Deville - The People's Marx (1893)

Chapter XVI: Absolute and Relative Surplus-Value

The distinctive characteristic of productive labor.—The productiveness of labor, and surplus-value.

The Distinctive Characteristic of Productive Labor.

We saw, in Chapter VII, that, if we consider the labor- process from the point of view of its result, the instrument and subject of labor both appear as means of production and the labor itself as productive labor. Man creates a product—performs certain productive labor—by appropriating an external object to his needs, and in that operation the manual labor and the intellectual labor are indissolubly bound together, just as the hand and the head are mutually interdependent in Nature.

Nevertheless, as soon as the individual product is transformed into a social product—he product of a collective laborer whose component members participate in very divergent degrees in the making of the product— though this definition of productive labor—deduced from the very nature of material production—remains true so far as regards the collective laborer considered as a single individuality, it no longer applies to each one of the component members individually.

In order to work productively, it is no longer necessary to perform manual labor directly. It is enough to be an organ of the collective laborer and to perform some one of its functions. But this is not the special characteristic of productive labor under the capitalist system.

There the object of production is surplus-value, and a laborer is not regarded as performing productive work unless he produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or unless his labor causes capital to expand. A teacher in a school, for example, is a productive laborer, not because he forms the minds of his pupils in a useful and suitable way, but because, by so doing, he brings in dollars for his employer. That the latter has invested his, capital in a teaching factory instead of a sausage factory does not alter the matter at all. The essential condition is that capital must bring in returns or profits.

Henceforth the idea of productive labor is no longer limited to the relation between the exertion and the useful result, between the producer and the product, but includes more particularly the social relation which converts the labor into the immediate instrument of the expansion of capital. Therefore, classical political economy has always maintained that the distinctive characteristic of productive labor was that it yielded surplus-value.

The Productiveness of Labor, and Surplus-value.

The prolongation of the working-day beyond the time his cost of maintenance, and the appropriation of that requisite for the laborer to produce an equivalent for surplus-labor by the capitalist constitute, as we saw in Chapter XII, the production of absolute surplus-value. In order to increase this surplus-labor, the necessary labor-time is curtailed, by securing the production of the equivalent of the wages in less time, and the surplus- value thus realized is the relative surplus-value.

The production of absolute surplus-value affects only the duration of labor. The production of relative surplus-value completely transforms the technical processes and the social combinations of the laborers, It develops along with the development of the capitalist mode of production. When once the latter is established as the general mode of production, the difference between relative surplus-value and absolute surplus-value makes itself felt whenever an attempt is made to raise the rate of surplus- value.

If labor-power is assumed to be paid for at its just value, and the limits of the working-day are given and constant, the rate of surplus-value can be raised only by increasing either the intensity or the productiveness of labor. On the contrary, the intensity and the productiveness of labor remaining constant, the rate of surplus-value can be raised only by a prolongation of the working-day.

Nevertheless, no matter what the length of the working-day may be, there will be no surplus-value, unless the labor possesses the minimum of productiveness necessary to produce the equivalent of the laborer's means of subsistence in less than the whole of the working-day.

If the labor necessary for the support of the producer and his family takes all his disposable time, how can he work gratuitously for others? Without a certain degree of productiveness of labor, there is no time left for this gratuitous labor; without this surplus-time, there is no surplus-labor, and consequently no surplus-value and no net-product, but also no capitalists, no slave-owners, no feudal lords, in one word, no proprietary class.

It has been held that this necessary degree of productiveness is a natural quality of labor—a productiveness—ready made as it were—with which Nature endows men upon their entrance into the world.

The powers of primitive man were formed, on the contrary, only very gradually, under the pressure of his physical needs. When, thanks to their rude efforts, men had succeeded in raising themselves above their primitive animal condition, and when consequently their labor had already been, to some extent, socialized, then, and only then, were such conditions produced that the surplus-labor of one could become a source of livelihood for another who could shift upon him the burden of labor, and this never took place without the use of force to make the one submit to the other. The productiveness of labor is the result of a long historical development.

Apart from the social form of production, the productiveness of labor depends on the natural conditions under which the labor is performed. These conditions may all be reduced to either the man himself, his race, etc., or his natural surroundings. The external natural conditions, from the economic point of view, split up into two great classes: natural wealth in means of subsistence—i.e., a fertile soil, waters well stocked with fish, etc.; and natural wealth in the instruments of labor, such as waterfalls, navigable rivers, wood, metal, coal, etc. In the beginnings of civilization, it is the first class which is decisive; later on, in a more advanced society, it is the second.

Favorable natural circumstances furnish the possibility, but never the reality, of surplus-labor; nor, consequently, of surplus-value and a net product. As the climate is more or less mild, the soil more or less fertile, etc., the number of primitive wants (food, clothing, etc.) and the efforts necessary for their satisfaction will be greater or less; so that, under circumstances otherwise similar, the necessary labor-time will differ in different countries; but surplus-labor can begin only at the point where necessary labor ends. The physical influences which determine the relative magnitude of the latter, therefore, set a natural limit to surplus-labor. This natural limit recedes as industry advances and the instruments of production are improved.

In our society, where the laborer buys the permission to work for his own existence only by paying for it with surplus-labor, it is easy to imagine that it is a natural quality of human labor to furnish surplus-value. But regard, for instance, an inhabitant of the eastern islands of the Asiatic archipelago, where the sago palm grows wild in the forests. The pith of each tree ordinarily yields three or four hundred pounds of edible meal. There, men go into the forest and cut their bread, just as with us they cut their fire-wood. Suppose that it takes an inhabitant of these islands one day's work to procure in this way enough to satisfy his wants for a week. It is evident that the bounty granted him by Nature is plenty of leisure, and that force would be required to compel him to employ this leisure time in labor and surplus-labor for others.

If capitalist production was introduced on his island, the honest islander would probably have to work six days a week to obtain permission to devote to his own support the product of one day's work. The bounty of Nature does not explain why he would then have to work six days a week instead of the one which would suffice for his support, or, in other words, why he must furnish surplus-value. It only explains why the surplus-labor could amount to five days and the necessary labor be limited to one. To sum up, productiveness explains the degree attained by surplus-value, but is never the cause of surplus-value. Its cause is always surplus-labor, however it may be extorted.