Marxist economic theory: an introduction



Author's preface to the newly edited book.

In his masterpiece, Capital, Marx started from the analysis of the commodity. In the book that the reader now has in his hands, of an introductory character to the greatest work of the German thinker, we start from the immediate experience of the worker to make Marxist concepts more accessible. Marx's procedure was neither arbitrary nor due to chance: the age of capital is characterized by the generalized production of commodities.

The commodity is a phenomenal form of material production; capital is the social relation corresponding to that form when it becomes preponderant. When this happens, an increment is produced in relation to the original value – a surplus value – through the exploitation (use) of the labor force, itself transformed into a commodity.

Several authors have postulated that commercial exchange is part of “human nature”, deducing from this premise the naturalness of seeking and obtaining profit, a transmuted form of surplus value. A conclusion with two assumptions: (a) the non-historical consideration of exchange; (b) the elimination of the specific character of exchange in society dominated by capital, which includes the trade (exchange) of labor power. In a letter to Friedrich Engels, Marx summarized the theoretical innovation of his main work, The capital: “What is best in my book is: (1) (and it is on this that the whole understanding of the facts rests) to underline, from the first chapter, the double character of the work according to whether it is expressed as use value or as exchange value; (2) the analysis of surplus value, regardless of its particular forms: profit, interest, land rent, etc”.

The generalized production of commodities, in which all useful things take on a mercantile form, required as a historical basis that the workforce itself should be one of them.

The capitalist relationship presupposes the separation between workers and ownership of the conditions for carrying out work. […] The process that creates the capitalist relationship can only be the process of separation between the worker and the ownership of the conditions for carrying out his work, a process that, on the one hand, transforms the social means of subsistence and production into capital. and, on the other hand, it converts the direct producers into wage workers.

Capitalist society is one in which force is generally transformed into merchandise. The secret of capitalist production is the production of surplus value, surplus value, the basis of capitalist profit, obtained in the production process through the use of the commodity labor power, whose specific quality consists in being the only commodity that creates new value. , values ​​higher than those necessary to produce and reproduce it. The general transformation of labor power into a commodity is specific to capitalism; value as an economic concept or abstraction is also specific to this social regime. Capital designates measured value as foreign labor coagulated in the form of money or commodities, including labor power itself. Capital is the value susceptible of producing surplus value; it “is not a thing, but a certain social relation of production, which belongs to a certain historico-social formation, is represented in a thing and gives it a specifically social character”.

Marx wrote that commodity production can only be the normal and dominant form of production when it takes place within the framework of capitalist production. In its universal and absolute form, it is capitalist commodity production; for “it is only when wage labor constitutes its basis that commodity production imposes itself on the whole of society”. “Capital”, in turn, “is dead labor, which, like a vampire, lives only by sucking in living labor, and lives all the more the more living labor it sucks in”. Capital comes in the form of land, money, stores, machinery or credit. The farmer, the merchant, the industrialist and the banker, owners of the capital, control the production process, hire or fire workers, according to their convenience. Workers, who own nothing but their labor power, sell it in exchange for a wage, as they have no other way out to survive.

What is the extraction of surplus value based on, the basis of profit that drives capitalist society? In the fact that what the worker sells to the capitalist, in exchange for wages, is not his work, but his labor power: “The use value that the worker has to offer the offer to others, is not embodied in a product, does not exist outside it in any way, therefore, it does not really exist, but only potentially, as its capacity”. Capitalism (the mode of production based on the hegemony of capital over other social relations) is not just any economic system dynamized by the pursuit of profit, but only that based on production relations in which profit originates from the surplus value extorted in and by the exploitation of the workforce, hired and remunerated by a salary: “For capital, the worker is not a condition of production, but only work. If he can do it through machines or even through water, air, so much the better. And capital does not appropriate the worker, but his labor – not directly, but through the mediation of exchange”.

Capital would have no value if it were not driven by labor to create commodities which, when sold on the market, realize the profit of the capitalist, which allows him to increase capital, produce more commodities, increase profits, in perpetual competition with other capitals. .

Production extends both beyond itself in the antithetical determination of production and overlaps with other moments. It is from there that the process always begins again. It is self-evident that exchange and consumption cannot be predominant. In the same way as distribution as distribution of products. However, as a distribution of agents of production, it is itself a moment of production. A determined production, therefore, determines a determined consumption, exchange and distribution, as well as determined relations of these different moments among themselves.

Production, distribution and consumption are “elements of a totality, differences within a unit”. “Fixed” capital is nothing more than coagulated living labor, capitalized value. Through its reified appearance, capital hides its real condition: that of being a social relationship whose dynamic poles are the owner of capital and the salaried worker. Capitalism is a mode of production of social life that is characterized by the productive forces that it raises and mobilizes and by the production relations on which it is based.

Mode of production is the concept that designates the historically existing social forms to produce and reproduce society. Each mode of production corresponds to a specific level of development of the productive forces (means of production, techniques and work organization) and to certain social relations of production organization, that is, relations between classes and social groups in the productive process.

If the history of capital can be traced back to ancient times, the history of capitalism (the mode of production dominated by capital) is much more recent, going back to the XNUMXth century. Its founding social relationship is that between salaried work and capital. The difference that the capitalist mode of production imposes on work is in its form of exploitation: by selling the capacity (or potential) of work to others. Wage labor is the socially determined manifestation of the sale of labor power. The history of contemporary societies is determined by the relationships established based on this foundation, by its dynamics and its contradictions. “Modernity”, social mobility, career based on merit, link between education and social ascension, formal equality of opportunities, professional flexibility, general commodification, hedonistic selfishness, among others, are its derived manifestations.

Generally speaking, the stage of commodity production, with which civilization begins, is economically characterized by the introduction of: (1) metal money, and thus money capital, interest, and usury; (2) merchants as an intermediary class between producers; (3) private land ownership and mortgages and (4) slave labor as the dominant form of production.

This production was not a capitalist production, although it was directed to the market, as it was not based on capitalist relations of production.

To speak of ancient or medieval “capitalism” because there were financiers in Rome or merchants in Venice is an abuse of language. These characters never dominated the social production of their time, ensured in Rome by slaves and in the Middle Ages by peasants, under the various statutes of serfdom. Industrial production in the feudal era was obtained almost exclusively in artisanal or corporate form. The master craftsman pledged his capital and his work and fed his companions and apprentices at home. There is no separation between the means of production and the producer, there is no reduction of social relations to simple money bonds: therefore, there is no capitalism.

Value is not intrinsic to an isolated commodity, it reflects a division of labor between independent commodity producers; the social nature of their work is revealed only in the act of exchange. Value, therefore, has a purely social reality, the form of which is revealed in exchange. The distinction between use and exchange value already existed in Greek philosophy, although it did not unfold all its consequences. These developments fully appeared only in capitalism, the mode of production in which the existing tension in the commodity form is externalized in the form of value as money (phenomenal form of value) and, simultaneously, as a commodity (phenomenal form of use value).

In capitalism, the commodity is a social form that includes both exchange value and use value, but this form appears only as material use value. Money, in turn, appears as the exclusive bearer of value, as the manifestation of the abstraction of the commodity, being, however, only the phenomenal form of the value dimension of the commodity itself. Capitalism's social relations appear to be based on the opposition between the monetary abstraction of value and the concreteness of the material nature of production. Exchange value presupposes the existence of a standard of measurement common to all commodities.

Take, again, two commodities, for example wheat and iron. Whatever its ratio of exchange, it is always representable by an equation in which a given quantity of wheat is equaled to any quantity of iron, for example, 1 quarter of wheat = a hundred kilograms of iron. What does this equation show? That something common and of the same magnitude exists in two different things, in a quarter of wheat and in a quarter of iron. Both are therefore equal to a third, which in itself is neither one nor the other. Each of them, insofar as it is exchange value, must therefore be reducible to this third. […] This something in common cannot be a geometric, physical, chemical or any other natural property of commodities. Their physical properties matter only insofar as they confer utility on commodities, that is, they make them use values. On the other hand, it seems clear that the abstraction of their use values ​​is precisely what characterizes the exchange ratio of commodities.

Concrete work does not provide the measure of the value of goods, because what stands out in it are its qualitative characteristics. To find the measure of value, one must abstract labor from its concrete form. For modern political economy, a use value or a good had value only because human labor was objectified or materialized in it. To draw all the consequences from this, it had to be established that the labor that produces commodities has a character as dual and contradictory as the commodity itself. For Karl Marx, “Ricardo's mistake is that he is only interested in the magnitude of value. What Ricardo does not investigate is the specific way in which labor manifests itself as the common element in commodities”. Thus, Marx considered the distinction of commodity-producing labor between concrete and abstract labor, a distinction absent in classical political economy and an expression of the commodity's own contradiction, its differential and its basis for a theory of value based on labor.

Capitalism, thus, was born out of the appropriation of the sphere of social production by capital: “The subordination of production to capital and the emergence of the class relationship between capitalists and producers must be considered the watershed between the old and the new mode of production. of production". In societies where workers owned their instruments of work (that is, their means of production), the right to property appeared to be based on work itself. It was enough for capital to intervene between property and work for “the law of appropriation or the law of private property, founded on the production and circulation of goods, to be transformed, obeying its own internal and inevitable dialectic, into its direct opposite".

The right to property based on one's own work was thus transformed into the right to property based on the work of others, that is, on bourgeois property. When a worker is completely stripped of his instruments of work, his physical and mental faculties have no use value for him, because even having such faculties, he will not be able to produce anything. These faculties are offered for sale on the market and the boss (the “bourgeois”) becomes the owner of the individual's labor power. He appropriates, therefore, the physical and intellectual qualities of the worker for a certain period.

Capitalist or bourgeois society was constituted based on the social relations of hiring and use (exploitation) of free labor power, resulting in the production of surplus value that is the product of the surplus work provided by the worker within the production process; Surplus value presents itself to the capitalist in the form of profit on capital. Surplus work (or surplus work) is the difference between the part of the day in which the worker produces values ​​equivalent to those necessary for the production and reproduction of his existence and the values ​​produced by that same worker in the entirety of his working period. The origin of capitalist surplus value is the economic exploitation of labor power, acquired in the sphere of circulation (like any other commodity) and used (activating its use value) in the sphere of production. In this book, we will approach step by step the creation of a society, today worldwide, based on this historical phenomenon, and its consequences in all areas of human life.

Osvaldo Coggiola He is a professor at the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History and Revolution (Shaman).


Osvaldo Coggiola. Marxist economic theory: an introduction. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 180 pages.


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