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Marx After Growth #1 An Introduction to Marx’s Critique: Sean O'Brien

An Introduction to Marx’s Critique

This four-part lecture series asks what the Marxian critique of political economy can tell us about the twenty-first century, an historical moment marked by deindustrialization, economic stagnation, growing labour superfluity, and a political landscape in which the figure of the worker no longer occupies the central space it once did. In a sense, then, we’re quite far from the world in which Marx lived and wrote, a world defined by the development of large-scale industry, a growing industrial working class concentrated in factories, and the rising power of the workers’ movement. Since then, much has changed economically and politically, a fact made most visible perhaps in the collapse of actually existing socialism. But if the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in the 1990s the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of Western liberal democracy—exemplified for Fukuyama in the end of the cold war and the globalization of the free market—recent decades have witnessed not only a series of devastating economic crises, but also a surge of popular interest in Marx and a renewed scholarly interest in the work of Marxist theory. And this return to Marx gives Humanities students and scholars a chance to read Marx’s work with fresh eyes.

The series will open with an overview of Marx’s method and the some of the core categories of his critique—about which more below—before turning to consider theories of real abstraction, questions of geopolitical economy and the history of the capitalist class relation. We’ll explore the relationship between cycles of accumulation and cycles of struggle, concepts such as impersonal compulsion and form-determination, and the difference between what has been called traditional or orthodox Marxism and a more esoteric reading of Marx that, in the Anglo-American sphere, has come to be known as value-form theory.

The idea behind the series is basically to offer a public-facing, para-academic introduction to Marx for Humanities students and scholars working in one facet or another of contemporary studies who might be familiar with Marxist literary or aesthetic theory but haven’t yet had a chance to actually engage much with Marx himself and the critique of political economy in particular. And so, over the course of the lectures, we’ll tackle some pressing questions for people who work and study in the Humanities and who are interested in a Marxism for the twenty-first century. For instance, what does the end of growth mean for the future of work? How should we think about the relationship between production and circulation, or the regularity of financial crisis? How might Marx’s concept of a surplus population inform theories of racial blackness and antiblack racism? What insights might Marx’s critique of value offer the feminist critique of social reproduction? What does the decline of the workers’ movement imply for an anti-capitalist politics today?

To give you a sense of how I’ve come to Marx, I grew up in a former mining town in Atlantic Canada. The town is called Glace Bay, and it sits on the East coast of Cape Breton Island in the province of Nova Scotia. Cape Breton has come to be known largely for its natural beauty through the promotional work of its tourism industry in an attempt to fill the considerable gap left by the flight of manufacture and extractive trades, and its industrial history is, I think, instructive here. The island is now infamous for having the highest rates of unemployment and youth outward migration in Canada. But it was once a booming industrial centre, particularly in mining and steel production, during the long period of industrial expansion under British and then US hegemony.[1] Indeed, the fate of the Atlantic Canadian economy at the end of the twentieth century was inexorably tied to the hegemonic cycles of capital accumulation and followed a global wave of deindustrialization as the capitalist world-system underwent a sweeping process of financialization after 1973.

In the early twentieth century, the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation was the largest employer in Canada. In this image, which you may have seen on the poster for this first lecture, you can see the Sydney Steel Plant, which used coal to create coke to fuel the blast furnaces for smelting iron ore. By Friday 13th, 1967—a day that came to be known locally as “Black Friday”—Hawker Siddeley Canada was struggling to keep afloat and announced it would be closing the Sydney Steel Plant. Both the steel and coal industries continued under government ownership, but by the early 1990s, both industries were in trouble again and were permanently closed by the end of 2001.[2]

The island also used to be home to a militant labour movement that lives on primarily through its memorialization in observances such as Davis Day, an annual day of remembrance that commemorates the life of William Davis, a striking miner gunned down by police during a rally near New Waterford in 1925. The protest at which Davis was shot to death erupted in response to a decision by the mining company, then called British Empire Steel and Coal Company, to shut off drinking water and electrical power to the town of New Waterford following a series of escalating miners’ strikes. At the time, nearly a quarter of Canada’s military was in Cape Breton to snuff out labour militancy. The final throes of this militant labour movement saw union members chain themselves to VIA Rail train carriages after the Crown corporation decided to terminate its rail service to Cape Breton in the 1990s, which labour leaders feared would further separate the population from the national economy and put the final nail in the coffin of industrial employment on the island.[3]

Sure enough, not long after the train whistles fell silent, the Cape Breton Development Corporation that had taken over the mines in 1968 closed its doors for good following the decommissioning of all its mines in 2001, and the company’s former headquarters in Glace Bay became a call centre.[4] Service work is now one of the biggest sectors of employment on the island. Deindustrialization has also led to youth outward migration. Vast numbers of young people from Cape Breton Island now work in and around the oil sands project in Alberta.[5] Sydney, the largest city on the island, had a population of over 30,000 in the decades following World War II. That number began to drop in the 1970s and by the turn of the new millennium had declined by a third. The island basically exhibits all the typical signs of rustbelt degradation: economic stagnation, population loss, and urban decay (though there have been a number of revitalization projects to varying degrees of success). And like many other rural and post-industrial spaces in North America, an opioid epidemic of so-called “hillbilly heroin’ swept across the island in the early years of the new millennium and continues to take its toll on communities.

Ashley McKenzie’s debut film Werewolf from 2016 really captures this social history of the present in its story about Blaise and Nessa, two recovering addicts scraping by in a largely informal economy somewhere between unemployment and service work, which are the only options on offer in the post-industrial region where economic growth has been especially slow and good work hard to find. This film is relevant here for several reasons: its recursive narrative structure—beginning and ending with Blaise’s suicide—suggests a sense of impasse rather than development or growth; its oblique close ups only affirm this sense of suffocating constriction; their exclusion from the wage indicates they are superfluous to the productive process; its focus on the gender politics of the couple form represents this situation in terms of reproductive crisis; and its setting against the backdrop of a former site of economic and political dynamism reminds us that this is a world-historical scenario.

Introduction to the Marxian critique of Political Economy:

Before we get dug in, it’s also useful, I think, to point out what this lecture series isn’t going to do. It’s not, for instance, a kind of Marxism 101. It’s also not an introduction to or reading guide for Capital, many of which already exist. If you’re looking for this sort of thing, I’d recommend Michael Heinrich’s Introduction to the Three Volumes of Capital. David Harvey’s is the more popular reading guide, and I use an image from it below, but as critics have pointed out, he gets some things very wrong in those companion books, particularly on the category of abstract labour which really is fundamental to Marx’s critique. Finally, I’m not going to offer a survey of contemporary Marxisms, though I will draw on work from a number of schools including Political Marxism, World-Systems Theory, Marxist Feminism and the dissident Marxisms of communisation theory and the German ‘new reading of Marx’.

A Note on Method:

The subtitle of Capital is “A Critique of Political Economy” and this word ‘critique’ needs to be emphasised. Political economy is the historical term for what we now call economics, and this is the object of Marx’s critique. Marx sets out not simply to question some of the theories or conclusions of political economy, but to criticize the very foundations of political economy and class relations. It’s also important to note that Marx analyses the capitalist mode of production at what he describes as its ‘ideal average’. In other words, while Marx is very much aware of the fact that capitalism only ever exists in concrete historical forms, his analysis unfolds at an abstract level so as to examine the various elements of capitalism that must be present in any moment in its historical development.

Marx’s own method also needs to be distinguished from the traditional or orthodox Marxism that dominated for much of the twentieth century and was largely a result of a series of simplifications of Marx’s ideas, first by Engels and then by Kautsky and Lenin, which did away with much of the critique of political economy in favour of a ‘world-view’ Marxism or ‘scientific socialism’. In contrast with the ideas of Marx’s mature works, which include texts such as A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the Grundrisse notebooks and the three volumes of Capital, this traditional Marxism emphasised the ideas found in the Communist Manifesto, co-written with Engels, and especially those from Engel’s own Anti-Dühring. Much of the now quite rightly disparaged ideas of traditional Marxism can be traced to these texts, including the notion of false consciousness, a view of history unfolding in stages, the inevitability of communist revolution and so on. But there are further important distinctions to be drawn between the orthodox approach and Marx’s own understanding of categories such as labour, the state, and especially the value-form, all of which contribute to a very different conception of communism.

The lectures will draw on developments in the Marxian critique of value, including the theory of ‘systematic dialectic’ associated most immediately with Chris Arthur, which rejects historicist interpretations of Marx in favour of a purely logical one that understands capital as a ‘system’ which ‘comprises a set of categories expressing the forms and relations embedded within the totality, its “moments”’ (1998: 448), as Arthur writes, although I’ll place much more emphasis on the category of abstract labour in Marx’s critique, the importance of which Arthur downplays in his ‘new dialectic’. Finally, while Arthur’s totality is a dynamic one, in other words, a moving totality, it is also a synchronic model of capital. Arthur writes:

Since all ‘moments’ of the whole exist synchronically all movement must pertain to their reciprocal support and development. While this motion implies that moments become effective successively, the movement winds back into itself to form a circuit of reproduction of these moments by each other (1998: 448).

This emphasis on the reproduction will prove crucial for an account of the class relation, but capital as a moving totality is not only a synchronic system, as Marx insists in the culminating chapter of Capital, where he outlines what he calls ‘the general law of capitalist accumulation’, according to which capital tends, over time, to undermine the very conditions of its own reproduction.

Marx’s Categories:

Marx famously opens the first volume of Capital with the statement that ‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity’ (1990: 125). So, what’s a commodity? Well, to start with, a commodity is a product or service that’s bought and sold on the market on the basis that it satisfies someone’s needs or wants. This useful characteristic of the commodity Marx calls its use-value. Simply put, ‘The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value’ (1990: 126). You might buy a cup so that you can drink from it or a bed in order to sleep in it.

Use-value is therefore comprised of a commodity’s material characteristics—the shape and solidity of the cup, for instance, which allows it to hold and carry liquid—and so is a matter of its qualitative properties. Use-values, then, ‘constitute the material content of wealth’ in all societies, as Marx writes, ‘whatever its social form may be. In the form of society to be considered here they are also the material bearers of exchange value’ (1990: 126). In other words, a cup is a cup, whether it was made by a medieval craftsman or mass produced in a factory. But where its social form in a feudal economy might be a tribute or a tithe, in a capitalist economy it is a commodity, which has both a use-value and an exchange-value.

A commodity’s exchange-value is its quantitative aspect. That is, what you can trade it for on the market. For one cup, perhaps you can get a pair of socks. The exchange-value of a cup is thus a pair of socks, and vice versa. Or four knives. Or a hat. A commodity has many exchange-values. There’s an equivalence here between a cup, a pair of socks, four knives and a hat, insofar as they are all interchangeable amounts of something else. In other words, their exchange value must be a ‘form of appearance’, as Marx says, ‘of a content distinguishable from it’ (1990: 127). What is this something else, this ‘third thing’’ (1990: 127) as Marx calls it, that the cup and the hat have in common?

It cannot be a matter of their material properties, since it is precisely the abstraction from use-value that renders these objects exchangeable, an abstraction that occurs at the moment of exchange. What’s left when we abstract from the useful, concrete, material properties of a commodity? What’s left is that they are products of human labour, and not particular, concrete acts of labour—cup making or hat stitching—but ‘human labour in the abstract’, in Marx’s words (1990: 128). Whenever we abstract from the use-values of commodities in the act of exchange, Marx writes:

There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labour, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values (1990: 128).

The value of a commodity is not the measure of an individual’s concrete, particular labour, but of ‘human labour in the abstract’, which is to say a social average, or what Marx calls socially necessary labour time, which is the average time socially necessary to produce a given commodity.

Labour in a capitalist economy therefore has a dual character. It is both concrete labour, or the particular form of labour that produces a cup, for instance, and abstract labour, or labour abstracted from its concrete particulars in the act of exchange. Marx notes that he was ‘the first to point out and examine critically this twofold nature of the labour contained in commodities’, and states that ‘this point is crucial to an understanding of political economy’ (1990: 132). This category of abstract labour is crucial on several levels: it is distinct from the concrete particular activity of a given form of useful labour; it is a purely social determination, abstracted from the material properties of a commodity’s use-value; its existence is peculiar to capitalist society; and it is the source of value in a capitalist economy.

What is value? To explain this mysterious thing called value, Marx famously uses the example of 20 yards of linen, which for purposes of explication he says are worth one coat. Here, we are working with two commodities in isolation, linen and a coat, and it’s entirely arbitrary or accidental which commodities we use for this thought experiment. So, if 20 yards of linen are worth one coat, then the value of the linen is expressed in the form of a coat. The linen now has a ‘value-form’ distinct from its physical form as linen. The coat ‘represents’ the value of the linen, which exists only as a relation between the two commodities: Marx writes, ‘in the expression of value of the linen the coat represents a supra-natural property: their value, which is something purely social’ (1990: 149).

In this simple expression of the value-relation there is a relative form, the linen, and an equivalent form, the coat. In other words, the relative form of value, the linen, is valued in relation to the coat, which is therefore the equivalent form of value in this equation. The inverse is also true. If we then expand this equation, to consider for instance that 20 yards of linen are not only worth one coat, but also ten pounds of tea and two ounces of gold, we now have an expanded form of value, which is nothing other than many simple forms of value considered together. If we invert this string of equations into the general form of value, we can say that a coat, ten pounds of tea and two ounces of gold are all worth the same amount, represented here by the 20 yards of linen, which has now assumed the form of a ‘general equivalent’. And ‘by social custom’, Marx argues, the money-form of value comes to assume the role of a ‘universal equivalent’ (1990: 162-63), here represented by the two ounces of gold. In this manner, Marx is able to solve the mystery of how it is that things which are entirely different from each other in their material properties can somehow come to be exchanged as equals on the market.

Yet there remains something rather strange about a commodity. On the one hand, a commodity—a table, for instance—is a thing with material properties and subjective utility. It is made of wood, and there is a demand for it because it is useful to its owner to eat or write upon, or perhaps to burn as firewood. In this, its use-value, the table is ‘an extremely obvious or trivial thing’, as Marx writes, ‘an ordinary, sensuous thing’ (1990: 163), perceptible to the senses and entirely lacking in mystery. ‘But as soon as it emerges as a commodity’, Marx continues, ‘it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas’ (1990: 163).

What could Marx possibly mean by this? A table, standing on its head, sprouting grotesque ideas from a wooden brain? This rather gothic poetic passage is in fact a dramatic and suggestive way of gesturing to what Marx calls the ‘mystical’ or ‘enigmatic character’ of the commodity form, which:

arises from this form itself. The equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labour as values; the measure of the expenditure of human labour-power by its duration takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour; and finally the relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labours are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour. The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves (1990: 164-65).

What we find in capitalist society is a world in which relations between people are mediated by things: in other words, you have social relations between things, and material relations between people. And it is in this section on ‘The Fetish-Character of the Commodity and its Secret’ that Marx explains that what distinguishes his critical approach is attention to the form of value:

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within this form. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These forms, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself (1990: 173-75).

General laws and formulas:

Ok, let’s now consider how these categories interact synchronically and diachronically. ‘The capitalist production process,’ Marx writes, ‘is essentially, and at the same time, a process of accumulation’ (1991: 324). Capital accumulation refers to the process whereby profits are reinvested in order to increase the monetary value of the initial capital, thereby increasing the total sum of capital. This is what Marx calls ‘the general formula for capital’ (1990: 257), or M-C-M’, where M stands for money, C for commodities, and M’ for money plus the surplus value generated in the transformation of money into commodities and back into money.

Marx distinguishes the terminal movement of selling commodities in order to buy other commodities with the interminable process of transforming money into commodities for the purposes of generating surplus value:

The simple circulation of commodities—selling in order to buy—is a means to a final goal which lies outside circulation, namely the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of needs. As against this, the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself, for the valorization of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The movement of capital is therefore limitless (1990: 253).

The general formula for capital therefore describes the movement of self-valorizing value, whereby monetary value congeals in the commodity-form only on the condition that it be realized at a profit, which distinguishes the capitalist mode of production from simple commodity production. As Marx says, ‘the act of selling in order to buy finds its measure and its goal…in a process which lies outside it, namely consumption, the satisfaction of definite needs. But in buying in order to sell, on the contrary, the end and the beginning are the same, money or exchange value and this very fact makes the movement an endless one’ (1990: 252).

Unlike simple commodity circulation, which ‘reaches its conclusion when the money brought in by the sale of one commodity is withdrawn again by the purchase of another’, when engaging in M-C-M’, the capitalist ‘releases the money, but only with the cunning intention of getting it back again. The money therefore is not spent, it is merely advanced’ (1990: 249-50). Money, or rather the capital form of value, therefore appears as an autonomous entity that exists independent of human actors, an automatic subject that moves of its own volition:

In simple circulation, the value of commodities attained at the most a form independent of their use-values, i.e. the form of money. But now, in the circulation M-C-M, value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which money and commodities are both mere forms (1990: 256).

But how is it that capital can come to appear as an automatic subject, as Marx describes it? Marx lays out this problematic in terms of ‘capital personified’:

As the conscious bearer of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist… The objective content of the circulation we have been discussing—the valorization of value—is his subjective purpose, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract is the sole driving force behind his operations that he functions as a capitalist, i.e. as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist; nor must the profit on any single transaction. His aim is rather the unceasing movement of profit-making (1990: 254).

The late Moishe Postone is perhaps the preeminent theorist of value as a ‘self-moving substance’ or ‘automatic subject’, arguing that ‘the historical Subject analyzed by Marx consists of objectified relations, the subjective-objective categorial forms characteristic of capitalism, whose “substance” is abstract labor, that is, the specific character of labor as a socially mediating activity in capitalism. Marx’s Subject…then, is abstract and cannot be identified with any social actors’ (1993: 79). And yet, as Werner Bonefeld (2004: 113) has argued, in their tendency to read Capital as a purely logical presentation of capitalist categories, value-theoretical approaches such as Postone’s risk eliding the fact that the production of surplus value depends on the historical emergence and reproduction of a relation of class antagonism – an antagonism based on the separation of the labourer from the means of subsistence through what’s called proletarianisation.

Proletarianisation describes the process whereby the peasantry become formally ‘free’ to sell their labour through their forcible release from serfdom. Marx describes this state of affairs as the ‘separation of labour, capital and landed property’ (1978: 71) in the 1844 manuscripts, and as ‘the separation of free labour from the objective conditions of its realization’ in the Grundrisse (1993: 471), and argues in Capital that such separation ‘is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production’ (1990: 273). This process of separation, then—which deprives workers of the means of subsistence and renders them radically dependent on wage labour for survival—establishes the historical specificity of the modern proletariat and constitutes its functional distinction from that of earlier exploited classes.

But it is equally the case that this condition of separation must be reaffirmed at every moment in order for the accumulation of capital to proceed. In other words, the capitalist and the labourer must meet time and again in the marketplace, as each reproduces the other through their encounter. This is what Marx calls the reproduction of the class relation. Capital accumulation therefore constitutes a historically distinct mode of social reproduction, which is the reproduction of capital as a social relation. As Marx writes in the Grundrisse, ‘the result of the process of production and realization is, above all, the reproduction and new production of the relation of capital and labour itself, of capitalist and worker’ (1993: 458). This diagram, from the afterword to the first issue of endnotes, shows what is called in the French translation of Capital the ‘double moulinet’, or double millstone. The reproduction of capital covers the production and circulation of capital, or what we discussed above as the general formula for capital, and the other sphere covers the reproduction of labour power.[6]

The worker and the capitalist meet in the marketplace, and the worker exchanges her labour for a wage in the capitalist production process, and then purchases the commodities necessary for her reproduction on the marketplace before returning to work. This is how each pole of the capital-labour relation reproduces the other pole: labour reproduces capital, and capital reproduces labour. And yet, as Marx famously argues, the very movement by which capital accumulates compromises the conditions of its own reproduction. Marx writes, ‘capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth’ (1993: 706).

Marx calls this process the ‘general law of capitalist accumulation,’ which charts the general movement of constant over variable capital as it is coded into the most basic movement of capital over time:

The greater social wealth, the functioning of capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and therefore also the greater the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productivity of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, also develop the labour-power at its disposal. The relative mass of industrial reserve army thus increases with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour-army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to the amount of torture it has to undergo in the form of labour. The more extensive, finally, the pauperized sections of the working class and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation (1990: 798).

Capital works, on the one hand, to create as much available labour power as possible, and, on the other, to steadily decrease the amount of socially necessary labour time. This is Marx’s theory of crisis, according to which rising productivity leads to diminishing rates of accumulation and ever-slacker labour markets. But note here, again, how capital appears to act as an independent subject, how its action takes place before anyone even shows up for work.

Logically speaking, capital recalibrates the conditions for accumulation before exploitation (as a technical feature of accumulation) even begins. Through the real subsumption of labour, capital reduces the amount of labour time that is socially necessary for production. Decreasing socially necessary labour time entails what Marx calls a ‘rising organic composition’ of capital, which indexes ‘the progressive decline in the variable capital in relation to the constant capital’ (1991: 318). The organic composition of capital measures the relation between the amount and value of constant capital, or plant and machinery, and variable capital, or waged labour, in the production process. A rising organic composition means an increase in constant over variable capital, or a displacement of necessary labour by the means of production. In other words, capital accumulation proceeds with more hardware and software relative to the number of workers on the job.

The Marxian concept of subsumption has proven central to the larger problem of tracking accumulation logically and historically. Spatial readings of subsumption, in particular—as capitalist expansion from the factory into previously separate or semi-autonomous spheres of social life—have been especially influential in recent decades, particularly in the work of Italian post-Marxists. But subsumption is a contested term in Marxist theory. Marx inherits the concept of subsumption from the German Idealists, for whom it denotes the process of cognitive abstraction through which the particular is brought into subordinate relation with the universal.[7] For Marx, however, the material act of exchange presupposes an abstract universal—value—to which particular concrete labour processes are subsumed. According to Marx, already existing labour processes are first formally subsumed in their pre-capitalist forms through the introduction of the wage. To produce surplus value under such conditions, capital must lengthen the working day beyond what is necessary for the reproduction of labour power, producing what Marx calls absolute surplus value. Driven by competition and limits to the working day, capital increases the productivity of labour via technological ratcheting, reducing the amount of socially necessary labour relative to surplus labour, producing what Marx calls relative surplus value. Real subsumption for Marx then describes the ‘form-determination’ of the capital-labour relation in anticipation of value.[8]

It’s not only that concrete labour is negated in the abstracting process by which labour becomes abstract labour measured as socially necessary labour time. Through the domination of the money form and the mediations of the exchange relation labour becomes a form of value for capital, internal to its reproductive movement. What happens when capital reaches a level of development at which labour, expelled from production, is unable to find its way back into the production process?

The Class Relation:

The periodization of capital accumulation that I’ll use in these lectures emphasises the production of relative surplus value and structural shifts in the reproduction of the capitalist class relation, drawing in part on the work of the French ultraleft collective Théorie Communiste (TC) and its critical reception in the Anglophone communisation journals Endnotes and SIC. For TC, the development of the productive forces entails ‘the integration of the reproduction of labour-power in the cycle of capital’ (2005), and so changes the nature of the opposition between capital and labour such that the two increasingly relate to each other internally, and it is this process of integration that grants the capital-labour relation its periodicity. The integration of proletarian reproduction into the cycle of capital accumulation, TC argues, gives rise to a cycle of struggles in which proletarian antagonism takes the form of the affirmation of labour, which was to be liberated and socialised as the basis of communist society.

An essay on the history of the capitalist class relation published in SIC argues that, by ‘using TC’s analysis as a point of critical departure, it might be possible to establish a periodisation of the class relation by distinguishing phases of integration of the circuits of reproduction of capital and the proletariat’ (2011: 173). In this analysis, the capital-labour relation undergoes a decisive restructuring in the early 1970s, opening onto a new period in the history of capital in which labour increasingly finds itself expelled from the cycle of capital accumulation. As Endnotes writes, ‘it is no longer a reciprocal and cyclical relation in which the proletariat reproduces capital, and capital reproduces the proletariat. Rather, the proletariat increasingly becomes that which is produced by capital without producing capital’ (2010: 17). The long arc of capital accumulation is therefore characterized by a transition from integration to expulsion, as workers are first integrated into and then expelled from the production process en masse. This movement from integration to expulsion grounds Marx’s own account of the logical and historical trajectory of capital accumulation.

Noting that capital’s ability to absorb labour inputs contracts over time, Marx argues that capital accumulation ‘constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of labourers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population’ (1990: 783). We’ll come back to this in final lecture on the history of the capitalist class relation, and we’ll think in detail there about cycles of accumulation and cycles of struggle, and of the relationships between the production of superfluity and the ascriptive process of racialisation. But what I want to finish on here is a broader point about models of periodisation that I’ll draw on throughout the lectures.

If you look at the periodising models that have proven influential in Humanities scholarship in recent years, you’ll find that many of them rely on narratives of expansion and growth. This is true of any number of approaches that go under the headings of neoliberalisation, globalization, financialisation and post-Fordism, each of which suggest a renewal of economic dynamism in the years that followed the economic restructuring of the 1970s (though this isn’t always the case). In post-Marxist thought, for instance, the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism signals a period of capitalist expansion, since from this point of view all forms of social activity are now productive for capital. This theory of a ‘social factory’ has been especially influential in the Humanities.

Other Marxist critics, however, have characterized capital accumulation in the period following the postwar ‘Golden Age’ in terms of pervasive economic decline. Most notable here is perhaps the economic historian Robert Brenner and his description of the ‘transition from long boom to long downturn’ (2005: 267). For Brenner, inter-capitalist competition tends to produce global overproduction and overcapacity, exerting downward pressure on prices and lowering returns on capital investments. As a result, profitability declines, which in turn places downward pressure on wages and triggers rising unemployment rates.

In Brenner’s account, inter-capitalist competition between the US, Germany and Japan reached a point of saturation in the early 1970s, ushering in a protracted period of economic stagnation and contraction in the advanced capitalist countries. As a result, ‘Between 1973 and the present, economic performance in the US, western Europe, and Japan has, by every standard macroeconomic indicator, deteriorated, business cycle by business cycle, decade by decade’ (2009: 6). Brenner reminds us that capitalists are subject to competitive constraints that compel them to innovate, accumulate and move from line to line in search of the highest returns, but over time these same constraints tend to trap firms in stagnant lines, placing downward pressure on extant profit rates, and his account of the long downturn will be important in the lectures that follow.



[1] For an account of these industries in Cape Breton through the Marxian framework of combined and uneven development, see David Frank, “The Cape Breton Coal Industry and the Rise and Fall of the British Empire Steel Corporation,” Acadiensis 7, no. 1 (1977): 3-34.

[2] For a history of the decline of steel production in Sydney, see Lachlan MacKinnon, “Deindustrialization on the Periphery: An Oral History of Sydney Steel, 1945-2001” (PhD diss., Concordia University, 2016).

[3] For a detailed study of labour militancy in Cape Breton in the early twentieth century, see Michael Earle, “Radicalism in Decline: Labour and Politics in Industrial Cape Breton, 1930-1950” (PhD diss., Dalhousie University, 1990). For an analysis of the radical politics of the coalminers’ union in Nova Scotia in the 1930s, see Michael Earle, “The Coalminers and Their ‘Red’ Union: The Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia, 1932-1936,” Labour/Le Travail22 (1988): 99-137.

[4] Terry Gibbs and Garry Leech have done significant work to tie the decline of the coal industry in Cape Breton to the rise of call centres throughout the postindustrial region of the island. See Terry Gibbs and Garry Leech, The Failure of Global Capitalism: From Cape Breton to Columbia and Beyond (Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press, 2009).

[5] For a discussion of labour migration from Cape Breton to the oil sands of Alberta, see Nelson Ferguson, “From Coal Pits to Tar Sands: Labour Migration between an Atlantic Canadian Region and the Athabasca Oil Sands,” Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society 17 and 18 (2011): 106-118.

[6] Marx uses the term Zwickmühle in the original German, taken from the thousand-year-old game of Mill, sometimes called Nine Men’s Norris. For some reason, the term is entirely absent from the English translation—appearing instead as ‘alternating rhythm’—and is more accurately translated as the “double mill,” which refers to a grave dilemma, being caught in a trap or an iron grip.

[7] For Kant (2007), subsumption is a cognitive process that organizes conceptual experience according to categorical truths, whereas for Hegel (2008) the universal resides in and is mediated by the particular. For an extended critical appraisal of the category of subsumption as it figures as a periodizing model in various strands of Marxian thought, see Endnotes, ‘The History of Subsumption’ (2010).

[8] The idea that value ‘form-determines’ the labour process derives from Marx’s writings on the capitalist value-form. In Theories of Surplus Value, Marx uses the German term Formbestimmtheit (‘form-determination’ or ‘determination of form’) to describe the process by which money or commodities become forms of value for capital (1910: 531). Diane Elson develops a cogent account of how value form-determines labour in her essay, ‘The Value Theory of Labour,’ where she writes, ‘The argument of Capital, I, goes on to show the dominance of the universal equivalent, the money form of value, over other commodities, and how this domination is expressed in the self-expansion of the money form of value i.e. in the capital form of value. Further it shows that the domination of the capital form of value is not confined to labour ‘fixed’ in products, it extends to the immediate process of production itself, and to the reproduction of that process. The real subsumption of labour as a form of capital…is a developed form of the real subsumption of other aspects of labour as expressions of abstract labour in the universal equivalent, the money form of value’ (2015: 165-166). This concept of form-determination and its relationship to reproduction will be important in later lectures.


Works Cited:

Arthur, Chris. ‘Systematic Dialectic’. Science & Society 62.3 (1998): 447-459.

Bonefeld, Werner. ‘On Postone’s Courageous but Unsuccessful Attempt to Banish the Class Antagonism from the Critique of Political Economy’. Historical Materialism 12.3 (2004): 103-124.

Brenner, Robert. ‘What Is Good for Goldman Sachs Is Good for America: The Origins of the Current Crisis’. La economía de la turbulencia global. Trans. Juan Mari Madariaga. Madrid: Akal, 2009. Available online in English-language typescript. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/issr/cstch/papers/BrennerCrisisTodayOctober2009.pdf.

Earle, Michael. ‘Radicalism in Decline: Labour and Politics in Industrial Cape Breton, 1930-1950’. PhD diss., Dalhousie University, 1990.

---. ‘The Coalminers and Their ‘Red’ Union: The Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia, 1932-1936’. Labour/Le Travail22 (1988): 99-137.

Elson, Diane. ‘The Value Theory of Labour’, in Diane Elson ed., Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism. New York: Verso, 2015. 115-180.

Endnotes. ‘Crisis in the Class Relation’. Endnotes 2 (2010): 2-19.

Endnotes. ‘The History of Subsumption’. Endnotes 2: (2010): 130-153.

Ferguson, Nelson. ‘From Coal Pits to Tar Sands: Labour Migration between an Atlantic Canadian Region and the Athabasca Oil Sands’. Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society 17 and 18 (2011): 106-118.

Frank, David. ‘The Cape Breton Coal Industry and the Rise and Fall of the British Empire Steel Corporation’. Acadiensis 7, no. 1 (1977): 3-34.

Gibbs, Terry, and Garry Leech. The Failure of Global Capitalism: From Cape Breton to Columbia and Beyond. Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press, 2009.

Hegel, G.W.F. Lectures on Logic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Penguin, 2007.

MacKinnon, Lachlan. ‘Deindustrialization on the Periphery: An Oral History of Sydney Steel, 1945-2001’. PhD diss., Concordia University, 2016.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1990.

---. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 2. Trans. D. Fernbach. New York: Penguin, 1992.

---. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3. Trans D. Fernbach. New York: Penguin, 1991.

---. ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844’. Trans. Martin Milligan. In The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978. 66-125.

---. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin, 1993.

---. Theorien uber den Mehrwert, Vol. 3. Stuttgart: J.H.W. Dietz Nachf, 1910.

Postone, Moishe. Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Screamin’ Alice. ‘On the Periodisation of the Capitalist Class Relation’, SIC 1 (2011): 173.

Théorie Communiste. ‘Theorié Communiste Responds’. Aufheben 13 (2005).


Sean O’Brien is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. His research has appeared in Cultural CritiqueDiscourseScience Fiction Studies, and Bloomsbury’s Companion to Marx, and is forthcoming in Crossings. He is co-editor of ‘Demos: We Have Never Been Democratic’, a special issue of the visual culture journal Public based on work developed during the 2015 Banff Research in Culture residency. His criticism has also appeared in a number of electronic journals and literary magazines, including GUTS MagazineThe Capilano ReviewVector, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Current projects include a collaborative book, Anti-Social Reproduction, and a monograph, Precarity and the Historicity of the Present: American Culture from Boom to Crisis.


This publication is in Copyright. Sean O'Brien, 2020.

The moral right of the author has been asserted. However, the Hythe is an open-access journal and we welcome the use of all materials on it for educational and creative workshop purposes.



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