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- productive forces: these include human labour power and available knowledge given the level of technology in the means of production (e.g. tools, equipment, buildings and technologies, materials, and improved land).
- social and technical relations of production: these include the property, power, and control relations governing society's productive assets (often codified in law, cooperative work relations, and forms of association), relations between people and the objects of their work, and the relations between social classes.
Marx regarded productive ability and participation in social relations as two essential characteristics of human beings and that the particular modality of these relations in capitalist production are inherently in conflict with the increasing development of human productive capacities.
A precursor to this concept was Adam Smith's concept of mode of subsistence, which delineated a progression of society types based on the way in which society's members provided for their basic needs.
Significance of concept
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According to Marx, the combination of forces and relations of production means that the way people relate to the physical world and the way people relate to each other socially are bound up together in specific and necessary ways. People must consume to survive, but to consume they must produce, and in producing they necessarily enter into relations which exist independently of their will.
For Marx, the whole 'secret' of why/how a social order exists and the causes of social change must be discovered in the specific mode of production that a society has. He further argued that the mode of production substantively shaped the nature of the mode of distribution, the mode of circulation and the mode of consumption, all of which together constitute the economic sphere. To understand the way wealth was distributed and consumed, it was necessary to understand the conditions under which it was produced.
A mode of production is historically distinctive for Marx, because it constitutes part of an 'organic totality' (or self-reproducing whole) which is capable of constantly re-creating its own initial conditions, and thus perpetuate itself in a more or less stable ways for centuries, or even millennia. By performing social surplus labour in a specific system of property relations, the labouring classes constantly reproduce the foundations of the social order. Normally a mode of production shapes the mode of distribution, circulation and consumption, and is regulated by the state.
New productive forces will cause conflict in the current mode of production. When conflict arises the modes of production can evolve within the current structure or cause a complete breakdown.
The process of socioeconomic change
The process by which social and economic systems evolve is based on the premise of improving technology. Specifically, as the level of technology improves, existing forms of social relations become increasingly insufficient for fully exploiting technology. This generates internal inefficiencies within the broader socioeconomic system, most notably in the form of class conflict. The obsolete social arrangements prevent further social progress while generating increasingly severe contradictions between the level of technology (forces of production) and social structure (social relations, conventions and organization of production) which develop to a point where the system can no longer sustain itself, and is overthrown through internal social revolution that allows for the emergence of new forms of social relations that are compatible with the current level of technology (productive forces).
The fundamental driving force behind structural changes in the socioeconomic organization of civilization are underlying material concerns - specifically, the level of technology and extent of human knowledge and the forms of social organization they make possible. This comprises what Marx termed the materialist conception of history (see also: materialism), and is in contrast to an idealist analysis, which states that the fundamental driving force behind socioeconomic change are the ideas of enlightened individuals.
The modes of production in history
In a broad outline, Marxist theory recognizes several distinctive modes of production characteristic of different epochs in human history:
Human society is seen as organized in traditional tribe structures, typified by shared values and consumption of the entire social product. As no permanent surplus product is produced, there is also no possibility of a ruling class coming into existence. As this mode of production lacks differentiation into classes, it is said to be classless. Palaeolithic and Neolithic tools, pre- and early-agricultural production, and rigorous ritualized social control have often been said to be the typifying productive forces of this mode of production. However, the foraging mode of production still exists, and often typified in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Past theories of the foraging mode of production have focused on lack of control over food production. More recent scholarship has argued that hunter-gatherers use the foraging mode of production to maintain a specific set of social relations that, perhaps controversially, are said to emphasize egalitarianism and the collective appropriation of resources.
Asiatic mode of production
This is a controversial contribution to Marxist theory, initially used to explain pre-slave and pre-feudal large earthwork constructions in China, India, the Euphrates and Nile river valleys (and named on this basis of the primary evidence coming from greater "Asia"). The Asiatic mode of production is said to be the initial form of class society, where a small group extracts social surplus through violence aimed at settled or unsettled band communities within a domain. Exploited labour is extracted as forced corvee labour during a slack period of the year (allowing for monumental construction such as the pyramids, ziggurats, ancient Indian communal baths or the Chinese Great Wall). Exploited labour is also extracted in the form of goods directly seized from the exploited communities. The primary property form of this mode is the direct religious possession of communities (villages, bands, hamlets) and all those within them. The ruling class of this society is generally a semi-theocratic aristocracy which claims to be the incarnation of gods on earth. The forces of production associated with this society include basic agricultural techniques, massive construction and storage of goods for social benefit (granaries).
Antique or Ancient mode of production
Similar to the Asiatic mode, but differentiated in that the form of property is the direct possession of individual human beings. Additionally, the ruling class usually avoids the more outlandish claims of being the direct incarnation of a god, and prefers to be the descendants of gods, or seeks other justifications for its rule. Ancient Greek and Roman societies are the most typical examples of this mode. The forces of production associated with this mode include advanced (two field) agriculture, the extensive use of animals in agriculture, and advanced trade networks.
The feudal mode of production is usually typified by the systems of the West between the fall of the classical European culture and the rise of capitalism, though similar systems existed in most of the earth. The primary form of property is the possession of land in reciprocal contract relations: the possession of human beings as peasants or serfs is dependent upon their being entailed upon the land. Exploitation occurs through reciprocated contract (though ultimately resting on the threat of forced extractions). The ruling class is usually a nobility or aristocracy. The primary forces of production include highly complex agriculture (two, three field, lucerne fallowing and manuring) with the addition of non-human and non-animal power devices (clockwork, wind-mills) and the intensification of specialisation in the crafts—craftsmen exclusively producing one specialised class of product.
The introduction of the capitalist mode of production spans the period from Mercantilism to Imperialism and is usually associated with the emergence of modern industrial society. The primary form of property is the possession of objects and services through state guaranteed contract. The primary form of exploitation is wage labour (see Das Kapital, wage slavery and exploitation). The ruling class is the bourgeoisie, which exploits the proletariat. Capitalism may produce one class (bourgeoisie) who possess the means of production for the whole of society and another class who possess only their own labour power, which they must sell in order to survive. The key forces of production include the overall system of modern production with its supporting structures of bureaucracy, and the modern state, and above all finance capital.
State capitalism and Corporate capitalism (also known as Monopoly capitalism), is a universal form encompassing all recent actually existing economic forms based on the nation state and global process of capital accumulation, whether avowedly capitalist or socialist, which was known only in its more or less pure capitalist forms in Marx and Engels time. Today this form predominates in the so-called modern mixed economy based largely on oligarchial multinational corporations with its highly socialized and globalized system of production. In particular, the failed centrally-planned economic systems of the defunct communist bloc nation states are not to be confused with communism as an actually existing mode of production in spite of, or more to the point as a result of, their (failed) realization of central planning. Fredrick Engels hypothesized that state capitalism would emerge as the final form of capitalism before the contradictions reach a point where capitalism cannot sustain itself and socialism emerges as its successor.
The hallmark of late capitalism is consumerism and financialization, a process whereby "making money", literally, becomes the dominant industry - both of these practices are a means to sustain the flow and accumulation of capital.
Socialism (Lower-stage communism)
The socialist mode of production is the post-capitalist economic system that emerges when the accumulation of capital is no longer sustainable due to falling rates of profit in (real) production, and social conflict arising from the contradictions between the level of technology and automation in the economy with the capitalist form of social organization. A socialist society would consist of production being carried out, organized in a manner to directly satisfy human needs, with the working-class cooperatively or publicly owning the means of production.
Communism (Upper-stage communism)
The ideal of communism did and does refer to a hypothetical future state of affairs where the good of all is obtained by scientific management (whence the name "scientific socialism") to obtain democratically determined social goals. Karl Marx made a distinction between "lower stage communism" and "upper-stage communism", with the former usually being called socialism.
Prefiguring forms of communism can be seen in communes and other collective living experiments. Communism is meant to be a classless society, with the management of things replacing the management of people. Particular productive forces are not described, but are assumed to be more or less within the reach of any contemporary capitalist society. Despite the imminent potential for communism, some economic theorists have hypothesized that communism is more than a thousand years away from full implementation and of course it is the position of anti-communists and those who have "buried" socialism that it will never be realized at all, that the capitalist mode is the end to which historical development drives and halts having reached its "perfect and eternal" form or that the whole concept of mode of production is a falacy all together. Engels and Marxist doctrine identify the emergence of communism as the reciprocal process to the "withering away" of the nation-state and the class system it supports.
Articulation of modes of production
In any specific society or country, different modes of production might emerge and exist alongside each other, linked together economically through trade and mutual obligations. To these different modes correspond different social classes and strata in the population. So, for example, urban capitalist industry might co-exist with rural peasant production for subsistence and simple exchange and tribal hunting and gathering. Old and new modes of production might combine to form a hybrid economy.
However, Marx's view was that the expansion of capitalist markets tended to dissolve and displace older ways of producing over time. A capitalist society was a society in which the capitalist mode of production had become the dominant one. The culture, laws and customs of that society might however preserve many traditions of the preceding modes of production. Thus, although two countries might both be capitalist, being economically based mainly on private enterprise for profit and wage labour, these capitalisms might be very different in social character and functioning, reflecting very different cultures, religions, social rules and histories.
Elaborating on this idea, Leon Trotsky famously described the economic development of the world as a process of uneven and combined development of different co-existing societies and modes of production which all influence each other. This means that historical changes which took centuries to occur in one country might be truncated, abbreviated or telescoped in another. Thus, for example, Trotsky observes in the opening chapter of his history of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that "Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between these two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning", etc. Thus, old and new techniques and cultures might combine in novel and unique admixtures, which cannot be understood other than by tracing out the history of their emergence.
- Marx, Grundrisse. (English Translation)
- New Voices on Adam Smith, by Leonidas Montes, Eric Schliesser. Routledge, March 2006. P 295.
- Marxism.org: Mode of Production.
- Meillassoux, 1973
- Tim Ingold, 1987, 1988; Robert Kelly, 1995
- That the COMECON countries' economies were failures is controversial, that they suffered systemic collapse is not.
- The Financial Power Elite John Bellamy Foster and Hannah Holleman Monthly Review Vol 21, No. 1
- Michel Pablo hypothesized that the deformed workers states (e.g. the PRC or DPRK) would last into the far future.
- Political dictionary definition of the term
- Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism
- Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State
- G.E.M. De Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests.
- Chris Harman, A People's History of the World
- Barry Hindess & Paul Q. Hirst, Pre-capitalist modes of production. London: Routledge, 1975.
- Lawrence Krader, The Asiatic Mode of Production; Sources, Development and Critique in the Writings of Karl Marx.
- Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory.
- Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View.
- George Novack, Understanding History: Marxist Essays
- Fritjof Tichelman, The Social Evolution of Indonesia: The Asiatic Mode of Production and its Legacy.
- W.M.J. van Binsbergen & P.L. Geschiere, ed., Old Modes of Production and Capitalist Encroachment.
- Charles Woolfson, The Labour Theory of Culture.
- Harold Wolpe, ed. The articulation of modes of production.
- Michael Perelman, Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property Rights and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity.