Surplus. What All Could Social Activists Do, But Debate?

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The social surplus is a basic concept of classical political economy which has been revived in the post-war period by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. They defined it as

.. the difference between what a society produces and the costs of producing it. The size of a surplus is an index of productivity and wealth, and of how much freedom a society has to accomplish whatever goals it may set for itself. The composition of the surplus shows how it uses that freedom: how much it invests in expanding its productive capacity, how much it consumes in various forms, how much it wastes and in what ways.

The surplus can be calculated in alternative ways. One is to estimate the necessary costs of producing the national product, and to deduct the costs from the national product. This raises the conceptual problem of calculating the necessary costs of production. Some of the outlays recorded as costs by firms (such as outlays for superficial product differentiation and advertising) may be unnecessary from the social viewpoint. Hence the determination of the necessary costs is crucial for this first method. A second method is to estimate the various expenditures absorbing the surplus (non-essential consumption, investment etc.) and to add them up.

The re-elaboration of the surplus concept in the post-war period is connected to the evolution of certain features of capitalism. In Monopoly Capital Baran and Sweezy argued that capitalism had made a transition from a competitive phase to a monopolistic phase in the twentieth century. In their view, the concentration of capital in giant corporations enables them to fix prices, in contrast to nineteenth century capitalists who worked under more intense competition. These giant corporations set their sales prices by adding mark-ups to production costs. Such price setting gives the corporations control over the partition of the value added with their workers. Corporations also strive to increase their profits by reducing their production costs. On the macroeconomic plane, the general endeavour to reduce production costs (inclusive of labor costs) tends to raise the share of the surplus in GDP. This rising surplus can be sustained only if it is absorbed. The consumption of capitalists, the consumption of employees in non-productive activities (e.g. superficial product differentiation, advertising, litigation etc.), investment and some part of government expenditure (e.g. public investment, military outlays) are the main outlets for absorbing the surplus.

As almost sixty years have elapsed since the above framework was formulated, it is legitimate to ask: has the increasing ratio of trade to global output impaired the diagnosis of Baran and Sweezy with regard to the monopolization of capital, and with respect to the inclination for the surplus in GDP to increase? Has increasing trade and integration of markets raised competitive pressures so as to restrict the pricing latitude of industrial conglomerates?

The immediate effect of global trade expansion obviously must be to increase overall competition, as greater numbers of firms would come to compete in formerly segregated markets. But a countervailing effect would emerge when large firms with greater financial resources and organizational advantages eliminate smaller firms (as happens when large transnationals take on firms of peripheral countries in opened markets). Another countervailing trend to the competition-enhancing effect of trade expansion is mergers and acquisitions, on which there is evidence in the core countries. A powerful trend increase in the extent of firm level concentration of global markets share could be observed in industries as diverse as aerospace and defence, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, trucks, power equipment, farm equipment, oil and petrochemicals, mining, pulp and paper, brewing, banking, insurance, advertising, and mass media. Indications are that the competition-enhancing effect of trade is balanced (perhaps even overwhelmed) by the monopolizing effect of the centralization of capital, which may sustain the ability of large corporations to control the market prices of their products.

On the other hand, if mergers and acquisitions imply an increase in the average size of the workforce of corporations, this could stimulate a counterbalance to corporate power by higher unionization and worker militancy. However, the increasing mobility of capital, goods and services on the one hand, and unemployment on the other is weakening unionization in the core countries, and making workers accept temporary employment, part-time employment, flexibility in hiring and dismissing, flexible working days and weeks, and flexibility in assigning tasks in the workplace. Increasing flexibility in labor relations shifts various risks related to the product markets and the associated costs from firms onto workers. Enhanced flexibility cannot but boost gross profits. Hence the trend towards increased flexibility in labor practices clearly implies increased surplus generation for given output in individual countries.

The neoliberal global reform agenda also includes measures to increase surplus generation through fiscal and institutional reforms, both in developed and underdeveloped countries. Lowering taxes on corporate profits, capital gains and high incomes; increasing taxes on consumption; raising fees on public services and privatization of these services, of utilities and of social security – all these policies aim at disburdening the high income earners and property owners of contributing to financing essential services for the maintenance of the labor force. These reforms also contribute to increasing the share of surplus in total output.

In brief, in the era of neoliberal policies evidence does not seem to suggest that the tendency for the share of surplus in GDP to rise in individual countries may have waned. If so, what is happening to the surplus generated in international production?

Baran and Sweezy argued that the surplus of underdeveloped countries had been and was being drained away to the centers of the world-system. Their description of core firms‘ overseas activities in Monopoly Capital can be read as a description of offshore outsourcing activities today if one replaces subsidiary with suppliers:

What they [giant multinational corporations] want is monopolistic control over foreign sources of supply and foreign markets, enabling them to buy and sell on specially privileged terms, to shift orders from one subsidiary to another, to favour this country or that depending on which has the most advantageous tax, labour and other policies…

The authors’ view was that imperialism had a two-fold function with respect to the surplus: finding cheap foreign sources of supply (which increases the surplus in the home country), and using other countries‘ markets as outlets (which helps absorb the surplus of the home country). A major motive of transnational companies in their current practice of outsourcing parts of production to underdeveloped countries is to cut production costs, hence to increase gross profits. When the corporation of a core country decides to outsource its production to a peripheral country, or when it shifts its sources of supply of intermediate inputs to a peripheral country, this increases global surplus creation. Global output remains the same, the costs of producing it decline. For the firm, the effect of offshore outsourcing is the same as if it were to reduce its own (in-house) costs of production, or were to outsource to a cheap supplier in the home economy. If the workers in the core country dismissed due to the offshore outsourcing find newly created jobs and continue to produce surplus, then global output increases and surplus creation increases a fortiori. If the workers dismissed due to the outsourcing remain unemployed, then their consumption (provided by family, unemployment benefits etc.) absorbs part of the surplus produced by other workers in employment. Should the supplier in the peripheral country expand her production to meet the order under subcontract, there will also be some increase in surplus creation in the peripheral country. In this case the total increase in surplus may accrue to both countries  economies – in indeterminate proportions.

It is worth noting that the effect of offshore outsourcing on productivity in the core economies is ambiguous. The formula

Productivity = (Sales Revenue – Material Input Cost) / Number of Workers

shows that an increase in material input cost (due to the increase in outsourced inputs) and a reduction of the in-house workforce (due to outsourcing) may ultimately affect the outsourcing firm‘s productivity either way. The gains that motivate firms to outsourcing are not gains in labor productivity (which arguably could legitimize outsourcing from a social viewpoint), but gains in gross profits – i.e. in surplus appropriation.

It emerges that the basic tendencies in the production and growth of the social surplus described by Baran and Sweezy have not changed under globalizing capitalism. New economic policies, corporate strategies and international rules of conduct appear to promote increasing surplus transfers from the periphery to the core of the world-system. In order to lift itself out of destitution the periphery is exhorted to remove restrictions on trade and capital flows, and to compete for advantageous positions in global value chains controlled by transnationals by improving quality, reducing costs, innovating etc. The export-led growth economic strategy compels peripheral producers to individually compete for exportation by repressing wages, and conceding much of the surplus produced to their trade partners in the core countries. Part of the surplus accruing to the periphery is consumed by transnational élites imitating the consumption of the well-to-do in the core societies. On the other hand dollarization, capital flight and official reserve accumulation exert downward pressure (a pressure unrelated to trade balances) on the exchange rate of peripheral currencies. The undervaluation of peripheral currencies, reflected in deteriorating terms of trade, translates into a loss of surplus to the core countries, and reduces the capacity of poor countries to import capital goods from the core. The resulting meager per capita fixed capital formation in the underdeveloped countries bodes grim prospects for the welfare of future generations of working people in the periphery. These trends are maintained by the insertion of millions of workers in Asian hinterlands into global production networks, and by the willingness of peripheral states governed by transnational élites to continue free trade and capital transactions policies, and to accumulate foreign exchange reserves. Africa’s poor populations await their turn to be drawn into the world labor market, to eke out a subsistence and produce a surplus, of which a large part will likely flow to the core.

In order to prevent the drift of the victims of globalizing capitalism to irrational reaction (religious or nationalist fanaticism, clash of civilizations etc.) and to focus their attention on the real issues, social scientists and activists should open to debate the social and economic consequences of the export-led growth idea, all the theories and policies that give precedence to global efficiency over national saving and investment, and the social psychology of consumerism. There is pressing need to promote socio-economic programs based on the principle of self-sufficient and self-reliant national development, wherein the people can decide through democratic procedures how they will dispose the social surplus they produce (how they will distribute it, how much they will save, invest, export) under less pressure from world markets dominated by transnational companies, and with less interefence from international institutions and core states. Within the framework of the capitalist world-system, there is little hope for solving the deep social contradictions the system reproduces. The solution, reason shows, lies outside the logic of the system.

Malthusian Catastrophe.

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As long as wealth is growing exponentially, it does not matter that some of the surplus labor is skimmed. If the production of the laborers is growing x% and their wealth grows y% – even if y% < x%, and the wealth of the capital grows faster, z%, with z% > x% – everybody is happy. The workers minimally increased their wealth, even if their productivity has increased tremendously. Nearly all increased labor production has been confiscated by the capital, exorbitant bonuses of bank managers are an example. (Managers, by the way, by definition, do not ’produce’ anything, but only help skim the production of others; it is ‘work’, but not ‘production’. As long as the skimming [money in] is larger than the cost of their work [money out], they will be hired by the capital. For instance, if they can move the workers into producing more for equal pay. If not, out they go).

If the economy is growing at a steady pace (x%), resulting in an exponential growth (1+x/100)n, effectively today’s life can be paid with (promises of) tomorrow’s earnings, ‘borrowing from the future’. (At a shrinking economy, the opposite occurs, paying tomorrow’s life with today’s earnings; having nothing to live on today).

Let’s put that in an equation. The economy of today Ei is defined in terms of growth of economy itself, the difference between today’s economy and tomorrow’s economy, Ei+1 − Ei,

Ei = α(Ei+1 − Ei) —– (1)

with α related to the growth rate, GR ≡ (Ei+1 − Ei)/Ei = 1/α. In a time-differential equation:

E(t) = αdE(t)/dt —– (2)

which has as solution

E(t) = E0e1/α —– (3)

exponential growth.

The problem is that eternal growth of x% is not possible. Our entire society depends on a

continuous growth; it is the fiber of our system. When it stops, everything collapses, if the derivative dE(t)/dt becomes negative, economy itself becomes negative and we start destroying things (E < 0) instead of producing things. If the growth gets relatively smaller, E itself gets smaller, assuming steady borrowing-from-tomorrow factor α (second equation above). But that is a contradiction; if E gets smaller, the derivative must be negative. The only consistent observation is that if E shrinks, E becomes immediately negative! This is what is called a Malthusian Catastrophe.

Now we seem to saturate with our production, we no longer have x% growth, but it is closer to 0. The capital, however, has inertia (viz. The continuing culture in the financial world of huge bonuses, often justified as “well, that is the market. What can we do?!”). The capital continues to increase their skimming of the surplus labor with the same z%. The laborers, therefore, now have a decrease of wealth close to z%. (Note that the capital cannot have a decline, a negative z%, because it would refuse to do something if that something does not make profit).

Many things that we took for granted before, free health care for all, early pension, free education, cheap or free transport (no road tolls, etc.) are more and more under discussion, with an argument that they are “becoming unaffordable”. This label is utter nonsense, when you think of it, since

1) Before, apparently, they were affordable.

2) We have increased productivity of our workers.

1 + 2 = 3) Things are becoming more and more affordable. Unless, they are becoming unaffordable for some (the workers) and not for others (the capitalists).

It might well be that soon we discover that living is unaffordable. The new money M’ in Marx’s equation is used as a starting point in new cycle M → M’. The eternal cycle causes condensation of wealth to the capital, away from the labor power. M keeps growing and growing. Anything that does not accumulate capital, M’ – M < 0, goes bankrupt. Anything that does not grow fast enough, M’ – M ≈ 0, is bought by something that does, reconfigured to have M’ – M large again. Note that these reconfigurations – optimizations of skimming (the laborers never profit form the reconfigurations, they are rather being sacked as a result of them) – are presented by the media as something good, where words as ‘increased synergy’ are used to defend mergers, etc. It alludes to the sponsors of the messages coming to us. Next time you read the word ‘synergy’ in these communications, just replace it with ‘fleecing’.

The capital actually ‘refuses’ to do something if it does not make profit. If M’ is not bigger than M in a step, the step would simply not be done, implying also no Labour Power used and no payment for Labour Power. Ignoring for the moment philanthropists, in capitalistic Utopia capital cannot but grow. If economy is not growing it is therefore always at the cost of labor! Humans, namely, do not have this option of not doing things, because “better to get 99 paise while living costs 1 rupee, i.e., ‘loss’, than get no paisa at all [while living still costs one rupee (haha, excuse me the folly of quixotic living!]”. Death by slow starvation is chosen before rapid death.

In an exponential growing system, everything is OK; Capital grows and reward on labor as well. When the economy stagnates only the labor power (humans) pays the price. It reaches a point of revolution, when the skimming of Labour Power is so big, that this Labour Power (humans) cannot keep itself alive. Famous is the situation of Marie-Antoinette (representing the capital), wife of King Louis XVI of France, who responded to the outcry of the public (Labour Power) who demanded bread (sic!) by saying “They do not have bread? Let them eat cake!” A revolution of the labor power is unavoidable in a capitalist system when it reaches saturation, because the unavoidable increment of the capital is paid by the reduction of wealth of the labor power. That is a mathematical certainty.