On Past and Present Labour.
It cannot be surprising that advocates of capitalism assert that economic production is totally dependent upon the investment of capital. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? However, that opinion advertises the superficial thinking among such apologists. It exposes an inability or unwillingness to look beyond the monetary surface of capitalistic economic activity. Despite the cliché and ‘Cabaret’ song; ‘money makes the world go around’ – it certainly does not. Appearances, (as with the sun appearing to go around the earth) often contradict reality.
‘Capital’ doesn’t make anything. It is merely an aggregated medium of exchange (ie money) used to purchase already created means of production such as buildings, machines, tools, raw materials and labour-power.
And, ‘Means of production’, whether simple or complex, are actually produced by workers applying energy and skills to various raw materials. Even digging out and processing raw materials for use in further production, requires the application of a set of tools (means) produced by labour in the past, and new labour in the form of digging. In reality, all means of production are the results of ‘Past Labour’.
NB. Under any social system, all production, including subsequent production, requires the coming together of ‘stored’ Past Labour and ‘expended’ Present Labour.
We know from earlier Beginners Guides, that under capitalism, the bringing together of these two separate stages, of production (means of production and labour-power) results – after a period of unpaid labour – in the creation of surplus-products. The value of these products or services – once sold – deliver a monetary return to the capitalist. So workers not only produce the means of production along with new products, but also create the surplus-products, containing surplus-value, which later becomes capital.
Beneath the illusion caused by the fetish status of money, and the complexity of the division of labour, capital only symbolises the monetised value of Past Labour. Indeed, consequently, ‘capital’ itself is the result of Past Labour – but stored in a socially agreed symbolic form – ie money! In further production, a part of this banked value and surplus-value – in money form – is used to purchase (not create) new means of production; whilst another part of it is used to pay workers their salaries or wages. In short; Past Labour enables Present Labour to continue to produce.
The relationship between Past Labour and Present Labour, described above is undoubtedly the original unity of the social productive process of humanity. It is only the intervention of ‘money’ and class divisions which help to obscure it’s fundamental connection. These, together with the hypnotic effect of ‘money’ can blind some professional intellects to exactly what is involved. To further illustrate this important point about production I offer the following general example.
If one day someone makes a fishing net out of material scavenged from a dump and puts it to one side until the following day. That object (the net) has clearly been the product of their past labour. If on the following day they take the net to the river or sea, cast it into the water and catch a fish, they have used their past days labour (the net) as a means of production along with their Present Labour of walking, carrying and casting, to produce a meal in the form of a fish. No money is involved!
This combination of past and present labour would also be the case if a group of people during one week constructed a boat, sails, nets, plus ancillary equipment and the following week used it to catch many fish. Past Labour (stored in the form of boat equipment) would have been used as means of production for the following weeks Present Labour of fishing. So before, beyond and after capitalism, production doesn’t actually need money or capital.
Despite the inability of those blinded by capitalist theoretical presuppositions, the real facts are indisputable. All productive activity is nothing more than the products of Past Labour being used by Present Labour to make (or in agriculture to plant and grow), what is needed or desired. As demonstrated above this fact becomes extremely obvious when production takes place outside of the complications imposed by the modern capitalist mode of production.
No matter how simple, protracted or complex the Past Labour has been, or the material form it takes, (ie from producing a loaf of bread, to making a Jumbo jet or launching a rocket to the moon) all current production requires the sequential combination of Past and Present Labour. And it is Labour which is carried out, not by the thousands of rich and powerful elites (nor the ‘capital’ secreted in their banks) but by millions upon millions of working people. To produce anew, workers actually only need a means of access to their Past Labour.
This fundamental analysis is not taught in schools or disseminated in the media, because, most of the mainstream intelligentsia have never looked beyond economic text books or below the complex surface phenomena of social production. As with former religious elites and the sun’s orbit; unless challenged, self-serving assertions continue to distort our daily reality.
Those who have probed below this surface and capitalist ideological justifications have been generally ignored by the elite because such understanding reveals that the real producers of all wealth are working people. By understanding the underlying reality, rather than capitalist ‘spin’ and appearances, the huge differences in wealth between non-productive elites and workers is revealed as – shocking! Those who collectively create all the vast amounts of social wealth, (in whatever form) – also have the least of it!
Moreover, with this revolutionary-humanist level of economic understanding, the capitalistic underpayment, overworking and mistreatment of working people are exposed as bizarre historical injustices, needing radical redress. Add to that the pollution, ecological destruction and warfare the capitalist mode of production spawns and the case for a revolutionary-humanist transformation to a post-capitalist, ecologically sustainable, and humane based mode of production becomes all the more obvious.
Roy Ratcliffe (October 2019)