The Crisis of Exchange Value: Science as Productive Force; Productive Labor; and Capitalist Reproduction (1986)

Robert Kurz

Preliminary Remark: The Left and the Law of Value

There is really no longer a shortage of publications with more or less left-wing or Marxist — or at least emancipatory — aspirations on the concept of crisis in itself, the crisis of labor, of Marxism, of the Left, new technologies, or post-Fordist or even postindustrial society. It would not be particularly helpful to add one more text to this flood without attempting to introduce a fundamentally new or different aspect. Since it proceeds on the basis of this presupposition, the article that follows is bound to appear to have an immodest, apodictic demeanor. It is for this reason that I wish to emphasize right from the start that my aim is in no way to allude suggestively to the sophistication of my own theoretical elaboration, but rather to the fact that the left-wing media are far removed from what would be even a tolerable level of theoretical assurance and reflection on their own elementary categories. The Left’s helplessness when it comes to new phenomena, and also its own political impotence, appear if nothing else to be grounded in this lack of fundamentally theoretical desire. This thesis requires further refining.

Nothing less shall be asserted than that today’s Left, in all its deep-seated factions, disposes over an understanding of the “Marxist” categories that is in no way authentic, but rather bound up with a disappearing historical stage of capital. It is ironic that the ripening objective crisis of the capital relation thus simultaneously appears as the crisis of Marxist theory itself as it is understood both by the Left and by its opponents.

While the left-wing media become more and more untheoretical, cloak themselves in the grey mantle of the shrinking modesty of the seemingly innocuous investigation of partial and superficial themes, and ultimately at least partially throw the categories of Marxian theory overboard — and sometimes, ascetically in comparison even with the positivists, completely dispense with theoretical synthesis of social totality in favor of sociological shorthand — they can only blindly walk past the central problem of their weakness. But in opposition to the general trend, becoming theoretical means, conversely, becoming fundamental again; however, as far as bourgeois society is concerned, becoming fundamental means deriving one’s own essential categories from the critique of the objectivity of value — that is to say, from a concrete historical critique of the commodity fetish — in a renewed historical transition. But if it is correct — and my point is none other than this — that the conventional epigones’ “Marxist” theory up until today, including that of the New Left, slips up completely as early as in the first chapter of Capital, then it will necessarily slip up all the more when faced with a social-economical reality that only today really begins to correspond fully to the fundamental categories of Capital.

As long as the law of value is understood only as the formal law of the social allocation of resources that can be influenced politically, but not as the historical determination of the essential content, the transience of which must establish itself both violently and objectively (that is to say, independently of all the political declarations of intent that refer to it), the understanding of value necessarily degenerates to the status of a category of second nature and can no longer be conceived as a fundamental contradiction. However, the determination of this contradiction at the highest level of abstraction is the determination of the relationship between matter and form, and this must be developed conceptually in order to understand the celebrated empirical or surface reality. This contradiction between the matter and the form of social reproduction, which in the logic of capitalism enters into irreconcilable opposition, can only adequately be decoded as the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production when the definition of the latter does not remain external to the commodity or value relation. The task, that is to say, would be to carve out the concepts of material production on one hand, and the value or commodity character of production on the other hand, as the essential core of the history of capital.

This is the object of this text — and its task, more narrowly defined, is to derive, by means of a categorical redefinition of the capitalist relations of value, the absolute logical and historical limit of capital in its approximate features, as a consequence of the most recent and qualitatively new stage of capitalist socialization. From the beginning we must therefore also emphasize the fact that this text will illustrate the shortcomings not only of a deeply flawed theoretical model but also of the practical politics of the Left, which, in spite of its sense of urgency, is only able to imagine social transcendence illusorily (if at all) solely in relation to what is already established and by way of value and monetary relations, which also means that it cannot but misconstrue the newly socialized productive forces as frightening intensifications of capital’s might.

Use Value and Exchange Value; Productive Labor

In current “Marxist” conceptions, the contradiction between use value and exchange value appears as a static, merely terminological contradiction, which at all stages of the development of capital only ever reproduces itself inflexibly. The liberation of use value from the dictatorship of the abstraction of value, to the extent that it appears in this thinking at all, remains an external, subjective endeavor which can no longer rely on the unfolding of an objective contradiction in a concrete historical process. However, it is precisely this contradiction between use value and exchange value as it is laid out as a contradiction in the process of commodity production that makes capital into a contradiction in process, because it transforms itself under the capital relation from an apparently static relationship into a real historical process that drives toward resolution.

In order to grasp the process character of the relationship between use value and exchange value, it is, however, necessary to rediscover this contradiction within the concept of productivity or of productive labor. The Marxists’ astounding and relatively prevalent dilemma consists in their inability to take this step: the contradiction between use value and exchange value remains inflexible precisely because it is no longer retained as a contradiction within the concept of productive labor. In this contradiction, rather, the material aspects (“of the nature of use value”) and those that are determined by value (“of the nature of exchange value”) appear to be mixed beyond differentiation, and no longer analytically distinct.

However, read against the grain of the petrified historical interpretation of Marx, it is precisely this analytical distinction in the concept of productive labor that proves itself to be essential to his work. From this point of view, productive labor must be understood as a dual concept: firstly, in relation to use value, on the material side of the process of labor as the process of the metabolism between humans and nature; but secondly, in relation to exchange value, to the process of the formation of value, as the social metabolism of humans with one another, in which labor appears to be dematerialized, as abstract human labor.

According to the first analytic definition, the concept of productivity refers exclusively to the relationship between (natural) material activity and material useful effect, a relationship which itself depends on the form and quality of the means of labor and the objects of labor, which could be termed the social extent of the domination of nature, further removed from the individual, qualitatively determined skill of the worker in handling these socially prescribed means of production. To this extent, all labor is productive labor, the content of which enters into a material relationship between activity and useful effect. But in this definition, the purely material aspect of the labor process that pertains to use value is never abandoned.

According to the second analytic definition, the concept of productivity refers exclusively to the abstract process of the formation of value, to the expenditure of abstract human labor as the fictitious substance of value, which on the surface appears reified as exchange value. From this point of view, the only productive labor is labor that is presented immediately as a social real abstraction or value-forming substance, as the expenditure of human labor per se, objectified in each and every product.

On the level of simple commodity production, this analytic distinction poses no problems. Indeed, it could even appear pointless, because productive labor, as material labor pertaining to use value, is here always immediately identical with productive labor as the social-fictional substance of the process of the formation of value. For into the product goes only the labor of the individual (artisanal) producer, seen both on the material level and on that of value. In the personal identity of the producer, the logical separation of the material labor process and the abstract process of the formation of value is suspended and as such cannot appear at all. Concrete, qualitative labor and value creation appear as one and the same, which they indeed are, because the abstract expenditure of the nerves, muscles, or brain as human labor, as such, proceeds from one and the same personal corporeality as the particular concrete, material labor process of the blacksmith, the cobbler, or the tailor.

It could appear that Marx’s analytical separation of concrete, qualitatively particular labor from abstract labor were nothing other than an ingenious feat of thought that finally comes up with an appropriate term for a logic that has in fact existed for thousands of years (namely the logic of value or of commodity production). Such a conception would in any case correspond to the current Marxist understanding according to which the contradiction between use value and exchange value, and behind it the opposition between concrete and abstract labor, appears only as an inflexible definitional figure of thought, but to this extent not as a real category, as if this contradiction can no longer be retained within the concept of productive labor or productivity. However, if this contradiction is followed through logically, it is revealed that Marx’s feat of thought only became possible in the first place at the point in the development of society when material and value-related production actually began to separate from one another. The capitalist mode of production set in motion a process according to which the material labor process and the process of value creation began to diverge on a progressively larger scale, and increasingly grew out of proportion with one another. The motor of this development becomes cooperation in labor as it is practiced by capital, an increased social division of labor which reaches beyond the narrow limits of the individual branches of production that until that point had been inflexible and hermetic, and thus dissolves these limits along with the immediate identity of materially productive labor and value-producing labor within the personal corporeality of the individual producer.

Total Productive Labor

The transformation of the concrete material labor process into a cooperative process, initially in the form of manufacture, and later on the basis of the factory system, appears at first simply to reproduce the identity of the concrete labor process and the process of the formation of value in an altered form: this identity is now projected onto a total productive worker, the totality of the persons active in the cooperative labor process, instead of being, as previously, united within the individual producers.

But on closer observation this identity quickly becomes untenable. In the first instance, and this aspect can only be discussed briefly, the cooperation of labor with monetary capital causes the dissociation of a variety of unproductive functions (with regard to both materiality and value). These dissociated functions — special labor processes — have neither immediate nor mediated influence on the product, yet they are contained in the nature of production as the production of commodities (commercial functions, buying and selling as such). These functions, in every respect unproductive, also already exist for the individual artisanal producers (or they are carried out by members of their families, who also perform household and subsistence labor), but they are not isolated as individual activities, and remain extremely marginal to the process of commodity production as a whole and closely related to the cultural forms of social life which cannot be reduced to the dry categories of economic analysis (market day as a feast day). Capitalist cooperation brings about the formalization of these commercial functions, their economization, and at the same time their expansion: they are no longer restricted to acts of buying and selling, but are developed into marketing, market analysis, and advertising.

Secondly, however, enigmatic functions that can no longer unambiguously be identified with either productive or unproductive labor also begin to arise within the immediate labor process: the functions of direction and control. As a cooperative process, the material labor process is not identical with the simple sum of the individual parts of the labor process, but contains the very moment of combination as a particular activity necessary for the whole process, just as the activity of the conductor belongs to the total labor of an orchestra (Marx uses this analogy on many occasions). On the other hand, in the capitalist form of cooperation this function of “conducting” is never simply a moment of the material labor process, but is always at the same time stained with the character of the labor process as a process of exploitation — that is to say, it is bound up with functions of control and oppression. The conducting function is divorced from the people involved in the directly cooperative process of labor by its exclusivity and its external character, and therefore is fundamentally loathsome to them — more so than can be said of the personifications of monetary capital itself, at whose command they toil, but which never confronts them as immediately as the “officers and NCOs” of the production process.

These functions are just as inflexible as the capitalist process of production itself, and they are revolutionized with every revolution in the material structure of the labor process. The relentless rhythm of the factory system takes on to a certain extent the task of primitive surveillance and renders human control unnecessary; but these functions, as befits the nature of production as an exploitative process, never become wholly superfluous, but also reproduce themselves on the level of the most modern technological changes brought about by microelectronics and so on and merely take on new forms. To the ambiguous content of these functions corresponds their ambiguous connection to the concept of productive labor: to the extent that they emerge as a cooperative function (the function of a conductor) from the purely material character of the labor process, they are part of the labor of immediate production and are thus productive both materially and with respect to value; but to the extent that they emerge from the hostile opposition between capital and labor as the bailiff of the command of monetary capital, they are, just like the purely commercial functions, productive neither materially nor with respect to value. The split between productive and unproductive labor similarly splits every person in half.

The problem at the heart of the divergence of matter and value under capitalism consists neither in the isolation of the commercial functions nor in the way in which the cooperative tasks of direction take on an importance in their own right, in opposition to the immediate producers. Rather, this essential core appears only when we examine a third category that is usually not perceived as a category at all, but which alone makes the contradiction between exchange value and use value, between the material labor processes and the value-forming labor process, truly manifest. At stake here are those functions which, while they apply to the material labor process within the total worker, do not do so immediately, but indirectly, in a mediated way. These functions do not arise from the commercial character of the mode of production, nor do they emerge from the formal opposition between capital and labor, but it is also the case that they do not constitute a link in the immediate cooperative labor process which is directly objectified in a product. What is at stake here are rather activities beside and beyond the immediate process of production, which without doubt become part of the material content of production, but do not straightforwardly become part of any particular product — for example, tasks of technical (rather than social) monitoring, technical project management, design, and so on.

These activities, which in the technological sense involve planning, monitoring, designing, and so on — that is to say intellectual labor in the broadest sense — were originally all united within the head of the individual producer, to the extent that they were part of his personal corporeality and not separated from the immediate manual labor. Capitalist cooperative labor involves the historical tendency to dissolve these functions from the immediate process of production, and to recompose them alongside this process.

With regard to the way in which these labors objectify value, the question arises as to whether they, as isolated functions that have been dissolved from the immediate process of production, are, nonetheless, as components of the total productive worker, still suspended in the identity of the material labor process and the abstract process of the formation of value. This is certainly the case to the extent that they, even indirectly and in a mediated form, still become part of the process of objectifying a particular total labor in a particular product; to this extent even such functions would in the end amount to no more than the collective reproduction, if in more complex forms, of the earlier individual process of production in its hermetic identity of the concrete labor process and the abstract process of value formation.

The matter no longer seems quite so unambiguous when such technological, intellectual labors that are dissociated from the immediate production process no longer flow into a particular product in any recognizable manner, but rather into a wide range of products, and thus reach well beyond the limits of cooperation or of total labor in the respective individual businesses. Even then, such labors doubtless enter, indirectly and mediatedly, the material labor process; to this extent they can unambiguously be identified as productive labor. However, as far as the process of the formation of value is concerned, a grey zone opens up: when the same activity that indirectly becomes part of the material labor process — let us take as an example the design of a control module — is not only spread across completely different products, but even (e.g., through licensing) across products of completely different participants in the market, then doubt arises as to how this labor, productive in the material sense, can objectively take on a value form.

We must not forget that value, which must appear as exchange value, does not by its nature express an in some way mythical substance inherent to things as such, as the fetish structure of exchange value suggests, but rather a social relationship between partial or private producers who are isolated from one another, whose social division of labor can only be realized by means of the sphere of circulation that has been separated from it. However, the construction of a control module that could be universally implemented is an immediately socialized task according not only to its form, but also to its content and its nature; to this extent it goes beyond the mere transformation of the process of simple production from individual to collective, cooperative production, but also begins to suspend these branches of production themselves on an ever-larger scale, by smudging the boundaries between them by means of technology. There do of course continue to exist operations specific to the production of specific products, but these become less and less characteristic of the central content of the production process, becoming rather merely an appendage to and a partial aspect of a highly socialized and networked total aggregate of immediately social labor. To the extent that a bulging, immediately social aggregate of universal, nonspecific technology pushes its way between the actual specific manufacture of a particular end product and its ideal conception, many specific branches of production also no longer relate to one another externally. Instead an integrated, technological, and social total aggregate develops arbitrarily combinable output systems of specific products as its subordinate aspects and functions. This, however, tends materially to suspend the social division of labor according to separate branches of production that have existed up until this point, and as a result commodity production itself becomes obsolete.

As long as the technological-material suspension of the isolated branches of production had not progressed particularly far, that is to say perhaps up until the end of the age of steam-powered machinery, it might have seemed to a certain extent a good idea simply to replace individual commodity producers with a collective, cooperative commodity producer, that is to say to suspend the opposition of capital and labor within the confines of commodity production itself. It is for this reason that the concept of socialism in the old workers’ movement necessarily remained to a great extent confined not only within the commodity fetish, but also in the money and wage fetish, as the idea of a community of cooperative commodity producers in collectives and the like. If such thoughts are being revived today, they are certainly only reactionary, for these ideas must sink, along with the old workers’ movement, not least because the process of material-technical socialization has long been left behind by capitalism. This all parenthetically.

Once it was possible to define the particular activities that were dissociated from the individual producer of the past initially either as productive or unproductive, both in the material sense and in respect to value (as an emulsion of productive and unproductive processes carried out by the officers and NCOs of the process of production). Now, however, we are confronted with an entirely new category within total labor that entails functions which may be categorized as productive labor in a material sense (insofar as they directly contribute to a labor process that is socialized on an increasingly higher technological level) but which are simultaneously unproductive with respect to the creation of value (and thus in respect to capitalist processes of valorization). At the very least, the latter category disappears into a grey zone that (as immediately social labor) is not included in the categories of the socialization of surplus value. It is thus this area of the process of reproduction, in which materially productive labor and labor that is productive with respect to value begin to diverge, that historically dissolves the former identity of the concrete and the abstract labor process.

As long as the functions of immediately social labor that emerge objectively from the context of exchange value remain on the whole marginal — that is to say, as long as they appear both quantitatively and qualitatively to be shrinking in comparison with the mass of living labor which is employed in the cooperative immediate process of production and which is still unambiguously objectified within a particular project that can appear on the market as the product of a social-partial producer (internally divided into commanding monetary capital and wage labor) — the logical contradiction of value does not yet reveal itself in its true and pure form. This does not happen until this relationship between immediate (only indirectly social) labor and mediated (directly social) labor in the material process of production is altered and ultimately overturned by the capitalist development of social productive force. Living labor is removed from the immediate production process that directly objectifies itself within a particular product. The proportion of human labor alongside and beyond this immediate process of production, which only indirectly enters the process as directly social labor, grows at the same rate.

It is true that the explosive force of this development does not become completely clear until we examine this historical divergence on the level of society as a whole, beyond the interface or grey zone in which materially productive labor and labor that is productive with respect to value begin to diverge. I have for this reason until now only cautiously spoken of a grey zone, since all determinations of the productive total worker up to this point solely developed out of capitalist cooperation on the plane of the factory or the individual business where these determinations transform into a total aggregate only at the fraying boundaries of the separate branches of production that determine immediately social labor. But if we now no longer examine the process of the material socialization of the whole apparatus of social reproduction from the bottom up (from the perspective of an individual capitalist business), but rather from the top down (from the perspective of total social reproduction), then the concept of the total productive worker must also be expanded to include this total social dimension. At this point we must deal with two levels of total labor (which both permeate each other), that of the individual business and that of society as a whole, which present themselves as reciprocally networked. On this second, expanded level of total labor the divergence of material production and value production now begins to become properly clear, and the derivation of the concept that has up until this point only been hinted at can now be fully developed.

In all precapitalist modes of production, the social network that reaches beyond the individual units of production (peasant and artisanal families) is only developed to an extremely limited extent; even the state only exists in a crude form, primarily as the armed self-organization of the ruling classes. Capitalism transforms not only the individual or familial productive units into cooperative large-scale producers that within themselves function according to the division of labor and that on a larger scale are integrated into a mechanical system, but in doing so also establishes an institutionalized social framework of conditions without which such cooperative large-scale production for the newly developing global markets would be unthinkable. The most important of these conditions consists in advanced social infrastructure (e.g., extensive and ramified transport and communication systems, energy provision, regulated and institutionalized standardization of measures, weights, and formats, and not least a comprehensive and integrated system of education and training). This framework of increasingly necessary conditions of social infrastructure must quickly be taken over and run by state-controlled or semi-state-controlled organizations — an indication that their essential character pertains to society as a whole, to the way in which they fundamentally reach beyond every concern of individual businesses. As a general framework of conditions, this infrastructure becomes part of total social production just like the natural foundations and requirements of production; it becomes a sort of material second nature (just as on the other hand value becomes an economic second nature). The general average human capacity for labor is thus for example no longer the original natural capacity, but is always already, before all productive activity, a socially produced capacity of which cultural techniques such as reading, writing, and arithmetic at the very least form a part.

All these basic conditions of social infrastructure require labor and absorb a historically increasing proportion of socially available labor power. With respect to the productivity of this labor, what was already suggested at the margins of cooperation between individual businesses in activities such as design now becomes palpable: they are productive only in terms of society as a whole as immediately social or socialized tasks. They are no longer the expression of a separation of whatever nature between partial, individual, or private social producers, but rather their exact opposite: by their nature these tasks become from the outset part of all moments of partial social production to the same extent but by different routes, and are therefore always and indeed exclusively a matter of the whole process of reproduction of society as a totality, and never of a process pertaining to an individual business. Social productive forces are here being set in motion, and all the labors that are encapsulated within them are indirectly productive at the material level. But at the same time, it is in the nature of these labors that they stand a priori outside the law of value, and cannot take on the form of objectified abstract labor in the fetish shape of value, because it is precisely as immediately social labor that they become part of all products to the same extent and at all times, and thus cannot at all appear as a moment in a process of exchange of separate units. With respect to the process of value creation they must therefore always remain unproductive, because value is nothing other than the essential core of social exchange between separated partial producers, a core which necessarily fetishizes itself, and which congeals in an apparently urgent substance.

Here we now have the new prototype of labor that is in many ways first engendered by capitalism, and with which capitalism, however, suspends the law of value and with it its own foundations according to real logic: immediately social, indirectly materially productive labor, that by its nature is unproductive with respect to value. However, with the large-scale expansion of the mechanical system of production, the social importance of this new, immediately social form of labor for the process of social reproduction grows in a historically inexorable manner, seen both in absolute and in relative terms. Logically, this also causes the law of value to become increasingly obsolete, and value-based production historically to approach an objective collapse. Marx’s comments on this matter, particularly in the Grundrisse, are to be taken completely literally and as a concrete prognosis of the objective historical logic of the development of capital, and in no way as the subjective program of communism that is not to be realized until some distant future or other long beyond capitalism. The various tendencies of the Marxist Left might have pored over the relevant passages in Marx hundreds or even thousands of times and cited them in the most contradictory of contexts, but they have never conceptually unfolded their true logic as the logic of capital itself with reference to its actual historical unfolding; evidently not because of a fundamental lack of the capacity for abstraction, but because of a historically conditioned failure to escape the categories of exchange value, a failure that has up until the present day not been overcome.

Science as Productive Force

However, the essential determination of the content of the new, immediately social labor is that of science. That capitalism is the scientification of production is absolutely obvious and therefore beyond dispute. However, in Marxist theory this concept of the scientification of production is also used in a far-too-inflexible, ahistorical, and abstract-definitional manner — and where the actual historical development of this process of scientification is discussed at all, it is without any logical or systematic reference to the value structure of production.

There is a fundamental distinction to be made between two forms of the process of scientification, which reciprocally permeate each another and ultimately fuse into a social technology of production which by itself necessarily and wholly objectively explodes the law of value and therefore commodity production.

The first is the technological application of the natural sciences, which makes science itself into an “immediate productive force”; but the second is the science of labor or of organization, which only emerges on the basis of cooperation in the form of the capitalist division of labor. Both forms of scientification are to be discussed at first for themselves, and then in terms of the reciprocal relationship between them.

Natural science as such has existed for millennia, and arose in ancient slave-owning society. But in accordance with the economic nature of this society, natural science, as a part of philosophy, remained strictly separate from the material activity of production. It was a luxury of the ruling, slave-owning class, a decisive step forward in the history of humanity, but in the first instance did not exercise any influence on production. The idea that natural science was a product of the “inventive spirit” of the immediate producer and so forth, as can be found in some “Marxist” treatises, emerges in contrast from naïve proletkult ideas and from a vulgar materialism that always wishes directly to derive all social phenomena from production. It is true that, in a historically mediated form, and going all the way back to the original society of the hunter-gatherers, intellectual activities and the forms of their higher development are indeed in the first instance a direct result of material production. But the further we advance through history toward the threshold of class society as the result of the development of the productive forces, the more material production and intellectual-scientific activity (or their primitive forms) are isolated from one another and take on their own existence independently of one another. The general truth of the materialist thesis as it pertains to the process of human development as a whole, that the forms of intellectual activity have their roots in material activities of production, is no hindrance to recognizing the fact that natural science has evolved as a particular moment of this process of development in strict separation from production.

For this reason, natural science, understood as the socially abstract “love of wisdom” of luxuriant slave-owners, had in the first instance and for a long time nothing to do with the development of the social productive capacity of labor; it was an indirect result of the development of productive capacity, but conversely did not itself become a cause or motor of its further development. To the extent that the productive forces were further developed by means of improvements in the instruments and methods of production, this in fact came about as a result of the meticulous and contemplative nature of some of the immediate producers (farmers, craftsmen, fishermen), but absolutely not in a scientific manner, but purely empirically, accidentally, nonconceptually, without systematic abstraction or a sequence of logical steps that sequentially build upon one another. For this reason the process was tremendously slow and took place over very long periods of time, such that it was hardly possible to observe changes in technologies of production over many generations, and new procedures established themselves only very slowly, to the extent that they were not bound to particular natural conditions (e.g. as in the case of watermills).

In the ancient world, emerging science, with natural science as an integral component of it that had not yet developed to the status of a discipline in its own right, had already been a moment of human emancipation from religion, at least from religion in its original, naïve, unreflected, mythological form. But at the same time these beginnings of intellectual emancipation arose — and could only arise — as a luxury good produced by an idle class of slave holders who despised material production, with whose historical demise this emancipation, while it did not simply disappear, was however subordinated once more, and in a very inflexible, mechanical form, to institutionalized religion in the form of the Roman church.

The history of the new rise of science and its transformation once again into an emancipatory ideology on a higher scale is, however, since the Renaissance, nothing other than the history of bourgeois emancipation from the chains of feudalism. The renewed, more extensive separation of science from religion, the detachment of knowledge of nature from the belief in God had in the first place — and indeed for centuries — a purely ideological function: it was an ideal weapon to begin to unite the urban bourgeoisie against the feudal powers. As the founding sciences of a new secularized world picture, astronomy and cosmology (Galileo, Bruno, Kepler) were hardly suited to function as immediate productive forces. But the class that was to become the socioeconomic bearer of the modern emancipation of science from religion differed fundamentally in its economic position (and therefore also in its ways of thinking) from the ancient slave-holders who “discovered” science. The bourgeoisie understood itself in its rise and in its struggle with feudalism as a productive class, although this concept certainly remained ideologically blurred and took sustenance from its opposition to the manifestly socially parasitic classes of the feudal aristocracy and to the feudal clergy. In the bourgeoisie’s understanding of itself as a productive class lay the historical ideological precondition for the productive application of the new sciences; but for this application actually to come to life, one further path must be travelled.

In the first half of the nineteenth century — that is, relatively late in the overall development of the bourgeoisie since the Renaissance — when capitalism first really began to develop by means of steam-powered machinery, this historical leap in the development of productivity was not yet in any way the result of a systematic relationship between science and production. The decisive innovations were initially still made by empirical practitioners (such as the engineer-industrialist and inventor of the spinning frame Arkwright) and not by scientists, and these innovations were made not on the basis of the socialized organization of science and technology, but individually. The development of the natural sciences since the sixteenth century was certainly a general precondition of the new technologies, and in particular of the tremendous potential of steam as a source of energy, but the technological and commercial application did not directly result from this. It essentially remained this way throughout the nineteenth century: the systematic social organization of the process of science and of its technological application and the substructure of qualifications that it requires (schools, specialist schools, the expansion of the universities, the foundation of polytechnics, the amalgamation of science and large-scale capital) only got under way gradually. As late as the Gründerzeit at the end of the century, the threshold to the age of imperialism, it was still inventor-capitalists such as Siemens, Daimler, or Edison in the United States who laid the decisive foundations for entire industrial branches.1 Industry itself was still in development, the largest proportion of the working population had not yet been transformed into wage laborers, and the industrial processes themselves remained in themselves very crude and labor-intensive — the scientification of production was still in its childhood. It is perhaps necessary to bring these facts to mind in order to grasp just how extremely young the historical development of the true logic of capitalism is, the logic that Marx had already anticipated in ideal form from its beginnings through the power of abstraction, admittedly spread across a huge life’s work that has remained a torso and still awaits the development that would emancipate it from the historical abbreviations of Marxism.

The scientification of production, which not only embraces the entire spectrum of the different branches of production but also reaches to the very depths of the individual labor processes, could only fully develop itself in the twentieth century — and as is the case throughout previous history, war was here, too, the father of all things. It was the two imperialist world wars that not only brought with them new inventions and technological innovations, but also the decisive breakthrough in the state and social organization of the process of science and its direct connection to material production. And after World War II, electronics, as the direct descendant of militarized research, was the basis not only on which new industries were produced out of thin air, but also on which applied natural sciences for the first time ceased to be merely the technological foundation and general prerequisite of industrial labor processes, and became the driving force of the immediate labor process itself. The resonance of this change is felt by observers in all ideological camps when they are in agreement in speaking of a new technological revolution.

The second form of the scientification of production, the science of labor as the science of the organization of the processes of production, is of an even more recent vintage than the productive application of the natural sciences, and only came into existence in the first place in the twentieth century. It will forever remain associated with the name “Taylor.” It is true that the necessity of the planned organization of the process of production coincides with cooperation itself and therefore dates back to the beginnings of manufacture, but this organization remained immediate, spontaneous, and above all external to the concrete reality of the labor processes themselves, even throughout the entire nineteenth century.

The industrial system did not simply turn the worker into an appendage of the machinery straight away, but only parts of the working class (in the first instance primarily women and children), while at the same time, as a result of the machinery, new activities arose within the labor process that required certain qualifications, which looked very similar to those of the old artisanal class, and in part emerged from them. But others — technicians — must also be seen as creations of the system of machinery. These technicians possessed irreplaceable knowledge about the immediate process of production, abilities, and skills that they had acquired through practice, which left them a certain amount of room for maneuver with respect to capital. But even the unskilled workers had a certain, if smaller, latitude, by learning as it were to take advantage of the gaps in the mechanical system in order to create tiny spaces and breaks for themselves, to keep the average working speed as low as possible. Capital’s attempts to bring these various instances of room for maneuver under control, along with what it saw as the squandering of valuable time, are as old as the capitalist mode of production itself, and are personified in those officers and NCOs of the process of production that with the onset of cooperation necessarily appear in particular guises. But as long as this control did not take on an objectified, operationalizable — in short, scientified — form, it had to remain external, arbitrary, and subjective.

It was not until the next stage of the development of capitalist concentration at the start of the twentieth century, which brought with it the large-scale material production that left even the most comprehensive forms of cooperation from the nineteenth century in its wake (not least in the highly organized and in part already state-directed wartime production of World War I), that the general precondition for labor science was created. Taylor himself, and it is telling that he advanced from the skilled working class (he was originally a lathe operator), combined in his own person a mixture of an almost glowing ideological defense of capitalism and the innovative fantasy of the fastidious contemplator with a bean-counting pedantry that enabled him to place the organization of the labor process itself on a scientific foundation.

The elementary principle of the science of labor over their respective immediate labor processes consists in the deindividualization and systematization of the control contained in the workers’ individual personality and corporeality, and to institutionalize it as an instance of control outside the individual worker. What Taylor created can to this extent be described as a second level of cooperation: if the first level of cooperation divided the total individual labor of a branch of production into partial individual labors under a command that lies outside the partial worker and with the representative of monetary capital, then now the partial labor is itself divided into individual, standardized operations, under a control which now just as then lies outside the individual partial worker.

In the industrial labor process as Taylor found it, this new level of cooperation had, like the first before it, to turn against the worker. For the unskilled workers the consequences were devastating, for what little remained of their room to maneuver was now taken from them. The assembly line, technologically speaking, in no way a specific innovation of applied natural science, but rather a simple matter of mechanics, was, however, organizationally speaking, a decisive step in the industrial production process, and became a symbol of the new scientific torture of labor, of which the presentation in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times remains unsurpassed. However, the assembly line, developed in prototypical form in the vanguard of the automobile industry, could in no way easily be applied to all branches of production at will. The principles of the new science of labor failed spectacularly when faced with the great proportion of technicians’ tasks, which involved an artisanal precision that could not be dissolved into standardized and externally controlled operations. The age of Taylorism or of Fordism (named after the original image of assembly line production) thus remained an epoch characterized by perpetual struggle between the science of labor and the working class, symbolized by the despised stopwatch of the time and motion expert, whose task it was to standardize optimally the content and duration of the operations, and by the absurd consequences it brought (such as the standardization of the sequence of motions in filing a document).

We shall now consider the scientification of production under the aspect of the confluence of applied natural science and the science of labor, a process which did not start until after World War II, and is only today entering a decisive stage before our very eyes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, technologically applied natural science and the science of labor were still relatively separate disciplines; it was not until the development of electronics and the automatic processes of production control that developed out of it that they fused into a unity. This development is characterized precisely by the minimization and the tendency toward the elimination of living human labor in the immediate process of production. The gaps between the scientific organization of labor and technology are closed precisely by means of the removal of living labor itself, regardless of the place it previously occupied in immediate production.

However, this has wide-reaching consequences. From the standpoint of the money and wage fetishes, Taylor was a capitalist monster, because he wanted to redeploy the last elements of autonomy that remained in the industrial process of production outside the worker and to centralize them; from the standpoint of the money and wage fetishes, the fusion of natural-scientific technology and the science of labor must bring about another, far more hideous capitalist monstrosity, because such a fusion eliminates human labor altogether from the immediate process of production. But it is precisely in this aspect that Taylor’s genius, within his capitalist constraints, becomes clear: his “science of labor” created the preconditions for automatization, as soon as applied natural sciences had become ripe for it, and with them the starting point for the suspension of commodity production itself. For the unification of technologically applied natural science and the science of labor implies a tendency toward the suspension of the partial social labor that is objectified within a particular product, and a tendency to universalize immediately social labor.

The revolutionary working class that was attacking the wage system itself ought to dedicate a monument to Taylor, for he, albeit unconsciously, and in a restricted and even sordid manner directly in accordance with the base ends of the capitalist extraction of living labor, paved the way for the ultimate suspension of that immediately productive labor that, precisely because of this direct productivity that objectifies itself within a particular product, cannot be immediately social labor and therefore remains apprehended within the socialization of exchange value. In capitalism this tendency, which is only today attaining objective maturity before our eyes, cannot be completed, because it relies on the valorization of value and therefore on the exploitation of that immediate living productive labor which it at the same time tends, according to its historical logic, to abolish.

If Marx occasionally talks of the abolition of labor but at the same time describes labor as the eternal natural condition of the metabolism between humans and nature, this apparent contradiction can now easily be accounted for: what is abolished is immediate productive labor, and with it the tendency toward the torture of labor; what is not abolished and can never wholly be abolished is mediated, indirect, productive labor alongside the immediate process of production, before and beyond this process, labor which for the most part appears to be becoming more immediately social or socialized, and therefore objectively falls outside the framework of exchange value — a historical tendency, which in capitalism can only appear as a fundamental and catastrophic crisis.

The logic of this tendency that continually works its way further into the body politic contradicts the Marxist Left, for the reason that their understanding of the capital relation is restricted to inflexible definitional determinations with which all movements within capital, including technical progress, can apparently be explained. But it becomes clear that the inflexibility of these definitions was merely the expression of an epoch of the historical development of capital itself that is now coming to an end. As applied natural science and the science of labor converge to bring about the tendency toward the automation of immediate production, the contradiction of capital as a relation that becomes its own limit is only today coming to a head. Accordingly, we now find ourselves at the start of a new epoch, in which the core of the logic of capitalist development and crisis will at last truly begin to emerge.

Because of its advanced maturity, the elimination of living labor from the immediate process of production can today be recognized as such, and it is possible to draw from this insight more fundamental and deeper-reaching conclusions than those of Marxist theory up until today. This tendency will assert itself objectively on a global scale not as a single, isolated event, but as a longer historical period in which the accumulation of capital perishes and burns out as a result of itself. The technological process of the fusion of natural science and the science of labor is still in its infancy, even if microelectronics has already provided the decisive prerequisites. The structures of material production in a great many sectors are still closing themselves off against a far-too-hasty and simple process of complete automation, even if there is a palpable tendency (as in the automobile industry, which because of its assembly-line structure is the most suited to it) for industrial robots to begin to close the gaps in the mechanical system that at the moment are still filled by people. The imperialist industrialized nations are still involved in global exchange with labor-intensive production of the countries of the Third World, from which they take control of the abstract wealth of exchange value, that spectral objectification of human labor in itself in the immediate process of production. But there can be no doubt an epoch has begun that will be defined by the necessary objective downfall of money, because the material productivity of the process of labor itself relies on direct socialization, and in doing so destroys exchange value.

It is one of the ironies of history that the Marxist and indeed non-Marxist Left has, today of all times at the beginning of this historical epoch, moved the furthest away from the concrete Marxian critique of value or of the objectivity of value, and is starting to lose what trace it had of the recollection of the objectivity of the capitalist contradiction, and is even beginning to conceive the new technological revolution as an overpowering increase of power and the potential final consolidation of capital, rather than as the beginning of its objective demolition. An essential theoretical foundation of this grotesque misunderstanding is the failure to retain in the concept of productive labor the distinction between material production and the production of value, between the immediate labor of production and directly social labor. If Marx’s reference to “science as immediate productive force” is misunderstood to mean that science itself produces value, a misunderstanding that can only be based on a failure to escape the value fetish, then every new stage in the scientification of production must certainly seem to be a moment of the immortalization and consolidation of the process of the abstraction of value.2

While traditional Marxism had hardly touched on the problem, the New Left unfurled the question of scientification in precisely the opposite way. Michael Mauke, who was much read in the early stages of the 1968 movement, thus argued: “The shift from immediate to mediated activities has the effect that technical and scientific labor directly ‘produces surplus-value for the capitalist or serves the self-valorization of capital,’ that is to say it becomes productive labor in the capitalist sense.”3

Habermas expresses this misunderstanding even more clearly when he writes:

With the advent of large-scale industrial research, science, technology, and industrial utilisation were fused into a system. [...] Thus technology and science become a leading productive force, rendering inoperative the conditions for Marx’s labor theory of value[!]. It is no longer meaningful to calculate the amount of capital investment in research and development on the basis of unskilled (simple) labor power, when scientific-technical progress has become an independent source of surplus-value, in relation to which the only source of surplus-value considered by Marx, namely the labor power of the immediate producers, plays an ever smaller role.4

It is writ large in the face of such proclamations that for them value has congealed into a fetish concept — but this is precisely the matter on which the Left, and Habermas with it, has failed fundamentally to reflect. These circumstances prove only that the New Left as a whole shares Habermas’s fetishization of value, and that their theory and their political goals have never moved beyond this fetish, that is to say that their critique of the “traditional” workers’ movement has not begun to touch on the decisive question. This becomes clear at the very latest when it is seen that the only critique of the “science as a productive force” theorem came from the K-Gruppen, which relied on a set of concepts that had lapsed to the petrified proletkult of the Third International.5 In the very few pertinent comments from this source the problem is approached no less wrongly than by Mauke and Habermas, but merely the other way around: their insistence that science as a productive force creates no value (which is certainly by no means a result of theoretical derivation, but remains a merely dogmatic assertion of faith) thus appears immediately identical with the finding that science accordingly cannot be an immediate productive force even with respect to material production, but at most a concern that is external to the process of production.

This formulation (as well as that of Mauke, Habermas, and others that are apparently opposed to it) remains, absurdly, aconceptually and without any analytical differentiation, wedded to that historical identity of material production and the production of value which experiences a moment of real suspension precisely by capitalism’s secular movement. But their respective consequences are just as opposed as their evaluations. For Habermas, at least, and the whole intellectual sphere of the Frankfurt School and indeed of the left-wing academic socialists, the result — sometimes sooner, sometimes later — was the path to obsolescence of the revolutionary subject of the working class, instead of the obsolescence of exchange value, and thus a shallow reformism on the basis of the valorization of value, presumably immortalized by means of science as a productive force. Conversely, for the K-Gruppen the result was once again clothed in the burlesque intellectual garb of Stalinist proletkult, hanging to the naïve pride in his labor of the immediate producer who boasts that he creates all value, instead of palpably abolishing value.

Relative Surplus Value and the Logic of the Development of Capital

It is now time to reveal how the divergence of material production and the production of value gradually appears in the process of the social reproduction of capital, and constitutes the historical logic of the development of the capitalist mode of production. The key concept in understanding this logic is well known to be that of relative surplus value. This concept is an analytical category found in Marx, but at the same time a real category of the total social reproduction of capital, not a surface category which would also appear in the consciousness of the representatives of monetary capital.

Presupposing the existence of an absolute physical limit (with respect both to the duration of labor time and the intensity of labor) and a relative social limit to the working day (limitations enforced by the labor movement and/or by state interventions), the valorization of value transforms itself from an absolute and extensive into a relative and intensive movement. The foundation of valorization is and remains surplus value as such — that is, the fact that the capitalist yield, apparently the output, measured in value, of the total aggregate of dead and living labor, is nothing other than the proportion of the new value that the living labor has created over and above the costs of its own reproduction. But if the capitalist share of this new value can no longer be enlarged extensively, by prolongation of the working day, its growth comes to depend on intensively and relatively increasing surplus labor, mediated through the development of the productive forces — that is, through the progressive scientification of the process of production. What presents itself with respect to a single capital as the difference between individual value and the level of social value, presents itself socially with respect to the generalization of the new productive force as a decrease in the reproduction costs of the commodity labor power. The production of relative surplus value thus necessarily becomes the prime means of capitalist accumulation. But in the movement of capital as a whole, mediated by competition, three logical historical consequences are established, the third of which is hardly discussed in either bourgeois or Marxist theory.

The first consequence consists in the fact that the increased capitalist share of the newly created value brings about an escalation of the material output of products, which in turn forces an expansion of markets and an acceleration of accumulation. Capital as it were hunts across the globe. This law of motion, as it compels an individual capital, is multiplied and politicized at the higher level of forms of state organization of national total capital, or of total capitalist blocs. Competition for higher productive capacity and over the markets takes place on all levels, on the level of the individual capital just as on the level of capitalist states and blocs of allied countries.

This process concentrates and centralizes capital within the individual states. At the same time, the world market, as the economic theater of the war over markets for commodities and capital, the war over sources of raw materials, spheres of influence, and so on, is transformed into a global political arena. The capitalist world economy gives birth to world politics, political and military power becomes a condition of economic competitiveness, to the reciprocal detriment of the economic base. Hot war, naked violence, which tends toward and in this century has actually meant world wars with millions of casualties, becomes the ultima ratio of competition. It is completely evident that in this global capitalist system known as imperialism, war is in no way the direct effect of the economic crisis, neither the crisis of overproduction nor any other, but rests on the logic of competition between capitals on the world market, and of the internal dynamic of a world politics that is itself founded on this competition. The most fundamental revolutions of this century did not result from economic crises, and to this extent not from a burning out of capitalist logic as such either, but from political crises in combination with military conflicts and defeats of the ruling classes: beginning with the Paris Commune in 1871 then the October Revolution, the German Revolution of November 1918, the Chinese Revolution in the aftermath of World War II (the specific example of anticolonial revolutions such as those in Algeria or southeast Asia ought to be given separate treatment).

Even when the capitalist world economy turns into the world-political phenomenon that takes on a dynamic of its own and engenders its own laws, the fundamental economic movement of the accumulation of relative surplus value ultimately remains the determining factor. Imperialist violence, the ultima ratio of military intervention, does not in the slightest eradicate the economic starting point of competition, nor can it solve the resulting conflicts. Competition must always reproduce itself on all levels, even if it does so in ever-new forms. The struggle over the development of productivity and over the markets is never determined or indeed ultimately resolved by mere violence, as is shown by the fulminant economic upturn in the Federal Republic of Germany and Japan during the phase of prosperity after World War II, despite their military defeats and prolonged periods of political and military weakness. The compulsion to the development of productivity is contained both in the self-determined logic of political-military competition, as is shown by the Sputnik Shock of 1957 and the subsequent technological drive in the West, and in the continued effect of purely economic competition, as is indicated today in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and Western Europe by the technological race with Japan and the United States for the leading positions in microelectronics or gene technology.

The second consequence of the accumulation brought about by the increase in relative surplus value consists in the increasing tendency of the individual product to lose value — that is, in this interminable process, mediated by competition, of the development of the productive forces, the products decline in value. This tendency toward the decline in value of products allows more and more of what were previously luxury items to become available for the consumption of the masses, and creates and develops new, higher needs, which Marx with good reason reckons to be an aspect of the civilizing mission of capital. Contrary to some theoretical assertions, this tendency also develops according to its nature under imperialism, monopoly capitalism, and late capitalism — that is to say, neither the monopoly nor the state monopoly is ultimately able to render the law of value fundamentally inoperative. Even into the twentieth century, a great many products that used to be luxuries have, by means of the development of productive forces and the resultant decline in value, become objects of mass consumption (e.g., motor vehicles, electric household appliances, and so on at the start of this century; computers only more recently).

For the fact that the motor vehicle first became available to the masses in the form of the automobile and chaotic individual transport, with all its devastating consequences, is primarily the fault of the fact that this process was determined according to capitalism, for the public (that is to say communal) forms of transport were in no way developed to the same extent. But even then there is fundamentally a certain civilizing moment to the generalization of the motor vehicle: it creates a new mobility, a new mass need to travel, and thus contributes to the spasmodic broadening of the mind and to the creation of an internationalized society, even if this process in some cases engenders grotesque frictions at the same time. If the critique is directed against the universalization of the motor vehicle rather than against the fact that it is determined by its capitalist form, then the conservative and culturally pessimistic perspective of the gentleman rider can easily shine through it, a perspective that merely mourns for the privilege of the elect.

The third consequence, however — and this has hardly been brought to light in theory — consists in the fact that capital itself becomes the absolute logical and historical limit in the production of relative surplus value. Capital has no interest in and cannot be interested in the absolute creation of value; it is fixated only on surplus value in the forms in which it appears at the surface, that is to say on the relative proportion within the newly created value of the value of labor power (the costs of its reproduction) to the share of the new value that is appropriated by capital. As soon as capital can no longer increase the creation of value in absolute terms by extending the working day, but can only increase the relative size of its own share of the newly created value by means of the increase of productivity, there arises in the production of relative surplus value a countermovement, which must consume itself historically and work toward and bring about a standstill in the process of value creation. With the development of productivity, capital increases the extent of exploitation, but in doing so it undermines the foundation and the object of exploitation, the production of value as such. For the production of relative surplus value, inseparable as it is from the progressive fusion of modern science with the material process of production, includes the tendency toward the elimination of living, immediate, productive labor, as the only source of total social value creation. The same movement which increases capital’s share of the new value decreases the absolute basis of value production by means of the elimination of direct living productive labor. Capital creates, necessarily and unconsciously, the immediately social labor that emerges from the value relation, the material productivity of which reduces total social labor time — but it does so only to its own end, in order to increase the rate at which it exploits the immediate producers. Capital develops social productivity for asocial ends and interests, and thus becomes entangled in a contradiction that cannot be resolved on its own foundations, the ultimate logic of which Marx sketches in the following terms:

A development in the productive forces that would reduce the absolute number of workers, and actually enable the whole nation to accomplish its entire production in a shorter period of time would produce a revolution, since it would put the majority of the population out of action. Here we have once again the characteristic barrier to capitalist production, and we see how this is in no way an absolute form of the development of the productive forces and the creation of wealth, but rather comes into conflict with this at a certain point in its development. One aspect of this conflict is presented by the periodic crises that arise when one or another section of the working population is made superfluous in its old employment. The barrier to capitalist production is the surplus time of the workers. The absolute spare time that the society gains is immaterial to capitalist production. The development of productivity is only important to it in so far as it increases the surplus-labor time of the working class and does not just reduce the labor-time needed for material production in general; in this way it moves in a contradiction.6

Three questions necessarily arise from this sketch of the capitalist logic of the development of accumulation through the production of relative surplus value:

First: why has capitalism survived until today, in spite of its absolute immanent limit?

Second: why is capital, along with its theoretical advocates, blind to this tendency toward the absolute reduction of total social value creation?

Third: why has Marxist theory itself abandoned this thematic and not developed it concretely and honed it beyond Marx?

The Historical Expansion of Capital

The production of relative surplus value refers to the relationship between the capitalist share of the new value and the reproduction costs of the labor power of each individual laborer, but not to the absolute number of wage laborers employed, and therefore not to the absolute amount of surplus value, which with the absolute decrease in the creation of value is itself also necessarily decreased. This results in the situation

that the same reasons that permit the level of exploitation of labor to increase make it impossible to exploit as much labor as before with the same total capital. These are the counter-acting tendencies which, while they act to bring about a rise in the rate of surplus-value, simultaneously lead to a fall in the mass of surplus-value produced by a given capital, hence a fall in the rate of profit.7

From this results the urgent necessity that capital grow as capital, that is to say that the decrease in the amount of surplus value through the increase in the rate of relative surplus value must be compensated for by the reproduction of capital not on the same scale, but on an enlarged scale, which for the first time brings about the necessity of limitless accumulation (growth). This development grows exponentially. While capital eliminates living immediate productive labor on one given level of production, it must at the same time absorb more new living immediate productive labor on a further level of production. But for this capital requires a social space, a terrain that it has not yet seized, into which it can in time grow. If this process encounters obstacles — if capital, even for a short amount of time, is unable to absorb more new living productive labor than it has eliminated by means of technological development — then periodic crises also arise when one or another section of the working population is made superfluous in its old employment. For in this case the materially and technologically mediated rise in the rate of surplus value does in fact lead to a fall in the mass of surplus value, and hence to a fall in the rate of profit — that is to say, production is no longer viable as capitalist production, and tends toward standstill, as long as it finds itself in capitalist hands. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall ought therefore only to be understood as the determination of the form of the crisis, the final content of which is founded in the material development of productivity and its absolute opposition to the value form of production in general. The crisis is only partial, periodic, and therefore transitional when capital succeeds in overcoming the obstacles in the way of its expansion, and in absorbing once again more living productive labor than it previously eliminated. In that case, the fall in the rate of profit is once again suspended. The character of this fall as a tendency must therefore not be understood as a continual process but as a historical discontinuity; this fall is fundamentally embedded in the development of productivity in the material labor process, but can again and again be suspended, as long as capital is once again able to start a new cycle of accumulation through the renewed expansion of the absolute mass of living labor employed in production.

However, the concept of capital’s process of expansion remains hollow and unclear if it is only examined with respect to its value form, but not related systematically to the material content of this expansion. The process of accumulation can be understood as infinite only in the absence of a systematic relation of accumulation to its material substrate. After all, abstract wealth in the form of money is by its nature limitless and interminable, and only its material content is subject to an absolute historical limit. However, there can be no accumulation without its material bearer, however much the latter’s absence would be the ideal of capital. The extended absorption of living immediate productive labor must refer to such a material content and bearer, which can be traced both historically and concretely in several respects.

First, the terrain for the expansion of capital becomes manifest in its step-by-step conquest of all branches of production that exist before it and independently of it — that is, in the transformation of subsistence and simple commodity production into capitalist production. And, again, as is taken as read in the question of the scientification of the labor process, it is necessary to remember that this process is in fact still young, and to recall how long a trajectory it would need in order to eat its way through all branches of production, starting with the textile industry. Together, the scientification of production and the transformation of, in the first instance, noncapitalist branches of production (crafts, agriculture) into capitalist branches constitute a single total process: the capitalization of noncapitalist small-scale production brings scientification in its wake, and the more branches of production are seized by capital, the greater the scale on which the total social aggregate of scientification develops. If this process is understood in inflexible definitions, as a result of the misunderstanding that the force of the Marxian abstraction had not anticipated ideally the historical logic of capital, but merely reflected an inflexible structural real logic of capital (a misunderstanding that is only possible as a result of the failure to escape the value fetish), then the temporal horizon is displaced, the process is no longer conceived as having an objective beginning and a just-as-objective end, but only as the return of the same, with this or that modification.

Even in the most-developed capitalist industrialized countries, the process of the capitalization of branches of production continued until late in the twentieth century; in Germany it did not reach its culmination until after World War II. It is possible to take the level of wage dependency within the working population as a whole as an indicator for this process (even if the category of wage labor of course also includes unproductive areas into which capitalism expands or which it has just newly created), and according to this index, capitalization does not reach saturation point in the core imperialist countries with 70 to 90 percent wage dependency until the 1960s.

Secondly, however, the elimination of human labor in the immediate process of production during the course of capitalist development was always overcome anew by the counter-absorption of living labor in new branches of production to meet new needs. Even here it is necessary to distinguish between different phases in the progression of capitalist development: World War II and the subsequent decades brought forth another new accumulation drive of capital. Particular products that before World War II were made more or less exclusively for a narrow class only entered mass production and mass consumption by means of the scientific-technological innovations of the war: cars, electric household appliances, and then electronic forms of entertainment. All these products only attained technological maturity and the phase of their true mass production in the 1950s and 1960s. At this point, a stage of scientification becomes visible in which, while the development of productivity does indeed eliminate living labor from countless older branches of production such that one or another section of the working population is made superfluous in its old employment, it nonetheless does so only in order to create new branches of production or to make those which are not yet fully developed ripe for the loss of value and for mass production; this absorbs once again great masses of living labor into capitalist production, and the labor population that has been made redundant is again incorporated into an extended level of the production of value and surplus value.

But both essential forms or moments of the process of capitalist expansion are today starting to come up against absolute material limits. The saturation point of capitalization was reached in the 1960s; this source of the absorption of living labor has come to a final standstill. At the same time, the confluence in microelectronics of natural-scientific technology and the science of labor implies a fundamentally new stage in the revolution of the material labor process. The microelectronic revolution does not eliminate living labor in immediate production only in this or that specific productive technology, but sets out on a wider front, throughout all branches of production, seizing even the unproductive areas. This process has only just started, and will not fully gain traction until the second half of the 1980s; it seems likely that it will continue until the end of the century and beyond. To the extent that new branches of production are created by means of this process, such as in the production of microelectronics itself or in gene technology, they are by their nature from the outset not very labor-intensive with respect to immediate production. This brings about the collapse of the historical compensation that has existed up until this point for the absolute immanent limit, embedded within relative surplus value, to the capitalist mode of production. The elimination on a massive scale of living productive labor as a source of the creation of value can no longer be recuperated by newly mass-produced cheap products, since this process of mass production is no longer mediated by a process of reintegrating a labor population that has been made superfluous elsewhere. This brings about a historically irreversible overturning of the relationship between the elimination of living productive labor through scientification on the one hand, and the absorption of living productive labor through processes of capitalization or through the creation of new branches of production on the other: from now on, it is inexorable that more labor is eliminated than can be absorbed. All technological innovations that are to be expected will also tend only in the direction of the further elimination of living labor, all new branches of production will from the outset come to life with less and less direct human productive labor.

Social production’s objective departure from the limits of the fictitious objectivity of value must sooner or later make its presence felt clearly and with full force. The idea that a commodity, as a material product that we can see before us, is an objectivity of value, has become so commonsensical as the dominant fetish concept for the abstract individuals of commodity production that Marxists occasionally forget what value really is — namely the socially real fiction of objectified human labor in context of the immediate production process. One need only, like Habermas and company, omit the attribute “immediately” or even attribute a mystical creation of value to the directly social labor that goes into whole ranges of products only in an indirect and undifferentiated manner, in order to arrive at this fetishistic result and completely to fail to recognize the explosive force of the problem.

That the content of value is in the process of disappearing from society does not of course by a long way mean that the social forms of circulation that arise from it must themselves peter out. For the interests of the exploiters are also indissolubly dependent on them.

Capital, which has as its essential core the “miserable foundation” of wealth as the exploitation of living labor, and simultaneously dissolves this foundation through its own movement, will try — must try — with all force to maintain the value as value, that is to say, to allow the form to continue as the general form of circulation, even as it becomes empty, robbed of its social content. This must lead to catastrophic social collisions.

The new and final crisis of capitalism is fundamentally different from previous crises. All the crises that have happened up until now were crises of the growth of capital which could only temporarily interrupt the process of accumulation; the new crisis, however, reveals itself to be the end of the process of the accumulation of abstract wealth itself, because concrete material wealth can no longer be engendered within the limits of the value relation. The new crisis is thus no temporary crisis of overaccumulation or overproduction, but rather a crisis of the creation of value itself, from which there can no longer be a way out for capital.

That the crisis which in the 1970s finally ended the phase of accumulation and of general prosperity after World War II promises by its nature to become such a final crisis of capital, and differs in its fundamental characteristics from all previous crisis processes, can be confirmed today by two surface manifestations of a new kind.

First, the crisis begins to make itself visible not only as a market crisis of capital and of commodities, but as a crisis of money itself. Inflation, which even as a concept was almost unheard of before World War I, but which erupted, above all in Germany, as a consequence of the capitalist war economy after the world wars, has meanwhile become a permanent feature both in the imperialist countries and in the Third World. The astounding process in which not only products are devalued in competition, but also money itself, across the whole society and worldwide, has a very simple cause: the fact that with the monstrous development of technological productivity, material wealth can no longer be expressed in the money commodity of gold. Until World War I there was still a universal gold standard, that is to say that the banknotes of all important industrialized countries could be directly converted into gold. Since then, material productivity has exceeded the money commodity, gold, to an ever-increasing extent. The umbilical cord of the gold standard was finally cut at the start of the 1970s with the abandonment of the Bretton Woods system — that is, even the dollar, the global currency, was irreversibly decoupled from the gold standard. But this means nothing other than the successive suspension of money as a commodity, for paper money, released in volumes with no gold backing, no longer contains any real substance of value, with the single exception of the negligible amount of labor involved in its manufacture. This has come to hold universally for paper money, and also for money that exists purely for the purposes of accounting, and all the more so for the fantastic and purely juridical creations out of nothing such as the artificial world money of the Special Drawing Rights (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund, which can only circulate between the central banks. But the disappearance of the substance value of money only reflects the overall tendency for value to disappear, the fact that material production goes beyond the limits of value.

This in no way means that the old view of the vulgar economists, castigated by Marx, of money’s purely technical function had become reality, but rather that the mode of production and circulation that relies on money loses to an ever greater extent its real content, that the socially real fiction of value becomes unreal, and its fictional character begins to appear as such on the surface. Value is transformed into an empty shell that no longer measures up to the material content. Capital and the capitalist politicians and experts of course try to maintain value as value under all circumstances, and to save the abstraction of money as real abstraction whatever the cost: the currency-related and other monetary manipulations are becoming more and more intricate, complicated, and incredible. In the few years, seen from a historical perspective, since the Bretton Woods system was abandoned, the international monetary and credit systems have already been on the point of collapse on several occasions, and this collapse will emerge as a worldwide failure of the banks as the collapse of the international credit system and a wave of currency reforms leading to the effective expropriation of large swathes of the population, and will not allow itself to be postponed forever. The new dimension of a final historical crisis of capital must ultimately assert itself in all force from the monetary side, as the insoluble crisis of money, even if through many attempts by currency and credit experts to decelerate the process.

But the second fundamentally new manifestation which suggests the end of capitalist logic is the appearance since the mid-1970s of mass unemployment that is independent of the economic cycle, and has climbed relentlessly, more or less independently of the cyclical development — and its visible trend is that it will continue to climb. In the previous development of capital, it has on several occasions seemed for short periods of time that such a process was imminent, but each time it was absorbed by a new accumulation drive. On the whole, the state of unemployment followed the cycle of the accumulation of capital, the absorption and emission of living labor power in the immediate process of capitalist production. These previously valid economic laws have been rendered inoperative in all the core imperialist countries for over a decade. Even some serious bourgeois economists are seeing a relentless trend that on the basis of the financial economy will necessarily bring about apocalyptic unemployment figures and a desperate collapse of the social safety net by the end of the century. All talk on the part of bourgeois politicians of a prayed-for boom and of consolidation in the world economy must be measured against this remorseless logic.

The boom in the mid-1980s that was confined to a few countries with the highest productivity left mass unemployment almost untouched even in these countries. That at present unemployment seems stagnant and is not already noticeably higher is to be attributed more to statistical tricks and manipulations of the capitalist administration of labor, the task of which is to lead the public to accept the most favorable picture of the situation, than to an actual interruption in the process of redundancy of living immediate productive labor. And furthermore, for many branches of production, and also most of the unproductive areas, the microelectronic revolution of production still lies ahead. Every imaginable future boom for remaining sectors of capital will not put a fundamental halt to the growth in mass unemployment.

One ought now to confront the probably inescapable objection that the theory of the devaluation of value outlined here is false and potentially utopian for the reason that it presupposes as the social average the absolute and complete automation of production as a whole, the ghost factory, devoid of humans and so on. Such an objection would be naïve for the reason that it does not take into account the logic of the accumulation of capital as it is conditioned by the production of relative surplus value, but instead remains caught in inflexible definitions. The collapse of the value relation does not wait until the elimination of the last worker from immediate production before starting, but rather begins at precisely that historical point when the general relation between the elimination and the reabsorption of living immediate productive labor begins to overturn — that is, as early as the moment (and to a growing extent afterwards) when (and how) more living immediate productive labor is eliminated then is reabsorbed. This point, to the extent that it can be called a point at all, has probably already been passed, approximately in the early- to mid-1970s: it is no coincidence that both the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system and the start of technological mass unemployment took place within this period. And one must not, of course, imagine the collapse of the value relation as a sudden and one-off event (even though sudden declines and collapses such as bank failures and mass bankruptcies will very much be part of this collapse), but rather as a historical process, a whole epoch lasting perhaps several decades, in which the capitalist world economy can no longer escape from the maelstrom of crisis and processes of devaluation, surging mass unemployment, and the class struggles that will sooner or later inevitably follow.

It is worth noting as an aside that this development also provides the adjudication of an old debate as to the capability of capitalism to continue developing its productive forces. It is astonishing that this question was most frequently applied to the matter of whether capitalism could further propel material productivity as such; whether it could, even in its monopolistic stage, drive the process of scientification beyond a particular level. Capitalism’s chances of survival were then evaluated according to the way in which this question was answered. It is not difficult to recognize by means of the conceptual definition developed above the extent of the fundamental falsity even of asking this question, how severely it misunderstands authentic Marxism and the objective logic of capital. What is in fact reached is not the limit of the development of productive forces, but the limit of the objectivity of value. It is not the case that capitalism can simply continue to develop the material forces of production: it must do so relentlessly in accordance with the logic of its own development. “The real limit of capitalist production is capital itself”: that is, value. The objective failure of capital comes about as a result not of the development of material productivity itself, but of the compulsion magically to constrain the immense social potential of science and technology within the limits of value. This is the only way to understand the Marxist claim that capitalism must perish at the hand of the “development of the productive forces.”

Inversion through Competition

Why can capital not see that it is historically digging its own grave due to its reliance on the production of relative surplus value by way of the development of productive forces? I have already drawn attention to the fact that the category of relative surplus value (and indeed that of surplus value itself) is no surface category that could appear in the consciousness of the representatives of self-valorizing monetary capital. The reason for this can ultimately be found in the fact that capital can never truly appear as total capital, but only ever — in whatever form — as competing individual capital. The category of value presupposes that of exchange, and thus in some form or other private producers who are in formal economic terms independent of one another. Even in highly developed forms of state capitalism in which the state appears not only as the ideal, but increasingly also as the real total capitalist, these fundamental facts cannot really be suspended. As long as the value relation exists within society at all, and with it production oriented toward the production of value, which in turn is expressed in the money form as universal form of circulation, the standpoint of the whole is in reality a practical impossibility. The state and its authorities can take up the perspective of the totality of the process of social reproduction only in a formal and external manner, but not according to its content (since the state as such is already the expression of the economic separation of social partial producers and their asociality within production). Moments of competition must therefore always develop anew and regrow like the heads of the hydra, even at the level of circulation between different states. For individual capital, the process is in its entirety only recognizable from the standpoint of participants in the struggle over markets. For the capitalist state as ideal (and increasingly real in regards to external exchange value) total capitalist, the process is only recognizable from the standpoint of the representative of a nation’s total capital in the struggle over markets and spheres of influence. For an imperialist bloc, the process reveals itself from the standpoint of a coalition of different national capitals struggling for markets and political and military zones of influence against another competing bloc.

In these competitive struggles the process of the production of value in no way appears in a manner in accordance with the theoretical concept of social total reproduction, the standpoint of which is taken up by practically nobody. While the oppositional, tendentially self-cancelling movement in the production of relative surplus value is visible from the perspective of total reproduction, it is utterly invisible from the perspective of competing individual capital. In total reproduction, the production of relative surplus value appears as absurd, because it brings about an increase in the rate of surplus value at the same time as a decrease in the mass of surplus value. This holds — and not only in theory, but also in practice — exclusively for the process as a whole, but in no way for each particular capital, for which the individual increase in the rate of profit (extra profit) through an increase in productivity is not paid for in the slightest by a simultaneous decrease in the mass of profit. The logic of the development of productivity consists in the production, in the same time period, of more products with less human labor power. Considered in the abstract (that is, every individual capital taken for itself), the absurd countermovement of relative surplus value — that is, that more value is appropriated per worker, while at the same time the absolute mass of the newly created value decreases, because in total less living productive labor has been employed — would also reveal itself on this level of the individual capital. However, this consideration remains abstract for the reason that the individual capital does not of course only reproduce itself for itself, but within the competitive relationship of many capitals among themselves. The production of surplus value and its realization in circulation — that is, in processes of exchange on the market — diverge from one another. It thus becomes necessary to clarify what takes place by means of the competition relation between production and realization in circulation.

When an individual capital doubles the productivity of its total aggregate (dead labor in the form of machines and living labor are not distinct from the standpoint of capital, but both appear in the same way as input-cost factors) while at the same time reducing the amount of living labor involved in the process, this brings about in the first instance a reduction of the input costs (the amortization of the improved machinery has already been taken into account), while at the same time the amount of material products produced is increased — in this instance, doubled. However, because of the reduction in living labor, a smaller mass of value falls on this increased quantity of individual products, and therefore also on each individual product. But the absolute reduction in the mass of value thus only appears within an individual capital with the increase in its individual productivity. Each individual product of the productive capital contains less value than the corresponding social-average product, but this social average alone is valid on the market. As far as the monetary expression of the value of the commodity is concerned, and this is the only matter of practical interest, it is thus also in itself twice as high for the more productive capital, since it appears on the market with twice as great a quantity of material products that have the average social value of this product, which is still valid on the market. It is true that this monetary expression is in the first instance only the price, and not yet the realization through sale, for the doubled quantity of commodities enters a limited market with limited purchasing power. But of course, the more productive capital now has, compared with all the other participants in the market, vast room for maneuver which it can use to lower its price and to find buyers for its doubled quantity of commodities. For even if this capital must, in order to conquer the market share necessary for the doubled quantity of material products, now sell its doubled quantity of products below the average social value that holds at the time, the relationship between the absolute input costs and absolute output as yield has in any case shifted hugely in its favor.

Here the inversion of the true situation of society as a whole through the movement of competition becomes clear. In the total social reproduction of capital as a whole, the reduction of living productive labor, wherever it takes place, naturally also leads to a reduction in the total mass of value. But the very capital that achieves this reduction in living labor appropriates for itself a higher profit in doing so. The true process that appears in such an inverted form for the individual capital at the surface of the market is the fault of the liquidity of abstract exchange value, money, in comparison with the inflexibility and bulkiness of the mass of material products. The mass of value presented in material use values and the mass of the liquid money commodity stand in a perpetually oscillating compensatory relation to one another, a relation that is produced by disproportionalities, and that takes on incredibly complex forms at the level of the world market. If the German and Japanese automobile industries develop higher labor productivity than, for example, the English, this in itself means that every car produced in Germany and Japan contains a smaller amount of abstract human labor, a smaller mass of value, that is, if we take as our basis the real social fiction of the objectivity of value of things. Furthermore, it means that in absolute terms, a smaller mass of value is produced in the automobile industries of Germany and Japan than in the English industry, at any rate as long as no additional productive capacity is constructed. But on the surface of the market, this situation appears completely different: precisely because of their higher productivity, their employment of less living labor, the German and Japanese automobile capitalists produce more cost-efficiently than their English counterparts, which is the only criterion that is of interest to the vulgar, abstract bourgeois economic understanding, and can therefore offer their products on the market more affordably, and can kick the English suppliers out of the market and nonetheless record yet another extra profit at their bottom line.

In fact, what has happened is the following: in spite of the fact that they in fact produce less value, the German and Japanese automobile capitalists can capture a greater mass of the liquid money commodity in the process of realization of surplus value than their English competitors — that is, they have actually appropriated, by means of redistribution on the world market, a portion of the surplus value that is produced in England. On the surface of the market, the inversion of the true movement thus appears. The capital that reduces in absolute terms the total capitalist amount of value (which is as such the concern of no particular capital) through higher productivity and the elimination of immediate living productive labor — that saws, that is, at the bough of capitalism itself — is rewarded by extra profit and a greater market share, while at the same time the capital that employs more living productive labor (per commodity) and therefore maintains the total mass of value, and value as value, is punished by the loss of market share and the nonrealization of the surplus value that it has produced.

In the totality of this process of redistribution, the inescapable law of value is accounted for by the fact that the English automobile industry sits on a portion of its products — that these products, that is, only represent material use value, but can no longer serve as exchange values. What happens to these devalued use values is obvious: they are obviously not given to the poor, but initially stored, and then, depending on their material properties, either completely destroyed or reprocessed into raw materials and component parts: pulped, melted down, burned, thrown into the sea, whatever, but in any case destroyed as use values because they found no grace at the court of the queen of the commodities, money. All over the world, every day, every hour, use values of all kinds are thus wantonly destroyed on an ever-growing scale. Humanity sacrifices hecatombs of objectified labor torture in more and more frenzied insanity to the dark, incomprehensible god of its own socialization, the law of exchange value. The ancient families of the gods ought to explode with envy. This insanity only becomes possible by means of the divergence of production and circulation, by means of the liquidity of money and the perpetual redistribution of surplus value, mediated by competition, on the world market.

It is this inversion through competition that averts capital’s gaze from the consequences of this process on the level of the reproduction of society as a whole, consequences that are fatal for capital’s own mode of production. What Marx writes about capital as the process of its own objective self-abolition thus becomes clear for the first time:

To the degree that labor time — the mere quantity of labor — is posited by capital as the sole determinant element, to that degree does direct labor and its quantity disappear as the determinant principle of production — of the creation of use values — and is reduced both quantitatively, to a smaller proportion, and qualitatively, as an, of course, indispensable but subordinate moment, compared to general scientific labor, technological application of natural sciences, on one side, and to the general productive force arising from social combination in total production on the other side — a combination which appears as a natural fruit of social labor (although it is a historic product). Capital thus works toward its own dissolution as the form dominating production.8

For a short period, in the context of history, of almost a hundred years, the logic of the self-abolition of capital remained hidden, while the process of the expansion of capital still found terrain for its further development in the capitalization of noncapitalist branches of production, and the creation of new labor-intensive industries. If this process of expansion is today starting to come up against absolute limits, the inversion through competition is of course not suspended — quite the opposite, competition is accentuated, and the process of scientification is accelerated, with all the consequences it has for society as a whole. There has already existed since the beginning of the 1970s — that is, since the start of the phase that remains uncomprehended even today of the overturning of the historical logic of capital — a foreseeable trend according to which the world market’s room for maneuver is beginning inexorably to shrink: a new (and, I assert on the basis of the above derivation, final) stage of the struggle over the markets has come to pass, which can be negotiated neither by economic nor by political and military means. At the periphery of the capitalist industrial societies, in countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Greece, and to an extent even in the core imperialist countries such as France, Italy, and Great Britain, the remorseless process of redistribution of surplus value, the mass of which is shrinking worldwide because of the new level of material socialization, is already leading to agony in whole branches of industry; even the FRG has not remained unaffected (viz. steel- and shipyard crisis).

The frontrunners and crisis profiteers in this process of redistribution that is becoming ever narrower — primarily Japan, the FRG, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the United States — are trying to invoke the upturn and to deny the job-killing consequences of the new socializing technologies. In fact, the inversion through competition makes it appear on the surface as if the victors in the process, mediated through competition, of the realization and redistribution of global surplus value not only assert their position but are even able temporarily to expand their capacity for production, thus creating new jobs, and once again raising by a small amount the absolute mass of surplus value created in their country. This expansion, absolutely real for the countries and individual capitals that bring it about, is, within the total process of reproduction of world capital, only the semblance of an expansion. It is not based on a process of expansion of capital as a whole, which has reached its historical limits, but exclusively on the destruction of other capitals. The extra jobs are not created by means of microelectronics, but by the destruction of jobs, capital, and commodities in other countries and by other capitals. The situation that a capital can no longer grow by means of expansion into a historically free terrain, but can do so only at the expense of other capitals, which in previous periods of capitalist development was confined to periodic crises, now becomes a permanent normality that can no longer be suspended. In the last ages of the capital relation, the inversion through competition thus necessary leads to a spiralling cycle of ever-worsening trade wars. The provisional victories of the FRG and of Japan in the theater of war that is the world market will sooner or later have to be seen as pyrrhic victories, and indeed, to the same extent that the world market will tend to fragment through the political “iron curtain” of protectionism (which despite all the purely ideological assertions to the contrary has spread constantly since those ominous years of the early 1970s), thus to throttle the export economy, the true motor of Japan’s and the FRG’s economic development.

But since the character masks of capital (including a value- and wage-fetishizing trade union movement as the character mask of variable capital) are only oriented toward the surface of appearances and can thus only move within the inversions of the true process by competition on the world market, they all see only a single solution and all sound the same trumpet: Yet more rationalization! Yet more scientification! Just don’t get left behind in the technological race! And they are right — save that with every small advantage that is achieved on the world market, they dig the grave of the total system of the valorization of value, this world beyond which they are neither able nor willing to think. In the last decades of the twentieth century, and at the start of the twenty-first, the nations, as character masks of the self-valorization of value, will thus present the image of a lunatic pack of wolves that tear themselves apart over an ever-smaller scrap of value. All political and potentially military conflicts of this new epoch will (increasingly) no longer be mere epiphenomena of the process of capitalist accumulation, but the immediate expression of the historical end of this accumulation — that is, the burning out of capitalist logic itself. The relation between economics and politics thus takes on a new quality.

Crisis and Theories of Crisis

To conclude, I should like now briefly to address the question of why Marxist theory has not up until now developed the true dimension of capitalist logic and its crisis that is at least implicitly contained within Marx’s work. In this context, the historical rudiments of Marxist crisis theory are the first point of interest. It is well known that Marx, in accordance with the fragmentary character of his gargantuan complete works, did not leave behind a unified theory of crisis. The third volume of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value, in which the fundamental statements on crisis theory can be found, consist wholly of such fragments that have not been conclusively developed. This editorial point of departure alone has historically led to a situation in which, in the Marxist debate, individual aspects of the crisis theory left behind by Marx that were not completely developed into a system have been given existences independent of one another.

The oldest layer of interpretation of Marxist crisis theory in the Second International presents itself purely as a theory of overproduction or of underconsumption (Engels, Kautsky, Luxemburg). For this theory of overproduction, the crisis as such is really very simply a result of the contradiction between the development of productivity of labor on one hand, and the shortage of the purchasing power of the masses, restricted to the reproduction of the value of the commodity labor power, on the other. But the weakness of this apparently obvious interpretation is twofold. Firstly, it derives the crisis as a pure phenomenon of circulation, and not from the production of surplus value itself, the ancestor of the illusions of political intervention into the capitalist process of reproduction (strengthen mass purchasing power) that appear even today. But secondly, it assumes as its foundation the simple reproduction of total capital, and not the historical fact of the expansion of capital as a relation of production, mediated through the production of relative surplus value. In simple reproduction, the evidence of the contradiction between restricted mass consumption and the development of productivity would come to light immediately; even this manifest contradiction, however, would be a derived surface phenomenon that itself ought first to be attributed to the fundamental tendency of value to be suspended in immediate production. However, access to the true logic of the development of capital was first of all completely blocked by the actual expansion and continually extended reproduction of capital as a historical mechanism of compensation, and thus continued to remain hidden and inaccessible to theorists of crisis, whose crisis theory was obsessed by circulation. Only Rosa Luxemburg tried to incorporate a systematic historical moment into the theory of crisis, and to present it as the logic of the development of capital with absolute limits — unfortunately, however, in accordance with the starting point that was restricted to circulation, in a directly inverted form, as the supposed support of the capitalist realization of surplus value through non- and precapitalist producers (or consumers), rather than as the compensatory expansion of the mass of surplus value through the incorporation of living productive labor on an ever-larger scale.

There thus existed in the Second International a widespread idea as to the (potentially imminent) collapse of capitalism, but only as a vague idea that was not adequately conceptually derived, and not at all derived from the split in the concept of productive labor and the suspension of the objectivity of value itself — with the exception of Rosa Luxemburg’s inverted form, the idea of collapse hardly found explicit formulation as a theory at all. The idea thus became easy prey for Bernsteinian revisionism, which could flatly appeal to the surface development of the higher level of capital expansion that was appearing at the turn of the century. Kautskyanism’s insistence on orthodoxy, in contrast, remained wooden, dogmatic, and defensive, particularly concerning the question of the collapse. Whereas Bernstein had reproached Marx for his theory of collapse, admittedly without being able to give it concrete expression in concepts, and drew attention to the opposing empirical reality of (expanding) capital, Kautsky responded with the tame assertion that such a theory of collapse did not exist. Both Bernstein and Kautsky, that is, ultimately saw the surmounting of capitalism as invested only in the social action of the proletariat, not in a fundamental objective collapse of the circumstances themselves. Their positions, therefore, only differ from one another in the nuances. In the growing imperialist expansion of capital, the idea of collapse appeared as a sort of naïve belief, something like the belief among the early Christians that the messiah would soon come again and bring about the end of the world and the last judgment — and its few theoretical and political proponents such as Rosa Luxemburg were pushed to the periphery. Since then, one could speak of a reformist subjectivism, that was later complemented by a revolutionary subjectivism of Western Marxism, to an extent in the wake of the Frankfurt School.

It is easy to explain why Russian Bolshevism was unable to bring about any reversal in this respect. While it is true that Lenin defended objectivity as such, philosophically and politically, against reformist and ultra-Left insurrectionist subjectivism, he was nonetheless at least as far removed from an objective theory of crisis and collapse as the Western social democrats and revolutionaries. In his work on imperialism, crisis theory is touched on only briefly, and this is in no way a coincidence. For Russia, where capitalism was not developed in the slightest, was of course worlds removed from the burning out of the logic of capitalist accumulation, much further than Western capitalism (a fact that might well still be true today). Lenin thus found no social basis whatsoever for the conceptual derivation and further development of Marxist crisis theory. Neither in the East nor in the West, as I suggested above, did the revolutions or the revolutionary movements at the end of World War II rely in any way on any fundamental economic crises, but on the shattering of circumstances in the first instance by the war itself, by the existence for themselves of the political collisions of capital at a time as a whole still in a period of historical growth.

For this reason, Lenin’s prime theoretical concern could only be the analysis of a particular, actually attained level — precisely that of imperialist, highly concentrated capital, punctuated with elements of state capitalism, which in its historical expansion as a whole had in no way come up against absolute material limits — and to present this level as the objective foundation not of a collapse of historical accumulation as such and as a whole, but of the political collision of national imperialist capital and of the resulting potential conscious political action of the working class, which the world over would be able to bring the process of capitalist development to a standstill. It was only to this extent that he could speak of imperialism as the “last and highest stage of capitalism.” And to this extent the Bolshevik revolution and that within it which was specifically socialist were in the first instance politically determined, both with immediate respect to the capitalist development of Russian society and on a larger scale with respect to the worldwide, international situation of the development of capitalist logic as a whole. It was not possible to develop an adequate crisis theory on this theoretical basis of Leninism. This lack took revenge immediately in the fact that Lenin was perceptibly wrong in his assessment of the ripeness for revolution in the West. It would be downright mean to condemn him for this error (which was hardly avoidable given his starting position) with the benefit of hindsight; his rightful task as a revolutionary was to exploit all theoretical possibilities for the truly preexistent revolutionary situation.

In the Marxist debate and polemic the emphasis was on politics, the relative independence of which was exaggerated to an ever greater extent, resulting in the dogmatic reification of the political sphere and a complete conceptual divergence of economics and politics. The global economic crisis at the beginning of the 1930s thus found Marxist crisis theory in a weaker state than ever, armed only with rusted and worn-out weapons. Henryk Grossman, who had reopened the debate over Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of collapse and sought critically to refound it, remained, like Paul Mattick who joined him, relatively lonely and without any real representation in the main theoretical currents. In their critique of Rosa Luxemburg, Grossman and Mattick correctly retreated from circulation to the production of surplus value itself, and determined the essence of the crisis as the overaccumulation of capital, which in the sphere of circulation can appear as overproduction, but is not essentially determined by this fact. This development in crisis theory came at the cost that it dispensed with the inverted theory of Rosa Luxemburg that remained fixated on circulation along with its fruitful account of an historically absolutely finite developmental logic of capital. The reason for this can be found in the fact that Grossman and Mattick went back to the process of production, but not to the contradiction between the development of productivity and production’s objectivity of value. To this extent they therefore remained, like all previous crisis theorists, restricted and value-immanent, and thus unable to identify the contradiction in the concept of productive labor itself. Grossman’s attempt to adhere to theory of collapse all the same thus remained restricted to a highly dubious value-immanent mathematical example, which (like the earlier crisis debate) took as its starting point not the conceptual derivation of value and of productive labor, but the “schemata of reproduction” of the second volume of Capital, and which thus remained from the start apprehended within the surface-level mediations of the market. Paul Mattick thus ultimately no more adhered to a concretely derivable theory of collapse than did Grossman.

It thus becomes clear that Marxist crisis theory, so far, has in fact not moved beyond a value-immanent mode of observation, and has not seized on the elements of a logical-historical explosion of the value relation as such are included in Marx’s work. Both in theories that pertain to the realization of surplus value and in those that refer to its production, the question of the crisis is only examined within the horizon of the quantitative value relation and its analysis; the disproportionality is examined only within the quantitative logic of value, and not as a qualitative disproportionality in the relation between matter and value. In other words, it is not the value relation itself that becomes obsolete through the crisis, but only the blind mechanism of regulation by means of the market; it is not the value relation itself that collapses, but merely the relative balance of exchange value. At this point the abbreviated understanding of the law of value that was set out at the beginning of this essay reappears in the theory of the crisis debate. It would admittedly be a mistake to raise only an ahistorical and therefore abstract charge at this point. For this theoretical abbreviation is only the ideal expression (made on the basis of Marxism) of an epoch in which the capital relation is even tangibly going through crisis only within the limits of the value relation, and the threshold beyond which the value relation will begin to collapse has not yet been reached. This threshold is only being reached today with the new socializing technologies, in which applied natural science and labor science converge, and thus for the first time allow the industrial system to emerge from its crude embryonic forms. To this extent the unfortunate term “postindustrialism” completely misrecognizes the true development. Capitalism can today be historically deciphered as identical with the coarse, awkward, immature, and in every respect dirty predecessor form of the truly immediately social industry that only today is growing out of the spore of capitalism, which it thus explodes irrevocably.

The socialist and communist Left, however, is even worse prepared for the coming and in parts already visible crisis than at the start of the 1930s. The new epoch of accumulation and prosperity after World War II has completely weakened its logical force, just as it also left the practical and political old labor movement mutilated and emasculated. The thought of a theory of collapse elicits knowing winks even from so-called radicals, even though the problem has never been conceptually or theoretically explained, but has merely languished in the swamp of empirical surface reality. And questions as to the determinations in the work of Marx and Engels of a social reproduction that is not founded on value and thus functions without money still triggers at best a sheepish laugh from the Left. Marxist theorists oriented both to the Western and to the Eastern strand of the labor movement have long since repressed, forgotten, and buried the fundamental critique of the value relation — value as such is unconsciously accepted as second nature. All socialist aims, strategies, and praxes refer not to the suspension of the value relation (and thus of wage labor) but purely and simply to the form of the mechanism of social allocation through the law of value. The result is the absolutely vapid opposition between plan and market, where the concept of social planning remains subject to the value fetish. The suspension of the abstract individual of commodity production, necessarily missing from this account, must, as is demonstrated particularly repugnantly by the actually existing police socialism of the East, unthinkingly be shifted back onto the subject. It is no coincidence, then, that the alienation debate of the New Left in part leads to neoreligiosity and spiritualism. But the radical spring of the subjective political Left since 1968 has also come to an end without even a whimper. In any case, all theories and suggestions of the Left in the broadest sense that refer to the new social manifestations, regardless of whether they are orthodox Marxist or left-wing socialist or green-alternative (Gorz) have one thing in common, that they shirk from the question of objective and subjective suspension of the value relation. But the new crisis of capital, the content of which is a development of productivity that suspends value, cannot be solved or even merely impeded either by external political state intervention (Keynesianism, state capitalism) or by naïve sociopolitical bricolages such as in the models of the dual economy (Gorz, Huber).

In saying this I do not in any way wish fundamentally to belittle the role of the subject: any true revolution must proceed by means of the subject of a social class and its political mediations. And it would be a particularly great misunderstanding to derive from the concrete delineation of an objective logic of the collapse of capital that is historically becoming a reality some sort of mechanical automatism of the transition to socialism. The opposite is rather the case. The Marxian alternative that includes the possibility of a transition to barbarism is only today becoming real, and therefore also for the first time understandable. For a collapse is precisely nothing other than a collapse: what actual circumstances develop out of it always depend and will continue to depend on the concrete actions and will of human beings. But these will not and cannot move beyond the objective circumstances that they must have understood in their objectivity in order to be able to become consciously effective.

However, no fundamental historical change has taken place that has its cause in the actual maturity of the capital relation. Even for the old labor movement, which had its point of historical culmination and its chance at the end of World War I, the objectivity of capital and of its development was the foundation and precondition of acts of political will, but in a more general sense than today. The logic of capital had not yet burned out, but could only be halted and overcome by means of social action that had been carried over this logic by highly developed consciousness. The potential for this certainly existed, but the Western labor movement, which alone could have come into consideration for this act, had not reached this height of consciousness. But history has not stood still because of this. Logic that has not been understood also remains objective and real, becomes something that can be experienced, and ultimately causes suffering — until consciousness and will turn to objectivity because it is no longer possible to do otherwise. To the extent that capitalist logic is burning out and decaying, this compulsion begins to become manifest.

It certainly matters whether proletarian action consciously brings about the end of capitalist accumulation when it is in itself not yet completely exhausted, or whether, conversely, consciousness and action on the part of the working class are driven into existence by the historical end of the possibility of accumulation that objectively becomes manifest, independent of the will of those it affects. In the first case, the organized class consciously takes advantage of temporary disproportionalities and political and military frictions of the existing order in order to topple this order. Historically, these possibilities have passed by unused, and no path leads back to this situation. In the second case — which is historically current and for the most part lies before us — this order overturns as a consequence of its own contradictions and collapses into itself without at the same time bringing about a new social formation — neither the role of the subject nor the relative independence of the political form of the contradiction is thereby suspended, but the point of departure has changed. The often cited “hic Rhodus, hic salta!” is irreversibly becoming reality for the Left, but not in the way it had imagined.

  1. Literally “Founder Epoch” (at times translated as “promoterism”), Gründerzeit designates the economic period in Germany and Austria in the ninteenth century that immediately precedes the great stock market crash of 1873. [Eds.]
  2. For a more detailed discussion of this point, see Karl Marx, “Chapter Fourteen: Division of Labour and Manufacture” (in particular Section Five, “The Capitalistic Character of Manufacture”), Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, trans. by Ben Fowkes, (New York: Penguin, 1976) 455-491 (480-491). [Eds.]
  3. Michael Mauke, Die Klassentheorie von Marx und Engels (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1970) 156.
  4. Jürgen Habermas, "Technology and Science as 'Ideology,'" Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics, trans. by Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970) 104.
  5. K-Gruppen was the label given by the media to an assortment of predominantly Maoist cadre organizations that exerted a strong influence on the New Left in the late 1960s and 1970s. [Eds.]
  6. Marx, Capital, Volume III, trans. by David Fernbach (New York: Penguin, 1993) 372-73.
  7. Marx, Capital III 340.
  8. Marx, Grundrisse, trans. by Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin, 1973) 700.