In the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate student in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, I asked another young socialist who I thought had read more: “What is socialism?” We were sitting in a cafe having breakfast. While holding up his glass of orange juice to his mouth he declared: “In socialism, everyone will have orange juice from the faucet!”
When I think about that short conversation today, I feel my friend’s vision of socialism perhaps was colored more by the long wave of capitalist prosperity, the Golden Age of capitalism that began after the end of World War II and ended with the world recession of 1973-75, than the Marxian premise that ever-higher productivity of labor provides the material basis for socialism.
As we know, the onset of the world recession of 1973-75 signaled a long wave of relative decline of the industrial capitalist economies. The U.S. economic growth rate which averaged 2.5% in the 1950-73 period only averaged 1.93% in 1973-2007 (see, endnote 1). The Great Recession that began in December 2007 worsened this trend, as unemployment reached 10% in October 2009. It took nine years for the unemployment rate to get back to 4.1% in December 2017. Still, the percentage of adults in their prime working years was 79.2% in May 2018, below the early 2007 level of 80.3% (Irwin, 2018). Optimism about the future has given way to pessimism, fanned, not only by vanishing economic prospects for the younger generations but also by the planetary crisis that threatens the future of much of life on Earth.
The response of the capitalist ruling classes has been neoliberalism, a broad attack on the working people’s standard of living and organizations, especially trade unions, to bring as much as social life possible into the sphere of market relations, by reducing the functions of the state through cuts in social programs and privatization. In politics in the industrial capitalist countries, there has been a gradual but consistent march to the right. Rightist and far-right political parties increasingly have moved to the center of capitalist politics in the West. A central rallying cry of these force is that much of the economic and social malaise, in particular, unemployment, is caused by immigrants who have for decades been used as a pool of cheap labor with no civil or human rights that could be employed or deported at will.
In the United States, this was a key plank of Donald Trump’s rightist presidential campaign and a centerpiece of his economic (white) nationalist agenda. (see, endnote 2) To this, liberal politicians, and much of the macroeconomic profession countered that unemployment largely is due to technological change.
There much is in the news about the rise of the “gig economy,” (for a definition, see endnote 3) which some blame for the crisis of working families even though there is still dispute on its scope and impact on the labor market. (for a brief discussion, see endnote 4) Still, there is little dispute that the pace of automation is accelerating. In a May 2017 report that surveyed 46 countries representing about 80 percent of the global workforce and examined more than 2,000 work activities, McKinsey & Company, an economic research and consulting firm, concludes: “[A]bout 60 percent of all occupations have at least 30 percent of activities that are technically automatable, based on currently demonstrated technologies.”
In this essay, I will argue, basing myself on Marx’s critique of political economy, that the automation, including robotization and the rise of the “gig economy,” is the historical tendency of the capitalist mode of production, deeply rooted in the dynamic of capital accumulation and the labor process. (see, endnote 5) In Section 1, I will outline Marx’s theory of automation that flows from the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. In Section 2, I briefly discuss how Marx’s theory of automation relates to his theory of socialist revolution. In Section 3, I would note some aspects of the development of socialist history and theory of automation which largely represent a retreat from Marx’s critique of it, with the notable exception of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974). I conclude in Section 4 with some key questions raised by Marx’s theory of automation about the effort to develop a theory of ecological socialism which envision an integral theory of human society as part of the planet’s ecosystem and not its dominion.
1. Marx’s theory of capitalist automation
As Rosa Luxemburg argues in her What Is Economics (1907/1970), a series of lectures delivered to the members of the Social Democratic Party in Germany published after her death, economics as a science emerged with the rise of the capitalist mode of production because economic relations among people in pre-capitalist modes of production were transparent and market relations minimal. Marx defined the capitalist mode of production by generalized markets for capital goods, labor power, and consumer and luxury goods, and production for profits realized in the sale of the output. Thus, economic relations are far more complicated and mystified through the workings of the market. This gave rise to the classical political economy, the bourgeois science of the emerging capitalist mode of production, which developed a number of theories of value and accumulation. Yet, because of its commitment to the capitalist mode of production classical political economists were unable to transcend the mystification of the capitalist market relations. (See, endnote 6) Marx’s seminal work, Capital, presents a critique of political economy and the economic basis of the civil society. The key contribution was his analysis of surplus-value as the source of capitalist profits created in the process of production.
But why did Marx focus his critique of political economy on the mode and process of production? As the Russian Marxist philosopher Georgi Plekhanov explains in detail (1901; for a longer, more detailed exposition, see, 1895), the answer lies in Marx’s theory of history. Also known as the materialist conception of history, it stipulated that the mode of production conditions the general process of social, political and cultural life. As Marx and Engels stated in The German Ideology “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx and Engels, 1845, pp. 36-37) Thus, Marx’s focus on the process of capitalist production, which involves two different processes, the labor process in which use-value are produced for the market, and the valorization process where commodity’s value (value of the output) is realized in the marketplace and surplus-value appropriated by the capitalist as profit. (See, endnote 7) In normal circumstances, net profit is then plowed back as part of the new and increased investment, resulting in the expanded reproduction of capital. This constitutes the accumulation process. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the labor process.
However, the classical political economy did not have a settled theory of industrial profit. The development of Marx’s labor theory of value centers on his discovery that labor power, a “special commodity,” “whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value. Whose consumption is, therefore, its objectification.” (Marx, 1867/1976, p. 270) To demonstrate that labor power is the source of surplus-value, hence industrial profit, Marx assumed all commodities, including labor power, are exchanged at their value, which is true in the long run. To see how, consider a cycle of industrial production as defined by the following process diagram (1) where M and M’ are money capital, C (raw materials, instruments of labor, labor power) and C’ (output) are commodities, and P designates production.
M—- C …. P ….. C’ —- M’ M’>M (1)
Moving from left t right, the process diagram shows the metamorphosis of the industrial capitalist’s money capital M. The capitalist firm purchases C which is the means of production (raw materials and instrument of labor) and labor power (See, endnote 8), and manages the process of production P. (See, endnote 9) The result is the output C’ which is sold in the marketplace for M’. Clearly, M’ must be greater than M if the industrial capitalist would make a profit (more precisely it must be greater than M plus the interest at prevailing rate on the borrowed money-capital M and ground rent for the location of production for the duration of the valorization of capital (Marx, 1867, p. 255). Of course, not all individual capitalists manage to turn up a profit and some go bankrupt. But taken the capitalist economy as a whole, total industrial capitalist revenue M’ would be greater than money capital advanced, M, resulting in profit for the capitalist class. Because of capitalist competition within and between industries and sectors, the total surplus value is distributed across economic sectors in the process of the formation of the general (economy-wide) rate of profit (Marx, 1894/1981, chap. 8-10). Accordingly, capitalist firms that are producing below the regulating conditions of production—the ones with the lowest reproducible (quality-adjusted) costs in the industry (Shaikh, 2016, p. 265) would have lower profit rates than the general profit rate. That is, more competitive firms receive more and less competitive firms receive less.
Thus, capitalist profit has its origin in the surplus value produced in the process of production employing the wealth producing power of the working class, that is value produced above and beyond the value of means of production (raw materials, machinery) used means of labor power (the worker). Further, the search for surplus-profit, profit beyond and above the general rate of profit, drives labor-saving technologies, hence automation.
To analyze and theorize the process of automation, it is necessary to further explore the process of exploitation of the labor power. As Marx argued the “[v]alue of labour power is determined, as in case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also reproduction, of this specific article.” (Marx, 1867, p. 274) He also recognized a “historical and moral element” in the determination of the value of labor power. The needs of the working class “are themselves products of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country.” (ibid. p. 275). (See, endnote 10) Thus, the value of labor power is determined by historical, institutional, and technical factors.
To analyze the capitalist exploitation of the workers, Marx (1867, chap. 10) divided the working day into two parts: the necessary labor time and the surplus labor time. The former is the time required to produce the equivalent of the value of labor power (V) and the latter is the time spent in the production of additional, that is, surplus value (S). Marx defined the rate of exploitation of the worker (also called the rate of surplus value) as the ratio of surplus labor time to necessary labor time, S/V. Clearly, the longer the working day given a fixed length of the necessary labor time (V), the greater would be the surplus labor time (S) and the higher will be the rate of surplus value S/V. Given this, Marx distinguishes two types of extraction of surplus-value from workers: absolute and relative.
The absolute surplus-value (Marx, 1867, Part Three) is associated with the early phases of capitalist development (See, endnote 11) which Marx studied in the case of Western Europe, in particular, England, in which production took the form of “cooperation.” He called “cooperation” “the starting point of capitalist production,” where
“A large number of workers working together, at the same time, in one place (or, if you like, in the same field of labor), in order to produce the same sort of commodity under the command of the same capitalist…” (ibid., p. 441)
“Manufacture” is the further development of “cooperation.”
“…[It] arises from the combination of various independent trades, which lose that independence and become specialized to such an extent that they are reduced to merely supplementary and partial operations in the production of one particular commodity….[I]t splits up that handicraft into various detailed operations, isolating these operations and developing their mutual interdependence to the point where each becomes the exclusive function of a particular worker.” (ibid., p. 457)
Calling it the “manufacturing stage,” Marx believed that “cooperation” and “manufacture” functioned in England from the middle of the sixteenth century to the last third of the eighteenth century (ibid., p. 455).
Relative surplus value
For Marx, the capitalist mode of production became dominant in England when real subsumption of labor replaced formal subsumption of labor. “The form based on absolute surplus value is what I call the formal subsumption of labour under capital. I do so because it is only formally distinct from earlier modes of production…” (Marx, 1864/1977, p. 1025)
For the capitalist mode of production to become dominant in any social formation (a collage of various modes of production in one economic unit, usually a country), Marx argued it is necessary for relative surplus-value extraction to replace absolute surplus-value or to put it differently for the real subsumption of labor to supplant the formal subsumption of labor.
“With the real subsumption of labour under capital, all the changes in the labor process already discussed now become a reality. The social forces of production of labour are now developed, and with large-scale production comes the direct application of science and technology. On the one hand, capitalist production now established itself as a mode of production sui generis and brings into being new mode of production. On the other hand, the latter itself forms the basis for the development of capitalist relations whose adequate form, therefore, presupposes a definite stage in the evolution of the productive forces of labour.” (Marx, 1864/1977, the second and third set of italics are mine, p. 1035)
The real subsumption of labor came about with the English Industrial Revolution, which required the generalized use of machines in capitalist production (Marx, 1867, p. 497). Responding to John Stuart Mill’s expression of disappointment in his Principles of Political Economy (1848), that, “mechanical inventions yet made have not lightened the day’s toil of any human being,” (cited in, Marx, 1867, p. 492), Marx wrote:
“That is, however, by no means the aim of the capitalistic application of machinery. Like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus-value.” (ibid.) (See, endnote 12)
I should note that for Marx a machine is more than just any tool: “All fully developed machinery consists of three essentially different parts, the motor mechanism, the transmitting mechanism, and finally the tool or working machine.” (ibid. 494)
Machinery and the labor process
In the Grundrisse’s “Chapter on Capital,” Marx has more to say about automation and its effect on the labor process. He writes:
“[O]nce adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery…set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.” (Marx, 1857-58/1973, pp. 692, emphases in original)
In the earlier phases of the rise of the capitalist mode of production, instruments of labor were under the control of the worker. With the progress of machinery and automation, means of labor become part of the fixed capital, no longer under workers control, and increasingly subordinating the worker and the labor process.
“In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker's means of labour. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labour, to transmit the worker's activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine's work, the machine's action, on to the raw material -- supervises it and guards against interruptions. Not so with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling, therefore, depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matières instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker's activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite.” (ibid., pp. 692-693, emphasis in original)
The technical know-how of the skilled worker is increasingly systematized through scientific and technological progress themselves increasingly institutionalized as part of the capitalist enterprise. This process split the labor process between mental and manual workers with the former contributing to the construction of the machines and the latter becoming the conscious part of the machine in the production process.
“The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker's consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself. The appropriation of living labour by objectified labour -- of the power or activity which creates value by value existing for-itself -- which lies in the concept of capital, is posited, in production resting on machinery, as the character of the production process itself, including its material elements and its material motion. The production process has ceased to be a labour process in the sense of a process dominated by labour as its governing unity. Labour appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system; subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism. (Marx, 1857-58/1973, p. 693, my emphasis)
Thus, automation is the historical tendency of the capitalist mode of production as the labor process increasingly has been dominated by the valorization process and direct (living) labor increasing a smaller part of the product compared to indirect, objectified labor (fixed capital). This historical tendency is reflected in the rising technical composition of capital, C/V. (Marx, 1867, chap. 23; Marx, 1894, Chap. 8). As Marx notes repeatedly, alienation of labor deepens as this process unfolds: “The worker appears superfluous to the extent that his action is not determined by [capital’s] requirement.” (ibid. p. 695) Let Marx speak at length:
"In machinery, objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process itself as the power which rules it; a power which, as the appropriation of living labour, is the form of capital. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery, and of living labour into a mere living accessory of this machinery, as the means of its action, also posits the absorption of the labour process in its material character as a mere moment of the realization process of capital. The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency. In machinery, objectified labour materially confronts living labour as a ruling power and as an active subsumption of the latter under itself, not only by appropriating it, but in the real production process itself; the relation of capital as value which appropriates value creating activity is, in fixed capital existing as machinery, posited at the same time as the relation of the use-value of capital to the use-value of labour capacity; further, the value objectified in machinery appears as a presupposition against which the value-creating power of the individual labour capacity is an infinitesimal, vanishing magnitude; the production in enormous mass quantities which is posited with machinery destroys every connection of the product with the direct need of the producer, and hence with direct use-value; it is already posited in the form of the product's production and in the relations in which it is produced that it is produced only as a conveyor of value, and its use-value only as condition to that end. In machinery, objectified labour itself appears not only in the form of product or of the product employed as means of labour, but in the form of the force of production itself. The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital's relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such. In another respect, however, in so far as fixed capital is condemned to an existence within the confines of a specific use-value, it does not correspond to the concept of capital, which, as value, is indifferent to every specific form of use-value, and can adopt or shed any of them as equivalent incarnations. In this respect, as regards capital's external relations, it is circulating capital which appears as the adequate form of capital, and not fixed capital." (Marx, 1857-58/1973, pp. 693-693, my emphases)
Science and technology serving capital
The tendency of capital accumulation to automate also gradually subsumes science and technology so that in Marx’s words “invention becomes a business.” (See, endnote 13)
“In machinery, the appropriation of living labour by capital achieves a direct reality in this respect as well: It is, firstly, the analysis and application of mechanical and chemical laws, arising directly out of science, which enables the machine to perform the same labour as that previously performed by the worker. However, the development of machinery along this path occurs only when large industry has already reached a higher stage, and all the sciences have been pressed into the service of capital; and when, secondly, the available machinery itself already provides great capabilities. Invention then becomes a business, and the application of science to direct production itself becomes a prospect which determines and solicits it.” (ibid. pp. 703-04)
Still, Marx insists that the path to automation is “through the division of labour, which gradually transforms the workers’ operations into more and more mechanical ones, so that at a certain point a mechanism can step into their places.” (ibid., pp. 704)
At the same time, because of the rising ratio of indirect labor (due to increased us of machinery) to direct labor, that is the rising organic composition of capital (C/V), generation of new wealth become more challenging. Marx notes:
“…creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the porgies of technology, or the application of this science to production.” (ibid. pp. 704-05)
2. Automation and Marx’s theory of socialism
There are three important ways Marx’s analysis of automation is relevant to his theory of socialism. It has an immediate bearing on his theory of crisis-generating resistance to capital by the working people. Also, it has a direct bearing on Marx’s concept of human development that depends on a considerable expansion of free time made possible by the reduction of necessary labor time. At the same time, the process of automation deepens the alienation of the worker, a problem central to Marx’s theory of socialism. I briefly will discuss these.
Automation and capitalist crisis
What drives automation also drives the tendency of the average rate of profit to fall, causing a systemic crisis of capitalism. As we have seen capitalist accumulation has an inherent tendency to replace living labor with objectified labor, the worker with the machine. Each capitalist firm aspires for a profit rate higher than the industry’s average which requires it to constantly look for ways to cut production cost and increase sales. At the same times, there is a dynamics for larger-scale of production. “The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, all circumstances remaining the same, on the productivity of labour, and this depends in turn on the scale of production. Therefore, the larger capitals beat the smaller.” (Marx, 1867, p. 777) As the surplus labor time is the source of surplus-value; increases in labor productivity through automation tends to increase the rate of growth of the organic composition of capital (C/V) relative to the increase in the rate of surplus value (S/V). (See, endnote 14) At a certain point after the economy-wide rate of exploitation falls below the economy-wide rate of increase in the organic composition of capital, a generalized crisis of the falling average rate of profit ensues (Shaikh, 1992). This is a secular crisis of the capitalist mode of production, distinct from cyclical crises (business cycles).
Reduction of socially necessary labor time as the potential for human development
To revive capital accumulation, a massive process of devalorization, destruction of value, ensues which may lead to the radicalization of the working class and prospects of utilizing progress in labor productivity for the “free development of individualities.”
“As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use-value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. (See, endnote 15) The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them….Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high. ‘Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time’ (real wealth), ‘but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’ (The Source and Remedy etc. 1821, p. 6.) (ibid. pp 705-06, emphases in original)
But if the rule of capital is not transcended, automation “forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools.” (ibid. pp. 709)
The problem of alienation
For Marx, socialism (communism) is synonymous with
“…the real appropriation of human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i. e., human) being—a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” (Marx, 1844, p. 296, emphasis added).
If socialism is indeed the outcome of a historical process of de-alienation,“genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man,” as it has been argued by other students of Marx (e.g., Fromm, 1961), how would the capitalist development of machinery and automation together with science and technology are going to fit in?
Let’s recall that for Marx, all wealth comes from nature as explicitly stated in his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). Criticizing the draft program of the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany that claimed labor is the source of all wealth, Marx wrote: “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.” (Marx, 1875, the last italics is added)
Clearly, no other animal being free in its natural habitat can be said to be alienated from nature. What is special about the human animal (a huge majority of humanity does not realize that we are actually an animal species) to have become alienated from nature? Marx’s and Engels’ materialist conception of history provide us with a methodology and part of the answer:
“…[W]e must begin by stating the first premise of all human existence and, therefore, all history, the premise, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history.’ But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of material life itself.” (Marx and Engels, 1845, p. 43-44, emphasis added).
All living organisms appropriate from their environment their means of subsistence in order to live and to reproduce. For 290,000 years or 97% of our existence, (See, endnote 16) modern humans who lived as hunter-gatherers – like other animals – appropriated their livelihood. When a combination of factors, including climate change, resulted in some hunter-gatherer bands to taking up farming about 10,000 years ago, production for subsistence began. In Marx and Engels view first farmers “begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization…” (ibid., p. 31, emphasis in original). (See, endnote 17)
Marx and Engels viewed “mode of production” not simply as “the reproduction of physical existence of individuals” but also as “a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part….What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produced and with how they produce it.” (ibid. pp. 31-32, emphases in original)
Thus, human nature inherited from our hominid ancestors began to change under the influence of modes of production, that is it became our inherent nature from prehistory transformed by our history. While they insisted on a focus on “mode of production” as the proper methodological focus for historical studies, Marx and Engels were quite aware of other determinants in history: “Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself—geographical, oro-hydrographical, climate and so on.” (ibid. p. 31)
Origins of alienation
Taking this cue from Marx and Engels, I have drawn upon the most recent “stylized facts” of archeology and anthropology to outline a theory of the origin of human alienation and how it served as the basis for social alienation: stratification, subordination (oppression) and exploitation. As Marx tells us:
“It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital. In the relations of slavery and serfdom this separation does not take place; rather, one part of society is treated by the other as itself merely an inorganic and natural condition of its own reproduction.” (Marx, 1857-61/1973, p. 489)
I urge the reader to review my more detailed discussion (Nayeri, 2013) which I cannot repeat in detail here. But for our present purpose it is instructive to outline what hunter-gatherers’ worldview might have looked like, based on anthropologists’ accounts of the worldviews of forager societies still surviving in tiny pockets around the world.
Most modern-day foragers are characterized by animistic or (less commonly) totemic belief systems. In the former, non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons. Their environment is a treasure house of personage, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant. Thus, the Jivaro people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plant as persons (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry. Animistic belief systems commonly do not have words for distinguishing between people, animals, and plants as separate categories, using instead classification systems based on terms of equality rather than the hierarchies of our own Linnaean taxonomies. The totemic systems of Australian Aborigines are ceremonies and rituals that stress an abstract linear continuity between the human and non-human communities. Animals are the most common totems, signifying a person’s or group’s identity or distinctiveness, but though they may be good to eat or food for thought, they are not considered social partners as in the animistic belief systems.
The forager world is animated with moral, mystical, and mythical significance. It is constructed and reconstructed through the telling of myths, which commonly include all kinds of animals as humans, changing shape between one and the other. In addition to the present world inhabited by humans and non-human-beings, there is a supernatural world. In many forager societies, shamans mediate between the lived and supernatural worlds, entering and conceptualizing the latter, commonly through ecstatic experiences. As the whole world is self, killing a plant or animal is not murder but transformation. Finding food is taken for granted, reinforced by myths telling the hunter to be the animal before presuming to kill and eat it. They are being heard by a sentient conscious universe--a gallery of intelligent beings who, if offended by injudicious words (ridicule, bragging, undue familiarity, profanity, etc.) can take reprisal, usually by a steadfast refusal to be taken as food or by inflicting disease or doing other violence. (Descola,1996; Howell, 1996; Carmichael, et. al. 1994; taken from Barker, 2006, p. 59)
I call foragers’ worldviews ecocentric because their frame of reference is their ecological, natural setting. However, as Marx and Engels suggested to us and modern anthropology and archeology have documented it the perception of humanity rising above the natural world, anthropocentrism, originated with the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago. Farming presupposes domestication of some plants and animals, hence a systematic drive to dominate and control nature. It presupposes anthropocentrism (human-centered worldview), also known as homo-centrism, human supremacism, and speciesism, the view that holds human beings as the central or apex of creation in the sense that we are considered to have a moral standing above other beings. Whether emerging anthropocentrism contributed to the transition to farming is an open question. But there is no doubt that it emerged with and was consolidated by the Agricultural Revolution and institutionalized by the class societies that followed.
Once the early subsistence farmers began to produce an economic surplus, social stratification emerged giving rise to social alienation, paving the way for the institutionalization of stratification, subordination (oppression) and exploitation. Thus, alienation from nature and social alienation are inter-related and the former was necessary for the latter. (See, endnote 18)
I submit this analysis provides a unified (non-dualist) theory of society and nature and their systemic crisis throughout history as well as the unearthing of the deep sources of alienation from nature and social alienation. The systemic crisis we face today is different only because of its global reach and scale, speed and intensity of forces, and unending search for greater accumulation of capital unleashed by the industrial capitalist civilization that threatens humanity and much besides. The metabolic rift did not originate with the rise of capitalism but, to use Richard Levins’ terminology, with the rise of Homo productivore (Levins, 2012).
An added advantage of this theory of “metabolic rift” and dualism in the human condition is the added dimension of an environmental ethics not integral to any other existing theory of ecological socialism. Ecocentrism as environmental ethics squarely is based on Darwin’s theory of evolution and science of ecology that are ecocentric (even though Darwin himself like others of his time was anthropocentric) and is consistent with ecocentric culture of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, indigenous cultures of today, as well as more modern yet similar environmental ethics such as Deep Ecology. As such, it can help foster a broader sharing of values essential for building a mass movement of the working people in transcending the anthropometric capitalist civilization.
3. Automation in socialist theory and practice after Marx
After Marx, there has been a lapse in the socialist theory and practice regarding capitalist automation of the labor process.
The history of the revolutions that purport(ed) to be socialist reveals that Marx’s theory of automation was largely misunderstood perhaps by a one-sided focus on the development of forces of production mostly understood as industrialization. I set aside the history of revolutions that fell under the rule of a Stalinist leadership, in Soviet Russia after Lenin, in Eastern Europe and in Asia. Here I briefly draw attention to the early Soviet experience and the experience of the Cuban revolution in the 1960s. As we know, world socialist revolution took a detour when the rise of aristocracy and bureaucracy of labor in the industrial capitalist countries turned the unions and parties of the Second International in the West into reformist parties. Lenin famously declared: “The imperialist front was broken at its weakest link, Czarist Russia.” (quoted in Trotsky, 1928/1957, p. 56)
But Marx’s theory of socialism as human development presupposes an end to personal dependence and material dependence. Capitalist mode of production has a tendency to dissolve (serfdom) or modify (family) relations of personal dependence dominant in earlier modes of production. It also develops forces of production, centrally the proletariat and especially the industrial working class, which for Marx is the social agency for transcending capitalism. The detour of the world socialist revolution to the capitalist hinterland meant that revolutions inherited pre-capitalist conditions of production of life and relations of personal dependence. Thus, soon after the October 1917 revolution in his address “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” on Lenin wrote:
"The Russian is a bad worker compared with people in advanced countries. It could not be otherwise under the tsarist regime and in view of the persistence of the hangover from serfdom. The task that the Soviet government must set the people in all its scope is—learn to work. The Taylor system, the last word of capitalism in this respect, like all capitalist progress, is a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the greatest scientific achievements in the field of analysing mechanical motions during work, the elimination of superfluous and awkward motions, the elaboration of correct methods of work, the introduction of the best system of accounting and control, etc. The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field. The possibility of building socialism depends exactly upon our success in combining the Soviet power and the Soviet organisation of administration with the up-to-date achievements of capitalism. We must organise in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our own ends. At the same time, in working to raise the productivity of labour, we must take into account the specific features of the transition period from capitalism to socialism, which, on the one hand, require that the foundations be laid of the socialist organisation of competition, and, on the other hand, require the use of compulsion, so that the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat shall not be desecrated by the practice of a lily-livered proletarian government." (Lenin, 1918)
While it must be easy to understand the dilemma Lenin and other leaders of the Russian revolution faced, it is still an error to think one could transplant Taylorism from its capitalist context for the development of Soviet industry as a way to advance socialism just as it is a mistake to think the science and technology developed for capitalist production can be applied to socialist construction. This much must be evident from Marx’s theory of automation. Of course, Lenin and other leaders of the Russian socialist revolution based themselves on Marx as much as his voluminous writings were available at the time. The Grundrisse, where Marx considers machinery in some detail was published in 1939 and Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was first published in 1932. And, of course, the leaders of the Russian October revolution believed that the socialist development in Soviet Russia was ultimately dependent on a victorious socialist revolution in Europe. The revolutions that broke out all failed.
Still, Lenin’s writings exerted an influence. Ernesto Che Guevara, who was the leading theorist of the socialist revolution in Cuba and the Minister of Industry, adopted a similar view as Lenin quoted above. Carlos Tablada who extensively researched Guevara’s theory of transition to socialism published in his award-winning El pensamiento económico de Ernesto Che Guevara (published in English as Che Guevara: economics and Politics of Transition to Socialism) writes: “Che studied and adopted the best of the techniques that the capitalist monopolies had instituted in their Cuban subsidiaries.” (Tablada, 1989, p. 203). (See, endnote 19) Guevara told a conference of technology students in Havana on May 11, 1962:
“[A]utomation is precisely the stage that marks the possibility of taking a leap, or we could say, arriving at the historical stage, to which we aspire, which is socialism. Without automation, that is, without substantially raising productivity, we will take much longer to reach that stage.” (cited in Yaffe, 2009, p. 194).
It is worth recalling that Guevara’s view of transition to socialism is closet to Marx’s in so far as he stressed the importance of the struggle to wither away of the law of value through the development of socialist consciousness and he developed an elaborate theoretical and practical framework to do so, albeit lacking in important respect such as the centrality of workers self-organization and self-activity and socialist democracy.
But neither Lenin nor Guevara seems to recognize the development of machinery as a double-edged sword fully embedded in the capitalist social relations of production.
Thus, the theoretical development of Marx’s concept of capitalist automation and its relationship with socialism has been largely set aside with one notable exception: Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), a seminal work that rejuvenated the Marxian study of the labor process. In his review Peter Goldman writes:
Braverman’s main thesis is that the character of contemporary work organization reflects conditions profoundly similar to those existing during the nineteenth-century period of industrial expansion. In both periods the capitalist impetus is toward introducing technologies that will effectively separate physical from mental labor and generate the worker’s intensified dependence on the capitalist. As a consequence, old classes begin to crumble as more and more workers are drawn into an alienating work situation. (Goldman, 1975)
More recently, Chris Smith (2015) has added that Braverman tapped into a late twentieth-century sense that work while appearing ever safer, cleaner and more automated, was actually, less skilled, more controlled, and more intensive.
Still, Braverman’s contribution was criticized for focusing on working class “in-itself” and not as working class “for-itself,” in other words, for ignoring analysis of working-class consciousness, organization, and activities. (Elgar 1979)
4. Automation and the future of humanity
Since the publication of Labor and Monopoly Capital in 1974 the rapid development of information technology has accelerated the separation of the valorization process from the labor process as the fraction of value created by the direct labor in a unit of output has declined due to increases in labor productivity. Given the rapid pace of technological development, these same processes have contributed to the rise of globalization and the “gig economy.” While the development of the information technology has a semi-independent logic, Marx’ theory of accumulation, in particular, his theory of automation, is entirely consistent with the development of the capitalist world economy in the past half a century. At the same time, as Robert Gordon (2016) has argued, the rise of the “information economy” in the United States has not been matched with faster rate of economic growth as had been the case in earlier widespread adoption of electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine, and modern communication from 1870 to 1970. To the contrary, industrial capitalist economies have entered a period of stagnation — slower growth and more frequent and deeper crisis — despite monetary and fiscal interventions to foster economic growth. Marxist economists have argued that the falling average rate of profit may be the central cause (Shaikh, 2010; Moseley, 2011; Duménil and LevyLevy, 2011; Brenner, 2013).
I conclude that Marx’s prediction of the positive effects of automation, to increase surplus labor time (by labor productivity increase) and to contribute to the crisis of the capitalist system has been confirmed. Yet, the dialectics of negation of the negation in Marx’s theory, that is, the radicalization of the working class and subsequent emergence its self-organization and self-activity to transcend world capitalism has not yet materialized despite over-ripe material conditions for socialism. Meanwhile, the anthropocentric capitalist civilization has created the social and planetary crisis that threatens much of life on Earth, including our own species. I will return to these issues in a subsequent essay.
1. Data are from Jones (no date). A reduction or an increase in the rate of economic growth means a corresponding reduction or increase in the size of the gross domestic product. The larger the GDP the more pronounced would be the effect of a change in the rate of growth. Thus, a 0.1% change in the economic rate of growth in the U.S. in 2007 when the GDP was $14.99 trillion resulted in a lesser value magnitude of the GDP than in 2017 when the GDP was $17.29 trillion.
2. Even some socialists in the United States bent to the rightist pressure. Thus, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that used to champion “a world without borders” has found problems with immigrant labor. Thus, Osborne Hart, the SWP candidate for Mayor of New York had the following to say about Trump’s anti-immigrant measures: “'We oppose Trump’s blanket ban on refugees and visitors from seven countries. No one should be penalized because of their religious beliefs or background, their political views or their country of origin,’ Hart said. ‘At the same time, the slogan raised by many liberals and middle-class leftists to tear down the wall and open the border is utopian and dangerous. If enacted, such moves would sharply increase joblessness and competition among workers, and deal blows to the unity of the working class.” (The Militant, February 27, 2017, emphasis added.). The SWP has not raised its demand for a “world without borders” since.
3. De Stefano (2016) suggests that “crowdwork” and “work-on-demand” via an app are the two defining features of the “gig economy.” Howe (2006) gives an example of “crowdwork” or “crowdsourcing” as follows:“Amazon Mechanical Turk is a Web-based marketplace that helps companies find people to perform tasks computers are generally lousy at — identifying items in a photograph, skimming real estate documents to find identifying information, writing short product descriptions, transcribing podcasts. Amazon calls the tasks HITs (human intelligence tasks); they're designed to require very little time, and consequently they offer very little compensation — most from a few cents to a few dollars.”Uber presents perhaps the most well-known “Work-on-demand” via app trend in the “gig economy” but it also is present in cleaning, running errands, some clerical work among other occupations.
4. Thus, in a May 24, 2017, CNN report, Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit software company, claimed: “The gig economy...is now estimated to be about 34% of the [U.S.] workforce and expected to be 43% by the year 2020.” Yet, analysis of a recent Current Population Survey (CPS) by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, June 2018) concludes: “In May 2017, 3.8 percent of workers--5.9 million persons--held contingent jobs.” But, the BLS conclusion is contradicted by a Federal Reserve study which “found that nearly a third of adults engaged in some form of gig work, either as a primary job or to supplement other sources of income.” (Casselman, June 2018) Casselman adds that private-sector surveys have reached similar conclusions.
5. A growing literature by post-Marxists and Autonomist Marxists have claimed that Marx’s theory of the capitalist mode of production is either wrong or irrelevant, as Marx’s law of value is no longer operational. Interested readers can consult the extensive work of Christian Fuchs (e.g. 2017, 2014) and others who critically have reviewed this literature and argued in detail about the relevance of Marx’s theory to the study of the “information economy.”
6. “Political Economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself. Hence the pre-bourgeois forms of the social organization of production are treated by political economy in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.” (Marx, 1867/1977, pp. 173-75).
7. In his “Marginal Notes on Adolph Wagner,” Marx explains his methodology in the development of his labor theory of value: “I do not proceed from ‘concepts’, hence neither from the ‘concept of value’…. What I proceed from is the simplest social form in which the product of labour presents itself in contemporary society, and this is the ‘commodity’. This I analyse, initially in the form in which it appears. Here I find that on the one hand in its natural form it is a thing for use, alias a use-value; on the other hand, a bearer of exchange-value, and from this point of view it is itself an ‘exchange-value'. Further analysis of the latter shows me that exchange-value is merely a "form of expression", an independent way of presenting the value contained in the commodity, and then I start on the analysis of the latter.” (Marx, 1879)
8. In this example, I assume all instruments of production are consumed in one production cycle. In long-run, the cost of instruments of production is equal to the value of their depreciation.
9. For simplicity, I am setting aside other factors necessary for capitalist production such interest on borrowed money capital or ground rent for land or physical structure used for production. In reality, such interest and ground rent are deducted from gross profits to yield the industrial capitalist net profit. These are discussed in detail by Marx in the volume three of Capital.
10. Marx’s theory of value of labor power and exploitation has been subject of controversy, especially by socialist feminists (Vogel 1983) resulting in the development of a set of theories collectively called the social reproduction theory. For the purpose of this essay, I set aside this important discussion to which I will return in Part 2 and a future essay on social reproduction theory.
11. Absolute surplus-value extraction also appears in more backward sectors of the most industrialized capitalist economies at the time of crisis. In the 1980s, garment shops in midtown Manhattan (New York City) began to use piece work in the face of low-cost competition from imported garment. In some shops, even a form of putting out system was used where the garment workers worked at home doing piece work.
12. To understand how, let’s denote the value of a commodity as lambda (λ), as being equal to the sum of the value of constant capital (raw material and machinery), C, plus value of labor power, V, plus surplus-value S.
λ = C + V + S
Then we can define the rate of profit as surplus-value (S) divided by capital advanced (C + V)
P = S/(C + V)
We can also define the rate of exploitation (E) as surplus-value divided by the value of labor power (S/V). Marx also refers to S as surplus time and V as necessary time.
E = S/V
If the capitalist holds the value of labor power constant while increasing S, the rate of exploitation increases. We have already noted that surplus-value can increase either as absolute surplus-value or as relative surplus-value. Increases in the absolute surplus-value is limited by natural conditions, the limit to the working day and the limit to the intensity of labor in the production process. But with the introduction of machinery, it is possible to increase the relative surplus-value, that is, to increase the surplus labor time relative to the necessary labor time. Thus, the introduction of machinery is the principal method to increase labor productivity, hence the surplus labor time and surplus-value. It also is a central cause of labor alienation and exploitation.
13. Let’s note that in Marx’s theory development and diffusion of techniques of production while conditioned by the requirement of capital accumulation, it also shaped by other factors such as the level of education and culture in general and the level of science and technology already attained. Therefore, it is semi-autonomous. For a recent discussion of Marx and technology, see Roth, 2010.
14. Mathematically, the rate of profit is given by S / (C + V) where S is surplus-value, C is the value of constant capital (means of production), and V is value of labor power. Dividing numerator and denominator by V we get e / (k + 1) where “e” is the rate of exploitation equal to S/V and k is the organic composition of capital equal to C/S. The average rate of profit across the capitalist economy is formed through the intra- and inter-industry competition (see, Shaikh, 2016, pp. 261-272). In Shaik’s analysis the average rate of profit is given by r = P/K = (P/X)/(K/X) = m/k where P profit, K is capital, X is total output, m is profit margin, and k is capital intensity.
15. Antonio Negri (1991, p. 172) cites this passage to conclude that Marx himself in the Grundrisse argues for an possible end to the law of value under capitalism, perhaps resulting in the collapse of capitalism. Most students of Marx’s theory interpret this passage in terms of long waves of capitalist development fueled by the faster rate of growth of organic composition of capital relative to the rate of growth of exploitation, thus a secular decline in the average rate of profit. Also, see, Fuchs 2017.
16. Our knowledge of when Homo sapiens emerged is improving. Until less than a year ago, evidence suggested that our human ancestors appeared about 200,000 years ago. A new study of remains from Ethiopia has pushed back the date to 300,000 years ago.
17. In his footnote to the 1888 English edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party Engles wrote: “In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organisation existing previous to recorded history, was all but unknown.” That is, of course, true of their earlier joint work, The German Ideology (1845). Engels also notes the more recent scholarship: “Morgan's crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of these primeval communities society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes.”
18. “The indigenous basis of surplus labour in general… is that nature provides the necessary means of subsistence—whether in products of the land, animal or vegetables, or in fisheries, etc.—with the application of an amount of labour-time that does not swallow up the entire working day. This indigenous productivity of agriculture labour (and here we include simple gathering, hunting, fishing, stock raising) is the basis of all surplus-value; just as all labor is originally first directed towards the appropriation and production of food. (Animals also provide pelts for warmth in cold climates; also cave-dwellings, etc.).” (Marx, 1894, p. 770)
19. Of course, I am citing revolutionary socialist leaders who I very much respect and have learned from. Needless to say, the policies of Stalinist leaders from Stalin himself to Mao, etc. fall outside of my interest which is focused on revolutionary socialists who genuinely tried to base their theory and practice on Marx and Engels.
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Robin Chang for bringing to my attention some recent developments in the discussion of the information economy and for reading a draft of this essay providing helpful style and grammar suggestions. Needless to say, he is not responsible for my argument or any errors in the text.
Dedication: I like to dedicate this essay to my life-long friend Teimour Zorofchi-Benissi whose love for technology I never shared but his generosity of spirit has enriched many lives including my own.
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