Is capitalism approaching its limits?
In the first years of the 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg expressed great alarm when she discovered that Marx’s formulas of expanded reproduction in Volume II of “Capital” suggested that capitalism can in principle go on forever. These formulas appeared to contradict Marx’s famous Preface in “A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy.” There Marx wrote: “No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed [my emphasis — SW] and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.”
If, however, capitalism can engage in expanded reproduction without limit, how can capitalism ever develop all the productive forces “for which it has room”? Didn’t Marx himself mathematically demonstrate that capitalism can develop the productive forces without limit? However, a closer look reveals this apparent contradiction to be an illusion.
In the Volume II formula, the productive forces expanded only quantitatively but not qualitatively. There is no growth in labor productivity or what Marx called the organic composition of capital — the ratio of constant capital, which does not produce surplus value but merely transfers its value to the commodities it helps produce, and variable capital, the sold labor power of the workers, which replaces its value and produces additional surplus value.
It is also assumed that the correct proportions of production, including the correct proportions between Department I, which produces the means of production, and Department II, which produces the means of consumption, are maintained without explaining how they are maintained. And — almost always overlooked — among the correct proportions between the various branches of production that must be maintained is that between the production of money material and all other branches of commodity production.
In reality, the concrete history of capitalism has been marked by growth in labor productivity. The rate at which productivity grows is largely regulated by the competition between the industrial capitalists and the workers. To maximize their profits, the industrial capitalists as the buyers of labor power try to pay the workers the lowest possible wage. The workers as the sellers of labor attempt to get the highest possible wage right up to the mathematical limit where surplus value — and therefore its monetary form, profit — disappears altogether.
If Marx’s formulas show expanded capitalist reproduction running forever, it must be assumed that the quantity of auxiliary materials and the ores out of which money material is produced, and the supply of labor power that produces the means of subsistence for the workers, must be available in infinite quantities. If this is true — which it obviously is not — then the population, including the fraction of the population that consists of workers, can grow to the mathematical limit of infinity and capitalism can indeed go on forever. Otherwise, it can’t.