Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value

The theory of surplus value, referred to by many as the base of Karl Marx’s critique of the political economy, is notorious for revealing to all the true driving force of the capitalist mode of production. Terms like free labor, which have raised wage-labor to the purest level of working imaginable in the minds of ignorant persons under Capital’s influence, have only managed to blind people from the pure outright exploitation of the wage-workers. Let us discover what this theory is and how it throws wage-labor off its high and mighty pedestal of purity.

Let’s start with a hypothetical: (all the following monetary amounts are assumed to be the natural price, the actual value of the commodity, or the price where supply and demand cancel each other out) a capitalist invests $100 total capital into production, $60 for the objective means of production and means of labor (constant capital portion), and $40 for wages (variable capital portion). In this case the total working day will be eight hours and necessary labor-time will be four hours. Necessary labor-time refers to the amount of time that the worker needs to work in order to reproduce himself, or create value equal to the necessaries of life. Necessary labor-time is also equivalent to the value of the worker’s labor-power.

We will begin with a look at the constant capital. Every product has its value determined by the socially-acceptable, average, amount of labor-power needed to produce it. This is because value is merely congealed laborer-power. Labor-power is measured in time which is appropriately called labor-time. Material used as raw materials have no value until they are mined or gathered in some way; those raw materials, such as gold, are rare and therefore need more labor-power to gather them. This causes them to have a higher value. When one applies labor-power to an object the labor becomes objectified in the object. This objectified value that is sealed in the product, if used as a means of production, will transfer its value to the new product when it passes through the production process. (This only occurs if living labor-power is applied to the objectified labor-power). Its value is preserved and passed to the new product. Only its physical utility, or use value, is changed. By applying his labor-power to the means of production through the mediation of the means of labor, the worker has preserved its value. It is important to notice that there is no value created in the constant capital, only a transfer of value to the new finished product occurs. This means that the creation surplus-value, which we will define later, is not to be found in the constant capital.

During the labor process these objective means of production confront the worker as alien value the bears down on him as capital; they are alien values used by capital to exploit the worker to gain a profit. Marx characterizes this relation like so, “…the social character of the conditions of labor – and this includes machinery and capitale fixe of every kind – appears to be entirely autonomous and independent of the worker. It appears to be a mode of existence of capital itself, and therefore as something ordered by capitalists without reference to the workers. Like the social character of their own labor, but to a far greater extent, the social character with which the conditions of production are endowed, as the conditions of production of the combined labor of the community, appears as capitalistic, as something independent of the workers and intrinsic to the conditions of production themselves” (Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, pg.1052-1053).

Since we are talking about capitalist production, I feel that the difference between unproductive and productive labor should be understood in order to fully grasp the Marx’s theory of surplus-value. Productive labor is any labor that increases the total mass of surplus-value. To fully identify productive labor from unproductive labor, one should understand that the definition of productive labor, given above, is from the view-point of capital as a whole. There are certain cases that involve labor appropriating surplus-value for an individual capitalist but not increasing the total mass of surplus-value in the process. The labor is there for productive from the view of the individual capitalist, but in actuality it is unproductive because it doesn’t increase the total mass of surplus-value. Instead of creating surplus-value, it has appropriated a fraction of the total mass of surplus-value. Commerce industries, banks and other financial industries all fall into this category of unproductive labor that can appear productive only from the view of an individual capitalist, but never in actuality.

Now we shall take a look at the wages portion of the capital being employed also known as the variable portion of the total capital. Here’s what we know: the total working day is eight hours long, the necessary laborer-time is four hours long (1/2 the total work day). Right from the start any person could see a contradiction with the data above; this contradiction of course being that only half of the day is payed for by the capitalist. This is no flaw in our calculations, but rather the undeniable reality of unpaid labor under the wage-labor system. The value of labor-power is determined by the value of the necessities needed by the worker to live a full day which is determined by the amount of labor-power socially necessary to produce them. (The necessary labor-time is there for equivalent to the labor-time needed to create the necessaries).  If it takes 4 hours to produce the necessaries then in turn the value of labor-power will be 4 hours transmuted into a monetary value. Since the price form of the value is $40, the capitalist must pay $40 dollars to employ the worker for a full day. In this hypothetical the worker only needs to work four hours in order to live a full day. During these four hours, if he is employed by the capitalist, the worker will reproduce that value the capitalist put forward in wages. The worker, if he is self-employed, could stop at his point, as he no longer needs more value to sustain his existence; on the other hand, under Capital’s control he can, and will, be worked past this through pure exploitation. The capitalist has exchanged only for the necessary labor-time and with this he own the rights to the labor power-power sold to him for the full working day, not just half.  The payment allows the worker to live a full day and therefor work much longer than he personally needs to. Half the day is work done by the worker, at his own expense, for the capitalist; the capitalist feeds off this surplus labor like a parasite, unnoticed by masses. These four hours of unpaid labor are put to work creating more value, $40 to be exact, that becomes objectified in the new product. As long as the capitalist gets his way, the worker will be degraded to the bare minimum and never see the real fruits of his labor, but rather a crumby morsel of it. Let’s review our formula again after the product has finished being manufactured: $60 for raw materials and instruments of labor, $40 for wages, and another $40 surplus value. In the end the capitalist has made away with a 40 percent gain through pure exploitation of his fellow man.

Above we found in the production process with our hypothetical in which $100 capital was put forth, $40 surplus value was created and placed in the end product. Many are probably wondering for what sick reason the capitalist would force the laborer to work more than he needs to. The requirements for the self-valorization (by valorization I mean the creation of more value that is manifest in the new product as surplus-product) of capital holds the answer. Capital is a lifeless thing who’s personified form is the capitalist. Capital’s needs are the capitalist’s needs, they are one in the same. One strict and horrific law that decides the fate of the capital is the need for self-valorization, that being: the capital placed in production must be both preserved and multiplied by the end of the production process. The worker in our hypothetical (noted above) needs to work only four hours in order to live a full day; during this time he is also creating the capital put forward in the form of his wages in the product. This is not yet sufficient for the capital, it still must be valorized. Capital is multiplied through making the laborer work past the necessary labor-time with no compensation. The special nature of labor-power holds the key to discovering how this addition of uncompensated work in the working day is possible; this special quality is of course the fact that the capitalist only pays the part of the day equivalent to the necessary labor-time, but this doesn’t mean that the laborer can’t be worked past this necessary labor-time. The necessary labor-time is the only part of the day that the worker needs to work to live a full day, therefor the worker can easily work past this check-point. We noted above in a quote from Karl Marx’s Capital how the objective conditions of production encounters the worker as independent things in the form of capital. Marx’s characterizes labor-power sold by the laborer to the capitalist by saying “although labor is an expression of labor-power, although it represents the effort of the individual worker, and so belongs to him (it is the substance with which he pays the capitalist for what he receives from him), it nevertheless objectifies itself in the product and so belongs to the capitalist. Even worse, the social configuration in which the workers exist, and within which they function only as the particular organs of the total labor-power that makes up the workshop as a whole, does not belong to them either. On the contrary, it confronts them as a capitalist arrangement that is imposed upon them” (Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1 pg. 1052). Even the workers own labor is alien to him, not to mention the horrid monstrosity of dead, objectified labor in the constant capital. Both aspects of capitalist production, along with others I don’t have the time to mention, serve to crush the worker into a place of dependence on capital for life. Even if this dependence means that he will be exploited he will still have to give in; the worker is forced to work for the capitalist. Run him into the ground, break the worker, turn him into a walking husk of a human being: these are some of the ways how capital thinks nothing of the worker, as he is merely a replaceable tool in its eyes. If the worker simply cannot fulfill his task, if he is broken, he will be thrown out like trash and replaced by a new tool.


By: Luke Mavis

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Lucas Shelton

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