Immiseration (19TH CENTURY- )

Theory within Marxism of steady decline of condition of working class.

The theory is now widely abandoned, save by those who argue that the working class has become relatively worse off.

It is now more common to read of the opposite process of embourgeoisement.

Karl Marx

In Karl Marx’s early writings of the 1840s, he was influenced by David Ricardo’s theory of wages, which held that wages tended down to a subsistence minimum.[1] This was the “Iron law of wages” coined by the socialist Ferdinand Lassalle. In On the Question of Free Trade (1847), Marx wrote: “Thus, as means are constantly being found for the maintenance of labor on cheaper and more wretched food, the minimum of wages is constantly sinking.”[2]

This implied an absolute decline in living standards. However, Marx changed his position in the 1850s.[1] In the first volume of Capital, chapter 25, section 4, he instead suggested instead a relative immiseration of workers vis-à-vis capital occurred. Concerning the evolution of the worker’s conditions, he wrote:

Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker […] All means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become a means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment, they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process […], they transform his life into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital. But all methods of the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation, and every extension of accumulation becomes, conversely, a means for the development of these methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse [emphasis added]. […] Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital.  Text on Wikisource

— Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (1867)[3]

Marx argued that, in accordance with the labour theory of value, capitalist competition would necessitate the gradual replacement of workers with machines, allowing an increase in productivity, but with less overall value for each product produced, as more products can be made in a given amount of time. This process forms part of the general law of capitalist accumulation, in which the proportion of “constant capital” increases relative to “variable capital” (i.e. workers) in the production process over time. Marx also noted that this movement is not merely an abstract relation, but that it is a result of class struggle, and it could be temporarily stopped should wages dip below an amount that the proletariat deem acceptable.

Diverging views

Raymond Geuss asks: “What if capitalism came to be capable of raising the standard of living of the workers rather than further depressing it? A trade union consciousness could then establish itself that was not inherently and irrevocably revolutionary, one that was itself, as Lenin claimed, a form of bourgeois ideology, that is, a form of consciousness that was itself a means through which the bourgeoisie could extend and solidify its domination over the working class.”[4]

Frankfurt School

The immiseration thesis was equally questioned by later theorists, notably by early members of the Frankfurt School. For Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the “relations of production” and “material productive forces of society”—a tension which, according to traditional Marxist theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The previously “free” market (as an “unconscious” mechanism for the distribution of goods) and “irrevocable” private property of Marx’s epoch have gradually been replaced by the centralized state planning and socialized ownership of the means of production in contemporary Western societies. The dialectic through which Marx predicted the emancipation of modern society is thus suppressed, effectively being subjugated to a positivist rationality of domination: “[G]one are the objective laws of the market which ruled in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the managing directors executes as results (which are more obligatory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of value and hence the destiny of capitalism.”[5]

Relative immiseration

When it became clear that the conditions of the working class were not growing worse in objective terms (for example, wages continued to rise and living conditions improved), it was suggested that Marx did not believe the working class would be immiserated in absolute terms but rather in relative terms i.e. the worker would become more exploited. However, Neven Sesardic criticises this view on two grounds. Firstly, it is unclear if this is an empirical statement that can actually be examined, whereas absolute immiseration can be. Secondly, Sesardic argues that it is not clear Marx did mean relative immiseration; Sesardic observes that in the Communist Manifesto, Marx talks about the workers having nothing to lose but their chains, which is more in line with the view of absolute immiseration. Even by 1865 when Marx had moved towards a more scientific analysis, his work still implied absolute immiseration. In the 1865 paper “Value, Price and Profit”, read at the International Workers’ Association, Marx states that capitalism will drive down the average standard of wages.

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