In the writings of Karl Marx
and the Marxist
theory of historical materialism
, a mode of production
(in German: Produktionsweise
, meaning 'the way of producing') is a specific combination of:
- productive forces: these include human labour power and the means of production (eg. tools, equipment, buildings and technologies, materials, and improved land).
- social and technical relations of production: these include the property, power and control relations governing society's productive assets, often codified in law, cooperative work relations and forms of association, relations between people and the objects of their work, and the relations between social classes.
Marx regarded productive ability and participation in social relations as two essential characteristics of human beings. Thus he writes, for example, that "Productive forces and social relations - both of which are different sides of the development of the social individual - appear to capital only as a means, and only means to produce on its limited basis. In fact, however, these are the material conditions to blow this basis sky-high." (Marx, Grundrisse. Frankfurt: EVA, p. 593)
Significance of concept
According to Marx, the combination
of forces and relations of production means that the way people relate to the physical world and the way people relate to each other socially are bound up together in specific and necessary ways. People must consume to survive, but to consume they must produce, and in producing they necessarily enter into relations which exist independently of their will.
For Marx, the whole 'secret' of why/how a social order exists and the causes of social change must be discovered in the specific mode of production that a society has. He further argued that the mode of production substantively shaped the nature of the mode of distribution, the mode of circulation and the mode of consumption, all of which together constitute the economic sphere. To understand the way wealth was distributed and consumed, it was necessary to understand the conditions under which it was produced.
A mode of production is historically distinctive for Marx, because it constitutes an 'organic totality' (or self-reproducing whole) which is capable of constantly re-creating its own initial conditions, and thus perpetuate itself in a more or less stable ways for centuries, or even millennia. By performing social surplus labour in a specific system of property relations, the labouring classes constantly reproduce the foundations of the social order.
When however new productive forces or new social relations develop that conflict with the existing mode of production, this mode of production will either evolve without losing its basic structure, or else begin to break down. This then gives rise to a transitional era of social instability and social conflict, until a new social order is finally consolidated, with a new mode of production.
The modes of production in history
In a broad outline, Marx recognized several distinctive modes of production characteristic of different epochs in human history:
- "Primitive communism". Human society is seen as organized in traditional tribe structures, typified by shared production and consumption of the entire social product. As no permanent surplus product is produced, there is also no possibility of a ruling class coming into existence. As this mode of production lacks differentiation into classes, it is said to be classless. Palaeolithic and Neolithic tools, pre- and early-agricultural production, and rigorous ritualized social control have often been said to be the typifying productive forces of this mode of production. However, the foraging mode of production still exists, and often typified in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Past theories of the foraging mode of production have focused on lack of control over food production (Meillassoux, 1973). More recent scholarship has argued that hunter-gatherers use the foraging mode of production to maintain a specific set of social relations that, perhaps controversially, are said to emphasize egalitarianism and the collective appropriation of resources (Tim Ingold, 1987, 1988; Robert Kelly, 1995).
- The Asiatic mode of production. This is a controversial contribution to Marxist theory, initially used to explain pre-slave and pre-feudal large earthwork constructions in China, India, the Euphrates and Nile river valleys (and named on this basis of the primary evidence coming from greater "Asia"). The Asiatic mode of production is said to be the initial form of class society, where a small group extracts social surplus through violence aimed at settled or unsettled band communities within a domain. Exploited labour is extracted as forced corvee labour during a slack period of the year (allowing for monumental construction such as the pyramids, ziggurats, ancient Indian communal baths or the Chinese Great Wall). Exploited labour is also extracted in the form of goods directly seized from the exploited communities. The primary property form of this mode is the direct religious possession of communities (villages, bands, hamlets) and all those within them. The ruling class of this society is generally a semi-theocratic aristocracy which claims to be the incarnation of gods on earth. The forces of production associated with this society include basic agricultural techniques, massive construction and storage of goods for social benefit (granaries).
- The Antique mode of production. It is similar to the Asiatic mode, but differentiated in that the form of property is the direct possession of individual human beings. Additionally, the ruling class usually avoids the more outlandish claims of being the direct incarnation of a god, and prefers to be the descendants of gods, or seeks other justifications for its rule. Ancient Greek and Roman societies are the most typical examples of this mode. The forces of production associated with this mode include advanced (two field) agriculture, the extensive use of animals in agriculture, and advanced trade networks.
- The feudal mode of production. It is usually typified by high feudalism in Western Europe. The primary form of property is the possession of land in reciprocal contract relations: the possession of human beings as peasants or serfs is dependent upon their being entailed upon the land. Exploitation occurs through reciprocated contract (though ultimately resting on the threat of forced extractions). The ruling class is usually a nobility or aristocracy. The primary forces of production include highly complex agriculture (two, three field, lucerne fallowing and manuring) with the addition of non-human and non-animal power devices (clockwork, wind-mills) and the intensification of specialisation in the crafts--craftsmen exclusively producing one specialised class of product.
- The capitalist mode of production. It is usually associated with modern industrial societies. The primary form of property is the possession of objects and services through state guaranteed contract. The primary form of exploitation is wage labour (see Das Kapital, wage slavery and exploitation). The ruling class is the bourgeoisie, which exploits the proletariat. Capitalism may produce one class (bourgeoisie) who possess the means of production for the whole of society and another class who possess only their own labour power, which they must sell in order to survive. The key forces of production include the factory system, mechanised powered production, Taylorism, robotisation, bureaucracy and the modern state.
- The communism. Since it refers to the far future, it is a highly debated theoretical construct. Some theorists argue that prefiguring forms of communism can be seen in communes and other collective living experiments. Communism is meant to be a classless society, with the management of things replacing the management of people. Particular productive forces are not described, but are assumed to be more or less within the reach of any contemporary capitalist society. Despite the imminent potential of communism, some economic theorists have hypothesised that communism is more than a thousand years away from full implementation while others argue that it will never be realized at all.
Articulation of modes of production
In any specific society or country, different
modes of production might emerge and exist alongside each other, linked together economically. To these different modes correspond different social classes
and strata in the population. So, for example, urban capitalist industry might co-exist with rural peasant production for subsistence and simple exchange and tribal hunting and gathering.
Old and new modes of production might combine to form a hybrid economy.
However, Marx's view was that the expansion of capitalist markets tended to dissolve and displace older ways of producing over time. A capitalist society was a society in which the capitalist mode of production had become the dominant one. The culture, laws and customs of that society might however preserve many traditions of the preceding modes of production.
Thus, although two countries might both be capitalist, being economically based mainly on private enterprise for profit and wage labour, these capitalisms might be very different in social character and functioning, reflecting very different cultures, religions, social rules and histories.
Elaborating on this idea, Leon Trotsky famously described the economic development of the world as a process of uneven and combined development of different co-existing societies and modes of production which all influence each other. This means that historical changes which took centuries to occur in one country might be truncated, abbreviated or telescoped in another. Thus, for example, Trotsky observes in the opening chapter of his history of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that "Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between these two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning", etc. Thus, old and new techniques and cultures might combine in novel and unique admixtures, which cannot be understood other than by tracing out the history of their emergence.
- George Novack, Understanding History: Marxist Essays
- Charles Woolfson, The Labour Theory of Culture.
- Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory.
- G.E.M. De Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests.
- Chris Harman, A People's History of the World
- Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism
- Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State
- Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View.
- Barry Hindess & Paul Q. Hirst, Pre-capitalist modes of production. London: Routledge, 1975.
- Fritjof Tichelman, The Social Evolution of Indonesia: The Asiatic Mode of Production and its Legacy.
- Lawrence Krader, The Asiatic Mode of Production; Sources, Development and Critique in the Writings of Karl Marx.
- W.M.J. van Binsbergen & P.L. Geschiere, ed., Old Modes of Production and Capitalist Encroachment.
- Harold Wolpe, ed. The articulation of modes of production.
- Michael Perelman, Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property Rights and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity.