The limits of capitalism


By Eleutério Prado*

The decisive limitation to the capital reproduction process is external. Two factors may come to constrain the dynamics of accumulation: the action of the working class and the exhaustion of the capacity of planet Earth.


François Chesnais wrote an article to answer the question – undoubtedly important in current times – of whether “capitalism has [now] found insurmountable limits”[I]. As the transcription below of one of the first paragraphs of this article shows, he intended to go (a little) beyond Marx in investigating the limits of capitalism. Now, he believes that this small advance is necessary so that one can adequately understand the very development of capitalism from the second half of the twentieth century onwards and especially after the turn of the millennium.

Starting from the interpretation of certain excerpts from Marx himself, he gradually puts arguments, presents historical reliefs, which lead to a strong conclusion: yes, capitalism now, in fact, faces an internal limit and an external limit, which will no longer be able to overtake. Here is the paragraph: “In book III of The capital, Marx states that 'capitalist production constantly tends to exceed the limits that are immanent to it, but it only manages to do so by using means, which, once again, and now on a larger scale, then place those same barriers before it'”. The question posed is whether capitalist production is now confronted with barriers that it can no longer overcome, not even temporarily. We would be in the presence of two forms of insurmountable limits, with very strong implications for the reproduction of capital and the management of the bourgeois order, above all for civilized life. One of them, resulting from the effects of automation, dates back to the 2017th century and has an immanent character, internal to the movement of capital, on which Marx strongly insisted. The other, arising from the destruction by capitalist production of ecosystem balances, particularly of the biosphere, was not foreseen by Marx and was initially defined as an external limit (Chesnais, XNUMX).

The question is certainly interesting, but it requires an answer within the framework of the dialectic of The capital. In the first place, it is considered here that it is necessary to make a distinction between a limit that is placed as a barrier to the movement of capital accumulation and a limit that can act as a containment of this movement. The first, it should be noted, is configured as internal and the second as external to the capital reproduction process. That said, it becomes necessary to ask: (a) can one speak of an insurmountable internal limit to capital accumulation, as Chesnais does? (b) can the existence of absolute containment to the expansion of the capital relation be taken as a novelty in the history of capitalism as he seems to believe? To what extent did such external limits act in recent crises?

Returning to Marx

To answer the two previous questions, it is necessary to start by returning to the passage from Book III of The capital quoted by Chesnais. Here is what Marx says about the contradiction that moves capitalism and about the obstacles it poses to its own development: “The contradiction, expressed in a very general way, consists in the fact that the capitalist mode of production implies a tendency to absolute development of the productive forces, with abstraction of value – and of the surplus value incorporated therein (…); on the other hand, this mode of production has as its objective the conservation of the existing capital value and its valorization to the maximum possible extent (…). The methods by which it achieves this aim include: lowering the rate of profit, devaluing existing capital, and developing the productive forces of labor at the expense of the productive forces already produced. Capitalist production constantly tends to overcome these limits that are immanent to it, but it manages to do so only by virtue of means that again raise these same limits before it, on an even more formidable scale (Marx, 2017, p. 289).

Note, now, that this passage appears in Chapter 15 of Book III, which discusses the character of overaccumulation crises having as its central reference the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. And that, therefore, he refers entirely and only to internal limits of capitalist production, that is, to limits that capital itself sets for itself, limits that it transforms into barriers, which it then overcomes.

Now, there are two ways in which capital can overcome such limits that arise – as Marx himself explains – from the contradiction inherent in the capital relation: either positively through the uninterrupted expansion of accumulation or negatively through the crisis, that is, through the partial destruction of the accumulated capital itself. Marx, following the same passage, clearly points to this contradiction: “the real obstacle to capitalist production is capital itself, that is, the fact (...) that production is production only for capital, instead of, at the same time, contrary, [comes] to the benefit of the society of producers” (Marx, 2017, p. 289).

Therefore, according to the dialectic of the capital relation exposed in The capital, this process cannot be internally contained or, to put it another way, cannot have an insurmountable internal boundary. Every limit is transformed into an obstacle, a barrier, even if it reappears later, in some way, as a limit that is even more difficult to cross. As Jorge Grespan points out, it is necessary to be clear that this logic stems from the fact that capital is an automatic subject for Marx (Grespan, 2009).

As Grespan also mentions this, it is even clearer in an excerpt that is also well known from the floorplans in which Marx exposes the contradictory logic of the infinite development of the capital relation: “But capital, as representative of the universal form of wealth – of money –, is the unlimited and unmeasured impulse to cross its own limits. Every limit is and must be an obstacle for him. Otherwise, it would cease to be capital – money that produces itself. As soon as it ceased to feel a certain limit as an obstacle, but felt comfortable with it as a limit, capital itself would have degenerated from exchange value to use value, from the universal form of wealth to a determinate substantial existence of it. Capital as such creates a definite surplus-value because it cannot posit an unlimited surplus-value all at once; it is the continuous movement of creating more added value. The quantitative limit of surplus value appears to capital only as a natural barrier, as a need that it incessantly seeks to dominate and overcome”.

Chesnais, on the contrary, understands that this dialectic of capital's self-overcoming also contains the possibility that it may face an absolute limit and, therefore, a collapse. He first cites Ernest Mandel, but also Robert Kurz, as authors who foresaw this possibility as a consequence of the technological revolution in informatics, communication and robotization. The first of them, according to Chesnais, already in 1986, had peremptorily stated that “the extension of automation, beyond a certain limit, inevitably leads first to a reduction in the total volume of value produced, and then to a reduction in the volume of the most -realized value” (apoud Chesnais, 2017).

To see why this reasoning is incorrect, one needs to examine the internal logic of the accumulation process. It is tautological that the mass of surplus value is equal to the ratio formed by dividing this mass by the volume of material production, multiplied by this same volume. Now, the constant elevation of the productive force, which is inherent to capitalism, has always implied – and not only now with the third technological revolution – in the reduction of this ratio.

The increase in productivity implies that the same amount of merchandise is produced with less work or that a larger amount is produced with the same amount of work. It also implies that there will be less amount of socially necessary labor in a given volume of production (measured in some way). However, the mass of surplus value can always grow by expanding the volume of material production. And this is – you see – what has happened in the previous history of capitalism.

Consequently, to be valid, Chesnais' reasoning, which accompanies Mandel's and Kurz's arguments, would need to show that the recent technological revolution, by itself, acts to prevent the expansion of production and, thus, the incorporation of more and more force. of labor to the productive process of capital. Now, as capital is an automatic subject, it can only be temporarily hampered by falling profitability. But in this case, you have a limit again, it's just a barrier – and not an absolute limit.

In any case, it should be noted that so far there is no evidence that there has been a tendency to reduce the mass of surplus value generated, either in the countries of the center or in the capitalist system as a whole, as a result of the third technological revolution. , which has lasted some forty years. However, the statement by Anselm Jappe, echoing a thesis by Kurz, according to which: “the capitalist mode of production is running out and has reached its 'historical limit: not enough value is produced anymore'” (Jappe, 2020) appears up as correct. That is why capital, industrial and fictitious together, will increasingly and irrationally prey upon workers and non-human nature, as is happening in Brazil. Only they, therefore, can defeat capital.

of the outer limits

It is correct, however, to think that the process of capital accumulation may come to face external limits. In order to apprehend them, however, it is necessary to understand the capital system as a whole. For, as the subject of the process, as a movement that creates a world for itself, he necessarily has to form it. Grespan dealt with this issue pertinently. He begins by recalling that Marx, in an excerpt from the floorplans, indicated that value as capital, as value that is valued, shows itself (to a certain extent) as imperishable. Behold, it, the capital, is a process of perishing that is maintained because, as a living system, it is continuously nourished from its outside:

In capital, the imperishability of value is posited (up to a certain point) insofar as, despite being incarnated in ephemeral commodities, assuming this form, it also constantly changes form; it alternates between its eternal figure in money and its ephemeral figure in commodities. But capital only acquires this capacity because, like a vampire, it constantly sucks out living labor as a soul. Imperishability – duration of value in its figure as capital – is posited only through reproduction, which, in turn, is twofold: reproduction as a commodity, reproduction as money and the unity of these two reproduction processes. (Marx, 2011, p. 541).

After mentioning that capital acts like a vampire sucking up labor, Grespan arrives at the concept of the totality of capital: “Capital 'sucks in' living labor, because it appropriates it by buying the commodity labor power, formally submitting it to itself in a situation in which the 'free' worker is obliged to sell his labor power to the capitalist and to produce for him within circumstances that are imposed on him. Capital presents itself in this way as a formally established totality, and it is through the formality of this subordination that it dominates the conditions of its own valorization and presents itself as the 'subject' of this process. On the other hand, the 'vampiric' power of capital reveals its dependence on the vitality of labor, as only 'sucking in living labor' does the 'dead' return to life and remain alive”. (Grespan, 2009).

That said, it is now necessary to note that the totality posed by capital does not serenely integrate the worker into itself, but, on the contrary, captures and subordinates him in the way that is proper to him, that is, by means of a structural constraint. . As is known, as the worker does not own the means of production, he, in order to survive, has to sell his labor power, temporarily and repeatedly, to the capitalist.

The latter, by purchasing it, can then use its use value to reproduce the value of the labor power purchased by wages and to produce the surplus value that he appropriates without paying anything. Consequently, when taking the Hegelian totality of the spirit as a reference, it is necessary to reach the conclusion that the totality formed by capital appears to be false. It has an exterior, an environment, and this is formed by human nature and non-human nature. Both are somehow exploited by capital as it reproduces its own totality.

Consequently, it is from the outside that a decisive limitation to the process of reproduction of capital, that is, of the capital relation, can come. Marx, as we know, never stopped thinking of the working class itself as the possible external limit of capital. For, the worker only subordinates himself to the capitalist as a worker, that is, as a support of his own workforce. Now, on the one hand, the relationship between capital and salaried work is antagonistic and, as such, conflicting. On the other hand, it is always assumed that the worker keeps the human being within himself as a power[ii], which, in the process of class struggle, may come to confront and even destroy the capital system, putting itself into action, realizing itself as such. Therefore, the possibility of an absolute containment of the expansion of the capital ratio cannot be considered as something new in the history of capitalism.

The external limit considered by Chesnais appears with certain drama only recently in the history of the capitalist mode of production. A certain exhaustion of natural resources that can be appropriated without producing ecosystem imbalances fatal to the existence of humanity is now, in fact, present in contemporary times. And it is based, ultimately, on the Earth's carrying capacity, which, even though it has been enormously expanded in the last two centuries through science and technology, is now reaching – or has reached, as some environmentalists claim – its limit. absolute.

It seems appropriate, therefore, to think that such a limitation may come to constrain the dynamics of capital accumulation in the near future, that is, in the course of the present century. However, it does not seem appropriate to say that it has been very relevant up to the present moment. Low population growth may have played a role in the accumulation process of some central countries; ecological problems may have affected this process in the periphery to some extent.

In any case, contemporary crises, as well as a certain tendency towards stagnation that has especially affected the center of the system, have to be explained mainly by the internal dynamics of capital accumulation. And, in this sense, studies that focus on the falling trend of the rate of profit have proven to be the most interesting (Kliman, 2012; Roberts, 2016). The last book by François Chesnais that emphasizes the so-called “financialization” also makes a relevant contribution to the understanding of capitalism in contemporary times (Chesnais, 2016)[iii].

The following conclusion by Chesnais in the text analyzed here refers especially to the ecosystem limit. However, it can only be considered as internally consistent through two topical interventions in his writing: “the encounter, by capitalism, of such an [external] limit that it will not be able to cross [progressively] does not in any way mean the end of political and social domination of the bourgeoisie, even less its death, but opens up the prospect that it will lead humanity towards barbarism” (Chesnais, 2017).

In other words, capitalism can only maintain itself in the face of such limits regressively, thus putting the possible death of humanity on the horizon. As a result, the decisive limit, as a containment of capitalism and its positive overcoming, continues to be, as Marx had established, the political action of organized workers and this is well posed by Chesnais: “the challenge is that those who are exploited by the bourgeoisie, or who are not linked to it, find ways to free themselves from its deadly course” (Chesnais, 2017).

Now, this being so, this comment would like to add that this liberation can no longer contradict itself, that is, it can no longer propose new despotisms, but only seek the realization of a substantive democracy that is not only formal, as it was possible to achieve in the limits of capitalism, but which is now being increasingly undermined by neoliberalism.

Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at FEA/USP.


Chesnais, François. “Has capitalism encountered insurmountable limits?” In: the commoner, No. 25, September 2017.

Chesnais, François. Finance capital today. Corporations and banks in the lasting global slump. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016.

Jappe, Anselm. Lives and death of capitalism. In: the earth is round,

Climan, Andrew. The failure of capitalist production. Underlying causes of the great recession. New York: Pluto Press, 2012.

Grespan, George. “A theory for crises”. In: Capitalism in Crisis. Org. Plínio de A. Sampaio Jr. São Paulo: Suderman, 2009, p. 29-44.

Marx, Carl. The capital. Criticism of Political Economy. Book III. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

Marx, Carl.  Grundrisse. Economic Manuscripts of 1857-1858. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011.

Mandel, Ernest. Marx, lacrisis actuelle et l'avenir du travail humain. In: Revue Quatrième Internationale, nº 20, May 1986.

Mello, Gustavo MC; Braga, Henrique P.; Sabadini, Maurício – Notes on the debate about the historical limits of capital. In: XXII National Meeting of Political Economy, Campinas, 2017.

Roberts, Michael. The long depression. How it happened, why it happened, and what happens next. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016.

[I] The article was originally published in French, in February 2017, on the website L'alencontre. It was translated into Portuguese and published in the magazine the commoner (Chesnais, 1917).

[ii] About this statement, I received the following comment from Gustavo MC Mello: “there is the risk of an 'ontologizing' interpretation (in the bad sense, obviously): this potency exists not as something innate, ahistorical, but as a negation of heteronomy and reification. Therefore, in capitalist social formations, it is from the very antagonism between capital and labor that this power emerges”.

[iii] There is a text written by Brazilian Marxists that seeks to assess more widely the various contributions to the understanding of the issue of the historical limits of capital (Melo, Braga and Sabadini, 2017).

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