth (value)
occurs in the following way.

According to Marx, each capitalist is driven by the pressure
of competition to increase the production of surplus
value, the source of his/her profits. He/she can do this in
two ways (which are not mutually exclusive).

First, he/she can lengthen the working day. Since the
amount of time needed to maintain his/her workers (and
their families) during that day-what Marx calls necessary
labor-time-remains the same, the extra hours the workers
now work increase the surplus labor-time, which is the
period during which the workers produce surplus value. As
a result, the workers produce more surplus value, which
the capitalist keeps. Marx calls this the production of
"absolute surplus value," which, in Marx's view, came first
in the history of capitalism. However, for a variety of rea-
sons (the fact that the working day can be extended just so
far; the fact that the workers, through struggle, eventually
succeed in shortening the workday), this method was
found to be limited. The capitalists then resorted to the
other method of increasing their surplus value, one that is
characteristic of mature capitalism.

In competition with his/her fellow capitalists, each capital-
ist is driven to lower his/her costs of production. He/she
can then produce more commodities for the same overall
cost, enabling him/her to lower prices and sell more com-
modities than his/her competitors, thus increasing his/her
profits. The capitalists can reduce costs with their current
machinery by lowering wages and speeding up the pace of
production. But these method are have their limits, among
other things, the fact that the workers can work just so
hard, while their standard of living cannot be lowered
indefinitely if they are be able to survive, let alone work.
A more effective way for the capitalists to lower costs is
periodically to modernize their production processes by
purchasing new, more efficient plants and machinery. This
enables the capitalists to produce more commodities in a
given period of time using the same number of or even
fewer workers. The net effect of this modernization is to
lower the value of the labor-power of the working class. In
other words, because the new plants and machinery, etc.,
increase the productivity of labor, the workers can now
produce the amount of value necessary to sustain them-
selves and their families for a given period in less time
than previously. For example, if before, the workers could
produce enough value to sustain themselves and their fam-
ilies for one day in four hours of work, now they can do so
in, say, 3 1/2 hours. As a result, for any given workday, the
capitalists can pay the workers a smaller percentage of the
value the workers produce in that day and thereby increase
the amount of value they (the capitalists) keep.

In Marx's terminology, the capitalists have lowered the
amount of necessary labor-time and increased the amount of
surplus labor-time of the working day, enabling them to
appropriate greater amounts of surplus value. In contrast to
what occurs in the production of "absolute surplus-value,"
Marx denotes this the production of "relative surplus-value."
Under competitive conditions, this is a more or less con-
tinuous process. (Actually, it tends to occur in cycles,
which is one of the reasons for the cyclical nature of capi-
talist development, its periodic crises.) In other words, the
increasing amounts of surplus value produced by the
workers are not primarily consumed by the capitalists but
instead are invested in the production process to modern-
ize the means of production. This results in the produc-
tion of yet more surplus value, which is reinvested in pro-
duction, which produces yet more surplus value, etc., etc.
Over time, several things result: (1) the capitalist economy
experiences the periodic modernization of its means of
production; (2) there is an increase in the capitalists' rela-
tive investment in what Marx calls "constant capital"
(machines, tools and raw materials), compared to "variable
capital" (labor), or what Marx describes as an increase in
the "organic composition of capital;" (3) the relative
weight of the industries producing the means of produc-
tion (what Marx calls Department I) increases compared
to those producing the means of consumption
(Department II); and (4) there is an increase in both the
amount of surplus value produced and in what Marx calls
the rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value, that is,
the ratio of surplus labor-time to necessary labor-time.
As one can see, the process described here is cumulative.
The ever-greater amounts of surplus value that are pro-
duced are accumulated in the hands of the capitalists and
become capital. This capital is continually reinvested to
produce more surplus value and to increase the capital
owned by the individual capitalists and the capitalist class
as a whole. Yet, the working class, whose labor, in the
Marxist view, is the sole source of value, surplus value and
thus of capital, remains a class of propertyless proletarians
who must sell their labor-power to survive.

In Marxist terms, capital is accumulated "dead labor" that
dominates "living labor." It consists of what Marx calls the
"material means of production"-factories, machines,
tools and raw materials-which are products of living
human labor. This labor, however, is now "dead," that is, it
is "congealed" in non-living objects, and dominates "living
labor," the proletarians. The workers are subordinated to
capital; their labor, indeed, their very existence, is subordi-
nated to and serves the needs of the production and accu-
mulation of capital, their own accumulated dead labor.
The workers thus confront their own productive capacity
as an alien entity that stands over them, dominating and
oppressing them. As a result, the more productive human
labor is, the more this increases the power of capital (and
the capitalist class that owns and controls it) over the
workers, the living embodiment of labor, themselves.
...Capital is not a thing [writes Marx], but rather a
definite social production relation, belonging to a def-
inite historical formation of society, which is mani-
fested in a thing and lends that thing a specific social
character. Capital is not the sum of the material and
produced means of production. Capital is rather the
means of production transformed into capital, which
in themselves are no more capital than gold or silver
in itself is money. It is the means of production
monopolized by a certain section of society, con-
fronting living labor-power as products and working
conditions rendered independent of this very labor-
power, which are personified through this antithesis
in capital. (Capital, Vol. 3, International Publishers,
New York, 1967, pp. 814-815.)

This, rather briefly, is Marx's conception of capital. In his
view, the accumulation of capital not only constitutes the
essence of capitalist production, it is the foundation and
determines the very nature of capitalist society as a whole,
including the state and other political and social institu-
tions, and the entire realm of intellectual life. Not least, it
is the internal dynamic of this process-what Marx called
the "laws of motion" of the accumulation of capital-that
determines how the capitalist system develops and why
and how it will ultimately be overthrown and replaced by

In my opinion, Marx's conception, if understood in a
broader and more metaphorical sense than he suggests in
his economic writings, makes a lot of sense. Although he
developed it (he borrowed the concept from Hegel and his
disciple, Ludwig Feuerbach) in reference the economic
structure of society, it also applies to other aspects of
social life. In other words, the domination of labor by cap-
ital, or what Marx calls the capital-labor relation, is merely
a specific example or facet of a more general social phe-
nomenon, the tendency of humanity to be dominated by
products of its own making. Looked at this way, capital
consists of products (the means of production) of human
activity, which, under the control of an elite, dominate the
majority of people. The same can be said of other institu-
tions, particularly the authoritarian ones, that have existed
in human society throughout history.

The state, for example, is a creation of human beings, yet
since its inception, this institution has been an instrument
of the oppression of the vast majority of people who have
lived in state-dominated societies and therefore, in a sense,
humanity as a whole. Religion, the particular subject
through which Feuerbach elaborated his version of this
idea, is another example of the same phenomenon. In fact,
all exploitive economic and political structures, as well as
social and cultural institutions, religions, philosophies and
ideologies, can be seen as creations of human beings which
dominate them and govern their lives. (This is, in fact, the
underlying idea of the entire corpus of Marxism, put for-
ward explicitly in Marx's early writings and remaining
implicit, as a kind of subtext, throughout his later, suppos-
edly scientific works.)

To me, then, Marx's theory makes a great deal of sense if it
is taken in a metaphorical way. But it is important to
understand that this is a philosophical conception, not a
scientific one. In other words, it is a matter of opinion, not
scientific demonstration or proof. Among other things, it
is so general and so wrapped up in arguable definitions,
value judgments and implicit notions of human nature
that it cannot be subject to scientific testing. What does it
mean, for example, to say that humanity is dominated by
its products? This implies a conception of human nature
that is somehow at odds with the institutions and other
entities human beings have created-the state, the econo-
my, religion, culture-in short, the entirety of human soci-
ety. But what if these products, rather than being at odds
with, somehow contrary to, human nature, are an accurate
reflection of that nature? If so, then human beings are not
dominated by them, but rather live by and through them;
indeed, it can be argued, our lives have been made better
by, and would not be even be possible, without them.
By the same token, the idea that humanity is dominated by its
products implies that human beings are capable of creating a
new kind of society in which this domination will not occur.
But, like the question of human nature as a whole, this notion
cannot be demonstrated scientifically. How would one go
about it? What kind of test or experiment or test could be set
up to do so? The entire question is integrally bound up with
fundamental beliefs and value, with choice of worldview, and
cannot be resolved through recourse to science. In other
words, it is an unprovable proposition.

Like his overall worldview of which it is a part, Marx's
analysis of capital has this same philosophical character. It
is apparent in his very starting point, his definitions: com-
modities consist of "congealed labor" whose value is deter-
mined by the amount of labor that is "embodied" in them;
capital is "dead labor" that dominates "living labor." How
can these propositions be scientifically established? When
we open up a commodity, say, an article of clothing or a
machine, can we see or otherwise discern, measure or
weigh, this congealed labor? Obviously not. Then how can
we test or verify his theory scientifically, or disprove it?
Despite this, Marx insisted on presenting his theory as a
scientific one, rather than a philosophic conception.

Of course, Marx was not alone in his overly generous defi-
nition of science. Many of his contemporaries, particularly
those involved in the study of social questions, shared the
same penchant. But we can now see that their attempts to
develop truly scientific theories of society, comparable,
say, to the laws of physics, were too ambitious. Perhaps I
am being too narrow or demanding in my definition of
science. Some might argue that since Marx was dealing
with the social world, not the realms of physics or biology,
and since the conceptions and theories with which the
social sciences deal do not lend themselves to the level of
proof or demonstration available to the other, "hard," sci-
ences, it is unfair to hold him and other social theorists to
the same standards we apply to those sciences. Like other
works in social science-this argument might continue-
Marx's work is scientific in the sense that it is a methodi-
cal and internally consistent investigation of certain phe-
nomena that has great explanatory value. While I myself
question whether the social sciences deserve to be called
scientific at all, to avoid a fruitless debate over definitions
I suggest that one way to clarify this issue is to make a dis-
tinction between a scientific study, that is, one that is thor-
oughly investigated and methodologically consistent, and
a scientific theory. Thus, even if we accept that Marx's
work is scientific in the former sense, his analysis of capi-
talism does not add up to a scientific theory. What is cru-
cial here is that we be careful lest such social theories be
used to try to prove something they're not capable of. The
social sciences are notoriously poor in predicting human
behavior-individual and social-outside of very isolated,
narrow and controlled (that is, where all but one or two
variables have been eliminated), settings. As a result,
Marx's contention, cited in the first part of this article,
that he had proved, that is, demonstrated scientifically,
that the internal logic of capitalism necessarily leads to its
overthrow and to the establishment of the dictatorship of
the proletariat is false.

But let's look more carefully at Marx's analysis of capital
and see how it fares in this regard.

As we saw, Marx defines capital as "dead labor" that domi-
nates living labor. He also tells us that this dead labor is
congealed (as all commodities are congealed labor) in the
"material means of production" that are used to pump
surplus labor out of the direct producers, the workers.
At first glance, this appears to be reasonable, yet further
thought reveals a problem. On the one hand, we are told that
the means of production are material. The commonly under-
stood meaning of this would be that the means of production
-factories, machines, tools, raw materials-are made up of
matter, such as metal, wood and other palpable-sensible,
weighable, measurable-substances. And this does appear to
be the case. On the other hand, we are told that the means of
production are congealed labor. Somehow, it would seem, the
labor is congealed in the matter (or, better, as the matter) that
makes up the means of production. In that case, the means of
production would be both labor and matter. But, then, how
can they be defined simply as congealed labor? What happens
to the matter?

Part of the problem lies in Marx's eccentric (that is, philo-
sophical) definition of labor. To me, and I suspect to most
people, labor is a process, by and through which material
substances are transformed into forms that are more
directly useful to human beings, usually with the help of
material implements. Insofar as the labor is carried out by
material entities (human beings), and is carried out on
and with material entities (raw or processed materials,
tools, machines, etc.), to that extent it may be termed
material. But when the labor process is concluded, the
labor is gone; it has transformed the material products,
but no longer exists. It isn't "congealed" anywhere. To the
normal way of thinking (at least to my way of thinking),
Marx's congealed labor is either just a metaphor, or it is, as
I suggested in the first part of this article, a kind of
Idealist philosophical substance, a fundamental essence
that can inhere in something, indeed, is its very founda-
tion, without being palpable. (Significantly enough, Marx
does use the term "substance" to describe labor. For exam-
ple, in Part III of Theories of Surplus Value, he writes:
"Commodities as values constitute one substance, they are
mere representations of the same substance-social
labour." P. 40, emphasis in original.) Either way, congealed
labor is not really material. As a result, if the means of
production are defined simply as congealed labor, they are
not material. And if they are defined as material, they can-
not simply be congealed labor.

Yet, when we look at the means of production as defined by
Marx (that is, as machines, tools and raw materials), we can
clearly see that they are indeed material. And since this is so,
they clearly consist of more than just labor. As should be
obvious, these commodities consist of various products of
Nature. They are made up of naturally-produced things that
human beings have gathered, grown, or worked on to suit
their needs, either those of production or those of consump-
tion. And, of course, Marx clearly recognizes this; indeed, it is
central to his entire analysis. But how does he square this
with his claim that capital is simply congealed labor?
Of course, one can take refuge in hairsplitting Marx's termi-
nology. One can argue, for example, that the means of pro-
duction are material, but, by themselves, they are not capital.
Since Marx defines capital as the capital-labor relation, the
means of production are only capital, and hence congealed
labor, when they are actually engaged in exploiting workers,
or, more broadly, when they are owned by capitalists. But this
only makes the philosophical/metaphorical nature of Marx's
conception more glaring. Somehow, the material entities that
constitute the means of production magically become con-
gealed labor when they are used to exploit workers or are
owned by capitalists.

Or, one can say, "Well, yes, admittedly, Marx's definition of
capital as congealed labor is metaphorical. What he is trying
to illustrate through the use of it is that commodities, includ-
ing the means of production, are products of human labor."
But what gets obscured by this metaphor, this attempt at
illustration, is that commodities, including the means of pro-
duction, are not just products of labor. They are products of
labor and something else. They are products of labor and the
Earth, including, of course, the forces of Nature. Marx's
metaphor conveniently obscures-or distorts or downplays-
the role of the Earth and the forces of nature in economic
production. Here, as on so many questions, Marx likes to
have it both ways. On the one hand, Marx admits, as he must,
that the Earth and the forces of Nature play a crucial role in
production. Yet, on the other, he contends that capital is sim-
ply the product of labor.

In Marx's theory, this contradiction is "solved" via the labor
theory of value. What appears to be a contradiction in terms
of ordinary logic is no longer so when the problem is posed
in terms of value, as defined by Marx's theory.
We will remember that Marx contends that human labor is
the source of all (exchange-, or objective, as opposed to
subjective) value. As a result, the value of any given com-
modity is determined only by the amount of labor (aver-
age labor working under average conditions) necessary to
produce that commodity. According to the theory, the raw
materials that are used in the production of a given com-
modity do not themselves add any value to it except the
amount of labor that was expended in preparing them for
such use, which value they pass on to the commodity as
they (the raw materials) are consumed in the production
process. Similarly, the machines and tools that are used to
produce the commodity do not themselves create any
value, but only pass on to the commodity (through wear
and tear, that is, as they are worn out), a portion of their
value, which itself is only determined by the amount of
(socially necessary) labor that was expended on their pro-
duction. In other words, according to Marx, while the
products of the Earth contribute to the production of use-
values, they do not contribute any (exchange-) value to the
commodities that are produced through their consump-
tion, apart from the labor that is expended on them. They
have, in sum, no value themselves. This flows from Marx's
very definition of value.

To anyone living in today's world who is not steeped in the
trappings of Marx's theory, this conclusion must seem
absurd. Yet, it is central to Marx's analysis and repeated over
and over again throughout his texts. Insofar as Marx gives a
reason for this (aside from the fact that it flows from the labor
theory of value, which, as we will discuss below, is assumed
but never proven), it goes like this: Since the products of
Nature are inexhaustible, Nature gives them to humanity "gra-
tuitously" or "free of charge," that is, at no cost to either
humanity or to itself. (See, for example, pp. 181-183 of
Theories of Surplus Value, Part III, Progress Publishers,
Moscow, 1971.) In other words, since these products of the
Earth are infinite, they have no (exchange-) value. The only
(exchange-) value they have (to recapitulate) is due entirely to
the human labor that is expended on them to gather or other-
wise prepare them for production.

But as the last half of the twentieth century has made
abundantly clear, our natural resources are not infinite.
(That they are might have been a reasonable assumption
in Marx's time, when capitalist industrialization was in its
infancy and human population was much smaller than it is
now, but it is positively ridiculous today.) Nature's
resources, even the water and the air, once seemingly inex-
haustible, are not unlimited. But if this is so, then by
implication, Nature does not offer its services to humanity
free of charge, as Marx so generously put it, and our natu-
ral resources, these products of Nature, do have value. (If
we did not pay for them in the past, we are certainly pay-
ing for them now and will continue to do so, perhaps very
dearly, in the future.)

If we accept this, then we can see that in this regard Marx's
theory is either wrong or in great need of modification.
Among the changes required would be the admission that:
(1) the products of Nature do have value beyond what
human labor may add to them; (2) this value goes into
commodities in the course of their production and there-
fore adds to the values of those commodities; (3) human
labor is not the sole source of value, as the labor theory of
value insists; (4) the means of production (even in value
terms) do not consist simply of (congealed) labor; and (5)
capital cannot simply be defined as dead labor that domi-
nates living labor. Thus, even when we pose this question
within the basic framework of Marx's analysis, we can see
that his theory has serious problems. In fact, the very
foundations of his analysis, the theory of value and the
definition of capital, are called into question.

Yet, this is not the only problem with Marx's conception of
the means of production. While we disagree with him over
whether the means of production can be accurately con-
ceived simply as dead labor and whether the Earth produces
value, surely we can agree that the means of production are
accurately described by the term "material." After all, facto-
ries, machines, tools and raw materials, and other things
Marx includes under the term do appear to be simply mate-
rial. But a closer look will reveal that this is not the case.
Take an assembly line in a factory. In many manufacturing
processes, the rearrangement of the same machines and
workers can lead to an increase in productivity. Although
the new setup may entail the very same material entities, it
is different and cannot be reduced to those elements. Such
an arrangement, it seems to me, is an aspect of the means
of production, yet it is not itself material. What is it? It's a
concept or idea.

The same can be said about other components of the
means of production, for example, a particular chemical
process. Such a process may, when it is in operation, con-
sist of material entities, but the process itself is not
reducible to these entities and cannot be fully explained in
terms of them.

The inadequacy of the term "material" to describe the means
of production can be seen even more clearly if we consider
what are called "methods of management," and administra-
tive, managerial skills in general. A somewhat digressive
illustration might be instructive here. In Marx's day and up
until relatively recently, virtually all capitalist factories were
run in a rigidly top-down, hierarchical manner: managers
gave orders, the orders were passed down through layers of
functionaries to foremen and the foremen told the workers
what to do. These orders were enforced through an over-
whelmingly negative discipline: warnings, fines, suspensions,
firings, etc. Yet, beginning after World War II in Japan, some
corporate executives developed a different approach to the
management of their factories. Instead of the traditional
hierarchical structure, they instituted a somewhat more col-
legial approach. This included organizing employees in work
groups that had a degree of autonomy and were motivated
by a variety of positive incentives. It also entailed the organi-
zation of production to encourage feedback: workers' sug-
gestions for improving efficiency and product quality were
encouraged, communicated to management and, if deemed
useful, implemented. In Japan, these methods, however lim-
ited they are compared to true workers' management, led to
significant gains in productivity and, along with other fac-
tors, played a major role in the emergence of Japan as an
economic powerhouse in the post-World War II period.
(Ironically, these methods were originally developed by an
American but were ignored in the United States until the
Japanese demonstrated their effectiveness.)

In my opinion, such methods of management ought to be
recognized as facets of the means of production and hence
of capital. But can they really be described as material? They
entail material entities (people, machines, tools, etc.), but
they cannot simply be reduced to these things. They, too, can
better be understood as ideas or concepts.

The non-material nature of at least some of the means of
production has become apparent in recent years through the
development and proliferation of computers. While we can
easily conceive of a computer and its various hookups as
material, what about a computer program? Such a program
is, it seems to me, an integral part of the means of produc-
tion, but can it really be described as material? In theory, one
might be able to described such a program in material
terms. We could, for example, think of it in terms of the
oscillation of the ions in the neurons in the brain of the per-
son who developed the program as he/she did so. Or, we
could conceive of it in terms of the specific states and move-
ments of the electrons in the computer in which the pro-
gram is being run. But (a) is this possible? and (b) does it
really grasp the nature of the program? Such a program, it
seems to me, is much more accurately described and con-
ceived in terms of the mathematical language in which it is
written and the mathematical logic that this language repre-
sents. In other words, rather than struggling to come up with
a materialist conception of a computer program, it makes
more sense to think of it as an intellectual element of the
means of production. And what applies to a computer pro-
gram applies to information in general.

The same limitations of a narrowly materialistic view can be
seen even in the traditionally-understood "material ele-
ments" of the means of production. Take the hammer. Any
given hammer is material, but the fundamental aspect of
the hammer as a tool is the concept of the hammer and
how it is used. It is this that enables people to make ham-
mers-and different kinds of them-and to use them in
their work. If anything, the concept of the hammer is more
important than any specific, material hammer. If we had
the concept of the hammer but no hammers, we could
make some. If there were hammers, but no concept of
them, we wouldn't really have hammers at all, because no
one would know what to do with them.

Marxists would probably argue that the idea of a tool, e.g., a
hammer, is a reflection of material tools. But this only
appears to solve the problem. To take a different example, if
people whose society had not devised the wheel were, by
chance, to find one on the ground, they would not automati-
cally know what to do with it; the material wheel does not
spontaneously generate the idea of it. Moreover, even the
concept of the wheel does not automatically lead to the cre-
ation of wheels in the sense that we understand and utilize
them. The Aztecs, for example, possessed the idea of the
wheel but they only put wheels on their children's toys and
did not use them for transportation or other kinds of work.
What are we to make of all this? For one thing, it seems to
me that Marx was wrong to describe the means of produc-
tion simply as "material." There is, at the least, an intellec-
tual aspect of every specific implement of production (and
the means of production as a whole), that is essential and
which cannot simply be reduced to or described in material
terms. In fact, as I suggested above, one could argue that it is
the intellectual components (the ideas that have gone into
them and which they embody), that are the crucial, funda-
mental elements of the means of production, while the
material aspect is secondary; in other words, that the intel-
lectual elements generate and make possible the material,
not the reverse. (We will take up the question of materialism
and related philosophical issues in a later article.)
The limitations of Marx's conception become clearer if
instead of using the term "means of production" we recog-
nize that what we are really dealing with here is technology
and, even more broadly, technique and knowledge itself.
Would anybody today, the age of virtual reality, the
Internet and biotechnology, seriously describe technology
as exclusively or predominantly material? What about the
scientific theories, laws and concepts, the methods of
investigation, the mathematics, etc., that form the founda-
tion of our technology? (And what about human lan-
guage? In a recent column [September 2000] in Scientific
American, scientists Philip and Phyllis Morrison discuss
language as technology, perhaps the most important tech-
nological development in human evolution.) Are these
things-in my opinion, clearly components of the means
of production-exclusively or even primarily material? I
don't think so.

It seems to me obvious that, like technology as a whole,
the means of production cannot accurately be described
simply as material. But if the means of production are not
exclusively or even primarily material, what happens to the
rest of Marx's claim that they are all just products of labor
and can be defined simply as dead labor? Certainly, every
specific implement of production, that is, a factory,
machine, tool, or raw material (insofar as it is not simply
found on the ground; even then, it has to be picked up), is
a product of labor. But if we accept that it also involves
ideas or concepts, then we must recognize that it is not
just a product of labor. And if this is so, then the means of
production as a whole, and hence capital, cannot be accu-
rately analyzed merely as an embodiment or congelation of
labor. Capital, in other words, is not merely "dead labor"
that dominates and oppresses "living labor."

Putting this together with our previous discussion, we can
see that Marx's conception of capital is seriously flawed.
Capital, the means of production used to exploit living
labor, is neither purely material nor purely "dead labor,"
but must also include, in some combination and propor-
tion, both the products of the Earth and the intellectual
components which can be said (to use Marx's term, but
with even more justification), to be embodied in those
implements and make them possible.

It is worth noting that nowhere in Capital, or in any of Marx's
other writings on economic questions, or in any of his writ-
ings that I know of, is there a systematic discussion of science
and technology and their precise relation to the process of
economic production. Mostly, there are only brief and very
general references, in which the crucial issues are fudged. One
of the more elaborate discussions can be found in the
Grundrisse (Pelican Books, Baltimore, 1973), in the form of
comments appearing sporadically between page 694 and page
715. A typical passage occurs on p. 694:
The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the
general productive forces of the social brain, is thus
absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence
appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifical-
ly as fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the pro-
duction process as a means of production proper.
(Emphasis in original.)

Here we can see the same desire to have it both ways that
we saw in Marx's treatment of the role of the products of
the Earth and the forces of Nature in the production
process. On the one hand, Marx concedes that the means
of production do include such things as knowledge and
skill, which are obviously not material nor simply products
of labor. Yet he never even tries to square this with his
insistence that the means of production are purely materi-
al and that they, and hence capital, are solely products of
labor and consist of nothing but congealed labor.
Somehow, these "productive forces of the social brain"
(whatever that is), are "absorbed" into capital without
actually becoming part of it.

The same argument, and the same fudging, is found in
Theories of Surplus Value:
In this process, in which the social character of their
labour confronts them to a certain degree as capitalised
(as for example in machinery the visible prod-
ucts of labour appear as dominating labour), the same
naturally takes place with the forces of nature and sci-
ence, the product of general historical development in
its abstract quintessence-they confront the labourers
as powers of capital. They are separate in fact from the
skill and knowledge of the individual labourer-and
although, in their origin, they too are the product of
labour-wherever they enter into the labour-process
they appear as embodied in capital. But science
realised in the machine appears as capital in relation
to the labourers. And in fact all these applications of
science, natural forces and products of labour on a
large scale, these applications founded on social
labour, themselves appear only as means for the
exploitation of labour, as means of appropriating
surplus-labour, and hence confront labour as powers
belonging to capital. (Theories of Surplus Value, Part
I, pp. 391-2. Emphasis in original.)

Here the contradiction occurs in the same paragraph. On
the one hand, science is "realised in the machine." On the
other hand, the powers of nature and of science only
"appear" to be embodied in capital. Somehow, the forces
of Nature and the achievements of science are realised in
the means of production but not really embodied in capi-
tal, which, we will remember, Marx defines as the means of
production which, in the hands of the capitalists, are used
to produce surplus value. (The same fuzziness appears in
Marx's claim that science and the forces of Nature are his-
torically the product of labor; this is simply asserted with-
out further elaboration.) This dance of definitions only
serves to obscure the fact that an honest look at the nature
of the means of production undermines the three claims
that are essential to Marx's definition of capital: that the
means of production are purely material, that capital is
simply the product of labour and that it is merely con-
gealed labour. Marx's approach is really just a sleight-of-
hand: he simply amalgamates the products and forces of
Nature and the achievements of science with capital while
leaving his definition of capital unchanged. The result is
that, conveniently, everything is reduced to labor.

Consistent with this approach, Marx never discusses in any
detail how the process of technological development
occurs, what institutions and social strata are responsible
for it and, probably most important, how technological
innovations are adapted to the production process. While a
detailed analysis of all this might lie beyond the bounds of
what Marx called political economy and its critique, surely
a theory of capitalism, especially one that emphasizes the
role of the modernization of the production process, needs
to describe it more specifically and situate it more precise-
ly within the contours of the system than Marx does.

Instead, Marx seems to take technological development
and its industrial application for granted. It's almost as if,
in his theory, the means of production generate their new,
more productive forms automatically; that capital, con-
gealed labor, somehow evolves of its own accord. Seen
from this angle, labor once again appears to be some sort
of cosmic substance that engenders its new forms and pro-
pels its own evolution.

The problems with Marx's conception of the means of
production and capital have serious implications for other
aspects of his theory, particularly his view that labor is the
only truly productive power in economic production. In
Capital and throughout his writings, Marx is at great pains
to show that what is commonly understood as the produc-
tivity of capital is an illusion. To him, capital itself is not
productive; what appears as the productivity of capital is
really the productivity of labor in an illusory, or distorted,
form. Marx writes:
Since living labour-through the exchange between
capital and labourer-is incorporated in capital, and
appears as an activity belonging to capital from the
moment that the labour-process begins, all the pro-
ductive powers of social labour appear as the produc-
tive power of capital, just as the general social form of
labour appears in money as the property of a thing.
Thus, the productive power of social labour and its
special forms now appear as productive powers and
forms of capital, of materialised labour, of the materi-
al conditions of labour which, having assumed an
independent form, are personified by the capitalist in
relation to living labour. Here we have once more the
perversion of the relationship, which we have already,
in dealing with money, called fetishism. (Karl Marx,
Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, p. 389. Emphasis in

Despite this, the productive nature of capital is in fact
admitted by Marx, although only in a backhanded way. As
we saw, according to Marx the application of new tech-
niques of production to the production process enables
the workers to produce a greater amount of commodities
in a given period of time. In other words, it makes labor
more productive. Moreover, this increase in productivity
enables the capitalists to increase the exploitation of the
workers, to increase both the amount and the rate of sur-
plus value, which, in turn, enables the capitalists to accu-
mulate more capital. Both functions-increasing the quan-
tity of goods produced in a given period of time and rais-
ing the rate of capital accumulation-are, it seems to me,
productive. Yet, because Marx insists that capital is noth-
ing but stored-up labor, these productive functions are
ascribed entirely to labor.

In this, Marx is being consistent with his theoretical assump-
tions. But if we recognize that his conception of capital is
wrong, or at least incomplete, then we cannot accept Marx's
ascription of the productivity of capital to labor. On the con-
trary, we have to recognize that capital is productive in its own
right and that its productivity is not simply an illusion or a
form of fetishism, as Marx would have it.

But if capital is actually productive, and not just apparent-
ly so, then Marx's claim to have scientifically demonstrated
that the workers are exploited in capitalist production is
also called into question. In Marx's theory, we recall, under
capitalism the working class produces, with the help of the
means of production which they, or their forerunners,
have produced, both the necessary and the surplus prod-
uct. But after paying the workers enough to maintain
themselves and their families (that is, the necessary prod-
uct), the capitalists keep the entirety of the surplus value
(the surplus product), even though they did nothing to
produce it. By this conception, the workers are clearly and
obviously exploited. They have produced everything-
both necessary and surplus product as well as (in previous
production cycles) the entirety of the means of produc-
tion-but despite this, they only receive a part of the total
product, in fact, just enough to keep themselves and their
families alive.

But if capital is productive, then this apparent demonstra-
tion of the workers' exploitation cannot be maintained. At
the very least, the issue becomes blurred, and hence
arguable. On the most general level, it seems reasonable to
believe that the workers, the Earth and Nature generally,
and the implements of production (including their intel-
lectual components), all combine to make capitalist pro-
duction, including the production of a surplus, possible.
But who can determine, and how can it possibly be deter-
mined, precisely who is responsible for what? Marx insists
that labor is responsible for the entirety of production and
deserves the fruits; consequently, the capitalists, who reap
all the surplus, are nothing more than parasites. But if cap-
ital is not simply the product of labor, that is, is not just
dead labor, then all the elements that participate in and are
responsible for production-the workers, the social layers
responsible for developing technology, the Earth, capital,
and even the capitalists, who manage production-all
deserve a portion of the surplus product. In fact, it could
even be argued that the ability of society to produce an
economic surplus is entirely the result, not of the produc-
tive power of labor, but of the productive power of tech-
nology and therefore, under capitalism, of capital. And it
this were so, the workers would not be exploited at all, but
would merely be receiving their fair share of what is pro-
duced. This, of course, is what the capitalists and their
apologists argue, and the proof they offer is that this is
what the market, the only objective standard for judging
value in their view, determines.

It seems to me that, in reality, no one knows what the rela-
tive shares that labor, the Earth and capital contribute to
production under capitalism, and I doubt that any precise,
scientifically demonstrable answer can ever be found. But if
this is true, then Marx's claim to have scientifically demon-
strated that the workers are exploited under capitalism falls
to the ground.

Yet, one need not deny that the Earth and capital/the
means of production are productive in order to argue (I
do not say prove) that the capitalists are exploitive. The
fact that land and capital are productive does not necessar-
ily mean that the owners of these productive resources
deserve the revenue that these elements generate. If, for
example, their ownership of these resources is illegitimate,
then their collection of these revenues is also illegitimate.
What the capitalists and landlords have in their defense of
their claims to profit and rent is the fact that they own the
capital and land, and that the law and the state attest to
the legitimacy of their ownership. But mere possession
does not prove that they deserve them. So, one way to
argue that these classes are exploitive is to show that they
came to own these productive agents through illegitimate
or immoral means. And this Marx himself did. Indeed, one
of his most valuable contributions is his historical demon-
stration, in Capital and elsewhere, of how, through the
process of "primitive accumulation," the conditions neces-
sary for capitalist production were created. Through the
most brutal of means (executions, chopping off of limbs,
floggings, etc.), the peasants were forced from the land and
the artisans dispossessed of their tools and machines and
compelled to work for the capitalists, that is, to become
proletarians. If the possession of the land and the means
of production by landowners and capitalists is illegitimate,
by virtue of how they acquired them, then their appropria-
tion of the entire economic surplus produced through the
use of them is also illegitimate. But this is a moral argu-
ment, not a scientific one, ultimately because it involves
subjective and hence arguable judgments about the moral-
ity and legitimacy of historical processes.

One can make a broader case for the exploitive nature of the
capitalist and landlord classes, and of the capitalist system as
a whole, in a similar way. Capitalist production, and econom-
ic production in all forms of society, is a social process. It
would be impossible without the active participation of bil-
lions of people. Thus, given the fact that labor and all who
participate in economic activity help to produce an economic
surplus, and given the fact that the division of society into
social classes has made possible the development of technolo-
gy and the tremendous increase in the production of wealth
this has afforded, all of us deserve, that is, ought to receive,
both a fair share of that wealth, including a portion of the
surplus produced in the production process, and as well as
real participation in the control over the technology and the
economy as a whole. Instead, the tremendous economic and
social power that the human species has produced and that is
embodied in our technology has been expropriated and con-
trolled by tiny elite. And this ruling class has used and con-
tinues to use this control to appropriate virtually the entirety
of the social surplus and to force the vast majority of people
to work and otherwise act to further its narrow goals, not the
least of which is the maintenance of its rule and the continual
augmentation of its wealth and power.

Those familiar with Marxism know that Marx himself
made this very argument, but apparently not satisfied with
its moralistic nature, he attempted to give it a scientific
foundation. In so doing, he wound up with a theory that
significantly distorts reality and a claim that cannot be
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