Chapter 23:  Simple Reproduction

Outline of Marx's Discussion:


As Marx pointed out in a two-page introduction to this section of Capital, pp. 709-710, his analysis in this and the subsequent two chapters is based on a number of simplifying assumptions. The most important one in this chapter, and the one that differentiates this chapter and its discussion of simple reproduction from the discussion of expanded reproduction in the next two chapters, is that capitalists consume all of the value that their operations generate over and above that which is necessary to replace the used up means of production, e.g., raw materials, tools, and to replace their living workers. In other words this chapter deals with how production is also reproduction of all of the elements of the capitalist organization of production in abstraction from investment that generates growth, i.e., accumulation.

This said, most of what Marx writes in this chapter should already be familiar from the study of preceeding ones, especially chapter 6 that deals explicitly with the reproduction of labor power, and indeed he often refers back to previous discussions. There are, however, a couple of points, one minor and another major, that are worthy of examination.


As discussed in my commentary on chapter 7 on the labor process, there has been a debate as to whether there was a fundamental change in Marx's analysis of capitalism from his discussion of alienation in the 1844 Manuscripts to the theory laid out in Capital. I have argued that there was no fundamental change and what we have in Capital includes an essentially a detailed elaboration of his earlier discussion of four forms of alienation, e.g., of how capital controls workers on the job thus alienating them from their labor, of how capital controls their product and uses it against them, of how capital pits workers against each other alienating them from each other and of how capital, by imposing its will, alienates them from their very species-being.

For the most part, the substantiation of this argument involves showing how the various moments of Marx's analysis in Capital are elaborations of these themes despite the absence of any explicit use of the term "alienation." In this chapter, however, he does use the term and his use deserves some attention.

On page 716 we find the following passage:

"Since, before he enters the process, his own labour has already been alienated [enfremdet] from him, appropriated by the capitalist, and incorporated with capital, it now, in the course of the process, constantly objectifies itself so that it becomes a product alien to him [fremder Produkt]."

Here we find two uses of the term "alienation." The first use clearly refers simply to the sale of labor power; sold, the labor power and its use value now belongs to the capitalist "before" production begins. This is a fairly vernacular use of the term "alienation", just meaning to go away from or be taken away from. Even though what is being described is integral to the creation of alienation, and indeed if the worker's labor becomes "incorporated with capital" then all forms of alienation obtain, the use of the term here does not seem to refer to any of the four forms that Marx discussed in the 1844 Manuscripts. The second use, however, refers to what happens "in the course of the [labor] process", i.e., during production: the capitalist utilization of the use value of the worker's labor power results in a product that belongs to the capitalist. This is the alienation of the product, the second form of alienation mentioned above. When Marx goes on to point out how that product is converted into "capital, i.e., into value that sucks up the the worker's value-creating power" and thereby becomes "an alien power that dominates and exploits him," we have, explicitly, all the elements of the second form of alienation discussed in the Manuscripts.

The Reproduction of the Worker

The second, and more important issue raised in this chapter, concerns the reproduction of workers and their labor power as an integral part of capitalist reproduction as a whole. The key passage concerns the reproduction of capital as a whole, i.e., "the capitalist class and the working class":
"The capital given in return for labour-power is converted into means of subsistence which have to be consumed to reproduce the muscles, nerves, bones and brains of existing workers, and to bring new workers into existence. Within the limits of what is absolutely necessary, therefore, the individual consumption of the working class is the reconversion of the means of subsistence given by capital in return for labour-power into fresh labour-power which capital is then again able to exploit. It is the production and reproduction of the capitalist's most indispensible means of production: the worker. The individual consumption of the worker, whether it occurs inside or outside the workshop, inside or outside the labour process, remains as aspect of the production and reproduction of capital, just as the cleaning of machinery does, whether it is done during the labour proces, or when intervals in that process permit. The fact that the worker performs acts of individual consumption in his own interest, and not to please the capitalist, is something entirely irrelevant to the matter." (pp. 717-718)
Let us examine this passage in some detail. First, "the capital given in return for labour-power" is the wage, the variable capital invested in the hiring of workers. As we have seen before, this can be represented, from the capitalist point of view, as M-LP, the exchange of money for labor power. Or, from the workers' point of view as LP-M, the sale of labor power for money. Second, the "conversion" of the wage into "the means of subsistence" refers to all those expenditures workers make on everything necessary to reproduce their labor power, e.g., food, clothing, music, transportation, housing, and so on. Third, all of those things are not just bought, but they "must be consumed" in order "to reproduce the muscles, nerves, bones and brains of existing workers, and to bring new workers into existence." In other words, individual consumption must reproduce the labor power of existing workers and produce the next generation and its labor power. That individual consumption can include everything from cooking and eating to learning a skill to various amusements that re-creates the ability and willingness to return to work for the capitalist. The key point is that their consumption is, from the capitalist point of view, production - the production of labor power.

Now as we have seen, the industrial circuit of capital can be represented by the following sequence, what Marx calls the circuit of money capital:


where ...P... stands for the production process. Nowhere in Marx's writings, not even in Part I of Volume II of Capital where he sketches a detailed analysis of that circuit and also analyses it from two other points of view, is there a parallel symbolic representation for consumption qua production of labor power, but there is nothing to prevent us from using his same notation to represent a parallel process. Thus, I have suggested in my comments on chapter one (in Reading Capital Politically) that we can represent what Marx is saying in the above passage by:


where ...P... represents consumption as production of labor power and LP* is the labor power produced. The sense of this "circuit of the reproduction of labor power" is the same as his circuits of industrial capital: it represents a sequence of processes through which a key element of capital is reproduced: labor power. [I have given the final LP* an asterisk instead of a prime (e.g., LP') because in Marx's notation primes are used to designate increases in value but the impact of the work of consuming in ways that produce labor power has ambiguous effects, e.g., procreation by generating new workers may increase the value of labor power, but more housework that substitutes for purchased goods or services may reduce the value of labor power.]

Leaving it to the workers?

Now Marx's final comment in this passage notes that "The fact that the worker performs acts of individual consumption in his own interest, and not to please the capitalist, is something entirely irrelevant to the matter." In other words, from the workers' point of view we could represent their entry into the labor market as merely a means toward their "own interest", i.e., the elaboration of their own lives, as LP-M-C(MS). Here consumption is not production, it is simply living! Here is the passage from Chapter 1, Volume II of Capital:
"It is also the sale of labour-power - we may here say of labour, since the form of wages is assumed - by the laborer who owns it. What is M-C(= M-L) for the buyer is here, as in every other purchase, L-M(= C-M) for the seller (the laborer). It is the sale of his labour-power. This is the first stage of circulation, or the first metamorphosis, of the commodity (Buch I, Kap. III, 2a).[English edition: Ch. III, 2a-Ed.] It is for the seller of labour a transformation of his commodity into the money-form. The laborer spends the money so obtained gradually for a number of commodities required for the satisfaction of his needs, for articles of consumption. The complete circulation of his commodity therefore appears as L-M-C, that is to say first as L-M(= C-M) and secondly as M-C; hence in the general form of the simple circulation of commodities, C-M-C. Money is in this case merely a passing means of circulation, a mere medium in the exchange of one commodity for another."
But this "little circuit" fails to capture the central point of this part of chapter 23: from the capitalist point of view working class consumption must involve the production of labor power.

This brings us to another important issue. A few lines after the passage quoted above Marx comments that "the capitalist may safely leave this [consumption qua production of labor power] to the worker's drives for self-preservation and propagation." (p. 718) Almost immediately, however, he gives a counter-example of South American mine-owners who force their workers to eat beans as well as bread to increase their strength and productivity. What are we to make of this contradiction?

On the one hand, Marx's comments here reflect what he was seeing around him in England in the years that he was writing, and what he was reading in the reports of the Factory Acts inspectors: a general tendency on the part of capital to minimize wages and all other costs related to the reproduction of the working class. Engels' book The Condition of the English Working Class upon which Marx drew repeatedly gave many vivid illustrations of such minimization and of the misery it imposed on British workers.

On the other hand, although Marx calls the South American mine-owner's oversight of the diet of their workers "crude", in historical retrospect we can see that they were actually harbringers of the capitalist future. That is to say, as those workers' struggles to reduce the working day, that Marx analyzed in chapter 10, were successful in driving the working day to 12 hrs, then to 10 hrs and then to 8 hrs, they were simultaneously successful in freeing more and more time from production under the eyes (and control) of the capitalists and gaining more and more time for living, i.e., for consumption that was not production of labor power. That working class success made the capitalist class more and more reliant upon two strategies, one that Marx analyzed extensively and one that he did not. The two strategies were those of relative surplus value and the management of working class consumption and free time to make sure that they resulted in the production and reproduction of labor power. We have already seen, in chapters 12-15, how detailed Marx's analysis of the former strategy became. The sketchiness of this chapter shows how limited was the attention he paid to the latter strategy.

As I suggested in my commentary on Chapter 10, today we must analyze not only capitalist strategies in the sphere of production, but also its strategies in the sphere of reproduction, indeed throughout the social factory. At the same time, we must also analyse workers struggles in both spheres to see how they rupture and force changes in capitalist methods and repeatedly repose the possibilities of revolutionary ruptures that capital can not handle and which lead to its replacement.

Carrying out such analyses requires study that goes well beyond what is provided in this chapter. First, it requires applying to capitalist strategies in the sphere of reproduction the same kind of close, analytical examination that Marx brought to production in chapters 7, 12-15, that is to say where he examined the basic outlines of the labor process (Chapter 7), some forms of co-operation (chapter 13), the division of labor in industry (Chapter 14) and the dynamics of technological change (in Chapter 15). We need to replicate this kind of analysis in all of the spheres of reproduction. Second, beyond such basic analytical theorizing, we need to examine all those concrete forms of such relationships that currently obtain and are relevant to our struggles, not just as "examples" to illustrate the theory, but as contributions to our understanding of those struggles and as one basis of deciding what future directions those struggles should take. Third, as the last point might suggest, our point of departure for such studies can be theoretical but current struggles should provide focus to our efforts because, as Marx said "the point is not to understand the world but to change it."

This is obviously not the place to undertake any systematic investigation of the sort outlined above, but just to illustrate a bit, let's recall the application of Marx's analysis of the labor process to the sphere of reproduction. In his analysis there were three elements: the workers, their tools and the raw materials upon which they worked to fabricate commodities. In the case of reproduction where the commodity being fabricated is labor power how are we to understand these elements? The workers include all kinds of people beginning with housewives and children-in-school and continuing through waged workers on and off the job, prostitutes, teachers, and so on. The tools would include everything used by those people to produce and reproduce labor power: kitchen and dining equipment, washing machines, irons, beds, computers, school books, training manuals, self-help books, playgrounds, footballs, condoms & sex paraphernalia, music cd's, film DVD's and so on. And the raw materials? Those are the people themselves: from ovulation, fertilization and conception through children to adults. As in Marx's very enlightenment view where the active, willing worker uses tools to transform passive, will-less, nature, the labor process that produces and reproduces labor power treats human beings as objects to be created and shaped according to the needs of capital. Procreation, child rearing, education and training are not shared activities of socially interactive human beings, they are alienated relations of power as some people are used to craft other people into useful tools of capitalist production and social control.

Bedroom Backlash

It was not so long ago
men had all the say
at the end of a weary day.

He'd make his moves with no regard
for feeling she might have
'til in resistance she would claim
the headache everyone laughs at.

And it's
Yes. No.
Yes. No.
Sorry I got a headache.

Oh for the day when women get free.
Oh for the day when men accept it.
No more shames
No more games
Just yes, yes, yes!

Women's liberation came along
said men can't have all thesay
of if and how and where and when
at the end of a weary day.

For woman wants her fair share too
in pleasure as in pay
but he still wants to be the boss
so he turns away.

No. Yes.
No. Yes.
Damn it , woman, I've got a headache.

Oh for the day when women get free.
Oh for the day when men accept it.
No more shames
No more games
Just yes, yes, yes!

Carol Hanisch, Fight on sisters... and other songs for liberation,1978?.

Once we understand this we can see how so many of the nasty aspects of the patriarchal dimension of capitalist reproduction have the character that they do. Feminists have for years critized such things as the imposition of gender roles wherein, for example, in the absence of women's struggles, men dominate women sexually, e.g., they satify their desires for control and sexual release (orgasm) with no regard to the pleasure, or lack of it, experienced by women. One of the discoveries by feminists in the 1970s was how few of their mothers ever experienced any real pleasure in sex and mostly viewed it as an onerous obligation - sometimes tolerated and sometimes rejected (via appeals to fatigue, headache or nervous breakdown). Thus the labor process of reproduction involves dehumanization of people as they become passive, will-less objects of manipulation, and, of course, the alienation of those who are doing the manipulating because their manipulation prevents them from having any healthy human contact with those they are manipulating. The particular concrete forms of such dehumanization and alienation naturally vary with the many, many different labor processes included in the sphere of reproduction.

Schemas of Reproduction

In chapters 23 through 25 as Marx distinguishes between simple and expanded reproduction, his exposition is largely verbal. In Volume II of Capital, however, he reworks the French economiste Francois Quesnay's Tableau Economique to both model the requirements of reproduction and to distinguish between simple and expanded reproduction. Quesnay, the main theorist of the "Physiocrat" school of economics in the 18th Century, developed his Tableau to trace/demonstrate the interlinkages of the economy and to argue how, in his view, all expansion could be traced back to the work of farmers on the land - the only truly productive workers.

Like Adam Smith before him, Marx found Quesnay's approach to analyzing the "circular flows" of the economy useful, while disagreeing with his interpretation, especially his privileging of land/farming as the unique source of value. So, in Volume II of Capital, Marx suggests his own formulation of those flows, first for simple reproduction and then for expanded reproduction. In what follows I will only sketch his analysis of simple reproduction, holding a discussion of his parallel treatment of expanded reproduction over for chapter 25 that deals with that subject.

Marx's analysis breaks the economy down into two sectors, or "departments". All those circuits of industrial capital that produce the means of production are regrouped, or aggregated, into "Department I"; all those circuits of industrial capital that produce the means of subistence are aggegated into "Department II." Using his value theory, the value of the output of each department can then be represented by C+V+S such that we have:

Department I = C1 + V1 + S1
Department II = C2 + V2 + S2

Now, in order for the present organization of capitalist society - represented above - to reproduce itself, certain conditions must be met. First, Department I must produce enough of the means of production to replace those used up in its own activities plus enough of the means of production to replace those used up in the activities of Department II. Second, Department II must produce enough of the means of subsistence to sustain/reproduce the labor power employed in its own activities, plus enough means of subsistence to sustain/reproduce the labor power employed in Department I. Third, given the assumption that none of the surplus value is reinvested, but all is consumed by the capitalists, Department II must also produce enough consumer goods to sustain the capitalists of both departments. These conditions can be represented in the following manner:

Department I must produce C1 + C2
Department II must produce V1 + V2 + S1 + S2

If, and only if, these conditions are met can simple reproduction take place, i.e., can the system reproduce itself from period to period.

In the language of Chapter 23, what this says is simply that not only must capital organize its productive activities to maintain its raw materials, tools, machines at the current level of effectiveness, but it must also make sure that enough food, clothing, housing, etc. are produced to make possible the reproduction of the current number (and effectiveness) of workers. Meeting these requirements necessitates an appropriate balance between the activities of the two departments; failure to achieve that balance creates a crisis in the ability of the system to reproduce itself. Indeed, some Marxists have leaned heavily on these schemes in advancing the thesis that capitalist crises originate in such "disproportionalities."

For our purposes, this scheme of simple reproduction is useful merely to highlight the necessity for capital to organize itself to guarantee not only the means of production it uses to put people to work, but also the necessity for it to meet the needs of those people in so far as those needs result in the reproduction of them and their labor power.

We should note in passing a couple of the limits of this schema: first, there is no discussion of the labor processes in either Department, only their outcomes in terms of value. Nor is there any discussion of the labor processes of converting the output into functioning components of on-going production, neither the processes of replacing depreciated physical capital, nor the processes of maintaining labor power. These processes, and the parallels between them, are touched on in Chapter 23 but not in these schemas. Second, as Marx will make clear in Chapter 25, the ability of capital to keep its currently employed workers working (at profitable wages) also requires that it produce and reproduce what he calls the "reserve army" of the unemployed - unemployed workers whose demands for jobs and wages keep pressure on those with jobs to accept wages and working conditions that they might refuse in the absence of such pressure. Now what this is true whether we are talking about expanded reproduction (chapter 25) or simple reproduction (chapter 23), in both cases capital must reproduce not only those who are waged, but also those who are unwaged. Therefore, the output of the means of subsistence in Department II destined for the working class, i.e., V1 + V2 must be sufficient to feed, cloth etc. (to greatly varying degrees, of course) not only the waged but also the unwaged. But nowhere is this explicit in the schema. I will return to this in my discussion of Chapter 25.

Economists: "Productive" & "Unproductive" Consumption

Marx insists, pp. 718 - 719, on how both capitalits and their "ideologists", the political economists, have differentiated between working class consumption necessary to capital and any consumption that goes beyond that and only benefits the workers themselves. He sites James Mill, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus as all considering any working class consumption over and above what capital requires as "unproductive." Their concepts of what constitutes "productive" vs "unproductive" consumption, whether of the means of subsistence or of capital itself, frankly express the view point of capital itself.

Adam Smith had insisted in distinguishing between the unproductive use of money, e.g., rich landlords hiring large numbers of retainers, and the productive use of money as capital, i.e., hiring workers who produced products upon which a profit could be earned. Marx, in Volume III of Capital retained a similar distinction between investments of money in mere mercantile buying and selling vs investments in industrial production.

Here in this discussion of working class consumption Marx accepts the economists' useage, even embracing Thomas Malthus' assertion (in footnote 12, p. 719) that workers' consumption is not even productive to themselves:

Malthus: "The workman . . . is a productive consumer to the person who employs him, and to the state, but not, strictly speaking, to himself."
Marx: "In reality, the individual consumption of the worker is unproductive even from his own point of view, for it simply reproduces the needy individual . . . "

However, in the very next sentence after the one quoted above, Marx also says "Even its [the working class'] individual consumption is, within limits, a mere aspect of the process of capital's reproduction." The caveat "within limits" refers, of course, to the degree to which workers are able to achieve some degree of life autnomous from capital over and beyond the simple reproduction of their labor power. This was the worry of the capitalists and of their economists: they knew that in periods of upturn and tight labor markets workers were sometimes able to achieve increases in wages from which they alone benefited, at the expense of the capitalists. Marx was well aware of this phenomenon, not only because the economists that he read were aware, but because such increases in wages were occurring around him during upswings in the business cycle and because there was debate among working class strategists about the importance of struggles that won such gains. Marx himself argued against those who thought that such struggles were a waste of time because downturns in the business cycle and rising unemployment would eventually hammer wages back down.

The important point here, I think, has nothing to do with the periodic fluctuations in the wage, and hence variations in the degree to which working class consumption became "unproductive" for their employers, but rather the simple fact that such consumption could, and has, occurred and that therefore, there is something like a counter-concept of "productivity" from our (the workers') point of view! To the degree that we are able to consume in ways that escape or go beyond simply reproducing our labor power, that consumption is "productive" from our point of view, even if "unproductive" from the point of view of capital. I am speaking, obviously, of what I have elsewhere referred to as "self-valorization".

Vocabulary: Their & Ours

Now, as I have also argued elsewhere, such terms as "productive", "unproductive", "self-valorization", as well as their roots (production, valorization) and even "consumption" are all terms derived from the vocabulary of capital, even if we use them in an inverse sense to express our own point of view. We do better, I think, to seek out, and use, a vocabulary untainted by such vile origins and associations. Capital may find it convenient to reduce our various life activities to the single category of "consumption" on the one hand, and to that of "production" etc. on the other hand, but we will find it more enlightening to break out of such reductionism and to contemplate our activities as irreducible and complex variety.

When we prepare food, serve food and eat food, especially in a social setting, we are not merely "consuming" - something the fast-food industry is organized to make quick and efficient, from capital's point of view. On the contrary, we can be engaged in a creative search for (as the ancient Chinese said) the harmonious combination of tastes, shapes, smells, colors, and textures; we can be engaged in the preparation of gifts for our friends and/or families, (in the language of Marx's 1844 Manuscripts) gifts of ourselves objectified in our dishes ; we can be engaged in cooperation and collaboration in that preparation, mutual aid (in the language of Kropotkin); in eating together we can be sharing the pleasures of food laced with love and the benefits of cooperation; our mealtimes can be moments of the sharing of our lives through conversation, stories, body language and facial expressions; eating together may have collective spiritual significance, and so on, and so forth. Let not the economist's reductionism (which is capital's) guide our language and our lives, but rather let us learn from poets and artists how to talk about and appreciate all the dimensions of every human experience, both individual and social.

Labor power & the "transmission of skills"

Rusting Worker During the Great Depression, circa 1935.

The chapter largely comes to an end with a discussion of how the reproduction of workers and their labor power must necessarily include "the transmission and accumulation of skills [especially] from one generation to another." (p. 719) This was already touched upon in chapter 6 on the buying and selling of labor power but here Marx takes the opportunity to illustrate how acutely aware capitalists are of this necessity. He quotes, at some length from one Edmund Potter who argues against allowing cotton mill workers to emmigrate away from English mills during the downturn in employment brought on by the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War. In his arguments he emphasizes that such workers "are the mental and trained power which cannot be replaced for a generation." Better than allowing them to emmigrate, Potter argues, for the state to spend the money necessary to force them locally to accept "some occupation or labour". While, in response, the Times of London mocks Mr. Potter's proposal to "sustain them by alms" and, most likely, "to keep down their discontent by force", it too worries about the loss of skill due to unemployment - "Human machinery will rust under inaction, oil and rub it as you may." - and the possibilities of such workers running "amuck in our great towns."

Over time, the protests of workers against the immiseration brought on by increases in unemployment and the kinds of concerns of capital laid out above led to increasing state intervention in the "the transmission and accumulation of skills [especially] from one generation to another." Whereas from pre-capitalist times well into the capitalist epoch, the transmission of skills was primarily accomplished by institutions such as apprenticeships, the state would gradually become more and more involved in the training of workers for jobs. As workers fought for an achieved (at least to some degree) the exclusion of child labor, the state would, as discussed in commentary on earlier chapters) reincarcerate them in schools of various sorts, schools that the state, generally under the influence of business and its needs, structure as to primarily produce, not enlightenment or the knowledge and skills needed for citizenship and political participation, but labor power of various sorts. There would also, of course, be private schools but in the United States widespread public schooling would become the norm in the 20th Century. Today part of the crisis of the school brought on by both student struggles and capitalist efforts to reoganize its labor force for better control has been a fierce debate over the relative role of private vs public schools. In that debate capitalists have sought to frame the debate, not surprisingly, primarily in terms of which kind of school, private or public, can best prepare young people for the labor market. That is a framing that obviously seeks to exclude other questions that we might well consider more important: such as which kind of school, if either, provides a better terrain for fighting to liberate learning from its subordination to "skill transmission" and the capitalist world of work?



    simple reproduction
    labor fund
    productive consumption
    individual consumption
    unproductive consumption
    skill transmission


1. What is the key assumption that Marx makes that differentiates his concept of simple reproduction from his concept of expanded reproduction?

2. Which of the four forms of alienation that Marx analyses in the 1844 Manuscripts shows up in this chapter?

3. In what ways is the "individual consumption of the worker" an integral and necessary part of capitalism's self-reproduction?

4. To what degree might you argue that Marx's comment that capitalists can "safely leave" individual consumption to the workers still true? To what degree, and in what ways, is it no longer true?

5. Why do you think Marx divides the economy into the two "departments" that he does in his reproduction schemas? Why not more departments, say, the way Leontief's "input-output" tables are constructed with up to a 100 sectors?

6. According to the schema of simple reproduction what criteria must be met for reproduction to be succssful? If you presented this schema to mainstream economists as a two-sector growth model, what forces do you think they would evoke as the means by which that criteria would normally be met?

7. To what degree, and in what way does Marx agree with the classical economists that working class consumption that goes beyond the reproduction of the workers' ability to work is "unproductive"?

8. The commentary offers some alternative ways of talking about "consumption". Suggest some alternative vocabulary for talking about the kinds of things that in capital are regrouped under the rubric "production."

9. How does an elementary and secondary school education differ from more traditional forms of training such as apprenticeships?

10. To what degree do you think elementary and secondary school education actually involves the "transmission of skills"? If you think that degree is not very high, then what do you think is/are the primary purpose(s) of those levels of education in contemporary society?