The “good news” of value theory

Image: Markus Spiske


Surplus value is not only present in all spheres of social work

In this article, we depart from Marx's understanding that “value” in capitalism cannot be confused with concrete work, as done by the classics, although the latter constitutes its substance. The value that gives life to capital is a form of work historically determined and dated by the establishment of salaried work and its corresponding class, the proletariat, that is, by the conversion of concrete work into abstract work.

Therefore, concrete work cannot be the “cause of wealth” of nations, its origin derives from the maximum degree of expenditure of social labor power in general (abstract work) that the capitalist class manages to set in motion. However, value in capitalism is never revealed in its original form (exploitation of labor), it is always the representation of something. In its elementary form it is a commodity. In its full form it is a generally accepted equivalent of money. A warning! In this article the terms surplus-value (used in more recent translations) and surplus-value (used in older translations) appear, both refer to the same thing, the unpaid labor appropriated in the form of money by the owner of the means of production and subsistence .

Generally speaking, the way in which each worker adds value to the economic process is directly related to the amount of his labor time set in motion. In capitalist production, productive work is salaried work that produces both value, directly related to the material conditions of reproduction of the workforce itself, and surplus value, directly related to capitalist consumption and the accumulation process.

Thus, Marx argues in Theories of surplus value, vol. I: “Productive work in the sense of capitalist production is wage labor which, in exchange for the variable part of capital (the part of capital expended in wages), in addition to reproducing this part of capital (or the value of labor power itself) , still produces surplus value for the capitalist. Only by this means is merchandise or money converted into capital, produced as capital. (This is equivalent to saying that wage labor reproduces, increased, the sum of value employed in it or that it returns more work than it receives in the form of wages. Consequently, only labor power is productive that produces greater value than itself) ”.

Therefore, the capitalist's objective is not the simple production of merchandise, it is not the commodity itself. This constitutes only the necessary means from which he can realize his true objective, accumulating abstract wealth, represented in the greatest amount of money he can concentrate. To ask why this is the true purpose of the capitalist is the same as asking about the purpose of the slave owner in the ancient economy or the feudal lord/serf relationship in the feudal period. The only difference between these forms of social relations lies in the nature of value under capitalist conditions and the implications derived therefrom.

In capitalism, merchandise as a synthesis of the production of values, produced from salaried work, due to the high level of productivity it achieves, first with the social division of labor, then with mechanized production, imprints an overwhelming character on the accumulation process, since it makes capital autonomous and, in this way, submits all aspects of human life and nature to its incessant movement of expanded reproduction.

It results in the establishment of an increasingly contradictory society, in terms of the separation between value and work, the consequent expansion of the exclusion of part of the workforce from the formal economic process - and from the material conditions of existence and its reproduction in a way " civilized”, destruction and pollution of the planet's natural resources (in a way that makes the apocalypse a possibility proper to human activity; not a divine intervention or an invasion from space, for example).

Therefore, capitalist production, as so well understood by Marx, is not only commodity production, but is “essentially” the production of surplus value, that is, production via exploitation and expropriation of the product of work, value, from a specific social relationship, salaried work, which seeks to cover up the character of exploitation, from a “legal fiction”, that all men are born free and equal; this in societies considered to be more civilized. In book 1 of The capital, Marx thus relates productive work to surplus value: “[…] The worker produces not for himself, but for capital. It is not enough, therefore, that he produce in general. He has to produce surplus-value. Only the worker who produces surplus value for the capitalist or serves the self-valorization of capital is productive”. In the same paragraph he provides an example of the production of surplus value from outside the sphere of material production:

“[…] we will say that a schoolmaster is a productive worker if he does not limit himself to working the children's heads, but demands work of himself until exhaustion, in order to enrich the boss. That the latter invested his capital in a teaching factory instead of a sausage factory does not alter the relationship in the least. Thus, the concept of productive worker by no means implies only a relationship between activity and useful effect, between worker and product of work, but also a specifically social production relationship, which emerged historically and which attaches to the worker the label of a direct means of production. capital appreciation […]” (MARX, 2017a, p. 587).

Two things are important to highlight from the previous quote. First, that the “productive worker by no means implies only a relationship between activity and useful effect”. The term “useful effect” is very vague, but from the context we can infer that it refers to use values ​​related to the material existence of social subjects, in contrast to non-tangible use values, such as the example. Second, the generalization of the production of surplus value as “a specifically social production relation”. However, it seems that Marx was unaware of the grand discovery he had made. We believe that if he had done so, a part of book 3 of Capital would have a different meaning.

In Book 3, Chapter 16, entitled “Commodity Trading Capital”, Marx correctly describes that merchant capital is that which operates within the sphere of circulation, that the circulation process constitutes a phase of the overall process of reproduction and that, in this, “[…] no value is produced, therefore, neither is surplus value […]” (MARX, 2017b, p. 321). That the sphere of circulation does not produce value is a fact derived from the very notion of economic value, in the sense of value as the creation of a social utility through the transformation of nature into a “second nature” by human labor.

The development of the social division of labor, technical progress and, finally, the mechanization of production make human existence less and less directly related to the direct products offered by nature, without transformation, and more and more dependent on the social utilities produced (economic values ) by a second (highly mechanized) nature. Therefore, the production of value is a task proper to the sphere of production. In capitalism, as the social relations of production are of the salaried type, as the use value of labor power by the capitalist is greater than its exchange value established in the market, surplus value (unpaid work) appears as a direct implication of the capitalist productive process.

However, salaried work is not limited to the sphere of production, it permeates all spheres of the capitalist totality. Since the sphere of circulation is an economic activity in which capitalist social relations also prevail, although it does not produce value, it is realized through the use value of the salaried labor force. In this way, if the workforce is remunerated according to market prices, it receives a value that is only necessary for its reproduction, according to a certain degree of civilization.

Of course, there are jobs and functions that allow a higher salary in relation to an elementary level of subsistence of the worker, but this does not change in any way his condition as a salaried worker. We can conclude, as in Marx's example, that although this economic sphere does not exactly produce value, only because it is realized through wage labor, it does so by producing surplus value. In other words, if value is directly related to the sphere of production, surplus value is directly related to variable capital.

As the latter is present in all spheres of the economic totality, in the form of salaried work, this implies that the use value of variable capital is always greater than its exchange value, which results, therefore, in the production of plus-value. As Marx himself recognizes in the first volume of Theories of surplus value: “[…] Surplus value, whether it appears in the form of profit, ground rent or secondary interest, is nothing more than that part of this work which the owners of material conditions appropriate in exchange for living labor” (MARX, 1980a, p. 64).

Therefore, surplus value is not only present in all spheres of social work, it is produced by the totality of variable capital, regardless of the economic sphere in which a certain proportion of it is employed, provided that it is in the form of wage labor. . That there is a transfer of surplus value between the economic spheres cannot be denied. However, the capitalist does not appropriate the surplus value he has produced, but only an amount that “[…] corresponds to each aliquot of the total capital through the uniform distribution of the total surplus value or the total profit produced in a given interval of time by the total capital of society in all spheres of production as a whole”, as explained by Marx (2017b, p. 193), in book III, by The capital, becomes a problematic inference, given the generalization of the production of surplus value beyond the productive sphere itself.

This discovery in no sense diminishes Marx's importance; however, it generates a problem for his theory of the distribution of surplus value. Its greatest importance lies in the fact that it reveals a new dimension of his theory of surplus value and capitalist accumulation, much more dangerous for human existence itself than the simple observation of capitalism as a mode of production that will develop the productive forces to the maximum.

For Marx, capitalism would be the mode of production responsible for the maximum development of the productive forces, from which a society could finally free itself from its prehistory, marked by social relations of exploitation and expropriation between social subjects and, through of the “expropriation of the expropriators”, a humanly emancipated society, of free and equal men, economically and legally equal. However, the technical-scientific-informational revolution and its results (among them the establishment of a digital-financial-surveillance capitalism), reveal, on the contrary, an unlimited power of exploitation, expropriation and predation, both of the workforce and natural resources, making the extinction of life on earth an increasingly close reality.

What can we do to change this trajectory? When the unions, as a fighting weapon for the working class, were destroyed or completely dismantled, through processes such as generalized outsourcing and the uberization of work; when the State finds itself totally hostage to a technologically financialized global capital and falters in the defense of democracy and social rights.

Over the rubble of the world of work, an unstoppable and at the same time self-destructive capitalism rises. However, this self-destruction does not necessarily imply its replacement by another form of social organization; it can ultimately mean the very annihilation of human life on earth. How much time do we have? Before the start of the great generalized violence between social subjects and between nations, or the exhaustion/total depredation/pollution of natural resources, or even an uncontrollable global pandemic, among other possibilities. Where to start? Here, as a civilization of capitalist reason, are our most pressing questions.

*José Micaelson Lacerda Morais is a professor in the Department of Economics at URCA. Author, among other books, of The last revolution: critique of political economy.


MARX, Carl. Theories of surplus value: critical history of economic thought. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Civilização Brasileira, 1980a, (Vol. 1).

MARX, Carl. Capital: critique of political economy. Book I: the capital production process. 2nd ed. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017a.

MARX, Carl. Capital: critique of political economy. Book III: The Global Process of Capitalist Production. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017b.


See this link for all articles


  • João Cândido and the Revolt of the Whipwhip revolt 23/06/2024 By PETRÔNIO DOMINGUES: In the current context, in which there is so much discussion about State reparations for the black population, the name of João Cândido cannot be forgotten
  • Fear and HopeJoao_Carlos_Salles 24/06/2024 By JOÃO CARLOS SALLES: Against the destruction of the public university
  • The collapse of Zionismfree palestine 80 23/06/2024 By ILAN PAPPÉ: Whether people welcome the idea or fear it, Israel's collapse has become predictable. This possibility should inform the long-term conversation about the future of the region
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Return to the path of hopelate afternoon 21/06/2024 By JUAREZ GUIMARÃES & MARILANE TEIXEIRA: Five initiatives that can allow the Brazilian left and center-left to resume dialogue with the majority hope of Brazilians
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Theological manual of neoliberal neo-PentecostalismJesus saves 22/06/2024 By LEONARDO SACRAMENTO: Theology has become coaching or encouraging disputes between workers in the world of work
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones