What is "Surplus Value"?

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Source: The Anarchist Library
Republished with permission.


Before discussing how surplus-value exists and the flaws in capitalist defences of it, we need to be specific about what we mean by the term “surplus value.” To do this we must revisit the difference between possession and private property. For anarchists, private property (or capital) is “the power to produce without labour.” [Proudhon, What is Property?, p. 161] As such, surplus value is created when the owners of property let others use them and receive an income from so doing. Therefore something only becomes capital, producing surplus value, under specific social relationships.

Surplus value is “the difference between the value produced by the workers and the wages they receive” and is “appropriated by the landlord and capitalist class ... absorbed by the non-producing classes as profits, interest, rent, etc.” [Charlotte Wilson, Anarchist Essays, pp. 46–7] It basically refers to any non-labour income (some anarchists, particularly individualist anarchists, have tended to call “surplus value” usury). As Proudhon noted, it “receives different names according to the thing by which it is yielded: if by land, ground-rent; if by houses and furniture, rent; if by life-investments, revenue; if by money, interest; if by exchange, advantage, gain, profit (three things which must not be confounded with the wages of legitimate price of labour).” [Op. Cit., p. 159]

For simplicity, we will consider “surplus value” to have three component parts: profits, interest and rent. All are based on payment for letting someone else use your property. Rent is what we pay to be allowed to exist on part of the earth (or some other piece of property). Interest is what we pay for the use of money. Profit is what we pay to be allowed to work a farm or use piece of machinery. Rent and interest are easy to define, they are obviously the payment for using someone else’s property and have existed long before capitalism appeared. Profit is a somewhat more complex economic category although, ultimately, is still a payment for using someone else’s property.

The term “profit” is often used simply, but incorrectly, to mean an excess over costs. However, this ignores the key issue, namely how a workplace is organised. In a co-operative, for example, while there is a surplus over costs, “there is no profit, only income to be divided among members. Without employees the labour-managed firm does not have a wage bill, and labour costs are not counted among the expenses to be extracted from profit, as they are in the capitalist firm.” This means that the economic category of profit does not exist in the labour-managed firm, as it does in the capitalist firm where wages are a cost to be subtracted from gross income before a residual profit is determined ... Income shared among all producers is net income generated by the firm: the total of value added by human labour applied to the means of production, less payment of all costs of production and any reserves for depreciation of plant and equipment.”[Christopher Eaton Gunn, Workers’ Self-Management in the United States, p. 41 and p. 45] Gunn, it should be noted, follows both Proudhon and Marx in his analysis (“Let us suppose the workers are themselves in possession of their respective means of production and exchange their commodities with one another. These commodities would not be products of capital.” [Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 276]).

In other words, by profits we mean income that flows to the owner of a workplace or land who hires others to do the work. As such returns to capital are as unique to capitalism as unemployment is. This means that a farmer who works their own land receives a labour income when they sell the crop while one who hires labourers to work the land will receive a non-labour income, profit. Hence the difference between possession and private property (or capital) and anarchist opposition to “capitalist property, that is, property which allows some to live by the work of others and which therefore presupposes a class of ... people, obliged to sell their labour power to the property-owners for less than its value.” [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 102]

Another complication arises due to the fact that the owners of private property sometimes do work on them (i.e. be a boss) or hire others to do boss-like work on their behalf (i.e. executives and other managerial staff). It could be argued that bosses and executives are also “workers” and so contribute to the value of the commodities produced. However, this is not the case. Exploitation does not just happen, it needs to be organised and managed. In other words, exploitation requires labour (“There is work and there is work,” as Bakunin noted, “There is productive labour and there is the labour of exploitation.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 180]). The key is that while a workplace would grind to a halt without workers, the workers could happily do without a boss by organising themselves into an association to manage their own work. As such, while bosses may work, they are not taking part in productive activity but rather exploitative activity.

Much the same can be said of executives and managers. Though they may not own the instruments of production, they are certainly buyers and controllers of labour power, and under their auspices production is still capitalist production. The creation of a “salary-slave” strata of managers does not alter the capitalist relations of production. In effect, the management strata are de facto capitalists and they are like “working capitalist” and, consequently, their “wages” come from the surplus value appropriated from workers and realised on the market. Thus the exploitative role of managers, even if they can be fired, is no different from capitalists. Moreover, “shareholders and managers/technocrats share common motives: to make profits and to reproduce hierarchy relations that exclude most of the employees from effective decision making” [Takis Fotopoulos, “The Economic Foundations of an Ecological Society”, pp. 1–40, Society and Nature, No.3, p. 16] In other words, the high pay of the higher levels of management is a share of profits not a labour income based on their contribution to production but rather due to their position in the economic hierarchy and the power that gives them.

So management is paid well because they monopolise power in the company and can get away with it. As Bakunin argued, within the capitalist workplace “administrative work ... [is] monopolised ... if I concentrate in my hands the administrative power, it is not because the interests of production demand it, but in order to serve my own ends, the ends of exploitation. As absolute boss of my establishment I get for my labours [many] ... times more than my workers get for theirs.” [Op. Cit., p. 186] Given this, it is irrelevant whether those in the hierarchy simply control (in the case of managers) or actually own the means of production. What counts is that those who do the actual work are excluded from the decision making process.

This is not to say that 100 percent of what managers do is exploitative. The case is complicated by the fact that there is a legitimate need for co-ordination between various aspects of complex production processes — a need that would remain under libertarian socialism and would be filled by elected and recallable (and in some cases rotating) managers. But under capitalism, managers become parasitic in proportion to their proximity to the top of the pyramid. In fact, the further the distance from the production process, the higher the salary; whereas the closer the distance, the more likely that a “manager” is a worker with a little more power than average. In capitalist organisations, the less you do, the more you get. In practice, executives typically call upon subordinates to perform managerial (i.e. co-ordinating) functions and restrict themselves to broader policy-making decisions. As their decision-making power comes from the hierarchical nature of the firm, they could be easily replaced if policy making was in the hands of those who are affected by it. As such, their role as managers do not require them to make vast sums. They are paid that well currently because they monopolise power in the company and can, consequently, get away with deciding that they, unsurprisingly, contribute most to the production of useful goods rather than those who do the actual work.

Nor are we talking, as such, of profits generated by buying cheap and selling dear. We are discussing the situation at the level of the economy as a whole, not individual transactions. The reason is obvious. If profits could just be explained in terms of buying cheap in order to sell dear then, over all, such transactions would cancel each other out when we look at the market as a whole as any profit will cancel any loss. For example, if someone buys a product at, say, £20 and sells it at £25 then there would be no surplus overall as someone else will have to pay £20 for something which cost £25. In other words, what one person gains as a seller, someone else will lose as a buyer and no net surplus has been created. Capitalists, in other words, do not simply profit at each other’s expense. There is a creation of surplus rather than mere redistribution of a given product. This means that we are explaining why production results in aggregate surplus and why it gets distributed between social classes under capitalism.

This means that capitalism is based on the creation of surplus rather than mere redistribution of a given sum of products. If this were not the case then the amount of goods in the economy would not increase, growth would not exist and all that would happen is that the distribution of goods would change, depending on the transactions made. Such a world would be one without production and, consequently, not realistic. Unsurprisingly, this is the world of neoclassical economics. This shows the weakness of attempts to explain the source of profits in terms of the market rather than production. While the market can explain how, perhaps, a specific set of goods and surplus is distributed, it cannot explain how a surplus is generated in the first place. To understand how a surplus is created we need to look at the process of value creation. For this, it is necessary to look at production to see if there is something which produces more than it gets paid for. Anarchists, like other socialists, argue that this is labour and, consequently, that capitalism is an exploitative system.

Obviously, pro-capitalist economics argues against this theory of how a surplus arises and the conclusion that capitalism is exploitative. We will discuss the more common arguments below. However, one example will suffice here to see why labour is the source of a surplus, rather than (say) “waiting”, risk or the productivity of capital (to list some of the more common explanations for capitalist appropriation of surplus value). This is a card game. A good poker-player uses equipment (capital), takes risks, delays gratification, engages in strategic behaviour, tries new tricks (innovates), not to mention cheats, and can make large winnings. However, no surplus product results from such behaviour; the gambler’s winnings are simply redistributions from others with no new production occurring. For one to win, the rest must lose. Thus risk-taking, abstinence, entrepreneurship, and so on might be necessary for an individual to receive profits but they are far from sufficient for them not to be the result of a pure redistribution from others.

In short, our discussion of exploitation under capitalism is first and foremost an economy-wide one. We are concentrating on how value (goods and services) and surplus value (profits, rent and interest) are produced rather than how they are distributed. The distribution of goods between people and the division of income into wages and surplus value between classes is a secondary concern as this can only occur under capitalism if workers produce goods and services to sell (this is the direct opposite of mainstream economics which assumes a static economy with almost no discussion of how scarce means are organised to yield outputs, the whole emphasis is on exchanges of ready made goods).

Nor is this distribution somehow fixed. How the amount of value produced by workers is divided between wages and surplus value is source of much conflict and struggle, the outcome of which depends on the balance of power between and within classes. The same can be said of surplus value. This is divided between profits, interest and rent — capitalists, financiers and landlords. This does not imply that these sections of the exploiting class see eye to eye or that there is not competition between them. Struggle goes on within classes and well as between classes and this applies at the top of the economic hierarchy as at the bottom. The different sections of the ruling elite fight over their share of surplus value. This can involve fighting over control of the state to ensure that their interests are favoured over others. For example, the Keynesian post-war period can be considered a period when industrial capitalists shaped state policy while the period after 1973 represents a shift in power towards finance capital.

We must stress, therefore, that the exploitation of workers is not defined as payment less than competitive (“free market”) wage for their labour. Rather, exploitation occurs even if they are paid the market wage. This is because workers are paid for their ability to labour (their “labour-power,” to use Marx’s term) rather the labour itself. This means that for a given hour’s work (labour), the capitalist expects the worker to produce more than their wage (labour power). How much more is dependent on the class struggle and the objective circumstances each side faces. Indeed, a rebellious workforce willing to take direct action in defence of their interests will not allow subjection or its resulting exploitation.

Similarly, it would be wrong to confuse exploitation with low wages. Yes, exploitation is often associated with paying low wages but it is more than possible for real wages to go up while the rate of exploitation falls or rises. While some anarchists in the nineteenth century did argue that capitalism was marked by falling real wages, this was more a product of the time they were living through rather than an universal law. Most anarchists today argue that whether wages rise or fall depends on the social and economic power of working people and the historic context of a given society. This means, in other words, that labour is exploited not because workers have a low standard of living (although it can) but because labour produces the whole of the value created in any process of production or creation of a service but gets only part of it back.

As such, it does not matter if real wages do go up or not. Due to the accumulation of capital, the social and economic power of the capitalists and their ability to extract surplus-value can go up at a higher rate than real wages. The key issue is one of freedom rather than the possibility of consuming more. Bosses are in a position, due to the hierarchical nature of the capitalist workplace, to make workers produce more than they pay them in wages. The absolute level of those wages is irrelevant to the creation and appropriation of value and surplus-value as this happens at all times within capitalism.

As an example, since the 1970s American workers have seen their wages stagnate and have placed themselves into more and more debt to maintain an expected standard of living. During this time, productivity has increased and so they have been increasingly exploited. However, between 1950s and 1970s wages did increase along with productivity. Strong unions and a willingness to strike mitigated exploitation and increased living standards but exploitation continued. As Doug Henwood notes, while “average incomes have risen considerably” since 1945, “the amount of work necessary to earn those incomes has risen with equal relentlessness ... So, despite the fact that productivity overall is up more than threefold” over this time “the average worker would have to toil six months longer to make the average family income.” [After the New Economy, pp. 39–40] In other words, rising exploitation can go hand in hand with rising wages.

Finally, we must stress that we are critiquing economics mostly in its own terms. On average, workers sell their labour-power at a “fair” market price and still exploitation occurs. As sellers of a commodity (labour-power) they do not receive its full worth (i.e. what they actually produce). Even if they did, almost all anarchists would still be against the system as it is based on the worker becoming a wage-slave and subject to hierarchy. In other words, they are not free during production and, consequently, they would still being robbed, although this time it is as human beings rather than a factor of production (i.e. they are oppressed rather than exploited). As Bookchin put it:

“To the modern mind, labour is viewed as a rarefied, abstract activity, a process extrinsic to human notions of genuine self-actualisation. One usually ‘goes to work’ the way a condemned person ‘goes’ to a place of confinement: the workplace is little more than a penal institution in which mere existence must be a penalty in the form of mindless labour ... We ‘measure’ labour in hours, products, and efficiency, but rarely do we understand it as a concrete human activity. Aside from the earnings it generates, labour is normally alien to human fulfilment ... [as] the rewards one acquires by submitting to a work discipline. By definition, these rewards are viewed as incentives for submission, rather than for the freedom that should accompany creativity and self-fulfilment. We commonly are ‘paid’ for supinely working on our knees, not for heroically standing in our feet.” [The Ecology of Freedom, p. 308]

Almost all anarchists seek to change this, combat oppression and alienation as well as exploitation (some individualist anarchists are the exception on this issue). Needless to say, the idea that we could be subject to oppression during working hours and not be exploited is one most anarchists would dismiss as a bad joke and, as a result, follow Proudhon and demand the abolition of wage labour (most take it further and advocate the abolition of the wages system as well, i.e. support libertarian communism).



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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