‘Duration, Intensity and Productivity of Labour and the Distinction between Absolute and Relative Surplus-value’

The following article (co-authored with A.Ioannides) has been published in ROPE (Review of Political Economy):

Review of Political Economy
Volume 23, Issue 3, 2011
‘Duration, Intensity and Productivity of Labour and the Distinction between Absolute and Relative Surplus-value’


Stavros Mavroudeas & Alexis Ioannides

pages 421-437
Available online: 24 Jun 2011


Marx recognized two distinct but also interrelated processes of increasing surplus-value extraction: absolute and relative surplus-value. Both these processes hinge upon the duration, the intensity and the productivity of labour, albeit in different ways. The increase of the duration of labour is indisputably related to absolute surplus-value and the increase of labour productivity to relative surplus-value. However, there is controversy regarding the position of the intensity of labour. Marx’s argument that it belongs to relative surplus-value is disputed by many Marxists. This paper argues that Marx’s thesis is correct because the intensification of labour and the increase of its duration are ultimately two opposing trends and thus should not be coupled in the same concept.

A preprint version follows:

Duration, intensity and productivity of labour and the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value

Mavroudeas Stavros

Dept. of Economics,

University of Macedonia



Ioannides Alexis

Dept. of Social Administartion,

Democritean University of Thrace



Marx recognized two distinct but also interrelated processes of increasing surplus-value extraction: absolute and relative surplus-value. Both these processes hinge upon the duration, the intensity and the productivity of labour albeit in different ways. The increase of the duration of labour is indisputable related to absolute surplus-value and the increase of labour productivity to relative surplus-value. However, there is controversy regarding the position of the intensity of labour. Marx’s argument that it belongs to relative surplus-value is being disputed by many Marxists. This paper argues that Marx’s thesis is correct because the intensification of labour and the increase of its duration are ultimately two opposing trends and thus should not be coupled in the same concept. This argument is supported theoretically and empirically.

Keywords: surplus-value, labour-time, labour intensity, labour productivity

Duration, intensity and productivity of labour and the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value

I. Introduction

The theory of surplus-value theory constitutes one of the foundations of Marxian economic analysis and a crucial differentia from Classical Political Economy. According to Marx, surplus-value extraction is the basic economic motivation under capitalism and the main prerequisite for the accumulation and reproduction of capital. This is so because of the profit-seeking nature of the capitalist system which is based on labour exploitation through the extraction of unpaid labour. The latter is surplus-value, i.e. the source of capitalist profit. In other words, in capitalism work-time is divided in a paid part (paid work-time) and in an unpaid part (unpaid work-time). The first part corresponds to the value of labour-power (and finally to wage) and the second to surplus-value (and finally to profit).

In Capital Marx distinguished two distinct modes of increasing surplus-value: the extraction of absolute and relative surplus-value. These modes sum up distinct economic processes which operate in different ways. This does not preclude the fact that they can and in reality they do combine with each other. The previous point does nοt negate the analytic purpose of their distinction. The extraction of absolute surplus-value focuses on total work-time increase that leads to the increase of the proportion of unpaid to paid work-time; and thus the increase of the rate of surplus-value. On the contrary, the extraction of relative surplus-value focuses on the reduction of paid work-time and through this channel on the rise of the proportion of unpaid to paid work-time. The above distinction is nowadays subject of a heated debate regarding the economic processes that are implicated in each case. Of course it is self evident and unanimously accepted that the prolongation of the working day appertains to the first mode whereas the labour productivity increase in the sector producing wage-goods appertains to the second. But there is substantial dissension among Marxist political economists whether the intensification of labour should be included in absolute or relative surplus-value.

The structure of this paper is the following. In the next section, the theory of surplus-value and the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value are being presented. This presentation is formalized mathematically and diagrammatically. In section III are analyzed the factors that influence surplus-value extraction, that is the duration and the intensity of labour as well as the technical conditions under which labour is being conducted. Section IV focuses on the intensity of labour and the modern debate about whether it should be included in absolute or relative surplus-value. In particular, it is shown that Marx incorporated the intensification of work to the latter. Then, the dissenting views that incorporate it in absolute surplus-value are being presented by paying special attention to Sekine’s (1997) formulation. The latter is being singled out as the more coherent presentation of this argument. Contra to them, this paper presents a number of significant reasons for following the Marxian inclusion of work intensification in relative surplus-value. In section V this argument is supported further by showing that an inverse relationship exists between the duration and the intensity of labour. In a nutshell, it is argued that, under production maximizing conditions, an increase of the former would lead to a decrease of the latter and vice versa. So, the prolongation and the intensification of work are, ultimately, two opposite processes that should be theorised separately. Finally, the last section concludes.

II. The Marxian theory of surplus-value and the definitions of absolute and relative surplus-value


For Marxist Political Economy capitalism is an exploitative socio-economic system. Hence, similarly to other exploitative socio-economic systems a surplus is necessarily produced in production by the labouring subaltern classes. Then this surplus is being extracted by the dominant non-labouring classes. The production of a surplus and its appropriation by the latter is a sine qua non condition because otherwise the dominant non-labouring classes cannot sustain themselves and their very dominance does not make any sense. However, unlike its predecessors, exploitation in capitalism does not stem from extra-economic power relations (and particularly relations of violent subjugation) but from economic relations. That is the worker is not posited under exploitation by force but through sheer economic need. In previous class systems the exploited classes were put in this position through direct force. In contrast, in capitalism nobody obliges forcefully a free individual to become a waged labourer. The only thing that obliges him, indirectly, is his incapacity to sustain himself otherwise since he may be able to work and produce but he cannot acquire the necessary means of production. Thus, in capitalism exploitation is generated through indirect economic compulsion and not through direct forceful coercion.

The mechanism of capitalist exploitation operates as follows. Under the indirect economic compulsion to sustain itself the worker is obliged to conclude a wage contract with a capitalist. Under this contract the worker is obliged to work under the managerial prerogative of the latter. The conclusion of this contract has a twofold effect. First, it transforms a relation between two formally equal parts (the free negotiation of the wage contract) to one between two unequal parts. That is, after the conclusion of the contract the worker is obliged to work under the directions of the capitalist. Thus a non-hierarchical relationship is transformed to a hierarchical one and the Marxian ‘despotism’ of the capitalist is established. This, in turn, constitutes the infamous in legal studies ‘open character’ (i.e. unable to determine precisely) of the work contract. As it is well known, the work contract is a rather non-precise agreement in the sense that parts of the mutual obligations (e.g. the amount of the wage, the work-time) are designated precisely but other parts (and particularly what exactly is a worker obliged to do, how to do it and what its results are) are notoriously vague. On the basis of this ‘open character’ the capitalist is able (and indeed is required) to direct the worker to produce a surplus. This surplus surpasses the costs of production (i.e. the costs of the means of production and the wage fund), is created by the workers (according to the Labour Theory of Value) but is appropriated by the capitalist in the form of the profit. For all these reasons (and particularly to emphasize its non-coercive, market-based nature) Marx distinguished surplus in capitalism from its pre-capitalist predecessors and named it surplus-value. The above analyzed process is very lucidly and at the same time realistically described in a famous passage from Capital:

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the common interest.

When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris’ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing to expect but — a tanning.[1]

Thus the time-period during which the labourer works for the capitalist consists of two parts: paid work-time (corresponding to the value of labour-power) and unpaid work-time (corresponding to surplus-value). Given that profit is the main motive of capitalism and that profit comes out of surplus-value, then capitalism strives continuously to increase the extraction of the latter. Marx recognized two modes of increasing the extraction of surplus-value: absolute and relative surplus-value.

I call that surplus-value which is produced by the lengthening of the working day, absolute surplus-value. In contrast to this, I call that surplus–value which arises from the curtailment of the necessary labour-time, and from the corresponding alteration in the respective lengths of the two components of the working day, relative surplus-value.[2]

According to the Marxian definitions, the extraction of absolute surplus-value takes place when work-time increases and the value of labour-power remains constant or increases to a smaller degree. The extraction of relative surplus-value occurs when there is a reduction of the value of labour-power. In both cases the extracted surplus-value increases. This can be shown mathematically as follows:


T: total daily work-time

S: Surplus-value (unpaid work-time)

V: the value of labour power (paid work-time)

According to Marx it holds that:

T = V + S                                                                    (1)

meaning that the totally spend labour creates the whole social product and consequently covers not only its reproduction (the value of the labour-power) but the surplus-value as well.

From eq. (1) it is implied that:

S = T – V                                                                    (2)

i.e., surplus-value equals the difference of total work-time minus the paid work-time (the value of the labour-power). Consequently, surplus-value can increase through either a rise of the former or a reduction of the latter. Of course there can be a combination of the two processes as well. All these cases imply an increased ratio of unpaid to paid work-time, i.e. an increased rate of surplus-value which reflects a greater degree of exploitation:

s΄ =                                                                                     (3)

All the above are presented graphically in Diagram 1.

Diagram 1

Line AB (and its shifts to A΄Β΄ and Α΄΄Β΄΄) expresses eq. (1) and denotes total work-time (T). Given a specific magnitude of T and V then a corresponding magnitude of S and s΄ (the slope of the line from the beginning of the axes) are being derived.

Supposedly that we begin from a situation where T equals 8 hours and the corresponding – under the given social and technical conditions – necessary time for the recuperation of the worker (i.e. the value of the labour-power) is V1 equal with 4 hours. Then a point K is derived on the AB which corresponds to S1 (representing the rest 4 hours of unpaid work-time). The rate of surplus-value is given by the slope of the line 0K (s1΄).

In the case of absolute surplus-value the latter comes from an ‘absolute’ increase of the unpaid work-time in relation to the paid work-time. This is produced through an increase of total work-time while its paid component remains constant. Thus, supposedly T increases to T΄=10 hours (expressed by A΄Β΄) and the value of labour-power remains constant (at V1=4 hours). The last assumption can be disputed since the increased total work-time would necessarily entail a greater attrition of the labourer which must be compensated for if the initial value of labour-power covers just the physical requirements of the worker’s reproduction. But if the initial value of labour-power incorporates also a social part (above the physical requirements) then the worker’s recuperation is not endangered since the magnitude of the physical part would increase by carving out a portion of the social part. Alternatively, the value of labour-power can increase but at a lesser rate than that of the total work-time. Given these clarifications it is a valid simplifying assumption, at least for expositional purposes, to assume a constant value of labour-power. In this case an increased surplus-value (S2=6 hours) and an increased rate of surplus-value (s2΄ > s1΄) are being derived, corresponding to point M on the A΄Β΄ and the slope of the line 0M respectively.

In the case of relative surplus-value the latter comes from a ‘relative’ increase of the unpaid work-time. That is total work-time remains constant but its paid component is reduced and, consequently, its unpaid component is increased. In Diagram 1, beginning from the previous initial magnitudes (T, V1, S1) we proceed to a reduction of the value of labour-power from V1 to V3. This is reflected in a consequent increase of S from S1 to S4 (corresponding to point I on AB). Concomitantly the rate of surplus-value is increased from s1΄ to s4΄ (slope of the line 0I).

As said before, there can be combinations of increased absolute and relative surplus-value or decreases of the one and increases of the latter. Such a case is shown also in Diagram 1. In this case we have a decrease of the total work-time (from T (line AB) to T΄΄ (line Α΄΄Β΄΄)). Supposedly we have also a decrease of the value of labour-power, at a lesser rate than that of total work-time, which leads to V2. Consequently at point Λ we obtain a smaller mass of surplus-value (S3 < S1) and a greater rate of surplus-value (s3΄ > s1΄). This is a case of diminished absolute and increased relative surplus-value. Of course, if the relation between the rates of change of V and T is different we obtain other results.

III. Factors determining the extraction of absolute and relative surplus-value

The production and appropriation of surplus-value depend on the factors determining the expenditure of labour-power during the production process as well as its payment during the income distribution process. More specifically, during the production process the extraction of surplus-value is related to (1) the duration of labour, (2) the intensity of labour and (3) the technical conditions of production. During the income distribution process the extraction of surplus-value is connected to (4) the correlation between the value of labour-power and its price (wage). The former (depending crucially, according to the Marxian wage theory, on how the wage goods (the bundle of commodities consumed by the workers) are produced) determines the latter. But, as any price, wage fluctuates around its determining value. The former is defined in the production process whereas the latter in the distribution process. This means that the primary (according to the Marxist tradition) sphere of production determines the facts of the sphere of income distribution, but the latter enjoys some degrees of freedom[3].

We can analyse how the above-mentioned four factors affect the extraction of absolute and relative surplus-value.


a) Absolute surplus-value, the duration of labour and the value of labour-power

The case of absolute surplus-value extraction is relatively simple. It is obvious and indisputable that it depends directly on the duration of labour. According to Marx’s definition, it denotes a straightforward increase of total work-time which is coupled by either a stagnant paid work-time or a rising paid work-time albeit at a lesser degree than the rise of total work-time. The nature and the limitations of the assumption of a constant length of the paid work-time and why Marx legitimately made it, for simplification purposes, have been explained in the previous chapter. However, the alternative where the increase of the duration of labour is coupled with an increase of the wage and/or the value of labour-power is also valid.

In order to clarify either the assumption of (a) a constant paid work-time or of (b) an increased paid work-time but at a lesser rate than that of the total work-time a further analysis of the value of labour-power is required.

Marx’s conception of the determination of the value of labour-power and its price (the wage) differs substantially from both Ricardo’s but also various neo-Marxist perspectives.

For Ricardo the value of labour (since he does not distinguish between labour and labour-power, as Marx does) reflects the cost of reproduction of the labourer. This he supposed is anchored at the level of physical subsistence. That is, in terms of work-time, the labourer is apportioned a part of the total. This part corresponds to the labour-time needed to produce the means of subsistence that are necessary for the labourer to recuperate from its attrition from the work and be able to work the next day. Thus, the Ricardian ‘value of labour’ corresponds to a bundle of means of subsistence. The wage is the price of the ‘value of labour’ and as such it corresponds to its value. It is well known that although Ricardo was well aware that a price can oscillate around its determining value, he – contrary to Marx – brushed aside the intricacies determining this oscillation and maintained that, ultimately, the price will correspond to its determining value. In the case of the ‘value of labour’ made another even more problematic assumption. By accepting the Malthusian theory of population, he argued that the ‘value of labour’ would be related to the bundle of commodities necessary for simply the physical subsistence of the labourer. In other words, any wage struggles are meaningless since the Malthusian law of population will sooner or later reduce any excessive wages to the equilibrium wage (which covers only the physical part).

Marx differed from Ricardo in several crucial points. First, he distinguished between labour (the work actually performed) and labour-power (the ability to work). Thus, the cost of the recuperation of the labourer is the value of labour-power and not the value of labour. Second, the value of labour-power consists of two elements: a) physical part covering the ‘natural needs’ (food, clothing, fuel, housing etc.), which varies according to climatic and other physical peculiarities of a country and, b) a historical and social part reflecting the achievements of the working-class’ political and economic struggle, provided that they have been consolidated[4]. Hence, wage struggles are meaningful since they affect the historical and social part. Third, because they are degrees of freedom in the determination of the price by value, the wage can deviate from the value of labour-power.

But apart from the above, both Marx and Ricardo relate the value of labour-power established in the production process, since it depends on the production of the commodity bundle covering workers’ reproduction. In both cases, the value of labour-power determines the wage through the intermediation of this bundle of consumer commodities (wage goods). On the contrary, several neo-Marxist approaches consider wage as a ‘black box’, a merely ‘political’ variable which is not constrained by any objective element (such as the physical part) but is completely social. That is, it is solely depending on class struggle, namely the balance of power between capital and labour. Thus, the value of labour-power is determined only through the income distribution process, without the intermediation of the production process of wage goods. In our opinion this perspective – despite its sometimes revolutionary bravura – is an analytical step-back comparing to the Marxian view[5].

With these clarifications in mind, the case of assuming a constant value of the labour-power with an increased total work-time is meaningful so long as there is a historical and social part of the value of labour-power. In this case, the extended work-time would lead to an increased physical part. This implies a smaller historical and social part. In this way the physical reproduction of the labour-power is not endangered (since this would be fatal for capitalism in the long-term). And, if this situation persists, it will lead to the same total value of labour-power but consisting of a greater physical and a smaller historical and social component.

The alternative case of an increased total work-time coupled with an increased paid work-time which still yields an absolute increase of surplus-value is being presented in Diagram 2. As said before, this can happen on the condition that the rate of increase of the paid work-time is lesser that of the increase of total work-time. This increase leads to a greater value of labour-power with certainly a greater physical component and possibly a greater historical and social component. The first is necessary in order to cover the added attrition of the worker due to the extended work-time. The second can come as a result of further gains by the workers’ struggles.

Diagram 2

Let K be the initial point upon line AB (total work-time equals T), where as before the value of labour-power is V1, surplus-value is S1 and the rate of surplus-value is given by the slope of 0K. Let now a work-time increase from T to T΄ (expressed by the line A΄Β΄) and a simultaneous increase in the value of labour-power from V1 to V2, leading to a new point M. At this point both the mass of surplus-value (S2) and the rate of surplus-value (the slope of the line 0M) are bigger than before.

b) Relative surplus-value, labour productivity and the value of labour-power

Following the Marxian definition, extraction of relative surplus-value occurs when, with a constant total work-time, we have a decrease of the paid work-time and, consequently, an increase of unpaid work-time. This implies a reduction of the value of the labour-power. The reduction of the value of labour-power can be done in two ways.

The first takes place in the distribution process and it consists in the fall of wage below the value of the labour-power. This means that workers are paid less than demanded for their social reproduction. This is sustainable in the long-run so long as this reduction affects only the social part of the value of labour-power. In this case social turbulence is probable but the reproduction of the labour-power can still be accomplished. If the reduction expands to the physical part, consequences can be catastrophic for the capitalist system, since workers’ attrition won’t be fully recovered, leading to reduced productivity or even workers’ destruction. The last can surely put the capitalist system in great danger. Thus, if the fall of the wage below the value of labour-power does not endanger the physical reproduction of the worker, it can be sustainable in the long-run and, therefore, it defines – after a period of time – a new lower value of labour-power. This is a valid and historically operational process but it does not define the hard core of relative surplus-value extraction. The latter, while encompassing the above-mentioned case, refers mainly to the second way of reducing the value of labour-power.

This second way occurs through the process of production and consists in reducing the work-time that is required for the production of wage goods. In this case the worker can still buy the goods needed for his reproduction, although his wage is now smaller. For this reduction to occur, a change is required in the technical conditions in the branches producing the wage goods. In Marxist two-sector models, these branches are summed up in Sector II (i.e. the sector producing means of consumption) as distinguished to Sector I (i.e. the sector producing means of production).

This change of technical conditions of production can occur either by technical change (introduction of brand new technologies in the production process) or by technical restructuring (that is a radical operational restructuring of already existing technologies). This change leads, for Marx, to an increase of labour productivity. Then the same bundle of means of consumption necessary for the reproduction of the worker is produced with the expenditure of less labour. Thus, the labour-time necessary (for the production of this bundle) falls while its use-value content remains the same. In this case, the wage can follow downwards the movement of its determining value without endangering the reproduction of the worker. This is a more subtle case of extraction of surplus-value, since workers can maintain their consumption standard despite the increase of exploitation.

Of course, there is another way of increasing labour productivity: an autonomous improvement of the experience of the collective worker (i.e. to learn in practice to do the work better). This, when applied in Sector II reduces also the necessary labour-time for the production of wage goods. This process can occur separately from the change in technical conditions. But it can logically be assumed that, after an initial period of trial and error, the experience of the collective worker has already reached its maximum level, so we can abstract this process from our analysis.

Recapitulating, the second and more important method of reducing the value of the labour-power – and thus extracting relative surplus-value – is based on the rise of labour productivity in Sector II. This analysis is more or less unanimously accepted within Marxist Political Economy.

IV. Labour intensification and the extraction

 of absolute and relative surplus-value


As mentioned before, the intensity of labour is one of the major factors affecting the expenditure of labour and hence the extraction of surplus-value. Marx classifies the process of labour intensification in the concept of relative surplus-value. He explicitly points out that with the use of labour intensification there is a change in the nature of relative surplus-value[6]. Similarly to the increase of labour productivity, labour intensification leads also to the reduction of necessary labour-time and thus of the value of labour-power but through a different channel. The extraction of relative surplus-value occurs not only from the increase of labour productivity, but from the condensation of labour as well. However, there is a subtle difference between these two channels which hinges upon the different labour content of one working hour in these two cases. As Marx remarks, the value of the unit product is different in each case. In the case of labour intensification, more units of output are produced during total work-time, but the value of each unit remains constant.[7] This happens because labour intensification increases the total labour actually expended in production, but does not reduces the amount of labour needed for the production of a unit of output. On the contrary, in the case of rising labour productivity (through either a change of the technical conditions or an improvement of the experience of the collective worker) the necessary labour for the production of a unit of output is reduced. On the other hand, what is common in both cases is that the ratio of unpaid to paid labour has increased without the increase of labour-time. There is also another difference between these two channels regarding the value of labour-power. In the case of labour intensification the worker’s attrition increases and this, under normal circumstances, has to be compensated for with an increase of the value of labour-power. This does not happen in the case of the increased labour productivity which, therefore, does not require any additional compensation. We will return to this point later on.

There is an additional substantial reason justifying Marx’s incorporation of labour intensification into relative surplus-value. Although in theory a change in the technical conditions of production does not necessarily affect the intensity of work, in practice usually such changes involve also a reduction of the ‘pores’ of labour, i.e. the ‘dead’, non-utilised segments of time during the work-hour. Every capitalist, when planning a change of the technical conditions of production takes into consideration this aspect. Furthermore, this is also a very smooth and subtle mechanism since when there is such a change accompanied with an intensification of work there is usually a considerable time-lag for the workers to actually comprehend that their work has been intensified. This happens because a change of the technical conditions of production involves to a greater or lesser extent a change in what actually a worker does during his work. These changes inhibit him for grasping immediately whether his work has or has not been intensified. This is being realised after a time period when the long-run and cumulative mechanism of human experience takes effect. On the other hand, as said before, the capitalist has already in advance – when planning these changes – considered the reduction of the ‘pores’ of labour.

Marx has clearly analysed this relationship between a change in the technical conditions of production and labour intensification of labour[8]. He particularly emphasises it when studying the impact of the mechanization of capitalist production on labour. It is for the same reason that the majority at least of those participating in the 1970s Labour Process Debate classified labour intensification in relative surplus-value.

Contrary to the other factors affecting surplus-value extraction, the Marxian classification of labour intensification is under dispute. Several Marxist political economists have argued that the latter should be incorporated in absolute surplus-value (e.g. Moseley 2004). This argument has been presented more forcefully by Sekine. He[9] begins by rejecting the Marxian definitions of relative and absolute surplus-value as misleading:

Any production of surplus value is both absolute and relative, depending on how one looks it. If it is viewed simply as an excess of newly produced value over the reproduced value of labour-power, surplus value is absolute. If it is viewed relative to the technical condition that determines the value of labour-power, surplus value is relative. Marx’s own definition was that ‘the surplus value produced by the prolongation of the working-day’ is absolute, and that ‘the surplus value arising from the curtailment of the necessary labour-time’ (Capital I, p.299) is relative. That, however, gives the false impression that they are some initial t0 and v0 in reference to which the production of surplus value is neither absolute nor relative, and that only when one of the variables changes, while the other remains constant, can one determine whether the ‘change’ in the production of surplus value is absolute or relative. In order to avoid such confusion, I am here adopting a definition different from Marx’s.

Then, taking as a benchmark whether ‘the state of art, or technology’ is constant or not, he offers his own definitions of absolute and relative surplus-value.[10] He defines as absolute the surplus-value extracted under constant technology. He argues that such an increase of surplus-value occurs through a) the prolongation of the working day and b) the intensification of labour. On the other hand, relative surplus-value occurs only through a technical change that raises labour productivity.

To illustrate his argument he expresses the total labour-time, the value of labour-power and the rate of surplus-value as functions of not only the duration of labour but of its intensity as well. This is done by transforming clock work-hours to ‘effective labour hours’ which are a function of both their clock duration and their intensity (expressed by an intensity factor).[11]

Thus, total labour-time expressed as ‘effective labour hours’ (t) is the product of its duration (T) multiplied with the intensity factor (b):

t = bT                                                                          (4)

Similarly, the value of the labour-power in ‘effective labour hours’ (v) is the product of its clock hours (V) multiplied with the intensity factor (b):

v = bV                                                                         (5)

The rate of surplus-value, given in relation (3), can be written as:

s′ =                                                            (6)

If we transform (6) using (4) and (5) we take:

s′ = S/V = (T-V)/V = (t/b – v/b)/(v/b) =  =             (7)

Equation (7) is not really different from (6), since t and v are merely multiples of T and V. Thus, either in clock hours or in ‘effective labour hours’ the rate of surplus-value is the same. To deal with this problem Sekine makes a sleight of hand: he arbitrarily posits the value of the labour-power expressed in ‘effective labour hours’ equal with the value expressed in clock working hours.[12] Namely, he doesn’t multiply V with b and hence he (unjustified in our opinion) keeps v = V (in contradiction to equation (5) which he himself suggested). Only in this way the rate of surplus-value expressed in ‘effective labour hours’ can be greater from the one expressed in clock hours of labour. Thus, Sekine maintains that his views have been convincingly illustrated.

In fact the opposite happens. Sekine’s argument has serious drawbacks both in theoretical explanation as well as in accounting for reality. His theory is problematic for the following reasons. First, the reason he offers for characterising Marx’s definitions as misleading is unconvincing. Both absolute and relative surplus-value are ways of increasing surplus-value. Hence, analytically we have to start from some initial magnitudes of the value of the labour-power and the work-time and to observe whether the increase in surplus-value happens via the one way or the other. This, oddly enough, is refuted by Sekine in the abovementioned quotation as misleading. Second, his benchmark criterion – the change or not of technology – is weaker than that offered by Marx. Marx’s terms of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ refer to labour-time magnitudes and particularly whether the increase of unpaid labour-time comes from a direct increase it (through the increase of total labour-time) or an indirect increase it (through a reduction of paid labour-time). Hence, the Marxian criterion focuses directly on the essence of the wage-labour relation (i.e. the relation between paid and unpaid labour-time) which, after all, is the issue at hand. One may grudge that that nowadays the terms ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ may not denote clearly this distinction but this is not the case at hands, since Sekine uses also these very terms. On the other hand, Sekine’s alternative, supposedly more ‘hard’ criterion focuses not on capitalism’s fundamental relation but on whether we have a change of technology. This is a secondary issue and certainly not the issue at hand. Moreover, a change of technology has complex interactions with the factors determining the extraction of surplus-value. Strictly speaking, as explained before, a change in the technical conditions of production may involve either a technical restructuring of the existing technology or the introduction of a brand new technology. Such a change can occur only in Sector I, in which case it will affect only indirectly (through the cheaper provision of means of production to the Sector II) and possibly to a limited extent the production of the necessary means of consumption of the working class. On the contrary, if it takes place exclusively – or even predominantly – in Sector II it has a direct and obviously more extended impact on the production of the latter. This, as said before, is one fundamental case of relative surplus-value extraction. If the change is uniform in both Sectors it can lead to more complex results. Therefore, the change of the technical conditions of production is not leading only to relative surplus-value extraction but it can also lead to absolute relative surplus-value extraction or even a combination of both. This leads to the fourth analytical problem of Sekine’s definitions. In reality we can observe combinations of absolute and relative surplus-value, that is cases where both the value of the labour power and the total work-time change simultaneously (as shown in the third case of Diagram 1). Sekine’s perspective is unable to conceive this since it is founded on an absolute distinction between them based on the introduction or not of a new technology. Last but not the least, the illustration he suggests does not constitute a proof, because if we transform the value of the labour-power in effective hours too, the rate of surplus-value remains the same. If, on the other hand, it is not transformed, then we have a ‘relative’ reduction of paid towards unpaid working hours, which, following the Marxian definition is clearly a case of relative surplus-value.

Finally, another clarification is necessary. It has been shown, in previous sections of this paper, that the assumption of a constant value of labour-power while being valid can be relaxed. This is particularly pertinent in the case of labour intensification where there is an obvious increase of work effort and thus a greater attrition of the worker. This makes even more unrealistic Sekine’s choice of not transforming the value of labour-power in ‘labour effective hours’.

Sekine’s analysis is not only problematic in terms of theoretical formality, but has serious empirical drawbacks as well. Its main problem is that, as already explained in the beginning of this chapter, the change of the technical conditions of production usually goes hand in hand with the reduction of the pores of the working day. The last are ‘dead time’ for capital and by reducing them profitability increases. For this reason this change is usually accompanied by the intensification of labour. After all, the decision to change the technical conditions belongs to the capitalist, who anticipates its effect on future profits and surplus-value. Therefore he has a better knowledge of the consequences of this change to the workers. The latter usually comprehends its effects afterwards, with a significant time delay. So it can be legitimately assumed that the capitalist will use his foresight advantage and manage to achieve the intensification of labour together with any technical change he invokes. This interpretation befits the connection among mechanization of production and intensification of labour that Marx has thoroughly pointed out.

There is another practical reason for coupling labour intensification with labour productivity. The available indices of labour productivity (which of course are based on mainstream economics and not Marxist Political Economy) cannot discern between those two processes and practically count the cumulative impact of both of them.

V. The inverse relationship between the intensity

and the duration of labour and relative and absolute surplus-value


In this section we will present one additional analytical reason that enforces the classification of intensification of labour in relative surplus-value. Marx argued that there is an inverse relationship between the intensity and the duration of labour.[13] He accurately observed that these two variables are interrelated. Therefore, changes in the magnitude of the one affect the magnitude of the other. Then, he focuses on the maximum possible magnitudes that these two variables can jointly take. The reason for this emphasis is obvious: their maximization would lead, under certain conditions, to the maximization of surplus-value and profit, i.e. the main drivers of capitalist accumulation. Logically, each individual capitalist (for his own enterprise) but also capital in general (for the whole economy) would seek to maximize concurrently these two variables. However, as Marx observes, this maximization drive faces serious constraints since an increase of the magnitude of the one variable would lead to a decrease of the maximum possible magnitude of the other (with the technological conditions given):

The first effect of shortening the working day results from the self-evident law that the efficiency of labour-power is in inverse ratio to the duration of its expenditure. Hence, within certain limits, what is lost by shortening the duration of labour is gained by increasing the degree of power exerted.[14]

And also:

The more the productivity of labour increases, the more the working day can be shortened, and the more the working day is shortened, the more the intensity of labour can increase.[15]

Consequently, if technical conditions are assumed as given, any increase in work-time would inevitably lead to a reduction of the maximum sustainable intensity of labour. Inversely, any work-time reduction leads to an increase in the maximum sustainable intensity of labour. This effect is not based on factors like the workers’ will to work harder (motives, gifts etc.) or fear (unemployment) not to do so. It is based solely on the limited capabilities of human organism to consume energy and on the fact that the intensity and the duration of labour are two dimensions of human organism energy consumption.

Marx described extensively this inverse relationship between the intensity and the duration of labour, arguing that it is also observable in reality. He illustrated his argument by referring to the reports by the Inspectors of Factories who provide evidence for subsequent intensity increases after work-time decreases and mechanisation.[16] He particularly relates the inverse relationship with mechanisation (which facilitates ‘putting more pressure on the workers’[17]). But it is only the reduction of the working day that creates the potential for a more intensive working day, since this reduction creates ‘…the subjective condition for the condensation of labour, i.e. it makes it possible for the worker to set more labour-power in motion within a given time’.[18]

In addition to Marx’s analysis, support for the inverse relationship thesis comes also from modern ergonometric studies. In such studies, via ergonometric experiments, this inverse relationship between the maximum sustainable intensity of labour and work-time has been verified and has also been estimated it quantitatively.[19]

The combination of the real subsumption of labour to capital with the inverse relationship between work-time and labour intensity leads to the conclusion that in the capitalist production process the reduction of work-time is accompanied by an increase in labour intensity. Moreover, the conjuncture of decreasing time and increasing intensity of labour can, under constant technical conditions of production, even lead to an increased output.[20] This was the historical case that Marx noted during the work-time reduction from 12 to 11 hours a day in the English industry.[21]

Following from the above analysis, if changes in labour’s duration and intensity are categorized under the same notion (of absolute surplus-value as Sekine proposes), then it is impossible to conceptualise separately the effects of their inverse movement. In this case, the notion of absolute surplus-value would embody two conflicting effects (work-time and work intensity), making the separate study of them impossible. Any rise in work-time could yield to either an increase or a decrease of absolute surplus-value.

On the contrary, the conceptual classification of labour intensification to relative surplus-value and of work-time changes to absolute surplus-value allows for the separate study of the impact of work-time changes on surplus-value. In this case, the notion of absolute surplus-value captures the effect of the change in work-time, while the notion of relative surplus-value describes the effect of the subsequent change in labour intensity. Under this classification, an increase in work-time leads to an increase in absolute surplus-value and, at the same time, to a decrease in relative surplus-value. The overall effect on surplus-value will depend on which of the two effects (absolute or relative surplus-value) is stronger.

It is concluded from the above that in the case of simultaneous and interconnected changes of work-time and work intensity, the explanatory power of the concepts is better assured when the intensification of labour is classified under the concept of relative and not absolute surplus-value. This constitutes an extra reason for adopting the original classification made by Marx.

VI. By way of conclusions

In this paper we tried to delineate the main processes that affect surplus-value extraction and in particular how each one of them functions. In particular, we show how their operation is related to the two main courses of surplus-value extraction (absolute and relative surplus-value). On that plain we especially focused on the definitions of these two courses.

The debate on the validity of the Marxian definitions for absolute and relative surplus-value is useful it furthers – under the light of new evidence – the study of the basic relation of the capitalist system: the exploitation of labour.

What emerges from the above analysis is that the Marxian definitions remain valid, since they sum up correctly the two main courses of surplus-value extraction. As it has been shown, there are legitimate reasons to keep labour intensification within the concept of relative surplus-value, as Marx and Marxist theory traditionally argued. On the contrary, the arguments to the opposite are shown to be less powerful analytically and empirically.

For all the above reasons we argue that the Marxian definitions still keep their explanatory ‘use value’.


Fine, B. & L. Harris (1979), Rereading Capital (Columbia: Columbia University Press).

Ioannides, A. & S. Mavroudeas (2009) Work more or work harder? The length and the intensity of work in Marx’s ‘Capital’, Science & Society (forthcoming).

Hsin Chieh Wu, & Jiun Wang Mao (2002) Relationship Between Maximum Acceptable Work Time and Physical Workload, Ergonomics, 45:4, pp.280-289.

Marx, K. (1982), Capital vol.I, (London: Penguin).

Mavroudeas, S. (2003) Commodities, workers and institutions: Analytical and empirical problems in Regulation’s Consumption Theory, Review of Radical Political Economics 35:4, pp.485-512.

Moseley, F. (2004) The macro-monetary interpretation of Marx’s Transformation Problem and a sympathetic critique of the ‘New Interpretation, paper presented at the IV Marx International Conference ‘Actuel Marx’, Paris, available at: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~fmoseley/Working_Papers_PDF/macro-monetary.pdf.

Rodgers, S. & D. Kenworthy & E. Eggleton (1986) Ergonomic Design for People at Work, vol. 2, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold).

Sekine, T. (1997) An outline of the Dialectic of Capital (New York: St.Martin’s Press).

[1] Marx 1982, p.280.

[2] Marx 1982, p.432.

[3] Fine & Harris (1979) offer an accurate analysis of the primacy of the sphere of production within the total circuit of capital. In particular, they explain how relations of determination co-exist with degrees of freedom in the determination process and feed-back relations.

[4] Marx 1982, pp.274-5.

[5] For a detailed critique of the version of this view that has been proposed by the Regulation Approach, see Mavroudeas (2003).

[6] Marx 1982, p.534.

[7] Marx 1982, pp.660-1.

[8] Marx 1982, pp.533-43.

[9] Sekine 1997, p.142.

[10] Sekine 1997, p.143.

[11] Sekine 1997, p.143.

[12] Sekine 1997, p.144.

[13] For a detailed presentation and analysis see Ioannides & Mavroudeas (2009).

[14] Marx 1982, p.535.

[15] Marx 1982, p.667.

[16] Marx, 1982, pp.535-42.

[17] Marx, 1982, p.536.

[18] Marx, 1982, p. 536.

[19] See Rodgers et al (1986) and Hsin & Mao (2002).

[20] The actual impact of output depends on the rate of change of each variable and cannot be estimated in advance without the quantitative specification of the impact of the one variable upon the other.

[21] Marx, 1982, pp.535–36.

4 responses to “‘Duration, Intensity and Productivity of Labour and the Distinction between Absolute and Relative Surplus-value’

  1. Καλησπέρα σας. Διαβάζοντας το άρθρο θα ήθελα, αν δε σας είναι κόπος, κάποιες διευκρινίσεις. Αρχικά, σχετικά με το αν η εξαγόμενη υπεραξία μπορεί να διακριθεί σε απόλυτη και σχετική μόνο σε επίπεδο συνολικής οικονομίας, δεδομένου ότι σε επίπεδο παραγωγικής μονάδας αποσπάται η πρόσθετη. Με την παραπάνω συλλογιστική, η εντατικοποίηση που δεν έχει ακόμα γενικευτεί εννοιολογικά εντάσσεται στην κατηγορία της πρόσθετης υπεραξίας;Αν έχω καταλάβει καλά, με τη διάδοση παραγωγικότερων μεθόδων εργασίας η πρόσθετη υπεραξία οδηγεί στη σχετική. Επίσης, σε αναλύσεις κυρίως πολιτικών φορέων μαρξιστικής αναφοράς η μείωση του μισθού εντάσσεται στην εξαγωγή απόλυτης υπεραξίας, άποψη που δεν έχω βρει διατυπωμένη αλλού, ούτε στο Κεφάλαιο (συγκεκριμένα δεν εντασσεται σε καμία κατηγορία,ελπίζω η αναζήτησή μου να μην ήταν ελλιπής). Τέλος, η διαφορετική επίδραση στο ποσοστό υπεραξίας της αυξημένης παραγωγικότητας και της παραπέρα εντατικοποίησης δε συνιστά πρόβλημα στη «συστέγασή» τους υπό τον όρο σχετική υπεραξία; Σας ευχαριστώ.

    Μου αρέσει!

    • Αγαπητέ Δημήτρη, σχετικά με τα ερωτήματα σου:

      (1) Η εξαγόμενη υπεραξία μπορεί να διακριθεί σε απόλυτη και σχετική τόσο σε μακροοικονομικό (συνολική οικονομία) όσο και σε μικροοικονομικό (επιχείρηση) επίπεδο.

      (2) Η λεγόμενη «πρόσθετη υπεραξία» είναι μία έννοια μικρής αναλυτικής αξίας, γι’ αυτό δεν παρουσιάζεται συνήθως στα βασικά μαρξιστικά οικονομικά εγχειρίδια (εκτός των σοβιετικών). Ουσιαστικά αναφέρεται σε ένα βραχυπρόθεσμο ή/και μεσοπρόθεσμο διάστημα όπου υπάρχουν διαφορές παραγωγικότητας μεταξύ των επιχειρήσεων και αυτές με υψηλότερη παραγωγικότητα αντλούν επιπρόσθετη υπεραξία. Αυτό μακροπρόθεσμα (τουλάχιστον θεωρητικά αλλά όχι στην πράξη) θα εξαλειφθεί ή εν πάση περιπτώσει αυτό που ενδιαφέρει είναι ο μέσος όρος σε μακροοικονομικό επίπεδο. Αναλυτικά, η λεγόμενη «πρόσθετη υπεραξία» μπορεί να ανήκει είτε στην σχετική είτε στην απόλυτη υπεραξία. Στο βαθμό που προκύπτει από διαφορική αύξηση της παραγωγικότητας ή της εντατικοποίησης της εργασίας ανήκει στην σχετική υπεραξία. Στο βαθμό που προκύπτει από επιμήκυνση του εργάσιμου χρόνου σε επιχειρησιακό επίπεδο {π.χ. απλήρωτες υπερωρίες κλπ.) ανήκει στην απόλυτη υπεραξία.

      (3) Ο μισθός είναι η τιμιακή έκφραση της αξίας της εργασιακής δύναμης. Όπως κάθε τιμή κυμαίνεται γύρω από την αξία που την καθορίζει (δηλ. μπορεί να είναι μεγαλύτερη ή μικρότερη). Εάν έχουμε μία καθαρή μείωση του (πραγματικού και όχι απλά του ονομαστικού) μισθού, δηλ. μία πτώση της τιμής κάτω από την αξία, τότε έχουμε μία καθαρή μείωση του πληρωμένου χρόνου εργασίας με σταθερό τον συνολικό χρόνο εργασίας. Αυτό σημαίνει ότι εντάσσεται στην σχετική υπεραξία. Όμως, μία τέτοια κατάσταση, εφόσον αγγίζει το φυσικό τμήμα της αξίας της εργασιακής δύναμης, δεν είναι μακροχρόνια διατηρήσιμη (υπό σταθερές τεχνολογικές συνθήκες) καθώς βάζει σε κίνδυνο την αναπαραγωγή της εργασιακής δύναμης.

      (4) Στο τελευταίο ερώτημα σου προσπαθεί, μεταξύ άλλων, να απαντήσει το άρθρο. Η ύπαρξη διαφορετικών ρυθμών κίνησης της παραγωγικότητας και της εντατικοποίησης δεν συνιστά πρόβλημα στην εννοιολογική «συστέγαση» τους. Αυτό είναι αρκετά συνηθισμένο – στο βαθμό που ευσταθεί – στις οικονομικές αναλύσεις.

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  2. Καλησπέρα και πάλι. Η απάντησή σας ήταν κατατοπιστική. Ωστόσο, μου δημιούργησε κάποια νέα ερωτήματα τα οποία σκέφτηκα να σας στείλω σε μέιλ, δεδομένου ότι η συγκεκριμένη ανάρτηση έχει παρέλθει και προκειμένου να σας δώσω την «ευκαιρία» της ευγενική μη απάντησης, αφού δεν είμαι φοιτητής σας ώστε να μπορώ «δικαιωματικά» να καταχρώμαι τον ελεύθερο χρόνο σας με ζητήματα που ίσως έπρεπε απλά να με απασχολούν στο δικό μου ελεύθερο χρόνο. Γι’ αυτό θα σταθώ μόνο στο ζήτημα της πραγματικής μείωσης τους μισθού.
    Σε αυτή την περίπτωση η συνολική αναπαραγωγή του κεφαλαίου δε θα διαταρασσόταν προσωρινά, ακόμα και αν η πτώση δεν ξεπέρναγε τα φυσικά όρια της αξίας της εργασιακής δύναμης, καθώς μια σειρά από μαζικής παραγωγής και κατανάλωσης αγαθά θα μετατρέπονταν σε είδη πολυτελείας;

    Η αναφορά σας στα σοβιετικά εγχειρίδια είναι ιδιαίτερα εύστοχη στην περίπτωσή μου, γιατί τα θεώρησα ως προθάλαμο του Κεφαλαίου, αν και κάποιες αντιφάσεις διαπιστώνονται σχετικά εύκολα. Ξεχωριστό ενδιαφέρον μου προκάλεσε ο σοβιετικός οικονομολόγος Ιλίτς Ρούμπιν Ισαάκ, όπως μου έγινε γνωστός από το βιλίο «Συζήτηση για θέματα Πολιτικής Οικονομίας στα τέλη της πρώτης σοσιαλιστικής οικοδόμησης στην ΕΣΣΔ». Θα ήθελα να μάθω αν κυκλοφορεί κάποιο βιβλίο του στην Ελλάδα. Οπότε, θα το εκτιμούσα αν με ενημερώνατε επ’ αυτού, ελπίζοντας ότι δε σας είναι μεγάλος κόπος.

    Σας ευχαριστώ.

    Μου αρέσει!

    • Κανένα πρόβλημα όσο για την «κατάχρηση» χρόνου είναι ευχάριστη και εποικοδομητική.
      Σχετικά με την μείωση του πραγματικού μισθού: δεν είναι απαραίτητο κάποια μισθιακά αγαθά να γίνουν αγαθά πολυτελείας. Συνήθως μειώνεται η κατανάλωση τους. Κάποια άλλα μπορεί να πάψουν να παράγονται καθώς οι εργάτες δεν τα καταναλώνουν πλέον αλλά ούτε οι καπιταλιστές (ή άλλες τάξεις τα αγοράζουν). Αν κάποια γίνουν είδη πολυτελείας αποκλειστικά, αυτό θα είναι για μία μειοψηφία που ενδεχομένως ήταν ήδη αγαθά πολυτελείας όπου οι εργάτες είχαν μόνο περιστασιακή πρόσβαση (πχ. ένα ακριβό εστιατόριο).
      Στη δεύτερη και στην τρίτη περίπτωση επηρεάζεται η κλαδική διάρθρωση της οικονομίας.

      Σχετικά με τον Ι.Ι.Ρούμπιν. Το βιβλίο είναι εξαιρετικό και έχει πάει χαμένο γιατί ούτε διαφημίσθηκε ούτε συζητήθηκε. Αλλά φαίνεται ότι, δυστυχώς, η ηγεσία του Περισσού έχει μία απαξία σε τέτοια εγχειρήματα.
      Ο ίδιος ο Ρούμπιν (αδικοχαμένος στη γνωστή περίοδο) είναι σήμερα εξαιρετικά συζητημένος.
      Στα ελληνικά κυκλοφορούν, εκτός από το προαναφερθέν βιβλίο, και η «Ιστορία Οικον. Σκέψης» (εκδ. Κριτική) καθώς και ένα αφιέρωμα των ΘΕΣΕΩΝ (νο.44, 1993) στο οποίο έχω γράψει.

      Μου αρέσει!


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