Surplus, Nature, & The Nature of Surplus-Value and Property

Disclaimer: This essay does not present my personal views on property or value, nor is the concluding suggestion reflective of my own political stances. This was written in curiosity of what the basic thesis of exploitation and the claims on surplus lead to, and whether Marxists are being consistent with their end goals in making these claims.

In Marxist economics, one of the biggest hullabaloos is the inequality of exchange in the employment of labor-power and the products of which capital takes ownership and from which it makes profit. Some seem to find this inequality a travesty of justice—theft must be taking place! The worker is not paid the full value of the products of their labor, or capital exploits labor-power beyond the reproduction cost of the laborer who must be fit to engage the activities of labor. Either way, the inequality is real. There is in this an implicit and latent contradiction in socialist and communist claims, however, which falls into a logical trap that generates a conclusion which they will vehemently deny, and this is that if claims on property have to do with labor which engages or produces, then capitalists actually have a legitimate claim over the products of labor.

It is my intention here to examine the nature of surplus itself from the very condition for the possibility of surplus, then to consider the question of claims of property over this surplus from a basic commonly assumed perspective, and finally to consider this in a capitalist social standpoint. It is my thesis here that if labor as engagement of production or direct production is the legitimating factor in property claims, and that if this is based on how much labor is contributed to the productive process, then we shall find the capitalist to have legitimate claims on products of labor which they provide the engagement for. This being concluded, I advise would-be communists to not use the claim of exploitation as a legitimating claim for communism, since in fact they’re using a claim which enables the opposite of what they claim they want.

Here I’d like to consider this concern, first, by considering the actual possibility of labor’s surplus production in its metabolism with nature.

The Surplus Generation of Life

Life, as living organisms, has the peculiar power to consume inert nature and convert it into its own essence. There is no mystery at all as to what the source of the extra material which enables life’s growth and expansion is or from where it comes: inert nature. Living organisms take from inorganic nature its frozen activity—energy—and engage it as various chemical and electrical powers within themselves. Life takes in the powers of nature which it itself has not produced, which freely exist beyond it and without it, and which logically and historically precede it. The origin of the surplus capacity of life is simply this: life integrates the already existent powers of nature and merely repurposes them within itself for its own end—the end of living more.

Note: This is a seemingly obvious thing, and yet it seems that in classical and Marxian economics the reality of surplus is strangely forgotten. So much is it forgotten that I literally forgot this for a good half decade after engaging with Marxism. Labor produces surpluses, labor-power and labor are differentiated as two moments of value, and then we ask questions about how this is logically possible while we forget how material surplus is obviously possible.

What does this have to do with surplus production of value in capitalism? First, let’s shift the level of abstraction and talk of labor’s capacity for surplus production.

The Surplus Production of Labor

Human labor as a purposive activity of production, like life, is capable of generating surplus. The surplus of labor, however, differs from the basic surplus of life in that the surplus of labor seems nearly unlimited in what it can engage in or for production.

Concerning the sphere of agriculture, the production of food and plant life for other ends, labor’s surplus is not simply labor’s alone, but by far the simple boon of nature. The original labor necessary at the beginning of the history of agriculture is relatively simple if not little. Hunter gatherers, with their intelligence, came to note the places and seasons in which certain plants they consumed thrived. Many would do no more than scatter seeds and leave them as they roamed, and over time, if conditions were favorable, nature did the rest. As the intellectual heritage of humans grew such that discoveries of plants and their life cycles and conditions became sophisticated enough, we saw the beginnings of the sedentary agricultural life. Labor became more intensive—physically and intellectually—yet for all the toil humans engaged, the fruits of this toil were still mostly at the behest of nature’s powers and resources. No matter how much women or men toil the soil, if the proper arrangements of nature are not in place, the engagement of nature’s mysterious life power will not occur. The toil of one year may produce little, but another may produce an amazing abundance. Whence does the abundance of such miracle harvests come? In ancient times, it mostly came from nature itself.

Jumping to modernity, the production of food is nothing short of a miracle enabled by a very deep knowledge of specific aspects of nature—of the nature and conditions which engage the life-power of plants we desire. We have become quite clever at manipulating not simply external conditions of life, but the very internal conditions of its engagement itself through gene modification. The labor we engage is certainly great when considered as the structural, intellectual, and energy requirements, but the work of nature itself eclipses the labor we invest. In modern countries, about 2% of the population’s full-time labor feeds the rest. This miracle of labor is made upon the backs of not just nature’s genetics, but the tapping of oil’s energy as well as irrigation infrastructure. This surplus is ours to claim as the entire product of our labor in seeming hubris and forgetfulness of nature’s free services, nonetheless nature does not speak against this claim and its legitimacy rests in its being accepted in the social world. In this manner, according to the claims we make on nature’s work as our own by virtue of our engaging of it to begin, we likewise take animals as livestock and claim them and their products as our own. Like the basic organism, humanity subsumes inert nature, but even more it subsumes living nature as lower order life for its own ends as well. Humanity grows and claims itself absolute as if it is all its own making.

A Logic of Ownership Claims

To speak of claims over things is to speak of nothing less than property itself. Humans do not in truth make claims against and over nature itself, for nature does not protest our dominion over it, but against the claims of other humans over this same nature. The arising of the conception that such claims can be made is historical and specific to a certain kind of society developed to certain material and cultural extents. It is a society with a refined rationalization of a phenomenon of possessiveness, of individual desire for assurance that there is a minimal portion of the world which is exclusively theirs and theirs alone to will and do as one pleases, and more importantly, a piece of guaranteed freedom. It is, of course, a particular historical social experience which generates individuals which yearn for such assurances. Property is fundamentally a wholly social reality with no basis for legitimacy other than its recognition as legitimate by others.

From Claims Over Nature’s Products
to Claims Over Human Products

In relation to nature humanity comes to freely engage the powers of nature by merely engaging their own activity over and against it through the developments of technical knowledge. Nature is simply there, and humans come on the scene to engage it at their whim and claim its products for themselves without challenge from nature except for the expected problems. Insofar as the bounty of nature is sufficient, the claims over nature among humans are rather unproblematic if they even arise at all. When human labor begins to engage the powers of nature with significant expenditure of said labor and a looming risk, claims over nature become more important and problematic whether we are speaking of claims as group claims or as individual claims. It is a very common assumption in our modern society that property is fundamentally tied to an original appropriation via mixing one’s labor with nature (a Lockean idea) linked to the preached ideal of hard work and merit.

It must be made clear, however, that there isn’t anything specific which makes property claims legitimate in reality. Sometimes finding and claiming is all that is needed, sometimes it requires labor, sometimes it is simply given or assigned, sometimes the claim is based on nothing more than threat of violence. With the engagement of human labor by other humans things become only more problematic.

The role played by property claims in the engagement of labor is something deeply important for us in a society where property is a fundamental basis, whether we admit this or not. What is the major convincing factor of socialism? Exploitation, the thesis that the worker is being in fact stolen from by the capitalist in the exchange of wages and labor-power; the exchange is uneven and tilted towards the capitalist. The fundamental dissatisfaction with capitalism is for most people this inequality of exchange—an inequality whose correction is justified by the right of property rather than by the general illegitimacy of it. Part of this argument is the simple claim of who has the right of claim over the wealth produced by labor, and we’ve all heard this: The worker makes everything; the capitalist makes nothing, and as such has no claims to the wealth provided by the worker. Those who labor are the only ones with legitimate claims of ownership over these products, but only to the extent that they have contributed labor in the process.

However, if claims of ownership over nature are justified on the basis of the labor which engages it, this has clear ramifications for the legitimacy of claims which have this structure of engagement without themselves fully having much to do with the material generative process of production. For example, does someone who merely sets out a plan but does not play a part in its actual ‘material’ labor have a legitimate claim to part of the products from said labor? Most would say they do, at least insofar as their plan is something key to the production—something without which it would not have been possible—that is, the plan is part of the engagement of labor’s production. One can even easily say the thought of the planning itself is labor and thus deserving of some minimal claim in the finished product. In simple private social affairs like this, the role of claims are set and limited by the group’s own capacity to come to an agreement on the division of the end products based on how they see each other’s level of contribution to the work—that is, on the labor contributed—and other external social conceptions that modify the distribution claims.

Note: This, of course, is abstractly smoothing over the reality that labor is not necessarily carried out in this way in any primitive historical necessity, but rather depends on adhered to social norms which regulate such interactions and divisions—norms which may or may not have any rational basis, or which may not even have any consensual basis (slavery).

The Engagement of Production As Claim

When property comes into the question, things immediately become complicated on a whole other level, and claims can now be made on the sheer force of property and its necessities for the engagement of labor. Let us here assume the claim that labor is the legitimating factor of property claims, and labor here minimally counts the labor of discovery and marking of an object.


Rent is the economic relation in which it seems that the principle of labor as legitimating a claim to property begins to change and shift. The contribution of labor is no longer an immediate or active contribution, but becomes a contribution in the form of a condition of engagement. The renter contributes to a labor process by lending their property as an enabling condition or enhancer of labor, as such dead labor now makes claims on living labor’s products on the force of the legitimating principle. With pristine land, however, rent breaks completely with the principle of labor being the legitimating factor for claiming a portion of the products of labor. In this situation property as merely enabling a labor process becomes the legitimating factor in the claim. It is my property which you need, and I shall only allow its use if I am given a portion of the products or revenue. Your needing my property and having to enter into contract with me for its use provides the leverage for me to demand compensation despite doing no labor at all. Supposing that you needed my land to grow grapes, it is as if my lands ‘work’ in the growing is mine, for my property is an extension of myself, and on that basis I claim a portion of the products of your labor.

This shift from direct engagement of a labor process to an indirect engagement of it is of deep importance. While most in our culture are willing to cede the original claims over nature as requiring a level of actual labor to mix with it in a Lockean labor-mixing, this claim becomes more difficult to keep straight as property claims over nature and means of production provide for a mediated indirectness of the labor through property itself.

While the original claims on nature’s products are grounded in labor as the engaging of production, with rent the claims on the products of labor are inverted and appear as property’s enabling of labor’s production as grounding the claim on labor’s products. The claim can and is in fact ultimately not grounded in labor’s engaging of a production process, but rather merely on an agreed and enforced extraction based on nothing but the reality of property itself. The renter allows the engagement of a labor process which requires their property, something which they need not have labored at all for such as in the case of unworked land.

Capitalist Engagement of Labor

How is it that the capitalist comes to have the power to engage the production process? Why isn’t it that we simply have this power in the hands of the general populace—in the mass of individuals? While I won’t go into explanatory details here, capital has a strong tendency towards concentration of money in the hands of few individuals and groups, and this concentration naturally occurs through market mechanisms which simply obey property rights and exchange agreements. While in the real world a myriad of other factors hasten this accumulation through things such as plunder, theft, political rigging, etc., accumulation and concentration of capital would occur even in ‘fair’ conditions.

The capitalist, the owner of capital as means of production and money, holds a key in capitalist society for the engagement of most labor. Marx rightly calls capital dead labor, for past labor’s enabling of current labor is the guise of legitimacy the capitalist claims. Insofar as the capitalist is the engager of my labor, the products of my labor belong to them. Familiar, right? There is a structural similarity in the way humanity in general lays claims to the work and products of nature in their entirety by virtue of engaging the process of production, and the way humans lay claim to the products of other human beings under capitalist production. Now, what stops the capitalist from claiming absolutely everything and giving me nothing? Unlike the slave owner who treats humans as livestock who only get a return of bare subsistence conditions, the worker under capitalism requires and is given more. Unlike the slave or livestock, the worker can and does make demands upon capital in order to release to it its laboring capacity. The worker owns themself and is not a slave, they own their labor-power and cannot be legitimately forced to work against their agreement or will by the very respect of the logic of property.

Capital’s Surplus

From where does the surplus of capital come from such that value expands and goes beyond itself? Materially it comes from nature’s bounty and the amassing of the labor of others through a fundamental difference made by two factors. One factor is the already given property claims on means of production, and the other is a factor of holding in its hand a vast mass of means of production and money necessary to engage the economy into motion as a whole. Given these material factors, however, within the capitalist production process it comes through the difference between the price of labor-power and the price of the mass of products which labor creates. Workers are hired to produce for a certain amount of time—to engage their labor-power as actual labor during the working day—and the price of the wage is set by the labor contract. The wage is expected to not go lower than a subsistence wage for the reproduction of the living individual, but of course, this is not always the case in our world. In this ground floor for labor, however, we have the basis of an immense surplus possible given how little the basics of life account for in the total necessary labor of society. Even in raw material production, the raw inputs which labor transforms into products are fully the capitalist’s to claim. How is this situation, in which it seems labor really does produce independent of any labor by the capitalist, possible?

Let me return to the issue of the engagement of a process as the legitimating claim over the products, for there are some complexities to be unraveled here. Not all capital makes claims over ownership of the products of labor, and thus not all is directly exploitative of labor-power as labor.

Merchant Capital

Merchant capital involves buying commodities low and reselling them at a higher price. In the case that a capitalist does not have property claims over the raw materials and labor of workers, a relation can and does arise in which workers may directly labor with unclaimed or already claimed raw materials, and thus are ‘independent’ producers who ‘freely’ sell their products on a market. The merchant capitalist makes no claim to ownership of means of production nor to products of labor. They are, fundamentally, a simple buyer which expands their capital through resale. Their claim to surplus lies merely  in their stocking and storing of commodities in one convenient place and offering a benefit of expediency for the buyer with an added cost. The merchant’s labor, if it be called such, is in bringing together his store of wares and merely sitting on them waiting for a buyer to come, and it is this which is paid in the addition to the price of the commodity.

The way this works is that there is another market price possible than what is paid to the workers, however workers accept this lower price offered out of the immediate pressures of life as well as convenience. While a product may fetch 30% more in larger trade centers, in the immediate local area the merchant is an immediate guaranteed buyer, and if there is none or much competition there can be little room to bargain a better deal. The merchant thus gains their surplus value from the markup of the goods they buy, and this leverage is based on their privileged access to better markets as well as being a key economic component in the area. Walmart is the prime example of a merchant capitalist with immense power simply by how much economic pull it has in being the guaranteed buyer of its productive partners.

Against what most people think, Walmart isn’t making its bank from exploiting its retail workers, but by and large by using its massive market pressure on the producers it captures and puts into dependence to its guaranteed markets. Once dependent on Walmart, these factories themselves are strung along and pushed towards minimal profits of their own, forced to cave in to Walmart’s demands as it is the sole buyer of their goods. Merchant capital, once strongly established, begins to itself command production instead of simply buying what is available and reselling it. Unlike the industrial capitalist, however, the merchant capitalist does not directly employ labor-power and gain its profits from direct difference between the price of labor and the mass of its products. There is, of course, a surplus gained from a difference that is almost analogical, but it is definitely distinct in scale as well as structure. The merchant capitalist does not directly pressure the worker, but in fact lays pressure on the capitalists who sell their products to it. In as much as the large merchant capitalist ‘exploits’ its industrial capitalists, to that extent it may or may not exploit the workers under said industrial capitalist.

Industrial Capital

The industrial capitalist is what we think of when Leftists speak of capitalists. The industrial capitalist rents labor-power for a certain amount of time and pays a wage. The surplus-value of this capitalist comes from the difference of the wage price and the price the mass of products the worker produces within the working day—were there no such difference, the industrialist would not exist.

Now, upon what basis does the industrial capitalist claim this mass of products as his own rather than the workers’? It is usually upon two:

  1. The industrial capitalist has invested their ‘past labor’ (money/capital) in the engagement of the production process and has the right to claim from the products a share proportional to their labor.
  2. The industrial capitalist has lent their property for the engagement of this production process, and has engaged this process already on an agreed upon contract of what is to be done with said property and what each is to take from its products.

Let us assume this is no big capitalist but your typical idealized ‘small business’ entrepreneur who has bought dirty apples for a penny, shined them clean, and sold them for a modest profit of 1 more penny above his cost. They’ve spent a good decade doing this—the poor fool—pinching their pennies, and have finally bought all the means for starting to mass produce apple pies. It is clear here that an immense amount of personal labor has been invested by this innocuous pie capitalist in the form of the money they have worked hard to earn and transform into the pie shop, labor which ceased to live and was accumulated as money which then transformed into these means of production. The shop is modestly sized, and to utilize those ovens to peak efficiency they need to hire two more pie bakers. As the owner of the shop this little capitalist feels rightly that they’ve done the most labor out of all three bakers, and thus deserves the biggest share of the surplus that will be generated by the shop. The other two bakers agree, all they have to add is their pie making to the process, but it is not they who have spent on the ingredients nor the means of baking.

Here I think we would by and large be baffled if the pie capitalist did not receive the biggest share of the revenue considering that they are the major engager of the labor process to begin with with the investment of their accumulated labor enabling the process itself. They have not just labored to engage another labor process, but the labor process includes their rightfully gained property almost entirely, property legitimated by a long series of labors transformed into means of production through money. This is fundamentally crucial, because this marks the fundamental difference and link of the modern capitalist with the myth of the rightful claim of property through labor. If claims over nature’s surplus as ours was our engagement of the process, in modern society claims over the products of a production process include property as such assumed as a personal labor regardless of who actually ever did the labor. A similar logic is invoked despite many mediating steps between labor and the products it claims, yet this is not irrational in the very logic of property exchange and the universalizing power of money.

With the arising of money I universalize my labor as equivalent to others, and property exchange of commodities legitimizes my universal labor to manifest as objects I never personally produced yet which are mine by virtue of my labor as universal. In this manner the industrial capitalist claims their labor is in fact the most; that the raw materials of the labor process are their labor’s products—their legitimate property—and thus that they have not just the biggest claims on the mass of value produced, but also to claim ownership over the mass of products as part of the agreement of the labor contract in which they never relinquished ownership of their raw products even under labor’s transforming of them. Just as with nature the surplus comes from our amassing of nature’s free materials and powers beyond our own need, so too does the surplus of labor under capital come from the materials and powers amassed by capital. Unlike nature, however, capital is personified in individuals and groups who make property claims against us, and insofar as we respect these claims based on assumptions of the legitimating power of labor we have no right to claim this original surplus to ourselves, for it has already been claimed.

Socialist Self-Contradiction In Claiming
Labor Is The Legitimate Owner

To finalize this inquiry: If we accept that labor is the legitimating principle of property, that the share of the products of labor are to be made on an individual’s contribution to the engagement or doing of a production process, and that money legitimately allows us to claim ownership of products we never produced because they manifest value as labor equal to our own actual labors, and we respect property claims as mediated by social agreements in which something is ours until we agree to relinquish it to someone else, then we have no basis whatsoever to claim we have lost anything or have been stolen from in a production process in which we have been part of generating a surplus. 

What’s my point in the end? If you’re a communist and your argument for it is that the worker is being ‘exploited’, then you’re making an argument on foundations that do not lead to what you conclude. If in your argument you have anywhere the illegitimacy of ‘private property’ but the legitimacy of  ‘personal property’ you’re confused because there is actually no difference in concept. An individual can gain social means of production on their own with nothing but the legitimate relations of personal property. If your argument includes appeals to labor as the only legitimacy of property, such that the workers deserve all, for they make all, then you are a fool who does not notice conditions of engagement and what those entail for property claims as past labor’s claims on current labor. Capital, Marx rightly says, is dead labor accumulated as products and money making claims on the present through nothing but the force of objective respect and enforcement of property relations.

For a communist to respect property, any property, is to contradict their own professed goals of a future society where property is not the basis of social life, where production is carried out for general social need satisfaction under an agreed upon social plan. The issue of communism is not one of who rightly has claims on property, that is, about who has a right to claim the surplus of individual or social production, for that would introduce a criterion of exclusion and inequality. The communist ideal of free labor, of freedom from economics’ tyranny over their material life, is one in which the very issues of ownership are without merit simply because scarcity as the rarity of necessary and even luxury products is over. Who would care about their things when a replacement is but a button away? The only value things could have in such a world is mere social and sentimental value, that is, human value.


2 thoughts on “Surplus, Nature, & The Nature of Surplus-Value and Property”

  1. Very interesting. I will re-read it again, but in the meanwhile, I will put a link in to an article I have written which, I believe, overlaps with your key theme. It concerns a group of young men from a rural background in Scotland who served their apprenticeships as textile machine makers in the 1780s/1790s but then were able to use their skills and profits from their labour to develop the two largest cotton spinning factories in Manchester.

    I also discuss the importance of ‘nature’ – in the form of coal- in the developmeent of industrial capitalism.

    Liked by 2 people

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