István Mészáros in conversation

Part I


On total social capital, totality of labour, labour theory of value and the question of social agency of transformation.

M. Keshavarz: In your opinion which of the Marxian models can explain the capitalist crises of the modern age?

- The model of reproduction of total social capital?

- The model of overproduction?

- The tendency for the profit rate to fall?

- Or can we combine all these models into one?

Professor Mészáros: Yes, fundamentally you can combine them. But what takes precedence is after all a global view of capital. It is quite ironical that people have been recently discovering that we live in a world of “globalisation”. This was always self-evident to Marx, and I discussed it in the same way in my Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture (“The Necessity of Social Control”,1971) where I talk at length about “globalisation”. Not using that word, but the crucial equivalent categories of “total social capital” and the “totality of labor”. The conceptual framework in which you can make sense of the capital system can only be a global one. (This lecture is now reprinted in Part IV. of Beyond Capital.) Capital has absolutely no way of restraining itself, nor can you find in the world a counter-force which could restrain it without radically overcoming the capital system as such. So capital had to run its course and logic of development: it had to embrace the totality of the planet. That was always implicit in Marx.

    The other things you have mentioned, like the “declining rate of profit”, etc. are in a way subsidiary to the globally expansionary logic of capital, so that you can incorporate all in the global vision. The capital system has a multiplicity of particular constituents, full of contradictions. You have a plurality of capitals, both nationally confronting one another as well as internal to any national community. In fact the plurality of capitals within particular national communities constitutes the theoretical basis of liberalism, deluding itself of being the champion of Liberty writ large. Capital is not a homogeneous entity. This carries with it great complications to the whole question of “globalisation”. The way it is customarily presented, “globalisation” is a complete fantasy, suggesting that we are all going to live under a capitalistic “global government”, unproblematically obeying the rules of this unified global government. That is quite inconceivable. There can be no way of bringing the capital system under one big monopoly which would provide the material basis of such a “global government”. In reality, we have a multiplicity of divisions and contradictions, and “Total Social Capital” is the comprehensive category which incorporates the plurality of capitals, with all their contradictions.

    Now, if you look at the other side, also the “Totality of Labor” can never be considered a homogeneous entity for as long as the capital system survives. There are, of necessity, so many contradictions which you find under the given historical conditions among sections of labor, opposing and fighting one another, competing against one another, rather than simply confronting particular sections of capital. This is one of the tragedies of our predicament today. And it cannot be simply wished out of existence. For, as Marx had put it a long time ago:

“Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together. Hence every organized power standing over against these isolated individuals, who live in conditions daily reproducing this isolation, can only be overcome after long struggles. To demand the opposite would be tantamount to demanding that competition should not exist in this definite epoch of history, or that the individuals should banish from their minds conditions over which in their isolation they have no control.”

These divisions and contradictions remain with us and ultimately they are all to be explained by the nature and functioning of the capital system itself. It is an insuperably contradictory system based on social antagonism. It is an adversarial system, based on the structural domination of labor by capital. So, there are of necessity all kinds of sectional divisions.

    But we must also bear in mind that we are talking about a dynamically unfolding system. The dynamically unfolding tendency of the global capital system cannot help being a totally and inextricably intertwined, and at the same time deeply contradictory, system. This is why under the intrinsic determinations of globally unfolding “Total Social Capital” and the corresponding “Totality of Labor” all those other models you have mentioned can be subsumed. This general framework has its own logic, in the sense of inexorably unfolding in accordance with its intrinsic structural determinations and limitations. There are some absolute – historically untranscendable – limitations to this system, which I have tried to spell out in Chapter 5 of Beyond Capital entitled “The Activation of Capital’s Absolute Limits”.


Question: What is the validity of criticism regarding Marx’s thory of the “Conversion of value to price” and the Marxian model in response to that?

Answer: Well, I think it may be too technical to go into the details. You know the way in which modern economic theory was questioning these points. But I don’t think that we can make much of it, in that the market system under which we operate makes it necessary to provide this conversion. This takes us back to the question of the “Labor Theory of Value”. The foundation of the Marxian conceptual framework is the Labor Theory of Value, concerning the way in which “Surplus Value” is generated and appropriated under the rule of capital. Since under our present conditions of socio-economic reproduction in most countries we have a market framework in which the “plurality of capitals” which I mentioned earlier must adjust itself. You mentioned the “Profit Rate” which is also in the process of constant adjustment. But this adjustment cannot take place without the intermediary of conversion.

    If (and where) capital had a straightforward political way of controlling the system’s expanded reproduction, there would be (and there was) no need for the intermediary of genuine conversion; the process could be more or less arbitrarily settled on the basis of political decisions, as it actually happened under the Soviet type capital system. In other words, we are again concerned with a subsidiary element of the overall theory. It is a matter of secondary importance whether “Surplus Labor” is appropriated politically or economically. What is of primary importance is that under all conceivable varieties of the capital system it must be appropriated by a separate body superimposed on, and structurally dominating, labor. Here, as you can see, the fundamental category is “Surplus Labor”, and not “Surplus Value”, as people often erroneously assume. “Surplus Value” and the specific forms of its appropriation and realisation are absolutely essential under capitalism. But the capital system embraces much more than its capitalist variety. There have been – and indeed even today there still are in existence – forms of the capital system which cannot be simply described as capitalist.

    You know that many people have tried to characterise the now defunct Soviet system as “State Capitalist”. I do not think that such characterisation makes any sense at all. The Soviet system was not “State capitalist”; it was “Post-capitalist”. Nevertheless, this system also operated on the basis of the appropriation of Surplus Labor by a separate body, structurally dominating labor and operating the political extraction of Surplus Labor. In other words, the Soviet labor force was not in control of the regulation and allocation of its own Surplus Labor, which in that system did not have to be converted into Surplus Value. The Soviet type system was a historically specific form of the capital system in which the appropriation of surplus labor had to be politically controlled.

    That is what has come to an end in the former Soviet Union, but by no means everywhere. Thus, when you think of the Chinese system, there you still find the predominance of the political control of surplus labor extraction. Although many people talk about the “market framework of the Chinese system”, in reality – when you consider the totality of China’s social metabolic reproduction – the market is very much subsidiary to it. So, primarily, in the Chinese system the political appropriation of surplus labor is still going on, and indeed on a massive scale. In this sense, when you look at the problem of conversion from the angle of “Surplus Labor”, rather than “Surplus Value” – which must be present in a particular variety of the capital system – then you find that in the capitalistic variety (based on Surplus Value) it is essential to operate with the intermediary of conversion whose particular details are historically contingent. They also depend on the historic phases of capitalistic developments. Thus the more advanced monopolistic phases of capitalistic development must obviously operate in a significantly different way the conversion of surplus value into prices, as compared to a much earlier phase of development known to Marx.


Q: Under what conditions would not have the “Theory of Value” any validity? Are such conditions technological, economic or related to the human factor?

A: The “Labor Theory of Value” can cease to be operating only as a result of a radical socialist transformation. That is the first thing to stress. In order to do away with the Labor Theory of Value, you have to do away with the extraction and allocation of Surplus Labor by an external body of any sort, be that political or economic. But to do away with it, you have to change the whole system altogether. In other words, we can only speak about socialism when the people are in control of their own activity and of the allocation of its fruits to their own ends. This means the self-activity and self-control of society by the “associated producers”, as Marx had put it. Naturally, the “associated producers” cannot control their activity and its objectives unless they also control the allocation of the socially produced surplus. It is therefore inconceivable to institute socialism if a separate body remains in control of the extraction and appropriation of surplus labor. Under socialism the “Labor Theory of Value” has absolutely no validity; there is no room for it.

    Marx talks about the “miserable foundation” under which in the capital system the perverse extraction of surplus labor must be the regulator of the social reproduction process. To be sure, in every society you need a way of dealing with the problem of how to allocate the resources. For what is the meaning of “Economy”? It is fundamentally a rational way of economising. We do not have an infinity of resources which we could squander at will, as it happens – to our peril – under the capital system. We do not have an infinity of anything, whether you think of material resources or of human energy, at any particular time. Thus we need a rational regulation of the social reproduction process. The important thing is the viability of the social reproduction process on a long term basis, rather than within the irresponsibly myopic and thoroughly unsustainable confines of the capital system. This is why it is necessary to reorient societal interchange from the tyranny of surplus value and from the expropriation of the surplus labor of the producers by a separate body to a qualitatively different one. In the latter, in which the “associated producers” are in control of both the production and the allocation of their products, there is absolutely no room for surplus value to impose itself upon the social individuals. That is to say, no room for the imperatives of capital and capital accumulation.

    Because capital is not simply a material entity. We must think of capital as a historically determinate way of controlling social metabolic reproduction. That is the fundamental meaning of capital. It penetrates everywhere. Of course, capital is also a material entity; gold, banking, price mechanisms, market mechanisms, etc. But well beyond that, capital also penetrates in the world of art, in the world of religion and the churches, running society’s cultural institutions. You cannot think of anything in our life which is not controlled by capital in that sense under the present circumstances. That is why the “Labor Theory of Value” is valid for the historical period when capital is all-embracing, when the regulation process itself is fundamentally irrational.

    And this is by no means the end of the story. It is further complicated by the fact that in the difficult historical period of transition from the rule of capital to a very different system the “labor theory of value” and the “law of value” function in a very imperfect way. This is one of the reasons why the Soviet type capital system was doomed. It was a transitional system which could go either in one direction, towards a socialist transformation of society, which it did not do; or it had to implode and embark on the road of capitalistic restoration sooner or later. This is what we have witnessed, because at a certain point in time the Soviet system was, so to speak, “falling between two stools”. It had no way of regulating the economy by some sort of economic mechanism like the market, the price system, and so on. Therefore it could not have the kind of labor disciplining force which we actually have under the capitalist market system.

    In our society so many things are settled automatically by the market forces; labor is ruthlessly subjected to the prevailing conditioning tyranny of the market. The crucial question in this regard is, precisely, the labor market. If you look back to the time when the Soviet system under Gorbachev collapsed, you will see that the system’s demise coincided with the ill-conceived and futile attempt to introduce into it the “Labor Market”. That was the end of the much advertised “perestroika”. For the labor market can properly work only under capitalist conditions. That is where the “Law of Value” successfully prevailed – not partially or marginally, but in principle as a matter of course – in the “expanded reproduction of capital”. There were all kinds of limits beyond the capitalist world – namely the global framework – under which also the Soviet system had to operate. Under the conditions of twentieth century development many things which in the past could work within the framework of the economically regulated extraction of surplus labor have become most problematical. Today the imperfections of the market and the far from unproblematical operation of the law of value are clearly in evidence also in our system in the capitalistically advanced countries of the West. The ever greater role assumed by the state – without which the capital system could not survive today in our societies – puts very serious constraints on the law of value in our system. Here we are talking about potentially far-reaching limitations which are of course the system’s self-contradictions.

   It must be also added that it is one thing to attempt the full restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, and quite another succeeding with it. Because fifteen years after Gorbachev had started the process of capitalist restoration one can only talk about partial successes, confined primarily to the mafia-ridden business circles of the major cities. The endemic and chronic crisis in Russia, strikingly manifest also in the form that many groups of workers – for instance the miners – do not have even their miserable wages paid for several months, sometimes up to a year and a half, which is inconceivable in a proper capitalistic framework where the fundamental regulator of surplus-labor extraction is economic and not political. This highlights a vital trend of 20th century developments. It is a fact of world-historical significance that the capital system could not complete itself in the 20th century in the form of its capitalistic variety, based on the economic regulation of surplus-labor extraction. So much so, that today approximately one half of the world’s population – from China to India and to important areas of Africa, South East Asia and Latin America – do not belong to the world of capitalism proper, but live under some hybrid variety of the capital system, either due to chronically underdeveloped conditions, or to massive state involvement in regulating the socioeconomic metabolism, or indeed to a combination of the two. The endemic crisis in Russia – which may well end in total destabilisation and potential explosion – can only be explained in this context. Understandably, the true significance of this world historical fact – i.e. of the failure of capitalism to successfully impose itself everywhere, despite all self-complacent talk about “globalisation” – is bound to take some time to sink in, given the mythologies of the past and the now predominant triumphalism. However, this cannot diminish the significance of the fact itself and of its far-reaching implications for the future that must arise from the deepening structural crisis of the capital system.


Q: Where is today the proletariat and what role does it play in social change? Where can we find the agency today?

A: I think what you are really asking me about concerns the question of the social agency of transformation. For that is what the word “proletariat” summed up at the time of Marx, by which people often had meant the industrial proletariat. The industrial working classes are on the whole manual workers, from mining to various branches of industrial production. To confine the social agency of change to manual workers is obviously not Marx’s own position. Marx was very far from thinking that the concept of “manual workers” would provide an adequate framework of explanation of what is required for a radical social change. You must recall that he was talking about how through the polarisation of society ever greater numbers of people are “proletarianised”. So, it is the process of proletarianisation – inseparable from the global unfolding of the capital system – which defines and ultimately settles the issue. That is to say, the question is how the overwhelming majority of individuals fall into a condition whereby they lose all control possibilities of their life, and in that sense they become proletarianised. Thus, again, everything comes down to the question of “who is in control” of the social reproduction process when the overwhelming majority of individuals are “proletarianised” and degraded to the condition of utter powerlessness, as the most wretched members of society – the “proletarians” – were at an earlier phase of development.

    There are degrees and possibilities of control, up to a certain point in capital’s history, which means that some sections of the population are more in control than others. In fact, Marx in one of the chapters of Capital was describing the capitalist enterprise as almost a militaristic operation in which you have officers and sergeants, and the foremen like sergeants are overseeing and regulating the direct labor force on the authority of capital. Ultimately all of the control processes are under the authority of capital, but with certain leverages and possibilities of limited autonomy assigned to the particular overseeing sections. Now, when you talk about advancing “proletarianisation”, it implies a levelling down and the negation of even the most limited autonomy some groups of people formerly enjoyed in the labor process.

    Just think of the once sharply stressed distinction between “white collar” and “blue collar” workers. As you know, the propagandists of the capital system who dominate the cultural and intellectual processes like to use the distinction between the two as yet another refutation of Marx, arguing that in our societies “blue collar” manual work altogether disappears, and the “white collar” workers, who are supposed to enjoy a much greater job security (which happens to be a complete fiction), are elevated into the “middle classes” (another fiction). Well, I would say even about the postulated disappearance of ‘blue collar” work: hold on, not so fast! For if you look around the world and focus on the crucial category of the “totality of labor”, you find that the overwhelming majority of labor still remains what you might describe as “blue collar”. In this respect it is enough to think of the hundreds of millions of “blue collar” workers in India, for instance.


Q: Can I add something to it? Is Marx’s distinction between productive and non-productive labor sufficient?

A: Well, sufficient in the sense that you can make that distinction. When you consider the overall reproduction process, you find that certain constituents of the overall reproduction process are becoming more and more parasitic. Think of the ever-rising administration costs and insurance costs in this regard. The most extreme form of parasitism in our contemporary reproduction process is, of course, the financial sector, constantly engaged in global speculation, with very severe – and potentially extremely grave – repercussions on the production process properly so called. The dangerous parasitism of the speculative international financial sector – which is, to add insult to injury, continued to be glorified under the propagandistic slogan of unavoidable and universally beneficial “globalisation” – has an important bearing on the future prospects of social transformation. This takes us back to the vital question of the social agency of change. What decides the matter is not the historically changing relationship between “blue collar” and “white collar” workers, but the socially untranscendable fundamental confrontation between capital and labor. This is not confined to this or that particular section of labor but embraces the totality of labor as the antagonist of caital. In other words, labor as the antagonist of capital – i.e. of globally self-asserting “total social capital”, can only be the “totality of labor”, on a global scale – subsumes under itself all sections and varieties of labor, whatever their socioeconomic configuration at the present stage of history. We have witnessed what is going on in our societies; in the so-called “advanced capitalist societies” of the West. As it happened and continues to happen, vast numbers of “white collar” workers were and are ruthlessly ejected from the labor process. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of them in every major country.

    Look at this question in the United States. Once upon a time the “white collar” workers had some sort of job security, accompanied by a relative little autonomy for their kind of activity. All this is now disappearing, going out of the window. Here the computerised “advanced machinery” and the question of technology very much enter the picture. But even in this context technology always takes the secondary place to the question of the imperative of capital accumulation. That is what ultimately decides the issue, using the “inevitable progress of technology” as its alibi for crushing human lives on a massive scale. So, we have the “proletarianisation” of the once upon a time more secure labor force. This is an ongoing process. Unemployment is endemic and ubiquitous; you cannot find today a single country which does not have it to an increasing degree. I mentioned in my Introduction to the Farsi edition of Beyond Capital that in India there are three hundred and thirty six million people (336,000,000) on the unemployment registers; and you can imagine how many more millions are not registered at all. This is the predicament of humanity today. Just look around, what is happening in Latin America, the growing unempolyment in Africa, and even in Japan: not so many years ago hailed as the “miracle” country. Now every month I read in Japanese publications about a new record of unemployment. In fact, Japan today has a considerably higher rate of unemployment than the United States. What an irony. For not so long ago the Japanese way of dealing with these problems used to be considered the ideal solution.

    The cancerous growth of unemployment is affecting today every single country, including those which did not have it in the past. Take for instance Hungary. Now it has an unemployment rate higher than the very high rate in Germany. Here you can see the big difference between the capitalist and the Soviet type post-capitalist system. There was no unemployment in the Soviet type countries in the past. There were various forms of underemployment, but no unemployment. Now in Hungary unemployment is equivalent to something much higher than what we have not only in Germany but also in Britain and in Italy. You understand the gravity of unemployment. Look at what is happening in Russia. Russia once did not experience unemployment, and now its unemployment rate is massive. And, as mentioned earlier, even if you are employed in Russia, like the miners, they do not receive their wages for months. You have to bear in mind all the time that we are talking about a dynamic process of unfolding and transformation. This process threatens humanity with devastation, and the social agency that can do something about it – indeed the only feasible agency capable of instituting an alternative way of controlling the social metabolism – is labor. Not particular sections of labor, but the totality of labor as the irreconcilable antagonist of capital.

To be continued.

This interview was made with the Iranian magazine Naghd in May 1998. The Farsi translation appeared in Naghd no 25, February 1999. Part II will appear in the next issue of iran bulletin.


Istvan Mészáros is  Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Political Theory, University of Sussex (UK) and author of a number of books including Beyond Capital and Marxist Theory of Alienation; the Works of Sartre; Search for Freedom; Philosophy, Ideology and Social Science; The Power of Ideology.

This article is part one of an interview given to with Persian Quarterly Naghd (Kritik), June 2nd, 1998. Part two will be published in the next issue of iran bulletin



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