Red Letter
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Production and Society
by Alex Callinicos
Estimated Reading Time: 10 min

How to define the Means of Production is a little challenging. It is a central conceit to understanding capitalism (and Marxism), but it's sometimes treated as so simple that it gets glossed over. The fact that "People only become the proletariat when dispossessed of access to the means of production and thus reduced to selling our labor power" has been alluded to several times already this year and it's only the tenth day. Before we get into the definition though, Marx's reference to the violence of this critical process in the development of capitalism is one of my favorite passages and here is a good excuse to share it with you:

"The immediate producer, the labourer, could only dispose of his own person after he had ceased to be attached to the soil and ceased to be the slave, serf, or bondsman of another. To become a free seller of labour power, who carries his commodity wherever he finds a market, he must further have escaped from the regime of the guilds, their rules for apprentices and journeymen, and the impediments of their labour regulations. Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire."

As we put together Red Letter, we've really been enjoying Callinicos's work so when we got stressed about defining the Means of Production, we thought it made sense to go with how he made it plain.


As early as The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx had defined human beings as, first and foremost, producers. Their production has two aspects, material and social. Firstly, it is the activity through which men and women seek to meet their needs by acting on and transforming nature. This implies a certain organization of production, the possession of the appropriate tools, and so on. Secondly, production is a social process, in which people cooperate to produce the things they need. It always involves social relations between those taking part, relations which, crucially, concern the control of the process of production and the distribution of its products.

Marx calls the first, material aspect, the forces of production, and its second, social aspect, the relations of production.

The nature of the forces of production in a given society depends on what Marx calls the “labor process,” through which human beings act upon and transform nature. “Labor,” he writes, “is first of all a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature” (Capital Volume 1, Page 283).

Let us start with a sketch of the way human beings set out to meet their needs. The earliest human beings lived by hunting animals—for which they needed their own strength and hunting skills, and weapons, whether sharp sticks and stones that they found or spears and axes that they fashioned. Then people started tilling the land to grow food—again they needed their own strength and skills, plus more sophisticated tools. And more recently there is factory production—again nature provides the raw materials, human beings provide their labor, and we use yet more sophisticated tools: machines, electronic computers and so on.

In all three examples we can discern three things. Firstly there is “nature,” the animals that were hunted, the seeds to be sown and the land where they grew, and the raw materials to be processed in the factories. Secondly there is human labor. And thirdly there are the tools, whether hunting spears, plows or computers.

Marx puts these things under two headings. The labor process, he says, is composed of two basic elements, human labor power and the means of production. The means of production he divides again into two parts: the land and the raw materials which are to be transformed into the things we need—these he calls the “objects of labor”; and the tools we use—which he calls the “instruments of labor.”

These tools, says Marx, form the decisive element in the labor process. What human labor can achieve depends on the instruments available to it:

(Capital Volume 1, Page 286)
The use and construction of certain instruments of labor, although present in germ among certain species of animals, is characteristic of the specifically human labor process, and [Benjamin] Franklin therefore defines man as a “tool-making animal.” . . . It is not what is made, but how, and by what instruments of labor, that distinguishes different economic epochs.
(Capital Volume 1, Page 290)
The labor process . . . is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is . . . the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore . . . common to all forms of society in which human beings live. We did not, therefore, have to present the worker in his relationship with other workers; it was enough to present man and his labor on one side, nature and its materials on the other. The taste of porridge does not tell us who grew the oats, and the process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slave owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist.

In other words, the organization of the labor process, for example the division of labor which it may involve, does not in itself determine the nature of the society in question. There is a world of difference between the slash-and-burn agriculture of “primitive” societies and modern assembly-line production. The difference, in the first instance, is the outcome of the greater skill of human labor power today, of the development of scientific knowledge, and, as a result of this, of the much greater sophistication of the instruments of labor which we use.

These are material constraints on the labor process, which are there whatever the social relations between those who take part in that labor process. For example, to produce a car, we must have the technical skill and scientific knowledge necessary to construct an internal combustion engine; we need to be able to work metal in order to build the bodywork; to tap rubber and convert it into tires; to extract the fuel which will power the car. These abilities are historical achievements which represent the growing power of human beings over nature. They will be needed as much under a future communist society as under capitalism.

The nature of the labor process is thus a reflection of the development of human technology, which in turn depends on our theoretical knowledge and practical skills. Improvements in the labor process mean that we can produce the same amount of things we need with a smaller quantity of labor. Potentially, therefore, they reduce the burden of material production on humanity. At the same time, they make us less dependent on the vicissitudes of our natural environment. They increase our control over nature. Today whether there is a shortage or plenty no longer depends on whether the summer has been a good one or not.

Marx believed that this development of the productive forces is cumulative. In other words, the technical and scientific achievements of one society provide a basis on which future societies can build. Changes in the labor process enable us to produce more efficiently, and thereby to expand our control over nature. This is a process, Marx argued, which has been going on throughout human history from the Neolithic revolution, when human beings first began to sow crops and keep domestic animals, to the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The development of the forces of production is a necessary condition for any improvement in our lives. Even under a future communist society, the labor process will be “the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence.” But this development of the forces of production is not enough to explain historical change and development. The growth of our scientific knowledge and our practical skills does not occur in isolation from the way we organize to use the forces of production, from the social relations of production.

To understand what Marx meant by the relations of production we have to distinguish between two senses in which production is social. First, work is necessarily a social activity since it depends upon the cooperation of a number of individuals in order to achieve a common goal. In this respect, the relationships between individuals are determined by the material constraints of producing in a certain way. The allocation of tasks to the producers will reflect the nature of the labor process in question and the skills of the individuals.

But there is a second social aspect to production, one in which the means of production, the tools and raw materials, are again a decisive element. Marx writes:

(Capital Volume 2, Page 36-37).
Whatever the social form of production, laborers and means of production always remain factors in it. . . . For production to go on they must unite. The specific manner in which this union is accomplished distinguishes the different economic epochs of the structure of society from one another.

Marx argues that we cannot understand the nature of production, and therefore the nature of society, without examining who controls the means of production, for two reasons. First, once we get beyond the most primitive forms of agriculture, no labor process can take place without means of production. Indeed, even slash-and-burn agriculture depends on having relatively free access to land. Secondly, the distribution of the means of production provides the key to the division of society into classes. For there is no inherent necessity in the labor process which requires that the producers, those who do the actual work, should control the means of production, the tools and raw materials with which they work. Classes arise when the “direct producers” have been separated from the means of production, which have become the monopoly of a minority.

This separation only takes place once the productive forces have developed to a certain level. Looking at the working day in a class society, Marx discerns two portions. During the first the direct producer performs necessary labor. In other words, he or she produces the means of subsistence needed to keep him or herself and dependants alive. (Under capitalism, the worker produces not the actual means of subsistence, but their equivalent in other goods for which he or she is paid in money, but the basic relationship is the same.)

During the second portion of the working day, the producer performs surplus labor. The product of these hours is taken, not by the person who did the actual work, but by the owner of the means of production. This is done in exchange for permitting the worker the privilege of using those means of production to do the labor without whose products he or she would perish. As Marx writes:

(Capital Volume 1, Page 344-45).
Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the worker, free or unfree, must add to the labor time necessary for his own maintenance an extra quantity of labor time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owner of the means of production, whether this proprietor be an Athenian aristocrat, an Etruscan theocrat, a Roman citizen, a Norman baron, an American slave owner, a Wallachian boyar, a modern landlord or a capitalist.

Class society rests, therefore, on exploitation, that is, on the appropriation of surplus labor by a minority which controls the means of production. However, in the early phases of human development, what Marx called “primitive communism,” in which the means of production were owned in common, there was little or no surplus labor. Almost all the working day was taken up with necessary labor to meet society’s basic needs.

Only gradually, thanks to improvements in productive technique, do people become able to produce more than is necessary simply to keep them alive. This surplus product, however, is too small to improve everyone’s standard of living significantly. Instead it is appropriated by a minority, who, for various reasons such as their greater efficiency or political power, gain control of the means of production. Thus do classes arise. As Engels puts it:

(Engels in Anti-Duhring, Page 217-218)
All historical antagonisms between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes to this very day find their explanation in this same relatively undeveloped productivity of human labor. So long as the really working population were so much occupied with their necessary labor that they had no time left for looking after the common affairs of society—the direction of labor, affairs of state, legal matters, art, science, etc.—so long was it necessary that there should constantly exist a special class, freed from actual labor, to manage those affairs; and this class never failed, for its own advantage, to impose a greater and greater burden of labor on the working masses.

Control (or, more precisely, effective possession) of the means of production is not necessarily the same as their legal ownership. In this Marx set himself on the side of the materialist bourgeois philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, “who regarded might as the basis of right. . . . If power is taken as the basis of right, as Hobbes etc. do, then right, law, etc., are merely the symptom, the expression of other relations upon which state power rests”. (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume V, Page 329)

The distinction between relations of production and legal property forms is important. Many people believe that capitalism depends upon there being individual capitalists who own and control the means of production. They therefore argue that the rise of the modern corporation, in which the business is actually run by top managers who are employees of the firm and own, at best, only a few shares, shows that we no longer live under capitalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the effective possession of the means of production by a minority which defines class society, not the legal forms in which these relations of power are dressed up.

 
Production and Society
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