Paul Mattick (Biography)

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The Permanent Crisis — Henryk Grossman’s Interpretation of Marx’s Theory Of Capitalist Accumulation


Source: The Council Communist Archive  -;

Written: by Paul Mattick, published in International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no. 2, November 1934, pp1-20. The e-version of this text was made by Kavosh Kavoshgar for Kurasje;
Transcribed: by Steve Palmer.


According to Marx, the development of the productive forces of society is the motive power of historical development. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production, and in changing their mode of production, their manner of gaining a living, they change all their social relations. The transformation of the spinning wheel, the hand-loom and blacksmiths sledge, into the self-tending mule, the power-loom and the steam hammer was not only accompanied by a change of the small individual shops of the craftsmen into huge industrial plants employing thousands of workers, but there also came with it the social overturn from feudalism to capitalism; that is, not merely a material revolution, but a cultural revolution as well.

Capitalism as an economic system had the historical mission of developing the productive forces of society to a much greater extent than was possible under any previous system. The motive force in the development of the productive forces in capitalism is the race for profit. But for that very reason this process of development can continue only as long as it is profitable. From this point of view capital becomes a barrier to the continuous development of the productive forces as soon as that development comes into conflict with the necessity for profit. “Then the monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument”.

Marx always considers the economic laws of motion from two points of view: first, as “a process of natural history”; second, in its specific, social form. The development of productive forces went on in every social system, a process consisting of an ever increasing productivity of labor due to better working tools and methods. The productive process under capitalism, in addition to producing the necessities of life, also produces value and surplus value, and it is only due to this fact that capitalism has been able to accelerate the development of the productive forces so tremendously. They are not only machines, raw-material and labor power, but also capital. The development of the instruments of production means the expanding of production and reproduction of capital, and this is only possible when surplus value or profit is the result of the productive process of capital. By analysis of the process of producing surplus value, Marx finds the tendency of a conflict between the material productive forces and their capitalist integument. When insufficient surplus value results from production, if capital cannot be “utilised”, there is no possibility of continuing the development of the productive forces. The capitalistic forms must burst asunder to make place for a higher, more advanced, economic and social system.

In the capitalist system wage labor is necessary for the production of surplus value. In buying labor power, the capitalist acquires the right to use it for his own benefit. By his labor, the worker is able to produce a greater value than he consumes, ie – he produces more value than the capitalist pays him in the form of wages. Since the capitalist buys labor-power at its exchange value, and has full control of its use value, the result is the creation of surplus value out of which he takes a part for additional capital, for accumulation, pays interest to the banker and rent to the landlord, allows the merchant his commercial profit, and retains the rest for his own consumption.

All commodities have in common the quality of being products of labor; they are measured and exchanged in proportion to the socially necessary labor time incorporated in them; this includes also the commodity labor-power. The development of the productive forces means increased productivity of labor, and increased productivity means less labor incorporated in each commodity, or less value, and consequently less surplus value. This decrease in the value of one single commodity can only be compensated by the increase of the quantities of commodities produced, which means an increase in the exploitation of labor. This is done by two main methods: by lengthening the working day (“absolute surplus value”), or by shortening the labor time necessary for reproducing the wages of the workers (“relative surplus value”). If the lengthening of the working day is impossible, then there only remains the shortening of the necessary labor time which can only be done by decreasing the value of labor-power. The decrease in the value of commodities is the only means of reducing the value of labor power, but this in its turn can only be the result of increased productivity. This process is, at the same time, an accelerator forcing technical development at an ever increasing tempo towards mass production and gigantic and costly machinery, concentrated in huge industrial plants, eliminating individual and small capitalists in favor of big capitalists and corporations.

Since wage labor is the source of his profit, the capitalist should be interested in exploiting as many workers as possible. The more workers, the more surplus labor and value, the more profit. But it is nevertheless a fact that from the very beginning of the capitalist epoch, the number of workers employed relative to the capital employed, has been falling. Even if their number has absolutely increased for a period, they have increased more slowly than capital has accumulated. Today the number of workers employed has fallen, not only relatively, but absolutely. (Since 1918, the number of those employed in American industry has continuously decreased though production increased until 1929.) Increased productivity coupled with the process of concentration of capital thus results in a constantly growing mass of commodities produced by fewer and fewer workers — increased production, in increased unemployment. This fact, in the face of the capitalists’ urgent need for more extensive exploitation, indicates the limits of capitalist production. The more exploitation is intensified, the faster these limits are reached. “The same circumstances which have increased the productive power of labor, augmented the mass of produced commodities, expanded the markets, accelerated the accumulation of capital, both as concerns its mass and value, and lowered the rate of profit, these same circumstances have also created a relative over-population and continue to create it all the time, an over-population of laborers who are not employed by the surplus capital on account of the low degree of exploitation at which they might be employed, or at least on account of the low rate of profit which they would yield with the given rate of exploitation.”

The law of value is, according to Marx, the regulator of the production of commodities and determines in what proportion the work of society is distributed, but this only holds good for society as a whole, not for individual capitalist units. In reality, the law of value is only enforced through the competition of individual enterprises; actual exchange of commodities does not take place according to value, but according to price of production. If one capitalist sells above value, another capitalist sells below. Competition, which results in the establishment of the average rate of profit, also established the law of value as the final and general law which underlies the sum total of individual transactions at the prices of production.

Without this, the rate of profit would differ from one branch of production to another according to the rate of surplus value, period of capital turnover, and the organic composition of capital. The greater the rate of surplus value, the higher the rate of profit. (The rate of surplus value or exploitation is the surplus value divided by the capital invested in wages – the variable capital. The rate of profit is the surplus value divided by the total capital including constant capital:- means of production, and variable capital.) The quicker the turnover of capital – ie the quicker the capitalist gets his capital outlay plus surplus value back – the higher the rate of profit, and vice-versa. The ratio between the means of production and labor power, expressed in value form as constant and variable capital, we call the organic composition of capital. The higher the organic composition, the lower the rate of profit.

As not only the rate of profit for individual capitals, but also the average rate of profit continuously sinks on account of the rise in the organic composition of capital, small capitals would be destroyed if they were unable to increase their capital sufficiently. The existence of the capitalist depends on a continuous increase of his capital by lowering production costs below normal. He strives to gain an extra profit by producing and selling his products over their individual but below their social value. Each capitalist has of necessity the same desire and so each capitalist must accumulate.

If he stops re-investing part of his surplus value in his enterprise, he runs the risk of his capital becoming valueless, if its technical form is falling behind the general development of the productive forces. This fact results in again raising the organic composition and further lowering the rate of profit, and thereby hastens the tempo of development by stimulating the search for extra profit. To resist would mean economic suicide for the capitalist.

To understand the action of the law of value and accumulation, we must first disregard these individual and external movements, and consider accumulation from the point of view of total capital, since the total social capital values and total prices are identical. “The most important factor in this inquiry is the composition of capital and the changes it undergoes in the course of the process of accumulation”. In the capitalist mode of production, and in that alone, is the development of the productive power not only expressed as a growth of means of production in order to have more results with less labor, (as it is expressed in all economic systems) but as a rise in the organic composition of capital, more constant capital, less variable capital and a consequent falling rate of profit. “A fall in the rate of profit and a hastening of accumulation are insofar only different expressions of the same process as both of them indicate the development of the productive power. Accumulation in its turn hastens the fall of the rate of profit, inasmuch as it implies the concentration of labor on a large scale and thereby a higher composition of capital”.

The fall in the rate of profit is at the same time accompanied by an increase in the mass of profit as long as capital accumulates faster than the rate of profit falls. The sinking of the rate of profit and the growth of the mass of profit are therefore both caused by capitalist accumulation. At the same time the sinking rate of profit acts as an index to the relative fall of the mass of profit. When the accumulation of capital reaches a certain point, the mass of profit will fall not only relatively to the total capital invested, but also absolutely; a larger social capital will bring an absolutely smaller profit. But this point only appears at the end of a certain period of accumulation. Up to that point, “the same development of social productivity of labor expresses itself in the course of capitalist production on the one hand in a tendency to a progressive fall of the rate of profit, and on the other hand in a progressive increase of the absolute mass of the appropriated surplus value, or profit; so that in the whole, a relative decrease of variable capital and profit is accompanied by an absolute increase of both.” This is the characteristic expression of the progressive development of the productive power of labor under the capitalist mode of production.

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