The Increasing Misery Of The Proletariat

The Increasing Misery Of The Proletariat

Contradictions Within Capitalism

Neither the class struggle nor the use of the political state as an agency of oppression in themselves would destroy the capitalist system. Capitalism, including these two phenomena, could exist indefinitely were it not for what Marx held to be certain "contradictions" that develop automat­ically and inevitably within the capitalist order. Capitalism and the bour­geois state are unable to cope with these difficulties, which seal the eventual doom of the system. A capitalist society "that has conjured up such gi­gantic means of production and of exchange is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."

While capital accumulates, workers are pressed into deeper and deeper misery. Despite this, the rate of profits realized by capitalist em­ployers falls. With the increasing misery of workers, their purchasing power declines and they are unable to absorb their accustomed fractional part of the output of industry. Cyclical fluctuations of industrial activity are generated by the resulting overproduction. Surpluses of goods on markets and declining rates of profit increase the intensity of competition among capitalist business units. This competition, reaching cutthroat proportions, leads to the killing off of the smaller industrial units and the concentration and centralization of the control of industry in fewer and fewer hands.

The formation of monopolies engenders control by a group of finan­cial overlords during a stage of "finance capital." Accompanying these do­mestic consequences of overproduction are the attempts of capitalist em­ployers to find foreign markets for their surplus products. Pressing the power of the state—which they control—into their service, they create "capitalist imperialism." These contradictions, which have fatally weak­ened the foundations of capitalism by the time the period of "finance capi­tal" arrives, will reach the peak of their development during an imperialistic war. A "revolution" will occur and the proletariat, if properly prepared and organized under the leadership of the Communist Party, will pick up the reins of control and carry on.

Although Marxian theory is not pieced together with the precision this resume implies, it emphasizes the automatic nature of the inherent contra­dictions that develop within the system and carry it from stage to stage, ending in a complete economic collapse. We will now review briefly the most important of these inherent contradictions within the capitalist sys­tem as they have been analyzed by Marx and his closest followers.

Surplus Value and Increasing Misery. In discussing the Marxian theory of surplus value, it was noted that every increase in the productivity of labor or the efficiency of industry would accrue to the recipients of surplus value, since it would act to decrease the socially necessary labor time re­quired to produce labor's subsistence. Thus the proportionate share of the total product realized by labor would constantly decline as long as the efficiency of production was increasing.

The Reserve of Labor. Marx viewed the forces at work in the capitalist system as operating in still other ways to press the proletariat into deeper and deeper "misery." He argued that since, as capitalism developed, the demand for labor would not develop proportionately to the accumulation of capital, a "reserve of labor" or "overpopulation" would be created, and this in turn would beat down wages through increased competition for the available jobs.

Machinery and the Reserve. This labor reserve is due primarily to the fact that as the total amount of capital increases a larger and larger por­tion of it goes into instruments of production (constant capital), leaving a smaller and smaller portion available for hiring labor directly (variable capital). Marx held that the "demand for labor is determined ... by its variable constituent alone." This is just another way of saying that as more machinery is used, workers will be set free from their old jobs more rapidly than new jobs develop. The reason for this is that the increased ef-ciency due to the expansion of machinery does not create mass purchasing power because it goes into surplus value rather than into expanded wages. In modern terms, Marx was contending that accumulating technological unemployment would create a larger and larger army of unemployed workers. This condition would press wages downward in a number of ways. "The pressure of the unemployed compels those who are employed to furnish more labor, and therefore makes the supply of labor, to a cer­tain extent, independent of the supply of laborers." This surplus labor also "floods all the more easily accessible branches of industry, swamps the labor market, and sinks the price of labor below its value." Finally, "a surplus working population, which is compelled to submit to the dicta­tion of capital," would be less inclined to resist decreases in wages or in­creases in hours proposed by capitalist employers.

The Business Cycle and the Reserve. In like manner, the movements of the business cycle create temporary reserves of labor. During times of pros­perity these surpluses may be reabsorbed into industry, cushioning demand and keeping wages from showing the strength they might otherwise display, while during times of depression the competition among these reserve la­borers for jobs beats down the current wage rates. In Marx's words, "The industrial reserve army, during periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labor army; during the periods of overproduction and paroxysm, it holds its pretentions in check."


Concentration of Capital and the Reserve. Still a third set of forces assists in the creation of the reserve army of labor that characterizes the capitalist system. Marx holds that there is a continuing tendency for indus­try to become concentrated into fewer and fewer large units. The expand­ing scale of production in each industrial unit increases pressure for the substitution of machinery for hand labor, thus further enlarging the labor reserve.