Relative surplus value: The class struggle intensifies

Aug 18, 2021

Photo: Shimbashi Factory of the Japan National Railways (The Machinery Hall) From the Meiji Mura village museum, Japan. Source: Wikicommons.


Toward the end of our earlier introduction to surplus value, the heart and motor of the class struggle, we wrote that:

“The rate of surplus value for the capitalist is the rate of exploitation for the worker. By merely prolonging the working day, the capitalist accrues more (absolute) surplus value. Increasing the working day from eight to 10 hours results in two more hours of surplus value for the capitalist and of exploitation for the worker” [1].

For any working period—whether it be a day, an hour, or five minutes—part of the period is “necessary labor” and another part is “surplus labor.” The former is when the worker produces the value of their own wage, and the latter is when the worker produces surplus value for the capitalist. The ratio between the two is the rate of surplus value for the capitalist and the rate of exploitation for the worker.

Absolute surplus value, Marx says, is “produced by prolongation of the working-day” [2]. In other words, if the ratio between necessary and surplus labor is fixed, then prolonging the working day will result in more surplus value for the capitalist and a greater degree of exploitation for the worker.

Capital’s entire reason for being is to produce surplus value, to increase the exploitation of the working class. As a result, there’s a logical impulse for each capitalist to extend the working day as much as possible. Yet not only might this produce problems for capitalism as a whole (in that it could exhaust the supply of labor-power available), but the working class fights back against exploitation, and at times is able to force limits to the length of the working day.

What happens, then, when political legislation limits the working day to, say, eight hours? This is obviously a limit to capitalist accumulation. For capital, however, “every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome” [3]. Relative surplus value is capital’s strategy for overcoming this limit.

Relative surplus value

If absolute surplus value is produced by lengthening the working day, then relative surplus value is produced by “the curtailment of the necessary labour-time, and from the corresponding alteration in the respective lengths of the two components of the working-day” [4]. Let’s say the working day was previously 10 hours, and that 10 hours was divided between four hours of necessary labor and six hours of surplus labor. If the working day is reduced to eight hours and wages remain the same, capital will lose two hours of surplus value. The only way to overcome this barrier and to reclaim those two hours of surplus labor is to reduce necessary labor by two hours.

How can this happen?

Remember that necessary labor time is variable capital, or the value of labor power. The value of labor power is, like all values, determined by the socially-necessary labor time required for its production and reproduction, which as we saw in the last part was largely the product of class struggle. The value of labor power can be represented by the bundle of commodities that go into the worker’s production and reproduction, like the value of housing, clothing, education, child-rearing, electricity, and so on.

If the conditions are right, the capitalist can—and sometimes does—merely decrease workers’ wages in this scenario. The state can also step in and provide some of the basic commodities that factor into the value of labor power. However, in Capital, Marx sets these aside because he wants to show us how it can happen within the very logic of a “perfectly” functioning capitalist system.

Two interrelated forms of relative surplus value

There are two interrelated ways that capitalists drive down necessary labor. One way it happens is by decreasing the value of the commodities that factor into the value of labor power:

“Whenever an individual capitalist cheapens shirts, for instance, by increasing the productiveness of labour, he by no means necessarily aims at reducing the value of labour-power and shortening, pro tanto, the necessary labour-time. But it is only in so far as he ultimately contributes to this result, that he assists in raising the general rate of surplus-value” [5].

The second form explains the reason the capitalist producing shirts ends up raising the rate of surplus value even though they don’t intend to.

To understand this, we have to distinguish between two values: individual value and social (or real) value. Remember that part of the reason Marx calls value socially-necessary labor time is because it’s the average labor time required to produce some useful good or service “under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time” [6]. This is the social or real value: the average of all production times.

The individual value is the labor time required for production in a particular factory or under a particular capitalist.

Capitalists are always in competition with each other. They’re subjected to “the inherent laws of capitalist production” the “external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist” [7]. Each capitalist is always seeking to gain an edge over their competitors, and as a result, they’re trying to produce more (and sometimes better) commodities faster.

If the socially-necessary labor time required to produce a commodity is two hours, then every capitalist wants to find a way to produce it in less time. If a capitalist can, by employing some new method or technology, produce the same commodity in one hour, then the individual value of the commodity is half of the social value. As Marx writes:

“If therefore, the capitalist who applies the new method, sells his commodity at its social value… he sells it… above its individual value, and thus realizes an extra surplus-value” [8]. Suppose the social value of a shirt is $4 but a capitalist’s individual value is $2. In this case, they can gain an extra $2 in surplus value.

However, whereas previously a working day of eight hours was represented by two shirts, it’s now represented by four shirts. In order to sell the extra shirts, the market needs to be twice as large or the capitalist will sell the shirt at, say, $3—above its individual value but below its social value. In this case, necessary labor is shortened, and the capitalist captures more relative surplus value.

The contradictions of relative surplus value production

Just as capital sees barriers as obstacles to overcome, each new limit it surpasses only creates new contradictions and intensifies existing ones. There are several contradictions that arise from the pursuit of relative surplus value.

The first contradiction is that the capitalists are producing more commodities in terms of use values, yet each commodity contains less value (and therefore exchange-value). This can potentially benefit workers. If wages remain the same, they can either spend less on shirts or purchase more shirts than before. Such a scenario will depend on the class struggle, of course.

This drive to decrease necessary labor can also contribute to a crisis of overproduction. All capitalists are trying to decrease necessary labor time, which means more and more commodities are produced in a given time frame. For the commodities to be realized (sold), there must be an expansion of the market. But at some point, there will be a glut in the market, and there will be more commodities than can be sold at a profit.

The third contradiction is that the “external coercive laws of competition” compel competing capitalists to decrease their own production times, and “this extra surplus-value vanishes, so soon as the new method of production has become general, and has consequently caused the difference between the individual value of the cheapened commodity and its social value to vanish” [9]. Consequently, the overall rate of surplus value also declines, and the need for even faster production re-emerges. Moreover, the competing capitalists don’t only want to match the new innovation and production time but they want to beat it, thereby exacerbating the above contradictions.

Initial methods of producing relative surplus value

There are two initial methods of producing relative surplus value that don’t entail capitalism revolutionizing the means of production. These take place when capital “formally” subjects production to its command, meaning that it takes existing production processes but without fundamentally altering their nature.

One is cooperation, which is a quantitative distinction that leads to a qualitative change. Merely by bringing workers together in one place, capitalists help facilitate the cooperation of workers. “Even without an alteration in the system of working, the simultaneous employment of a large number of labourers effects a revolution in the material conditions of the labour-process. The buildings in which they work, the store-houses for the raw material, the implements and utensils used simultaneously or in turns… in short, a portion of the means of production, are now consumed in common” [10].

Cooperation results in “an increase in the productive power of the individual” worker as well “the creation of a new power, namely, the collective power of masses” [11]. A collective of workers “working in concert has hands and eyes both before and behind and is, to a certain degree, omnipresent” [12]. Importantly, this doesn’t cost capital anything, although it looks like it’s a power of capital itself.

This is the beginning of the collectivization of labor or the production of the collective laborer, which is another contradictory process because “as the number of the co-operating labourers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital” [13]. Workers can more easily agitate and organize, distribute literature and build class consciousness when we’re together in one place.

The other is the division of labor. Capitalism also, without revolutionizing the production process, produces relative surplus value by increasing the division and specialization of labor. When the worker is no longer producing the entire commodity but merely performing one action in the production process, the productivity of labor increases. In other words, “a labourer who all his life performs one and the same simple operation, converts his whole body into the automatic, specialized implement of that operation” and “takes less time in doing it” [14].

Taken together with cooperation, it also decreases any gaps in the labor process: the worker doesn’t have to get up and move to different stations, sit back down, use different tools, and so on.

Capitalism encounters a crucial limit to these methods of relative surplus value production, namely that it is still the workers who are the active agents in production or who serve as the “regulating principle of social production” [15]. The production processes above still rely on the workers’ bodies, skills, knowledges, and so on. Living labor still had the upper hand over dead labor, or the means of production.

Real subjection: Machinery

Marx says capitalists first take existing production processes as they find them and “formally subject them” by, for example, lengthening the working day or instituting cooperation. In order for capitalism to come into its own, it had to totally or really subject labor to its command, and it could only do so by taking the skill and knowledge of the worker and absorbing it into machinery, so that machinery, and not the workers, would drive production; so that dead labor dominates living labor.

Thus is born the industrial factory:

“An organized system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from a central automation, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, in the place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demon power, at first veiled under the slow and measured motions of his giant limbs, at length breaks out in the fast and furious whirl of his countless working organs” [16].

The worker becomes, Marx says, “a mere living appendage” to the machine [17].

As constant capital, the machine can’t produce new value; it can only transfer its existing value to the finished product. However, machinery can produce relative surplus value by decreasing necessary labor time for the individual capitalist and lowering the value of labor-power.

Yet again, this is never finished. It’s only when the capitalist employs new labor-saving technologies that they can produce relative surplus value. “During this transition period… the profits are therefore exceptional, and the capitalist endeavours to exploit thoroughly ‘the sunny time of his first love'” [18].

The love doesn’t last, as other capitalists match or beat the new technologies with more productive ones. The overall rate of surplus value is driven down and, moreover, there are fewer workers engaged in production. The capitalist ends up investing more in machinery and less in labor-power and, overall, surplus value decreases (this is also tied to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall).

This explains why, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society” [19]. The search for relative surplus value in the face of the limits imposed on capital by the class struggle compel the constant revolutionizing of productive forces like technologies and machinery.

Contradictions intensify

There are numerous other key impacts technological transformations have on capitalism, workers, the class struggle, colonialism, imperialism, and more. Marx addresses many of these, some of which previous Liberation School articles cover [20]. For this introductory article, we want to touch on just a few more issues.

In their ruthless search for surplus value, capitalists work to increase the productivity of labor and the mass of commodities in the world. They produce unemployment and induce crises of overproduction. As Marx puts it:

“The enormous power, inherent in the factory system, of expanding by jumps, and the dependence of that system on the markets of the world, necessarily beget feverish production, followed by over-filling of the markets, whereupon contraction of the markets brings on crippling of production. The life of modern industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, a crisis and stagnation” [21].

The expansion and intensification of capitalism’s command over life and work is accompanied by an enlargement and escalation of its internal contradictions. The capitalist system produces ever more and ever greater misery and destruction.

At the same time, this destruction of the worker, the earth, and its inhabitants produced by modern industry—which is spurred on by the search for relative surplus value—can lay the foundations for socialism: “By maturing the material conditions, and the combination on a social scale of the process of production, it matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of production, and thereby provides, along with the elements of the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one” [22].

There’s nothing deterministic or mechanistic about this argument. Marx isn’t saying it will automatically happen or that it will only or universally happen after a certain level of technological development takes place. It’s important to remember that Marx’s case study in Capital is England, where the capitalist mode of production was most developed [23].

Absolute and relative surplus value as tactics

Absolute and relative surplus value are dialectically related. On the one hand, Marx says, they’re the same in that relative surplus value is absolute in the sense that it lengthens the part of the working day that the worker works for the capitalist (by reducing necessary labor time), and absolute value is relative because it compels an increase in the productiveness of labor.

On the other hand, when we look at the matter practically, they’re distinct. The difference between the two, he writes, “makes itself felt, whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value” [24]. In other words, sometimes capital will try to get absolute surplus value, and other times it will try to get relative surplus value.

They are each class tactics in its arsenal of exploitation. If workers can limit the working day, capitalists will go back to relative surplus value. But if capital can lengthen it, either by peeling back legislation or by destroying the entire concept of the working day, like it’s done with the “gig economy,” then it will pursue absolute surplus value.

For the working class, it’s imperative to know the tools in capital’s arsenal. When we fight for a normal working day and a living wage, we can make gains by limiting absolute and relative surplus value, but capital can change tactics and exploit us in different ways. If capital can’t increase absolute surplus value by lengthening the work day due to the united struggle of the workers, it will try to increase relative surplus value by increasing the intensity of work through introducing new technologies to the productive process. Conversely, when capital is unable to overcome the workers’ resistance to increase relative surplus value, it will look for ways to extend the workday. For example, capital might increase the number of salaried workers, whose wages do not increase when they work longer workdays.

Class struggle is conducted in many spheres – political, ideological, cultural, and of course the most easily observable, economical. The economic struggle between workers and capitalists over the rate of absolute and relative surplus value, and hence the rate of exploitation, is yet one more facet of class struggle between labor and capital.


[1] Derek Ford and Mazda Majidi, “Surplus Value is the Class Struggle: An Introduction,” Liberation School, 30 March 2021. Available here.
[2] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 1): The Process of Capitalist Production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1867/1967), 299.
[3] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin, 1939/1973), 408
[4] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 299.
[5] Ibid., 299-300.
[6] Ibid., 47.
[7] Ibid., 257.
[8] Ibid., 301.
[9] Ibid., 302.
[10] Ibid., 307.
[11] Ibid., 309f1. In a footnote, he quotes John Bellers, who writes “As one man cannot, and ten men must strain to lift a ton of weight, yet 100 men can do it only by the strength of a finger of each of them.”
[12] Ibid., 310.
[13] Ibid., 313.
[14] Ibid., 321.
[15] Ibid., 347.
[16] Ibid., 360.
[17] Ibid., 398.
[18] Ibid., 383.
[19] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, trans. S. Moore (New York: Penguin, 1848/1967), 222.
[20] Estevan Hernandez, John Prysner, and Derek Ford, “A Marxist Approach to Technology,” Liberation School, 09 December 2019. Available here.
[21] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 425-427.
[22] Ibid., 472.
[23] In fact, later on he wrote that the Russian “rural commune” can “by developing its basis, the common ownership of land… become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends.” Karl Marx, “First draft of letter to Vera Zasulich,” trans. A. Blunden, in Marx-Engels Collected Works (Vol. 24): Marx and Engels 1874-1888 (New York: International Publishers, 1881/1989), 346. Available here.
[24] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 479.