What is Surplus Value, and Why Should Anti-Capitalists Care?
This first appeared in Skewed News.
Capitalism is an ever-expanding, extremely destructive mode of production that has come to dominate the world; pretty much all social production has been integrated into its framework.
The ways capitalism presents itself to most of us is through its many wretched effects: ecocide, oppression, imperialism, poverty and so on. Any or all of these may motivate us to oppose it. When we decide to organize against capitalism, we often tend to go after these effects. We protest and resist them. And they absolutely must be protested and resisted.
But I’m going to argue that if that’s all we do, we may be able to mitigate some of these miserable conditions that way, but we aren’t going to be able to get rid of capitalism, the system that causes and maintains them. We won’t even harm it. We not even touching it.
To destroy capitalism, we need to understand exactly what it is and what drives it.
Capitalism is a mode of production, that is, it is an ensemble of social relations that shape how the society as a whole reproduces itself, how we meet our needs, how we get from one day to the next. Every mode of production includes an economic foundation or base, which generates and is in turn supported by a political and ideological superstructure.
While we must attack capitalism politically and ideologically, these alone will not destroy it. Our strategy needs to go beyond addressing the superstructure and gets at the economic core of how capital reproduces itself. We need to destroy the production and accumulation of capital.
There are other modes of production, such as slavery and feudalism. These others, like capitalism, also involve class divisions that facilitate the accumulation of wealth by a small minority on the backs of the majority. So what distinguishes capitalism from those others? It’s not like feudalism where a landlord takes half or a third of a peasant’s grain, whatever the quantity is and however much work the peasant put into it. For capitalists, the product is not the point. The wealth they accumulate is extracted from workers in the production process. Labor power is crystalized in commodities, in the form of surplus value. The particular kinds of commodities they produce don’t really matter; the money is made in the production of them.
In order not to starve, the worker, who possesses or controls no means of production, must sell her or his labor power to the capitalist. (By the way, this predicament is not an accident, but has been engineered through systematic historical dispossession.)
This labor power, which will be used to produce commodities for the capitalist, is itself sold as a commodity. The price (paid as wages) is not based on the value of the commodities that will be produced with it (it is completely unrelated to that, actually), but instead it’s roughly based on the cost of its own production: the worker’s subsistence, his or her food, shelter and other necessities.
During the work day, workers produce more value than the amount of wages they receive. Let’s say that during the first hour they manufacture cars or shirts or whatever that are equivalent to the value of their wages. That means for the rest of the day, 7 hours or more, they work for free, creating new value for the economy. This new value is not paid for. In other words, their labor power is being stolen. That’s exploitation, which is made possible by the wage system.
That new value, called surplus value, is privately appropriated by capitalists, who own, control, and manage the entire process of production and distribution for the whole society.
The capitalists’ ownership of the means of production—the raw materials, factory and machinery, which it obtained through previous cycles of exploitation or outright raw dispossession through war or other means—is used to justify depriving workers of any legal right to keep the product. So the capitalist takes everything that the worker produces. The notion of private property underlying this is the superstructural foundation of capitalism.
Surplus value isn’t simply a quantitative sum. It is a social process, a class relation. The entire society is set up to facilitate its extraction, and the entire system depends on it. Surplus value is the origin of all other forms of capital and of concentration of capital. The process benefits only capitalists, never workers. The workers receive barely enough to survive, and when it’s slightly more than that, it serves as a bribe to keep quiet. The amount of wages and of surplus value is constantly contested, determined by class struggle.
This arrangement establishes the fundamental contradiction of capitalism as capital vs. labor, embodied in the conflict between the capitalist class and the working class. These two classes are antagonistic – the exploitation of one results in the accumulation of wealth for the other.
The surplus value is re-invested and becomes new capital. Surplus value is capital. If all capital accumulation ultimately depends on the extraction of surplus value, then the end of capitalism will require that this process be stopped. Any orientation or alternative that doesn’t address capitalism’s fundamental contradiction, and doesn’t push it forward toward rupture, won’t be able to break the framework.
So if we’re anti-capitalists, we need to affirm and reclaim the history of working class struggle, take our place in the continuity of that struggle, and organize to fight for working class interests. No other class has the power to stop capital dead in its tracks.