Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

The “means of production” (which may be defined, roughly, as consisting of capital goods minus human and financial capital), is a central concept in Marxism, as well as in other ideologies such as Distributism. The problems of capitalism, according to both Marxists and Distributists, arise from the fact that ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of the few. Marxists propose to remedy these problems by having the means of production be collectively owned. Distributists want to retain private ownership, but to break the means of production up (where practicable) into smaller parts so that everyone will have a piece (if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it).

Where a society’s economy is based primarily on agriculture or manufacture, thinking in terms of the means of production makes some sense. In an agricultural economy wealth is based primarily on ownership of land, and in a manufacturing economy ownership of things like factories and machinery plays an analogous role. In a modern service-based economy, by contrast, wealth is based largely on human capital (the possession of knowledge and skills). As Pope John Paul II notes in Centesimus Annus, “[i]n our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.”

Human capital, however, is not only explicitly excluded from the means of production by definition, it cannot be easily fitted into a similar framework. Unlike land or machinery, human capital cannot be easily alienated from the individual, either to another individual or to the collective as a whole.

The unalienable nature of human capital ought, I think, to cheer those of a Distributist perspective, as it approximates by analogy the widespread ownership of land or machinery that Distributists sought. At the same time, the increasing importance of human capital to the economy makes the means of production a concept with diminishing significance, as prosperity and economic security become less dependent on owning land or other sorts of physical productive goods.

0 Responses to Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    As long as people combine to form economic enterprises that can be quantified in terms of share ownership, discussions of the “means of production” will continue to have relevance.

    I’ll also add that Distributism, and Catholic social teaching in general, does not merely apply to America or other developed economies – though both still engage in agriculture and industry.

    “if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it”

    Some Marxists. Others advocate total nationalization of the means of production, in which the state owns all of it. Though technically, I suppose, the theory is that a “workers state”, by representing the working class, owns and distributes revenues on behalf of the working class, and by that logic they may say that “the workers own the means of production.”

    In reality, the people who argued for actual, direct worker ownership of the means of production in Russia, the “Workers Opposition”, were suppressed by the Bolsheviks.

  • Blackadder says:

    As long as people combine to form economic enterprises that can be quantified in terms of share ownership, discussions of the “means of production” will continue to have relevance.

    A law firm might have share ownership, but I’m not sure how useful the means of production would be in analyzing it.

  • Doug Muravez says:

    I’m not so sure it is an obsolete idea, although I am neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I have a particular set of skills and knowledge that makes me useful to an insurance company. That knowledge and skill cannot be put to use except within a corporate environment. I could potentially quit and hang out a shingle and try to obtain consulting work, but there is no market for it. It is impossible for most individuals to be able to capitalize an insurance company, and it is also not desireable that this be done due to the risk of policyholders would face that the company would collapse and their claims go unpaid.

    In a certain sense, the modern corporation is in itself the means of production in a modern service economy. It brings efficiencies through organization, time management, concentration of money, and market share that cannot be matched on an individual or small business level. Small businesses have to find small niches in which to compete. In effect, we have migrated from “things” to organizations in a service economy. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just the way things are.

    Now, there are niches in which small businesses can thrive, which larger organizations will fail in. It is crucial that individuals be allowed the freedom to pursue happiness and livelihoods in the manner of their choice, whether in a modern corporation or in a self-owned business. This is why I’m neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I don’t want the government to try to force a particular “ideal” on everyone, as this is not conducive to human happiness. Government should simply step in when people’s liberty is being infringed upon.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    “This is why I’m neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I don’t want the government to try to force a particular “ideal” on everyone, as this is not conducive to human happiness.”

    Doug,

    Distributism is not about the government “forc[ing] a particular “ideal” on everyone.”

    Anyone can argue that any idea ought to be forced upon everyone. This isn’t exclusive to Distributism or Marxism.

    On the other hand, anyone can argue that individuals ought to embrace an idea freely because it is good. And this is one way to approach Distributism, and it is how I approach it.

    The role the government plays is a variable, not a fixed measure. It can be a little or a lot. It could even be none at all.

    If you want to learn more about Distributism from my point of view, I invite you to read this:

    http://joeahargrave.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/the-distributist-manifesto/

  • Blackadder says:

    Doug,

    I think your example of the insurance company is more an issue of financial capital than of the means of production as such.

  • Zach says:

    Yes! I think this is certainly true of intellectual workers, who are persons who are not interchangable and are themselves assets to the company.

    As you suggest, the idea of “the means of production” is not totally obsolete but is of less analytical value in modern industrial economies.

  • Even though I work for a company which is, in a sense, a manufacturer (of consumer electronics and IT infrastructure) it strikes me that in many ways most large modern corporations run more on organizational capital, information, financial and brand equity than on actually owning “means of production”.

    Thus, while many of us who work there would have a hard time making as much without working for some sort of large company, it’s also the case that employees are not interchangeable for the employer. With fairly specialized human capital, the employer doesn’t exercise nearly as much power as an 1880s era landholder or a turn of the century factory owner. (As demonstrated by the dramatic increase in wages.)

    I certainly think there’s been some sort of major shift in what the “means of production” are, and that this shift has implications for the economy and society, but I’ve got the feeling it’s a bit more complicated than simply “now human capital is the means of production.”

    Interesting train of thought…

  • M.Z. says:

    The distributists never thought highly of intellectual property rights. Much of the modern economy is a discussion of IP rents. A cursory search on my part suggests Marx wasn’t all that cool with IP rights. While human capital could merely mean the training of works, it has tended to be code for IP.

    human capital cannot be easily alienated from the individual, either to another individual or to the collective as a whole.

    The movie and music industries would be counterexamples.

  • M.Z. says:

    It is not unusual for a band that has gone on tour to owe the recording company money for doing the tour, leaving them no net. In the odd universe of music, performers sign away all their rights and the music companies give them permission to perform their works. This is most apparent if you read the complaint lists of American Idol winners. Likewise in the movie industry, a large portion of the gross does not go towards the actors. The amount that goes to the actors is actually quite insignificant once the headliners’s earnings are taken out of consideration.

    Of course this is in the end an argument of what is actually property. And despite BA’s protestations, worker ability and knowledge has been folded into working capital and been considered a part of it for a long time.

  • In the odd universe of music, performers sign away all their rights and the music companies give them permission to perform their works. This is most apparent if you read the complaint lists of American Idol winners.

    That does certainly suggest an odd state of affairs, though it sounds to me more like a case of people signing a contract based on an expectation of larger ticket sales than actually materialized. Or at least, it’s hard to imagine why it would be a standard business practice that people sign up to work for free.

    Though with American Idol winners, perhaps the key is that most of the skill leading to revenues is actually on the part of the marketers, producers, promoters, etc., while the “talent” is interchangeable.

    Likewise in the movie industry, a large portion of the gross does not go towards the actors. The amount that goes to the actors is actually quite insignificant once the headliners’s earnings are taken out of consideration.

    Isn’t that assuming that the only skilled “workers” involved in producing a movie are the actors? They are in fact a minority of those who work in a movie crew, and at a supply and demand level there are an incredible number of people eager to take minor film roles in hope of being “discovered”, or just for the fun of it.

    If anything, I would imagine that movies and music would be a good example of how technology has leveled things in the last 10-20 years, as independent musicians and independent film makers have become increasingly successful at working outside the studio system.

  • Susan says:

    An interesting article. Have you considered the possibility that the important thing now is that the government is trying to control the means of *re*production?

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .