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The concept of the capitalist mode of production (CMP) occupies a central place in Karl Marx’s (1818–1883) view of productive relations, forms of exploitation, and conflict in modern society. The very notion of capitalism was used predominantly by Marxists well into the twentieth century, when it started to be thoroughly analyzed in a nonMarxist perspective by Max Weber (1864–1920) and Werner Sombart (1863–1941).
The Capitalist Mode of Production in the Theory of Karl Marx
In his work, especially the Grundrisse (1857–1858) and the first volume of Capital (1867), Marx defined capitalism as a mode of production characterized by the separation of the direct producers, the working class, from the means of production or the productive assets, which are controlled by the bourgeoisie as private property. Ownership of the means of production enables the bourgeoisie to organize the industrial labor process, where individual workers are driven to seek employment by the needs of their own reproduction. Contrary to previous modes of production such as slavery and feudalism, the laborer is compelled to enter an employment relation not by external compulsion, but by economic necessity.
As a result, the employment relation is formally an individual contractual transaction between bourgeois capitalists and workers, who are juridically free. Once they enter the capitalist labor process, workers are remunerated with a wage, a monetary sum representing the “exchange value” with which the capitalist purchases the worker’s labor power. The wage is expressed in terms of the duration of the working day, and is calculated on the basis of the goods that workers need to reproduce their ability to work. Therefore, the wage does not recognize specific forms of labor or skills, it only compensates “abstract” labor power.
In the productive process, workers operate machines and other means of production with which they create commodities whose values exceed workers’ remunerations. When capitalists sell commodities on the market, “realizing” their value, they therefore appropriate the difference between the value of such goods and the value of the labor power used to produce them. Marx calls this difference “surplus value,” which for him is the defining feature of the exploitative nature of capitalism. The money capitalists earn from realizing their surplus value contains a profit, which capitalists reinvest to restart the productive cycle in what Marx calls “extended reproduction” of capital. Marx saw the origins of profit and surplus extraction in the very process of production, not in market dynamics of supply and demand, as in the “bourgeois” political economy of Adam Smith (1723–1790) and David Ricardo (1772–1823). Nonetheless, Smith and Ricardo influenced Marx’s concept of the division of labor and his “labor theory of value,” respectively. Marx, however, regarded the market not as a realm of free individual initiative, but as an institution that materializes human exploitation and alienation.
For Marx, the CMP is a social process riddled with contradictions that originate from its own “laws of motion.” The growing “concentration” of accumulated capital is what ultimately allows individual capitalists to increase their profits and drive competitors out of the market. The elimination of uncompetitive capitals produces a centralization of ownership in a smaller number of large companies. But successful competition also requires increasing investment in machinery (“constant capital”). As a result, the surplus value extracted from human labor is eroded and, in the long term, the rate of profit for the CMP as a whole tends to fall. In the process, masses of workers are expelled from the production process and end up swelling the unemployed “relative surplus population.”
Marx described the laws of motion in the CMP far more precisely than in other modes of production. His aim was in fact to scientifically demonstrate how the demands of the working class are ultimately incompatible with capital’s exploitative nature. As the contradictions of the CMP manifest themselves in periodic crises, workers become conscious of their own exploitation as a class. Therefore they organize to accelerate capitalism’s eventual demise and establish a socialist society where class domination is abolished.
Marx tended to present the development of the CMP as a social dynamics whose general laws of motion could be scientifically ascertained. He was nonetheless quite aware that the process he described was historically specific and located largely in Western Europe. England had for him a prototypical CMP. There, the birth of a capitalist agriculture and the rise of mechanized manufacturing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries enabled the Industrial Revolution, which benefited from world trade and technological innovation. Marx associated the rise of capitalism with the establishment of a form of state whose laws and institutions protect private property, capital accumulation, and formal liberties that enable contractual relations between workers and capitalists. This stage of political development is represented by the liberal state, whose juridical and ideological “superstructure” is functional to reproduce the “base” of capitalist relations of exploitation.
Capitalism and Imperialism in Early Marxist Debates
Marx’s awareness that the birth of capitalism was a historically and geographically specific process led him to recognize, as in his 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich, that Western Europe’s “pure” transition to capitalism is not immutable and necessary for all societies. Many debates on the CMP in twentieth-century Marxism revolved around the different ways in which the economic structure of capitalism determines social and political relations, capitalist crises, the role of the state, and the significance of class struggles and workers’ agency. Reformists in the Second International (1889–1916), especially Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), argued that capitalism was not necessarily heading toward unsolvable crises, because governments’ interventions in the economy could actually improve the conditions of the working class. In this view, therefore, socialism could be established through workers’ participation in electoral politics, rather than revolution.
Vladimir Lenin’s theory of imperialism, influenced by Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital (1910), argued that capitalism leads to a growing concentration of ownership in large monopolistic conglomerates. Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) added to such trends the transition toward “Fordist” mass production. For Lenin (1870–1924) and Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), the growth of gigantic capitalist corporations, and their need for new markets, propelled Europe’s colonial expansion and imperialist control of non-Western economies. In Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital (1913), colonialism and imperialism are responses to overproduction in metropolitan economies, and are coterminous with the ruthless destruction of precapitalist societies, what Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation” (1867). In contrast to reformist socialists, such views maintained that capitalism is shaped by crises and conflicts, and rejected the argument, held to some extent by Marx himself, that colonialism was a progressive force that destroyed pre-existing despotism and backwardness.
Postwar Marxist Perspectives on Capitalism, Production, and the State
After World War II growing government intervention in the economy, and the rise of the welfare state, renewed interest in the relations between capitalism and the state among Marxist scholars. Important examples are the work of the “Frankfurt school” (especially Friedrich Pollock and Herbert Marcuse) and Paul Sweezy’s Theory of Capitalist Development (1942). In the 1970s and 1980s Ralph Miliband, James O’Connor, and the “regulation paradigm” (Michel Aglietta, Robert Boyer) underlined the important role of the state in stabilizing capitalism by financing the reproduction of the working class. Similarly, Nicos Poulantzas referred to the “relative autonomy” of the state as the manager of capital’s “general interests.” His reevaluation of the relevance of politics was linked to the work of “structuralist” Marxists, especially Louis Althusser (1918–1990), who viewed the economy as “determining” social relations without being necessarily “dominant.”
Meanwhile, colonialism and imperialism led Marxist theorists of “dependency,” especially André Gunder Frank (1929–2005), and of the “capitalist world economy,” particularly Immanuel Wallerstein (b. 1930), to see capitalism as a global system articulated in “core” and “peripheral” societies. In both views, capitalist trade links the growth of industrialized countries to the continued underdevelopment of the world’s peripheries. Critics, however, accuse such theories of making the periphery a passive object of domination, neglecting processes of production and the complexities of social relations in the global south. Structuralist analyses of the “articulation of modes of production” (by, for example, Althusser, Etienne Balibar, and Harold Wolpe) propose a view of capitalism as an “uneven” social formation that subordinates precapitalist societies, which nonetheless retain their specificities. “Uneven capitalist development” also features prominently in David Harvey’s work, which also focuses on capitalism’s negative environmental impacts.
Starting from the 1970s the concept of CMP also has been criticized by feminist Marxists (e.g., Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Leopoldina Fortunati, Maria Mies, Heidi Hartmann) who indicted its neglect of gender contradictions. In fact, they emphasized, capitalist production is made possible—also with the complicity of a workingclass image of waged work as a manly occupation—by the confinement of women to the household role of unpaid workers.
Finally, “autonomist” Marxists—largely influenced by Italian “workerists” of the 1950s and 1960s (Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri) and by the work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari— criticized traditional Marxist views of social relations as mechanically determined by economic dynamics. Instead, they considered class struggles and workers’ subjectivity to be the main causes of capitalist crisis. In this view, as in Antonio Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s Empire (2000), capitalist responses to national class struggles ultimately opted for the economic liberalization policies that underpin the globalization of production and finance.
Autonomists, in fact, see globalization as part of capital’s broader strategy to establish its control beyond the workplace to the totality of the “social factory,” human interactions, and everyday life.
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