This post in the Anticapitalist Chat supports a group reading of Karl Marx’s Capital Vol 1. #GoodMorningMarx #WeeklyMarx.

Outline of Marx’s Analysis Chapter 16

The Historical Relation Between Absolute and Relative Surplus Value

– in capitalism, social labor produces surplus-value
– early on: formal subsumption of labor produces absolute surplus-value by extending the working day
– later: real subsumption of labor produces relative surplus-value by reducing necessary labor
– but the means for reducing necessary labor also can increase absolute surplus-value– amount of potential surplus labor

– Ricardo: saw labor productivity as source of profit

– Mill: affirms source of profits in productivity of labor against mercantilist focus on exchange


In this, the first of the three chapters that take us from analyses in terms of value, to those of the monetary form of the value of labor-power, Marx reminds us of the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value, of how they are produced and of the relationship between the two. 

Absolute surplus-value emerges early when capitalists only command or subsume the labor of others formally, that is to say, without taking over and transforming tools and how they are used. Under those circumstances, their only available strategy for increasing the extraction of surplus-value involves getting people to work longer. Because workers control their tools and the rhythm of their work, capitalists have little leverage to extract more surplus-value via the intensification of labor. 

Relative surplus-value emerges as capitalists do obtain that leverage, by gaining control over tools and organizing them in factories that facilitate oversight and control. Protected by new property laws, they reshape both tools and their use to raise productivity and increase surplus-value—both by reducing the labor time necessary to produce each unit and by increasing the intensity of labor.

Given the increasing centrality of productivity, he also reminds us of how the conditions and meaning of productive labor depends upon the context. At the level of the individual, a productive worker is simply one who produces some product directly, using mind, hands and tools to transform raw materials. That was the generic concept he set out in the first section of Chapter 7. But as human society developed most labor became social, such that individuals came to collaborate in the production of ever more things and in so doing formed a collective worker with a division of labor—that he analyzed in some detail in Chapter 14. With the rise of various kinds of class society, including capitalism, antagonistic relationships develop as some are able to impose surplus work on others and appropriate the resulting surplus product. Within capitalism that surplus product takes the form of surplus-value, so that from the point of view of the appropriating capitalists the only productive workers, i.e., the only workers whose labor makes it possible to impose more work, are those who produce surplus-value, i.e., surplus labor whose products can be used to impose more work in the future. As a result, there is a clear distinction between the vernacular, everyday sense of being productive, i.e., being able to produce something, and the only kind of productivity that matters to capitalists. This is consistent with the emphasis we saw in Chapter 1 between use-value and exchange-value/value. Use-values and the ease with which we can obtain them preoccupy those of us who work; the exchange-value of the surplus production preoccupies those who put us to work.

In illustrating the capitalist case, Marx draws a parallel between those industries that produce things and those that produce services.

. . . a schoolmaster is a productive worker when, in addition to belaboring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation.

Given that such “productivity” involves exploitation, he adds that, “To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.” (1)

Marx then goes on to remind us of the connections that he demonstrated in Chapter 15 between absolute and relative surplus-value. Namely, how the methods used to produce relative surplus-value, i.e., introducing new machines and new technology, also made possible the prolongation of the working day and the intensification of work, both of which added surplus-alue by extracting more work from those subject to the new methods. What he does not remind us of here, is how the shift to relative surplus-value strategies was the result of the success of workers’ struggles to shorten the working day and by so doing undermine absolute surplus-value. (2) Nor does he reiterate his previous analysis of how new machines are designed and new technologies are chosen with the objective of undermining those struggles through the reorganization of the labor process.(3)

These reminders are followed by a brief analysis of the impact of natural conditions on the availability of surplus labor, both potential and actual. Where nature has provided plenty to meet limited needs and wants, as has sometimes been the case in the tropics, little work has been required and this resulted in a lot of spare, disposable time.(4)…


1 Both this and the quoted passage are from Capital, Vol. I, p. 644.

2 Ibid., Chapter 15, Section 2, subsections (b) and (c).

3 Ibid., Chapter 15, Sections 4 and 5.

4 Recall Marx's celebration, cited in my commentary on Section 5 of Chapter 10 of the Quashees of Jamaica thumbing their noses at the capitalist planters.



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The Historical Relation Between Absolute and Relative Surplus Value

Although, as this chapter makes clear, absolute and relative surplus value often co-exist as capitalist strategies, Marx nevertheless suggests a fundamental historical linkage between the two approaches.

  • On the one hand, during the period of the “formal” subordination of labor to capital, before there is any capitalist modification of the labor process, absolute surplus value dominates, i.e., the main way capitalist seek to extract more surplus labor is through making workers work longer.
  • On the other hand, the historical success of workers' resistance to absolute surplus value forces capital to shift its emphasis to relative surplus value.

As soon as the gradual upsurge of working-class revolt had compelled Parliament compulsorily to shorten the hours of labor, and to begin by imposing a normal working day on factories properly so called, i.e., from the moment that it was made impossible once and for all to increase the production of surplus-value by prolonging the working day, capital threw itself with all its might, and in full awareness of the situation, into the production of relative surplus value, by speeding up the development of the machine system. (pp. 533-4)

Chapter 16: Absolute and Relative Surplus-Value

  1. absolute surplus-value, “the prolongation of the working day beyond the point at which the worker would have produced an exact equivalent for the value of his labour-power…forms the general foundation of the capitalist system, and the starting point for the production of relative surplus-value.” – 645
  2. “A merely formal subsumption of labour under capital suffices for the production of absolute surplus-value.” – 645
  3. “the capital-relation arises out of an economic soil that is the product of a long process of development. The existing productivity of labour, from which it proceeds as its basis, is a gift, not of nature, but of a history embracing thousands of centuries.” – 647…

Frederick Engels  —  Synopsis of Capital

Written: by Engels in 1868;
Transcribed to the Internet in 1993 by Zodiac;
The present html markup was done in early 1999 by Brian Baggins.

Table of Contents:

  1. Commodities and Money  
  2. The Transformation of Money into Capital  
  3. The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value  
  4. The Production of Relative Surplus-Value

This is a synopsis of Capital, Volume I, written by Engels in 1868. Upon Capital's release, Engels began constructing a comprehensive summation.

The Production of Absolute Surplus Value

1. The labour process and the process of producting surplus-value

2. Constant and variable capital

3. The Rate of Surplus Value

4. The working day

5. Rate and mass of surplus-value

The Production of Relative Surplus Value

1. The concept of relative surplus-value

2. Co-operation

3. Division of labour and manufacture

4. Machinery and modern Industry

A. Machinery as Such
B. Appropriation of labour-Power Through Machinery
C. The Whole Factory in Its Classical Form
D. The Workers' Struggle Against the Factory System and Machinery
E. Machinery and Surplus-Value

Chapter 16 of volume 1 of Capital is called “Absolute and Relative Surplus Value” and discusses the nature of labour, surplus value and surplus labour time. This chapter begins Part 5 of Capital (which comprises Chapters 16, 17 and 18). Marx opens his chapter with a discussion of the nature of productive labour. Under the capitalist mode of production, the commodity ceases “to be the direct product of the individual, and becomes a social product, produced in common by a collective labourer, i.e., by a combination of workmen, each of whom takes only a part, greater or less, in the manipulation of the subject of their labour” (Marx 1906: 558). So the collective worker does not produce a complete use-value by himself, but only a part of it (Brewer 1984: 61; Harvey 2010: 237). Harvey (2010: 237–238) raises the question whether cleaners, janitors, managers, and the people in charge of advertising and marketing count as productive workers in factories in Marx’s theory, an interesting point. Capitalism is a system which subordinates free labourers to capitalists (Marx 1990: 643). Marx states: “So far as the labour-process is purely individual, one and the same labourer unites in himself all the functions, that later on become separated. When an individual appropriates natural objects for his livelihood, no one controls him but himself. Afterwards he is controlled by others.…

  • December 20, 2020