Sunday, July 16, 2017

Production and reproduction

As an analogy, let us say that driving a car constitutes production. The point of driving is to move minds, bodies, and stuff from one point to another. In the Marxian sense, reproduction comprises those activities that are not themselves necessarily actually driving, but are performed to make driving possible in the future. The most obvious reproductive activities are the manufacture of new cars and the training of new drivers. Building an car is not driving — nothing is moved from point A to point B — but without new cars to replace those that fall apart (and additional new cars to make more driving possible) the system of driving would eventually grind to a halt. As importantly, how companies manufacture cars — and how we train drivers — not only makes driving possible, but strongly affects how we drive.

There are other institutions that contribute not so obviously to the reproduction of driving. We must extract oil, refine it into gasoline, and distribute the gasoline to cars. We must build and maintain roads, road marking and signage, create and distribute maps. We must pass laws about how people should drive, and pay police, judges, sheriffs, and jailers to enforce those laws. The Marxian notion of reproduction extends to these activities.

Note that this distinction can occur at different levels simultaneously. For example, a person driving a gasoline tanker to a gas station is actually driving, i.e. producing at the "ontological" level, as well as making more driving possible, i.e. reproducing at the "teleological" level.

The analogy to capitalism is direct: the drivers are the capitalists, the cars are the workers, and everybody else is involved in reproduction.

The Marxian analysis of capitalism divides capitalist social system into three parts: production, control, and reproduction. Production comprises the use of labor to create goods and services for exchange. Control comprises the decisions of what and how much to produce. Reproduction comprises all the institutions that do not actually create goods and services, necessary to ensure that capitalist production continues running in the future.

Like the driving analogy above, the creation, nurture, and education of new human beings to replace those who die and to increase the population constitutes the "obvious" level of reproduction. The less obvious reproductive activities consist of the maintenance and enforcement of property rights, management of money by the government (including the central bank), and accounting.

The least obvious activity that I would classify as reproductive of capitalism is middle management. Immediate supervisors (e.g. shop forepersons) are directly productive, because they directly coordinate their workers' productive activities. Upper management control what and how much is produced, so they are capitalists or directly serving capitalists. But what of middle managers?

Middle management is often caricatured as pointy-haired boss or Ricky Gervais's and Steve Carell's characters from their respective versions of The Office. Middle managers appear ridiculous because they are divorced from the actual process of production, and thus to workers, their behavior appears at best arbitrary and at worst absurd or grotesque. But middle managers serve an important role: they hold large organizations together as coherent organizations. They are thus agents not of production, because they do not produce, nor of control, because they largely transmit control from upper management, but of reproduction: they make the capitalist system of production possible.

(Note that other relations of production can naturally be divided into control, production, and reproduction. For example, feudal lords control production, the serfs actually produce, and the church reproduce the feudal system.)


  1. When I think about driving, it seems like the production/reproduction distinction can only be considered in relation to a particular good. If the good is transportation, then driving is production. But if the good is creating canned food, then driving is a form of reproduction as it allows workers to commute to the canning factory, where they perform the actual production.

    This isn't necessarily a problem, but if the goal is to distinguish between the mindset of those involved in production and those involved in reproduction, it raises the question, "In relation to which good?"

    I understand driving was just an analogy, but maybe you could comment on the analogous question in the Marxian analysis of capitalism.

    1. Thanks, Siggy.

      I have attempted to address the topic in more explicit detail: Capitalist reproduction.


    2. Yeah, it makes more sense now. Thanks!


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