Relative & Absolute Surplus Value

Part Five: The Production of Absolute and Relative Surplus-Value

Chapter 16 – Absolute and Relative Surplus-Value

The definition of the productive labourer is extended to cover all those who, even if not working directly on the product, form part of the collective labourer.

On the other hand, the definition of the productive labourer also becomes more narrow. Since capitalist production is the production of SV, only workers who produce SV, and so contribute to the self-valorisation of capital, are productive.

The production of absolute SV is the extension of the working day beyond the point of necessary labour.

Relative SV production involves shortening the necessary labour time by revolutionising methods of production.

Thus relative SV depends on the development of capitalist methods of production and real subsumption of labour under capital (in which the worker is subordinated by the very methods of production: machinery) that develops out of the formal subsumption of labour (in which capital has taken control of the labour process but not yet transformed it).

While the production of absolute SV is characteristic when labour has been only formally subsumed, it continues with real subsumption and the production of relative SV.

In some respects absolute and relative SV cannot be distinguished: all SV is both absolute and relative.

However, the distinction is meaningful when we consider the need to increase SV: the capitalist then has to choose between lengthening the working day or increasing the productivity or intensity of labour. (Increasing the intensity of labour in some senses falls between increasing productivity (relative SV) and lengthening the working day (absolute SV) because intensified labour counts as a greater quantity of simple labour).


Chapter 17 – Changes of Magnitude in the Price of Labour-Power and in Surplus-Value

Marx makes it clear that he regards it as quite possible for wages to rise if productivity is rising (which gives the lie to the claim that he regarded a progressive decline in living standards as inevitable – the ‘immiseration thesis’).

The point is that as productivity rises the value of labour power falls because the labour-time required to produce the worker’s consumption falls.

The price of labour (the wage) may fall less than this, however, in which case the living standards of the workers will rise at the same time as the rate of SV (in this sense, workers and capitalists ‘share’ in the benefits of the productivity advance).


Chapter 18 – Different Formulae for the Rate of Surplus-Value

Marx contrasts his formula for the rate of SV with that of the classical economists.

They defined it as the share of SV in the product.

This both misrepresents the degree of exploitation of labour, leads to the assumption of a working day of given length and conceals the “specific character of the capital-relation”, instead giving the impression that capitalists and workers share the product.


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