Chapter 16: Absolute and Relative Surplus Value

Outline of Marx’s Analysis


In this, the first of the three chapters that take us from analyses in terms of value, to those of the monetary form of the value of labor-power, Marx reminds us of the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value, of how they are produced and of the relationship between the two. Absolute surplus-value emerges early when capitalists only command or subsume the labor of others formally, that is to say, without taking over and transforming tools and how they are used. Under those circumstances, their only available strategy for increasing the extraction of surplus-value involves getting people to work longer. Because workers control their tools and the rhythm of their work, capitalists have little leverage to extract more surplus-value via the intensification of labor. Relative surplus-value emerges as capitalists do obtain that leverage, by gaining control over tools and organizing them in factories that facilitate oversight and control. Protected by new property laws, they reshape both tools and their use to raise productivity and increase surplus-value—both by reducing the labor time necessary to produce each unit and by increasing the intensity of labor.

Given the increasing centrality of productivity, he also reminds us of how the conditions and meaning of productive labor depends upon the context. At the level of the individual, a productive worker is simply one who produces some product directly, using mind, hands and tools to transform raw materials. That was the generic concept he set out in the first section of Chapter 7. But as human society developed most labor became social, such that individuals came to collaborate in the production of ever more things and in so doing formed a collective worker with a division of labor—that he analyzed in some detail in Chapter 14. With the rise of various kinds of class society, including capitalism, antagonistic relationships develop as some are able to impose surplus work on others and appropriate the resulting surplus product. Within capitalism that surplus product takes the form of surplus-value, so that from the point of view of the appropriating capitalists the only productive workers, i.e., the only workers whose labor makes it possible to impose more work, are those who produce surplus-value, i.e., surplus labor whose products can be used to impose more work in the future. As a result, there is a clear distinction between the vernacular, everyday sense of being productive, i.e., being able to produce something, and the only kind of productivity that matters to capitalists. This is consistent with the emphasis we saw in Chapter 1 between use-value and exchange-value/value. Use-values and the ease with which we can obtain them preoccupy those of us who work; the exchange-value of the surplus production preoccupies those who put us to work.

In illustrating the capitalist case, Marx draws a parallel between those industries that produce things and those that produce services.

. . . a schoolmaster is a productive worker when, in addition to belaboring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation.

Given that such “productivity” involves exploitation, he adds that, “To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.” (1)

Marx then goes on to remind us of the connections that he demonstrated in Chapter 15 between absolute and relative surplus-value. Namely, how the methods used to produce relative surplus-value, i.e., introducing new machines and new technology, also made possible the prolongation of the working day and the intensification of work, both of which added surplus-alue by extracting more work from those subject to the new methods. What he does not remind us of here, is how the shift to relative surplus-value strategies was the result of the success of workers’ struggles to shorten the working day and by so doing undermine absolute surplus-value. (2) Nor does he reiterate his previous analysis of how new machines are designed and new technologies are chosen with the objective of undermining those struggles through the reorganization of the labor process. (3)

These reminders are followed by a brief analysis of the impact of natural conditions on the availability of surplus labor, both potential and actual. Where nature has provided plenty to meet limited needs and wants, as has sometimes been the case in the tropics, little work has been required and this resulted in a lot of spare, disposable time.(4) Marx’s remarks here have received substantial support from later studies by anthropologists of what Marshall Sahlins called “original affluent societies”.(5) Late in his life, partly as a result of his studies of the Russian peasant commune and its potential for providing the basis of a post-capitalist social regeneration, Marx devoted considerable time to the study of pre-capitalist societies. (6) The importance of his recognition of diverse possible paths to revolution and the transcendence of capitalism has been highlighted by Raya Dunayevskaya.(7) The contemporary renaissance in indigenous resistance to capitalism has led to new critiques of the orthodox Marxist dismissal of such struggles and to new appreciation of the insights being offered by those participating in that resistance into alternatives to capitalist ways of organizing the world. The widespread positive response to, and support for, the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico marked a new level of global awareness among those fighting capitalism; that awareness and support has continued for a wide variety of struggles in many parts of the world. Two examples illustrate the spreading support for the indigenous defense of the sacredness of land against capitalist exploitation. First, has been the resistance of First Peoples in Canada to tar sands development and second, has been the resistance of Native Americans in the U.S. to the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines.

In the long-run, Marx suggests that the rise in labor productivity has taken place via the organization of social, collective labor and technological development in response to the need to overcome obstacles presented by nature. A certain Eurocentrism appears implicit in his suggestion that this has been truer in temperate climates than in tropical ones.

The mother country of capitalism is not the tropical region, with its luxuriant vegetation, but the temperate zone. It is not the absolute fertility of the soil but its degree of differentiation, the variety of its natural products, which forms the natural basis for the social division of labor, and which, by changes in the natural surroundings, spurs man on to the multiplication of his needs, his capacities and the instruments and modes of this labour. (8)

His illustrations, however, which include water works in Egypt, India, and Persia as well as Italy and Holland, show that his suggestion here was not Eurocentric. Others, however, have been prone to insist on the climate differences (as they have sometimes done with “racial” differences) between temperate and tropical zones, in trying to explain why early capitalist development seemed to have been concentrated in Europe. Such views have been countered over the years not only by the rediscovery of the independent development of capitalism in places such as India but also by the recognition of the tremendous natural “differentiation” that obtains in the tropics. Such understanding came first as colonialists discovered competitors to suppress and more and more “resources” to exploit. More recently, modern ecological research has revealed the incredible diversity of life in the tropics. To these discoveries we should also add that of long-ignored indigenous knowledge and innovation in the utilization of plant and animal life for artistic, medicinal and nutritional purposes. The onslaught of biopiracy by the pharmaceutical industry out to patent, monopolize and exploit that knowledge provides perverse testimony to its importance. So, while we may accept Marx’s intuition that challenges provoke innovation, we must also recognize that the diversity of innovations throughout the world—both social and technological—has been much greater that he recognized.

Marx ends this chapter with a brief, sarcastic attack on Ricardo—and by implication all the classical political economists of his time—and John Stuart Mill, their successor, for the superficiality of their understanding of monetary phenomena. They did seek to explain such monetary categories as profit, interest and rent, but their efforts to understand their origin stalled at the simple concept of labor. Their failure, he argues, lay in their inability to recognize and analyze the origin of surplus-value—a failure he attributes to their instinct that “it was very dangerous to penetrate too deeply into the burning question of the origins of surplus-value”. The question was “burning”, of course, because with the development of workers’ self-organization, came increasingly intense challenges to the injustice of capitalist profit. While recognizing that “the productive power of labor is the originating cause of profit”, Ricardo et al. failed to identify the essence of surplus-value in surplus labor and the exploitative nature of capitalism. Despite this theoretical lacuna, their emphasis on labor as the source of value did lead workers to the inevitable conclusion that if the source of value was labor, then all value should belong to them and none to the capitalists. Equally inevitable was the response of economists who set aside the labor theory of value and replaced it, first with utility theory in the late 19th Century and then with preference theory early in the 20th. With this brief evocation of the money form of surplus-value, Marx takes us one step closer to his exposition of the money form of the value of labor-power.


1 Both this and the quoted passage are from Capital, Vol. I, p. 644.

2 Ibid., Chapter 15, Section 2, subsections (b) and (c).

3 Ibid., Chapter 15, Sections 4 and 5.

4 Recall Marx's celebration, cited in my commentary on Section 5 of Chapter 10 of the Quashees of Jamaica thumbing their noses at the capitalist planters.

5 Marshall Shalins,Stone Age Economics, Livingston, NJ: Aldine Transaction, 1974, Chapter 1, "The Original Affluent Society".

6 Lawrence Krader (ed.), The Ethnographic Notebooks of Karl Marx, 2nd edn., Assen: Van Gorcum & Co., 1974.

7 Raya Dunayevskaya, "Marx's 'New Humanism' and the Dialectics of women's Liberation in Primitive and Modern Societies", Praxis International, Vol. 3, no. 4, 1984, pp. 369-81.

8 Capital, Vol. I,p. 649. The "tropical region", it is worth remembering, formally lies between the Tropic of Cancer (roughly 23o27' North Latitude) and the Tropic of Capricorn (roughly 23o27' South Latitude). The precise latitude varies from year to year because the tropics, both north and south, are defined by the most northerly or southerly circle of latitude at which the sun appears directly overhead.