Surplus product  

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Fireworks as an example of 'squandering' surplus product.  Illustration: Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket  (c. 1875) by James McNeill Whistler
Fireworks as an example of 'squandering' surplus product.
Illustration: Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (c. 1875) by James McNeill Whistler

A very large proportion of the surplus product is squandered, or devoted to luxury consumption, speculative activity, or military expenditures.

"Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose, just as if a wound were bleeding away inside us; we always want to be sure of the uselessness or the ruinousness of our extravagance" --Erotism, Georges Bataille, tr. Dalwood.

[Excess energy] must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically. This is the logic of sacrifice." --The Accursed Share, Georges Bataille, tr. Zone Books

Citation: "energy destroys us; it is we who pay the price of the inevitable explosion"   --The Accursed Share, Georges Bataille, tr. Zone Books
Citation: "energy destroys us; it is we who pay the price of the inevitable explosion" --The Accursed Share, Georges Bataille, tr. Zone Books

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Surplus product (German: Mehrprodukt) is a concept explicitly theorised by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy. Notions of "surplus produce" have been used in economic thought and commerce for a long time, but in Das Kapital and the Grundrisse Marx gave the concept a central place in his interpretation of economic history. Nowadays the concept is mainly used in Marxian economics, Surplus economics, Political anthropology and Economic anthropology as well as Sociology and other social sciences. The translation of the German "Mehr" as "surplus" is in a sense unfortunate, because it might be taken to suggest "unused" or "redundant", while literally it means "more" or "added" - thus, "Mehrprodukt" refers really to the additional or "excess" product produced.


Human needs

The corollary of increasing wealth in society, with rising productivity, is that human needs and wants expand. Thus, as the surplus product increases, the necessary product per person also increases, which usually means an increase in the standard of living. In this context, Marx distinguishes between the physical minimum requirements for the maintenance of human life, and a moral-historical component of earnings from work.

This distinction is however somewhat deceptive, for several reasons.

  • in more complex societies at least, minimum living costs involve social and infrastructural services, which also incur costs, and which are not optional from the point of view of survival.
  • Which goods can be considered "luxuries" is not so easy to define. For example, owning a car may be considered a luxury, but if owning a car is indispensable for travelling to work and to shops, it is a necessity.
  • Michael Hudson points out that in the modern United States, households spent only about a quarter of their income on directly purchasing consumer goods and consumer services. All the rest is spent on payments of interest, rents, taxes, loans, retirement provisions and insurance payments. Some of these financing payments could be considered "moral-historical" but some of them are a physical requirement since without them, people could die (for example, because they cannot get health care, or have no shelter).

Marxian interpretation of the historical origin of the surplus product

For most of human prehistory, Marxian writers like Ernest Mandel and V. Gordon Childe argued, there existed no economic surplus product of any kind at all, except very small or incidental surpluses.

The main reasons were:

  • that techniques were lacking to store, preserve, and package surpluses securely in large quantities or transport them reliably in large quantities over any significant distance;
  • the productivity of labour was not sufficient to create much more than could be consumed by a small tribe;
  • early tribal societies were mostly not oriented to producing more than they could actually use themselves, never mind maximising their production of output. Thus, for example, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins estimated that the utilization by tribes of the "carrying capacity" of their habitat ranged from 7% among the Kuikuro of Amazonia to about 75% among the Lala of Zambia.
  • different groups of people usually did not depend on trade for their survival, and the total amount of trading activity in society stayed proportionally small.

The formation of the first permanent surpluses are associated with tribal groups who are more or less settled in one territory, and stored foodstuffs. Once some reserves and surpluses exist, tribes can diversify their production, and members can specialise in producing tools, weapons, containers, and ornaments. Modern archaeological findings show that this development actually began in the more complex hunter-gatherer (foraging) societies. The formation of a reliable surplus product makes possible an initial technical or economic division of labour in which producers exchange their products. In addition, a secure surplus product makes possible population growth, i.e. less starvation, infanticide, or abandonment of the elderly or infirm. Finally, it creates the material basis for a social hierarchy, where those at the top of the hierarchy possess prestige goods which commoners do not have access to.

Neolithic revolution

The first real "take off" in terms of surpluses, economic growth, and population growth probably occurred during what V. Gordon Childe called the neolithic revolution, i.e. the beginning of the widespread use of agriculture, from about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago onward, at which time the world population is estimated to have been somewhere between 1 and 10 million.

Archaeologist Geoffrey Dimbleby comments:

"It has been calculated that if man had never progressed beyond the hunting and food-gathering stage, the maximum population which the world's surface could support at any one time would be 20–30 million people."

The neolithic revolution created a division of labour between (rural) farmers and (urban) craftspeople who trade with each other, and more sophisticated forms of labour co-operation as well as the keeping of slaves. It makes possible an initial accumulation of wealth, which in turn enables the formation of an elite or ruling class.

This group or class is permanently freed from the necessity to work for a living, and is therefore able to live off the labour of others. This could be regarded as exploitation but also as a source of progress, insofar as the rulers have time to think and advance human knowledge and technique.

Surplus product and decadence

Marxian theory suggests decadence involves a clear waste of a large part of the surplus product from any balanced or nuanced human point of view, and it typically goes together with a growing indifference to the wellbeing and fate of other human beings; to survive, people are forced to shut out from their consciousness those horrors which are seemingly beyond their ability to do anything about anymore. Marx & Engels suggest in The German Ideology that in this case the productive forces are transformed into destructive forces.

According to Marxian theory, decaying or decadent societies are defined mainly by the fact that:

  • The gap between what is produced and what could potentially (or technically) be produced (sometimes called the "GDP gap" or "output gap") grows sharply.
  • A very large proportion of the surplus product is squandered, or devoted to luxury consumption, speculative activity, or military expenditures.
  • All sorts of activities and products appear which are really useless or even harmful from the point of view of improving human life, to the detriment of activities which are more healthy for human life as a whole.
  • Enormous wealth and gruesome poverty and squalor exist side by side, suggesting that society has lost its sense of moral and economic priorities. The ruling elite no longer cares for the welfare of the population it rules, and may be divided within itself.
  • A consensual morality and sense of trust has broken down, criminality increases, and the ruling elite has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, so that it can maintain power only by the crudest of methods (violence, propaganda, and intimidation whereby people are cowed into submission).
  • A regression occurs to the ideas, values, and practices of an earlier period of human history, which may involve the treatment of other people as less than human.
  • The society "fouls its own nest" in the sense of undermining the very conditions of its own reproduction.

Marxian scholars such as Ernest Mandel argued this condition typically involves a stalemate in the balance of power between social classes, none of which is really able to assert its dominance, and thus able to implement a constructive programme of action that would ensure real social progress and benefit the whole population. According to Herbert Marcuse, a society is "sick" if its basic institutions and relationships are such that they make it impossible to use resources for the optimal development of human existence.

However, there is a lot of controversy among historians and politicians about the existence and nature of decadence, because value judgements and biases about the meaning of human progress are usually involved. In different periods of history, people have defined decadence in very different ways. For example, hedonism is not necessarily decadent; it is decadent only within a certain context. Thus, accusations of decadence may be made which only reflect a certain moral feeling of social classes, not a true objective reality.

See also

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