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Forces of production is a term used in political economy that refers to the physical means and techniques of production to which laborers add value and transform capital into products for sale. Forces of production include instruments of production and raw materials, as well as the productive faculties of producing agents manifested by strength, skill, and knowledge. G. A. Cohen (2000, p. 37) argues that instruments of production and raw materials have productive forces, whereas labor power is a productive force.
Distinction must be made between forces of production and the ways they are utilized. Karl Marx wrote: “Powder remains the same whether it is used to wound a man or to dress his wounds” ( 1982, p. 185). It can be argued that in Marx’s view, forces of production are the driving factor in historical development. A new mode of production evolves when there is a conflict between the emerging production forces and the existing social relations. Thus, at a certain stage of development, modern industry becomes incompatible with the social production relations of handicraft (Marx  1977).
The “correspondence” between forces of production and relations need not be interpreted only as symmetrical, but can be interpreted as implying a priority of one over the other. This is the case made by Cohen (2000), who argues that the distinction between relations of production and forces of production is a special case of Marx’s opposition of social to material features of society.
Irrespective of the primacy of forces of production or of social relations, some have insisted that different modes of production may exist simultaneously, which implicitly questions the rigid correspondence of production forces to given social relations. In various ways, feminists have utilized the notion of feudal relations to describe serf-like relations within households in capitalist economies with regards to unpaid domestic work (Benston 1969; Fraad, Resnick, and Wolff 1994).
In Marx’s formulation, people enter into historically and geographically specific social relations that correspond to a given stage in the development of the material forces of production. As Marx puts it, the hand-mill gives society with a feudal lord; the steam-mill—industrial capitalism (Marx  1982, p. 109). The pairing of forms of technology to forms of social relations implies certain inertia and warranted predictability of historical development, which Lary Hickman calls “future-technological stage determinism” (1990, pp. 142–144). Thorstein Veblen (1906) and most of his followers in the tradition of American institutionalism (evolutionary economics) critique this teleological notion of social change and the idea that there is a final known end to which production process converges.
A notion of forces of production that drive historical development in a teleological manner has ramifications with regards to our understanding of “progress” and “development.” Marx argues: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” ( 1977, p. 90). Hickman (1990, pp. 143–144) offers two readings of this statement. First these “iron laws” operate only as long as a society adopts specific forces of production, and this is not necessarily inevitable (“limited technological-stage determinism”). Thus, while there is pairing between forces of production and social forces, there is place for variation. Alternatively, a given society inevitably passes through a given technological stage (“unlimited technological-stage determinism”). Thus, there is a notion of an ideal that ought to be achieved if a society is to master “modern” forces of production and social relations. Such a notion of forces of production brings questions about the opposition between “traditional” and “modern” that is contested by postcolonial critique (Zein-Elabdin 2004).
- Benston, Margaret. 1969. The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation. Monthly Review 21 (4): 13–27.
- Cohen, G. A. 2000. Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Fraad, Harriet, Stephen Resnick, and Richard Wolff. 1994. Bringing It All Back Home: Class, Gender, and Power in the Modern Household. London and Boulder, CO: Pluto Press.
- Hickman, Lary. 1990. John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
- Marx, Karl.  1982. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.
- Marx, Karl.  1999. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ed. Maurice Dobb. New York: International Publishers.
- Marx, Karl.  1977. Capital. New York: Vintage Books.
- Veblen, Thorstein. 1906. The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers. Quarterly Journal of Economics
- Zein-Elabdin, Eiman. 2004. Articulating the Postcolonial (With Economics in Mind). In Postcolonialism Meets Economics, eds. Eiman Zein-Elabdin and S. Charuseela, 21–40. London and New York: Routledge.
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