Relations of Production

By "relations of production" (German: Produktionsverhältnisse), Marx and Engels meant the sum total of social relationships that people must enter into in order to survive, to produce, and to reproduce their means of life. As people must enter into these social relationships, i.e., because participation in them is not voluntary, the totality of these relationships constitute a relatively stable and permanent structure, the "economic structure" or mode of production.

A social relation can be defined, in the first instance, as a relation between individuals insofar as they belong to a group, or a relation between groups, or a relation between an individual and a group. The group could be an ethnic or kinship group, a social institution or organization, a social class, a nation, or gender, etc.

A social relation is therefore not simply identical with an interpersonal relation or an individual relation, although all these types of relations presuppose each other. A social relation refers to a common social characteristic of a group of people. Society for Marx is the sum total of social relations connecting its members.

Social relations of production in Marx's sense refer to:

  • (often legally encoded) ownership & control relations pertaining to society's productive assets,
  • the way people are formally and informally associated within the economic sphere of production, including as social classes,
  • co-operative work relations (including household labor),
  • socio-economic dependencies between people arising from the way they produce and reproduce their existence,
  • relationships between different work sites or production sites,
  • the quantitative proportions of different aspects of the sphere of production, considered from the point of view of society as a whole.

The totality of social relations of production constitute the social structure of the economy, which according to Marx determine how incomes, products, and assets will be distributed. Combined with the productive forces, the relations of production constitute a historically specific mode of production. Karl Marx contrasts the social relations of production with the technical relations of production; in the former case, it is people (subjects) who are related, in the latter case, the relation is between people and objects in the physical world they inhabit (those objects are, in the context of production, what Marx calls the "means of labor" or means of production).

However, Marx argues that with the rise of market economy, this distinction is increasingly obscured and distorted. In particular, a cash economy makes it possible to define, symbolize, and manipulate relationships between things that people make in abstraction from the social & technical relations involved. Marx says this leads to the reification (thingification or Verdinglichung) of economic relations, of which commodity fetishism is a prime example.

The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life, truly human life - this community is conceived by political economy in the form of exchange and trade. Society, says Destutt de Tracy, is a series of mutual exchanges. It is precisely this process of mutual integration. Society, says Adam Smith, is a commercial society. Each of its members is a merchant. It is seen that political economy defines the estranged form of social intercourse as the essential and original form corresponding to man's nature. - Karl Marx, Notes on James Mill

In society... the producer's relation to the product, once the latter is finished, is an external one, and its return to the subject depends on his relations to other individuals. He does not come into possession of it directly. Nor is its immediate appropriation his purpose when he produces in society. Distribution steps between the producers and the products, hence between production and consumption, to determine in accordance with social laws what the producer's share will be in the world of products. Now, does distribution stand at the side of and outside production as an autonomous sphere? - Karl Marx, Grundrisse

He answers his own question negatively: The structure [German: Gliederung] of distribution is completely determined by the structure of production. Distribution is itself a product of production, not only in its object, in that only the results of production can be distributed, but also in its form, in that the specific kind of participation in production determines the specific forms of distribution, i.e. the pattern of participation in distribution. - Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Disagreeing with David Ricardo, who regarded distribution as the proper object of study for economics, Marx argues that the mode of production largely determines the mode of distribution: the source of income & products in production, and their distribution among the population must be analyzed within one framework: In the shallowest conception, distribution appears as the distribution of products, and hence as further removed from and quasi-independent of production. But before distribution can be the distribution of products, it is: (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of the society among the different kinds of production. [...] To examine production while disregarding this internal distribution within it is obviously an empty abstraction; while conversely, the distribution of products follows by itself from this distribution which forms an original moment of production. - Karl Marx, Grundrisse

In the last chapters of Das Kapital Vol 3, he develops the argument, defining relations of distribution as the "forms" which "express the relationships in which the total value newly produced is distributed among the owners of the various agents of production" (as income and products). His critique of political economy in this regard was (1) that relations of production or distribution are posited as "natural and eternal" rather than as historically specific relations, (2) that forms of distribution of income and products are crucially determined by property relations pertaining to productive assets; (3) that by constantly reproducing the relations of production, the mode of production of capital also reproduces the relations of distribution corresponding to it.

Late in his life, Marx touches on the issue again: Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of non-workers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?

In Marxist theory, the concept of "Produktionsverhältnisse" or "relations of production" is central to understanding how societies are organized economically and socially. These relations are not just about the technical aspects of production, but also encompass the social relationships and structures that people enter into in order to produce and reproduce their means of life. Marx argued that these relations are not fixed or natural, but are historically specific and can change over time.

One key aspect of relations of production is the ownership and control of productive assets. In capitalist societies, the means of production are owned by a minority capitalist class, while the majority of people, the workers, only own their labor power. This ownership structure determines how the products of labor are distributed, with the capitalists taking a share of the value produced by the workers as profit.

Another important aspect of relations of production is the way people are organized within the production process. This includes the division of labor, the organization of work, and the social relations between different groups of workers. In capitalist societies, this organization is hierarchical, with managers and owners exercising control over the work process.

Overall, relations of production are central to Marx's analysis of capitalism and other modes of production. They are not just about how things are produced, but also about how society is organized and how power and resources are distributed. Understanding these relations is key to understanding the dynamics of social change and the possibilities for creating a more just and equitable society.

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