Forces of Production

views updated May 14 2018

Forces of Production


Forces of production is a term used in political economy that refers to the physical means and techniques of production to which laborers add value and transform capital into products for sale. Forces of production include instruments of production and raw materials, as well as the productive faculties of producing agents manifested by strength, skill, and knowledge. G. A. Cohen (2000, p. 37) argues that instruments of production and raw materials have productive forces, whereas labor power is a productive force.

Distinction must be made between forces of production and the ways they are utilized. Karl Marx wrote: Powder remains the same whether it is used to wound a man or to dress his wounds ([1847] 1982, p. 185). It can be argued that in Marxs view, forces of production are the driving factor in historical development. A new mode of production evolves when there is a conflict between the emerging production forces and the existing social relations. Thus, at a certain stage of development, modern industry becomes incompatible with the social production relations of handicraft (Marx [1867] 1977).

The correspondence between forces of production and relations need not be interpreted only as symmetrical, but can be interpreted as implying a priority of one over the other. This is the case made by Cohen (2000), who argues that the distinction between relations of production and forces of production is a special case of Marxs opposition of social to material features of society.

Irrespective of the primacy of forces of production or of social relations, some have insisted that different modes of production may exist simultaneously, which implicitly questions the rigid correspondence of production forces to given social relations. In various ways, feminists have utilized the notion of feudal relations to describe serf-like relations within households in capitalist economies with regards to unpaid domestic work (Benston 1969; Fraad, Resnick, and Wolff 1994).

In Marxs formulation, people enter into historically and geographically specific social relations that correspond to a given stage in the development of the material forces of production. As Marx puts it, the hand-mill gives society with a feudal lord; the steam-millindustrial capitalism (Marx [1847] 1982, p. 109). The pairing of forms of technology to forms of social relations implies certain inertia and warranted predictability of historical development, which Lary Hickman calls future-technological stage determinism (1990, pp. 142144). Thorstein Veblen (1906) and most of his followers in the tradition of American institutionalism (evolutionary economics) critique this teleological notion of social change and the idea that there is a final known end to which production process converges.

A notion of forces of production that drive historical development in a teleological manner has ramifications with regards to our understanding of progress and development. Marx argues: The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future ([1867] 1977, p. 90). Hickman (1990, pp. 143144) offers two readings of this statement. First these iron laws operate only as long as a society adopts specific forces of production, and this is not necessarily inevitable (limited technological-stage determinism). Thus, while there is pairing between forces of production and social forces, there is place for variation. Alternatively, a given society inevitably passes through a given technological stage (unlimited technological-stage determinism). Thus, there is a notion of an ideal that ought to be achieved if a society is to master modern forces of production and social relations. Such a notion of forces of production brings questions about the opposition between traditional and modern that is contested by postcolonial critique (Zein-Elabdin 2004).

SEE ALSO Asiatic Mode of Production; Capitalist Mode of Production; Exchange Value; Feudal Mode of Production; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Power; Productivity; Slave Mode of Production; Social Relations; Value; Veblen, Thorstein


Benston, Margaret. 1969. The Political Economy of Womens Liberation. Monthly Review 21 (4): 1327.

Cohen, G. A. 2000. Karl Marxs Theory of History: A Defence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fraad, Harriet, Stephen Resnick, and Richard Wolff. 1994. Bringing It All Back Home: Class, Gender, and Power in the Modern Household. London and Boulder, CO: Pluto Press.

Hickman, Lary. 1990. John Deweys Pragmatic Technology Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Marx, Karl. [1847] 1982. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. [1859] 1999. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ed. Maurice Dobb. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. [1867] 1977. Capital. New York: Vintage Books.

Veblen, Thorstein. 1906. The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers. Quarterly Journal of Economics 20.

Zein-Elabdin, Eiman. 2004. Articulating the Postcolonial (With Economics in Mind). In Postcolonialism Meets Economics, eds. Eiman Zein-Elabdin and S. Charuseela, 2140. London and New York: Routledge.

Zdravka Todorova

forces of production

views updated Jun 11 2018

forces of production Marxist political economy makes an analytical distinction between two aspects of economic activity. On the one hand are the ‘social relations’ of production, which relate to the maintenance of social domination, the extraction of an economic surplus, and the exploitation of labour. On the other hand, there are the ‘forces of production’, those elements and relations which are necessary, whatever the social structure, if materials, objects, and forces, drawn from nature, are to be modified into a form suitable to meet some human purpose (‘use value’). There is no agreement about the exact scope of the term ‘forces of production’, but at various times Marx and Engels included the following: ‘raw materials’, the bodies or substances to be worked upon in the labour-process, and always considered by Marx and Engels to be the products of prior expenditures of human labour; ‘instruments of production’, the tools or machinery employed in modifying raw materials (including in some versions, human organs themselves); the human capacity for work (‘labour-power’), a function of bodily organization, fitness, skill, knowledge, and such like; and, finally, the forms of social division and co-ordination of labour required by the particular characteristics of a given labour-process (sometimes called ‘technical relations’ of production). A further category of requirements for production–land, air, water, and other broadly environmental or contextual conditions–was recognized by Marx and Engels, but often mistakenly included among the instruments of production. Marx and Engels postulated a long-run historical trend in human societies, dramatically accelerated by capitalism, for the forces of production (combined human productive powers) to develop. This developmental process would enhance humanity's capacity to control and regulate nature, and so meet universal human needs with a minimum of expenditure of unrewarding effort. This state of developed productive forces was to be a pre-condition for the future communist realm of freedom beyond scarcity and the necessity for labour.