Capitalism and the evolution of value

Wassily Kandinsky, Yellow-Red-Blue, 1925.


Newly Released Book Introduction

“Economic servitude” was one of the terms used by Karl Marx in Book I of The capital, to designate the condition of continued exploitation of the salaried worker under capitalism. The capitalist production process “[…] continually forces the worker to sell his labor power to live and continually enables the capitalist to buy it to enrich himself […]” (MARX, 2017a, p. 652). In this way, the production and reproduction of its own social relationship is perpetuated indefinitely in capitalist time (capitalists, on the one hand, salaried workers, on the other).

There would be no major problems if this relationship did not involve the private appropriation of production carried out in a social way. If profit, interest, salary and land rent constitute equal proportions of the total social income, thus also providing equal purchasing power to each and every one of the social subjects. If the economic surplus were used to provide the same conditions and the same levels of housing, health, leisure, transportation, education, etc; in short, social and economic infrastructure for each and every human being. In other words, if capitalist social relations were not based on the exploitation of social work. After all, we are all human beings who, regardless of race, creed, color and place, have the same social needs, so that all lives should matter.

In capitalism, in general, the salaried worker, the direct producer of the totality of social production, only has a proportion of the product that is no more than sufficient for its reproduction. As a human being, he is not entitled to the social benefits resulting from his own work. Only the duty to reproduce as a workforce, regardless of how much material wealth its various generations, whether in the form of slave, serf or wage worker, have produced on the face of the earth.

The capitalist, however, is entitled to a different income called profit, an income that is derived from social production, which should equally benefit social subjects, but which becomes a particular privilege of enjoying the benefits of material wealth. It is not because a person is more intelligent or more enterprising than others that he should appropriate both the work and the fruit of the work of others. In terms of common sense, just because a person is the strongest doesn't mean he should take everyone's food for himself. In this case, the only difference between instinct and intelligence (reason) would be that the first is a characteristic of nature and the second of human society. However, both would have the same purpose: the creation of advantage over others (in nature, survival, in human society, exploitation of social work). Until now, this has been shown to be the essence of the social organization that we have built throughout history, the foundation of the real economy and of Economic Science.

Economic history is the history of forms of exploitation of social labor, from ancient slavery, through feudalism, to capitalism. The development of economics as a science, up to our current historical period, is both the way to justify and to create more efficient and more alienating forms of exploitation of social labor. One of the greatest virtues of our reason (intelligence) has been to lay bare this essence (foundation of our form of social organization), the exploitation of social work.

In this, Marx, with his theory of value and surplus value, is still the author of authors. Our biggest difficulty has been accepting that we can achieve a different form of sociability, even in the face of the immense social inequality achieved and the imminent collapse of the planet's natural resources. In theory, the meaning of reason should be to give human beings, as social subjects, the ability to establish social relationships that are different from those existing among other living beings in nature (food chain).

However, a society that bases its organization on the exploitation of work, concentrates social wealth in the hands of a few, differentiates its population between rich and poor, chooses a mere representation (money) as the meaning of life, transforms people into goods and goods into subjects of affection and distinction, does nothing more than reproduce a social representation of the food chain of nature. For, the wealth and distinction of some depend on the exploitation and expropriation of the work of many, in short, on the theft of many hours of life from their fellow men.

Capitalism, while freeing the individual from feudal servitude, also created a new form of servitude. However, under the guise of the legal freedom of that individual, because “[...] the worker belongs to the capital even before selling himself to the capitalist. His economic servitude is at the same time mediated and hidden by the periodic renewal of his selling himself, by the change of his individual bosses and by the oscillation of the market price of labor” (MARX, 2017a, p. 652-653).

Economic servitude in capitalism is directly associated with a specific form of value and its contradictions. At the same time both hidden and evidenced in the exchange value, and, which are expressed in a social relationship, also specific, the value-capital relationship. Which, in turn, is still based on the separation of the direct producer from his means of production and subsistence (proletarianization process) and the concentration of these means in the hands of a small class of capitalists who own all of the means of production and subsistence of the society.

In turn, value is a word that holds countless meanings for (and among) several areas, such as economics, law, mathematics, music, logic, philosophy, painting, etc. Generally speaking, value can represent both an intrinsic property of an object or individual and express a relationship between objects and individuals. When we assert the value of the square root of 4 as equal to 2, this result represents an intrinsic value derived from the formula itself. Similarly, when we say that a person has great value, we relate this term to certain qualities of the individual, such as courage or patience, for example.

Value as an expression of a relationship (be it social or one of comparison between objects) is always presented as a result of attributes and processes that occurred or occur in the interaction between objects and individuals and between the latter. This is because every relationship implies the past or present existence of the comparison of a set of quantifiers and qualifiers specific to social interaction. Relationships and processes are intrinsic properties of social existence, their quantification and qualification establishes a set of norms, habits, legacies, laws, “values”, etc., necessary for collective life and its reproduction as a society. Therefore, value is presented as a result of social relations and processes, from which a category of analysis with attributes of a clearly historical dimension can be deduced.

This brief digression makes it clear that value must always be understood in two dimensions: (1) as a foundation, an attribute, an essential characteristic, directly related to a given historical time; and (2) as an expression of something, the effect, the appearance, which is manifested by some element (material or not) of general social acceptance. Between the cause and the manifestation of value, in each historical period, there is a set of mediations, in a constant process of transformation, which acts by altering relationships, processes and the very content of value.

The history of economic thought reveals both the discovery of the law of value, the foundation of economics as a science, and the advances and setbacks in its treatment. It also indicates how value can be both a category that reveals the historical nature of societies and an intellectual construction used to justify and reproduce a certain form of production and distribution of the social product.

Formulating a theory of value was the first step in making economics a science. Although economics has been recognized as such since Adam Smith, there is still no consensus on the problem of value. Contemporaneously, the problem of value seems to have become irrelevant within Economic Science. In any case, three distinct strands of economic treatment of value coexist. First, the strand of the classics for which value must express market prices, that is, a theory of value must necessarily explain the formation of prices in the economic system.

The second, represented by Marx, who derived from the theory of value of the classics, among other things, a theory of the exploitation of labor power in the capitalist mode of production. Third, the theory of utility value of the marginalists, for whom value is a subjective variable and is not directly related to either production or distribution, since markets are, by the decisive forces of supply and demand, price makers and allocators optimum of the productive factors.

From the three aspects described above, we can understand that value is equal to price (classics), value is not directly related to price (neoclassics), and value as a specific historical form of production and reproduction of social relations of exploitation and expropriation, capitalism. By far, this last contribution seems to be the most promising for thinking about a theory of value that relates economy and society; and do not make them “things” of separate existence, as neoclassical economics itself has done, or simply, make the social struggle disappear as if by magic, around the distribution of the economic surplus.

The great legacy of neoclassical economics and its developments, such as marginal utility, general equilibrium and the neoclassical synthesis, is anything but compatible with any type of society that does not aim at its own self-destruction. Destruction of social ties, as the capitalist economic process excludes a large part of society from the market economic form, making a large human contingent unnecessary for the economy. Destruction of nature through a predatory process of production and consumption, incompatible with the very preservation of any and all life on the planet. Mass destruction through nuclear weapons or other means and instruments derived from science.

It is important to make clear that these social and global problems do not exist because of neoclassical theory. On the contrary, since its presuppositions are equilibrium and optimization, the focus of its economic problem cannot go beyond the limits of a problem of choosing to maximize or minimize a function (consumption or production). Not that studies of this nature are not important, they have contributed greatly to the understanding, for example, that profit is maximized when marginal revenue is equal to marginal cost or, even, the selection of inputs to obtain a certain level of production at minimum cost.

They even made neoclassical economics the dominant form of teaching and scientific production in the area. The question, then, cannot be about the validity of the neoclassical theory, internally it is valid and consistent, as it is constructed as a set of mathematical sentences. The question to be posed must be about the reason why, even in the face of such development of economic theory, a historically limiting situation has been reached, both socially and environmentally. The only possible answer seems to be related to the problem of private appropriation of the social economic surplus.

Understanding value as a substance and as a form of specific sociability (capitalism) can help to understand both the motives and the limits of a society founded on economic servitude and with self-destructive tendencies (social and environmental). Our hypothesis is that value, as the foundation of capitalist society, and throughout its historical development, is detached from its substance, living work in the form of abstract work. In other words, with the expansion and transformation of capitalism, as the dominant form of social organization, the production and accumulation of wealth becomes autonomous from living work itself.

This hypothesis is not original. For example, Carcanholo (2011), emphasized the character of the “progressive dematerialization of capitalist wealth”. For him, starting with Marx, value is a process (always in development), but for which it becomes impossible to reach its limit. For, still, according to that author, the complete dematerialization of wealth would represent the destruction of use value, that is, an impossibility, because “[...] the destruction of use value implies the destruction of the human being and, thus, of value itself, as this is a social relationship between men. The destruction of use value would be that of value, that of the commodity and that of society […]” (CARCANHOLO, p. 72)

However, the perspective adopted by us is that the dematerialization of capitalist wealth, that is, of value, has a much more elastic limit. So that it corresponds both to a process of separating value from surplus-value and of making value autonomous from abstract work, freeing the process of accumulation from the limits imposed by the material production of use values.

Therefore, 1st century capitalism assumes new and powerful characteristics, among which we highlight: (2) the separation between result (wealth) and cause (social workforce in general), which does not necessarily imply the destruction of use value , but which makes it largely secondary to the accumulation process; (3) the establishment of a new engine of the accumulation process (digital-financial), which is fed and nourished by zeros and ones, in a semi-closed circuit (intra, intercompany, intersectoral and worldwide); (4) the impression of a secondary character to the production of use values ​​and their accumulation process, which begin to serve only as adjustment valves and compensation for financial transactions, legal or not; and (XNUMX) the creation of institutions and mechanisms that allow the laundering of large sums of money, as a substantive necessity of this new stage of capitalism (although this specific subject is not analyzed in this book).

Francisco de Oliveira was another important author who dealt with the aforementioned theme based on his thesis on “the rights of anti-value”. Although it deals with the analysis of an external element to the process of accumulation and reproduction of the workforce, “the pattern of public financing of the capitalist economy” during the welfare state, represents, in turn, a powerful insight on the transformations of value in the context of the 1988th century. For Oliveira (14, p. XNUMX), “[…] the pattern of public funding 'imploded' value as the sole assumption of the expanded reproduction of capital, partially undoing it as a measure of economic activity and sociability in general”.

The thesis presented in this book is that these transformations in value, as correctly understood by Oliveira, are inscribed in the general laws of movement of capital and its metamorphoses. Therefore, the analysis of capital, work and accumulation, in the 1st century, needs to be re-contextualized, as we are facing: (2) a new systemic pattern of wealth (financialization); (3) a long-lasting and far-reaching technological revolution; (4) a new automation standard; (5) a new set of technology-based goods, sectors and services; and (XNUMX) a new (neoliberal) State, both commanded and held hostage by capital, which acts as an instrument to implement this new pattern of wealth and reorganize social relations to that pattern.

Also worthy of mention in this introduction is “the new phenomena of contemporary capitalism”, highlighted by Francisco Teixeira and Celso Frederico, analyzed in the work Marx in the XNUMXst Century. These new phenomena are summarized under the name of “complex cooperation”. Following Marx's methodology, these authors emphasize “complex cooperation” as a “natural” development of large-scale industry, just as it was of manufacturing. The particularity of “complex cooperation” resides in a form of commodity production in which the social movement of capital unites, in a single existence, money-capital, productive-capital and commodity-capital; unlike “[…] big industry, in which money capital was a private business of the banks; the productive capital, of the industrialists; and the capital-commodity, of merchants” (TEIXEIRA & FREDERICO, p. 109).

According to them, “complex cooperation”, in addition to being a less progressive form than large-scale industry, would also represent the limiting form of capital; given that it operates on the limit of the frontier of replacing living work with dead work. Less progressive because neoliberalism, productive restructuring and the social redivision of work, as moments of this whole, would represent an offensive movement against the working class, both in terms of the destruction of legislation protecting salaried work and unions. It can be said, without a shadow of a doubt, that Teixeira and Frederico managed to update “O Capital” with regard to the global process of capital production in contemporary capitalism (digital-financial-surveillance capitalism).

The big question that remains open, which all the authors cited in this introduction helped to position more clearly, and which we intend to develop in the following chapters, can be formulated as follows: what if capital and its respective accumulation process manage to generate the means to reproduce beyond the frontier of replacing living labor with dead labor? If this really presents itself as a possibility, we can say, with great conviction, that we are heading towards a much more brutal social context than at any time in human history.

*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.


José Micaelson Lacerda Morais. Capitalism and the revolution of value: apogee and annihilation. São Paulo, Amazon (Independently Published), 2021, 130 pages.


CARCANHOLO, Reinaldo. Capital: essence and appearance. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2013.

MARX, Carl. Capital: critique of political economy. Book I: the capital production process. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

OLIVEIRA, Francis. The emergence of anti-value: capital, labor power and public funds. São Paulo: New Studies, no. October 22, 1988.

TEIXEIRA, Francisco José Soares; FREDERICO, Celso. Marx in the XNUMXst Century. São Paulo: Cortez, 2009.


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