What is a crisis of overproduction?

Prepared by Patrick Bond

Capital accumulation refers to the generation of wealth in the form of "capital." It is capital because it is employed by capitalists not to produce with specific social uses in mind, but instead to produce commodities for the purpose of exchange, for profit, and hence for the self-expansion of capital. Such an emphasis by individual capitalists on continually expanding the "exchange-value" of output, with secondary concern for the social and physical limits of expansion (size of the market, environmental, political and labour problems, etc.), gives rise to enormous contradictions. These are built into the very laws of motion of the system. Perhaps the most serious of capitalist self- contradictions, most thoroughly embedded within the capital accumulation process, is the general tendency towards an increased capital-labour ratio in production--more machines in relation to workers--which is fuelled by the combination of technological change and intercapitalist competition, and made possible by the concentration and centralisation of capital.

Individual capitalists cannot afford to fall behind the industry norm, technologically, without risking their price or quality competitiveness such that their products are not sold. This situation creates a continual drive in capitalist firms towards the introduction of state-of-the-art production processes, especially labour-saving machinery. With intensified automation, the rate of profit tends to fall, and the reasons for this are worth reviewing. Profit correlates to "surplus value" which is only actually generated through the exploitation of labour in production. Why is labour only paid a certain proportion of the value produced, with a surplus going to capital? Since capitalists cannot "cheat in exchange"--buy other inputs, especially machines that make other machines, from each other at a cost less than their value--the increases in value that are the prerequisite for production and exchange of commodities must emanate from workers.

This simply means, in class terms, that capitalists do not and cannot systematically exploit other capitalists but they can systematically exploit workers. Here arises the central contradiction: with automation, the labour input becomes an ever-smaller component of the total inputs into production. And as the labour content diminishes, so too do the opportunities for exploitation, for surplus value extraction and for profits. Given intensifying intercapitalist competition for profits--the basis of the Brenner thesis about the ongoing overaccumulation/falling-profits crisis--this situation exacerbates what becomes a self- perpetuating vicious spiral. Workers (as a whole) are increasingly unable to buy the results of their increased production. In turn this results in a still greater need for individual capitalists to cut costs. A given firm's excess profits are but only temporarily achieved through the productivity gains which automation typically provides, since every capitalist in a particular industry or branch of production is compelled to adopt state-of-the- art technologies just to maintain competitiveness.

This leads to growth in productive capacity far beyond an expansion in what consumer markets can bear. (It is true that there are countervailing tendencies to this proces