What is a Means of Production?

Though I’m a political philosopher, Marxism/Socialism is not my area of expertise.  Still, I was surprised when, while teaching an essay by Kai Nielsen the other day, I discovered that I really don’t know what a means of production is supposed to be.

The claim that the means of production ought to be owned publicly, rather than privately, seems to be one of if not the defining characteristics of socialism.  So it seems pretty important to be clear on what it refers to.

On the most natural reading, a “means of production” would be anything that’s used to produce.  But that seems very, very broad.  Sure, factories are means of production, but so are muffin trays.  So is my brain, and my muscles.

Do socialists hold that even these things should be publicly owned?  Does it depend on how we use them?  Nielsen says that a socialist will allow for personal private property – and muffin trays seem about as personal as one could get.  Does this mean that we’re allowed to bake muffins for ourselves?  For our neighbors?  For our neighbors in exchange for wine?

How, in other words, does a socialist (Marxist or otherwise) demarcate legitimate personal property from means of production?  Or can the two be reconciled in a principled way?  If public ownership of the means of production can be reconciled with private personal property, can it also be reconciled with some notion of self-ownership?

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16 Responses to What is a Means of Production?

  1. In Capital and related writings (e.g., Theories of Surplus Value), Marx distinguishes between ‘means of production,’ which include both ‘instruments’ and ‘objects’ of production (where objects are what others would call ‘raw materials’), on the one hand, and ‘labour-power’ (which is what you call ‘brains and muscle,’ plus skills and knowledge), on the other. Together, these comprise what he calls ‘forces of production.’

    Although I don’t think that it is true to say that Marx defines socialism as public ownership of the means of production, I think that it is worth asking what he would have meant, had he said that.

    A Marx-inspired socialist who said something like that would mean something like the following.

    When discussing capitalism, Marx is always sensitive to what he calls the “two-fold character of labour.” On the one hand, he says, labour is always a form of instrumental action: purposive, world-transforming practice. On the other hand, though, in some contexts, it is also part of a social process, with an interpersonal structure, whereby human creativity and effort are channeled in certain ways to produce some things for ends that are not related to the ends of the direct producer. As Marx always says, again and again in his late writings, these interpersonal relations whereby the work of some people is mobilized for the sake of the ends of others (namely, the goal of capital accumulation by owners of the means of social production) appear to the participants in these relations, not as relations between people, but instead as relations between things (namely, the prices of commodities).

    So, the private ownership of the means of social production is a social (interpersonal) relationship between the direct producers (who perform the instrumental action of producing a commodity) and the people who “employ” them (i.e., pay them for the use of their commodified labour-power in commodity production), in which the purposes of the producers are systematically subordinated to the purposes of their employers (profit-making, basically). This he used to call “alienation,” at least well into the 1850s.

    Marx regards this, on the whole, as a bad thing, at least in the sense that there could be something better. He notes that this set-up has the effect of making what gets produced (homes? or yachts?) contingent on which is more profitable for that relatively small population of people who own means of social production. Most people own only one kind of “productive force,” which is their own capacity for creativity and effort, i.e., their “labour-power.” It is this fact that makes their participation in social production (the social process whereby a society’s labour is allocated or channeled into various “departments” of production) possible only if they can find one of the owners of means of social production who expects to make a profit by hiring them. And Marx therefore regards the relationship as coercive (“wage slavery,” as he calls it).

    He does think, for these and other reasons, that it would be better to bring this process of allocating social labour “under common control,” and to subject it to some process of “rational” (instrumental, or goal-oriented) planning, as opposed to allowing non-rational (non-goal-oriented) market regulation to determine these matters.

    As for muffin trays, clearly these can be “means of social production,” if they are used not just in the personal allocation of one’s own efforts for one’s own personal ends, but in the context of the social process of channeling social labour either via planning or via market regulation toward certain activities. In that case, I suppose, “public ownership” would entail integrating these into the democratic process, i.e., some kind of deliberative-democratic form of legitimation, like the kind we expect to occur in the use of resources now seen as “public,” like public education or public roads.

    But if I use a muffin tray to cook muffins for myself, or to give muffins to others, then that is not “means of social production.” It is not part of that labour-allocating social process that people usually refer to as “the economy.” It is labour with a uniform, rather than a “two-fold” character. It is instrumental action, but not social labour. In Marx’s terms, it is a relation between person and thing, but not a relation between person and person (not “social labour”).

    As for “self-ownership,” many socialists (e.g., G.A. Cohen) have wanted to argue that Marx endorses the idea of self-ownership. But it seems to me that this term, in this context, is ambiguous. Usually, when Marx (or Nozick, for that matter) says “ownership,” the context is such that we are supposed to think of this as referring to a commodity. Marx, clearly, wanted to de-commodify labour-power. So, in that sense, he wanted to remove the possibility (that exists in a capitalist society) of selling one’s labour-power. If one means something else, such as “unilateral discretion over what you do with your labour-power,” then I suppose we would have to attempt an interpretation of Marx’s intriguing “definition” of “communism,” as “a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle” (Capital, I).

  2. Is it enough to just say this: Forget how Marx defines it. Chances are, he defined it in a confused way, and you could spend years trying to get an exact definition and still not satisfy all the Marxists. Instead, look at how modern economists would define it. Economists talk about capital, labor, and land as factors of production. A hardcore socialist should think that all capital and land should be publicly owned, except perhaps for land and capital used for purely private consumption.

  3. Above Stephen D’Arcy noted the useful distinction between the “means of production” (which are the instruments of production and raw materials) and “labour power”. The two combined can be equated with the “productive forces”. (see Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History for a concise navigation through these waters).

    The immediate producers in different types of society (e.g. slave, feudal and capitalist) stand in different relations (of effective control) to the means of production. In the slave society the immediate producers do not have effective control of the means of production. In the feudal society the serfs have control over some means of production (e.g. tools). But in the stage of capitalism Marx believes that, eventually, the bourgeoisie come to have a monopoly (in terms of effective control) over the means of production. It is also the first time that immediate producers come to have control over their labour power (though they are still forced to produce, lest they starve). And in the post-capitalist scenario it is the first time in human history that the immediate producer will own both the means of production *and* their labour power. So from the perspective of (Marxist) self-ownership, the post-capitalist stage offers the fullest realization of genuine self-ownership. It will be the first time in human history that those who produce are not forced to work to produce a surplus that is taken by a class that exploits them.

    Cohen’s way around the kind of objection you raise above (see p. 72 of Karl Marx’s Theory of History) with the muffin tray is as follows: though a muffin tray is a means of production a proletariat can own and use, it is not a means of production the proletariat can use productively outside subordination to a capitalist. In other words, having effective control of a muffin tray will not, by itself, permit you to make a living off of baking muffins. And it is the fact that the proletariat must sell their labour power to make a living that makes the capitalist system exploitative.

    In a post-capitalist society personal ownership of things that can technically be described as “means of production” (like your muffin tray) are fine provided they do not impede society’s ability to produce enough to satisfy the needs of all. Owning a few muffin trays is fine, but no particular individual can have effective control over factories and raw materials lest we return to the exploitation of capitalism.


  4. This is really terribly simple.

    If you can turn your muffin tin into a way of creating surplus value — say by hiring the neighborhood kids to bake muffins for 10 cents an hour and then you turn around and sell those muffins at a profit that you either pocket or put back into more muffin tins — then it is the kind of means of production that a Marxist would think that the workers should own themselves.

    If the only value you create is for your own use and gustatory pleasure, then it’s perfectly okay to keep the muffin tin.

    (And anyone who thinks Marx was confused ought to try reading him.)

  5. So the discussion seems to have gone more in the direction of Marxist exegesis than I’d intended. As I said, my original question was prompted not by my reading of Marx but by a contemporary socialist. And I guess, as Jason suggests, I’m more interested in what contemporary socialists believe than I am in what Marx believed.

    From the helpful comments so far, I’m gleaning a few different suggestions regarding what draws the distinction between legitimate personal private property and the ‘means of production.’

    1. Stephen’s comments suggest that what’s crucial is that some objects are means of social production. Something is a means of social production if it is used in a social process where labor is used to produce something “for ends that are not related to the ends of the direct producer.”

    Stephen latter says that muffin trays could qualify as means of social production, “if they are used not just in the personal allocation of one’s own efforts for one’s own personal ends.” But if you’re just baking muffins for yourself, or to give to others, then that doesn’t count.

    So I guess I’m a little confused about what counts and what doesn’t as an end of the producer here. If I bake muffins and trade them with you for wine, isn’t the production of muffins directly related to my own ends? Of course, *you* are consuming them, not me, but if personal consumption is required in order to establish the requisite direct consumption, then even gift giving would be ruled out, wouldn’t it? But if using muffin trays to produce muffins that are traded for wine does *not* make those trays a “means” of production, then neither I guess would using them to make muffins that are traded for money.

    2. Colin cites Cohen as making a somewhat different suggestion: that something counts only as a means of production only if it can be used productively outside of subordination to a capitalist. I’m worried that this is going to lead to circularity – capitalists are defined by their ownership of the means of production and means of production are defined as being owned or utilized effectively only by capitalists. It also means – and perhaps this is not a bad thing – that what counts as a means of production must be determined largely by empirical investigation. Some people do, actually, make a living from bakeries they run at home. See, for instance, Sudhir Venkatesh’s discussion in Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.

    3. Noelle thinks this is all terribly simple – it’s all about surplus value. But it seems odd to me to define something as basic as the means of production in terms of one of the least plausible aspects of Marx’s theory: his theory of exploitation as the extraction of surplus value enabled by the uniquely productive power of labor.

    And I hope, Noelle, that you weren’t suggesting that the only reason one could think Marx was confused on some subject was that one had not read him? That would be a rather high standard to which to hold a philosopher – higher, I think, than that to which most others are held.

    One problem I think I’m going to have with most attempts to distinguish between personal property and means of production is that they seem to rely on a very sharp distinction between ‘economic’ and ‘non-economic’ activity (see Stephen’s comment above). And this is a distinction that I think most contemporary economists would reject – see the recent wave of “Freakonomics” type books, all of which purport to show the economic character of what are generally thought to be non-economic activities. I think it’s easy to overdo this kind of ‘economic imperialism,’ but I also think there are some important truths to be found in it. “Economic Production” takes place in a myriad of ways involving everything from muffin trays to mounds of clay to pencils and paper to factories and coal mines. We don’t get any clearer on the nature of capitalism – or socialism for that matter – by using a concept like the “means of production” in a way that shears off some of these tools of production from the rest in what seems to me(though I’m open to being convinced otherwise) to be a rather arbitrary way.

  6. I apologize for sounding so curt and dismissive in my previous comment. My remark about needing to read Marx rather than presume him confused was directed to Jason Brennan, who seemed to dismiss everything about Marx right out of hand.

    Now, I do think the matter of the meaning of “the means of production” is rather simple. But clearly to defend that I can’t put it so simply! There are two matters: (1) what the term means in general and (2) whether it is appropriate (just or moral or ethical?) to own something that is a means of production.

    On (1) I think you were dead on in your original post. A muffin tin is indeed a means of production. But as for (2), whether one can rightly own a means of production privately, this depends upon the relations of production, that is, the overall context. How is it being used? By whom? For what? From a socialist or marxist point of view, the muffin tin becomes an object of concern only if it is being used to create surplus value. (As to whether natural resources can be privately owned is another matter altogether.) Now, whether or not you buy into Marx’s account of surplus value is yet another matter.

    If I make muffins all by my lonesome, and then set up a muffin stand in my front yard and sell them at a huge profit, a marxist or socialist shouldn’t care. Their object of concern is not mercantilism, and that’s what my activity would amount to.

    If I am still somehow missing your point, please forgive me and set me straight.

  7. Noelle,

    I don’t see how from my post you can conclude that I dismiss everything about Marx right out of hand, nor that I have failed to read Marx (or failed to read him carefully).

  8. Matt, I don’t think Cohen’s move leads to the circularity you noted because class membership is not determined by the question “does one have effective control of *any* means of production at all (e.g. a hammer, or muffin tray)?”, nor are the means of production defined by “things that capitalists own”.

    The means of production simply are the instruments of production and raw materials.

    To determine class membership we really need to ask what one’s relation is to their labour power and livelihood. If you have to sell your labour power then you are a proletariat. But if you own land, factories, etc. you can get others to produce and sell you their labour. So you make a living off the surplus created by others. Thus the capitalist stands in the same position as lords and slave-owners in human history as the class that exploits producers.

    And as for the people who make bakeries from their home, they must own much more than just muffin trays (you can’t make muffins with just trays!). They must also have access to the raw materials for making muffins, instruments (baking oven) and some property. So they are “petty bourgeois”. Over time capitalism would (Marx predicts) eliminate this class as these small-scale operations either become bigger operations (so the baker becomes a full blown member of the capitalist class) or he/she is driven out of business (thus joining the ranks of the rest of the workforce).


  9. Jason, well, it sounded like you were dismissing Marx and didn’t want to bother reading him. But if that’s not the case, then I apologize for making it seem so.

    Colin, to get back to Matt’s point, whether or not the woman making muffins will ultimately either turn into a capitalist or go bust (something experience leads me to doubt), wouldn’t you agree that even under socialism she has every right to hang on to her muffin tin, oven, sugar, flour, and vanilla extract? Saying otherwise would seem to be a very strange formulation.

  10. In response to Matt’s question (5th comment, point 1, paragraph 3):

    If I make muffins, with my tray, with a view to trading them for wine, then I am not making them in order to use them, but as part of a barter economy. That makes it part of a process of social production. And means of production used in social production are what Marxists would almost certainly mean if they spoke, as some do, about public ownership of the means of production. Of course, if it is a matter, not of participation in a barter economy, but two people collaborating in a personal project (like, “I’ll make dinner if you wash the dishes”), then of course it is not social production but personal cooperation. There’s no reason to think that there would be some very sharp line separating these two things at the margins. But in a sense that is more than sufficiently clear, an arrangement in which I’ll make dinner if you do the dishes is not social production, i.e., it is not part of what we call “the economy.” But a barter economy is indeed an economy. That distinction is clear, I’m convinced, even if particular cases might be hard to classify.

    (By the way, I think Marx’s talk about bringing the means of production “under common control” is more to the point. I suppose the local library is publicly owned, but I’m not at all sure that it is under common control. And surely it is the latter that bears on Marx’s way of understanding socialism, and how it differs from other sorts of economies. NASA is publicly owned. By contrast with NASA, though, my housing cooperative is under common control by the residents, who set the ‘rent’ and make all the rules, etc. So, the housing co-op is closer to what Marx would mean by socialism, I’d suggest.)

    Matt asks: “If I bake muffins and trade them with you for wine, isn’t the production of muffins directly related to my own ends?”

    No, not directly. Indirectly.

    He further asks: “if personal consumption is required in order to establish the requisite direct consumption, then even gift giving would be ruled out, wouldn’t it?”

    Again, we have to distinguish between social production, as in a barter economy or a cash economy, and personal consumption, as in baking muffins to eat or share or give to one’s neighbor. You’re going to have to work harder to convince me, at least, that this is not a clear distinction. No doubt there could be grey areas, but I don’t think your examples are grey areas at all. And even if they were, we’d still need to distinguish between social production (“the economy”) and making things for direct use.

    Here’s a grey area: domestic production (housework). That, I think, needs some kind of special sub-theory, because its relation to the wider economy is organized in a very specific way in capitalism, as opposed to other kinds of society (like a feudal economy). It raises complex questions about how best to think about the domestic economy in relation to “social production.” (Of course, there are many books written about this, usually by socialist feminists. So, I’m not saying that it is too complex to be dealt with adequately. I’m just saying that it is harder to settle the question of whether domestic labour is social labour in the same sense that working in a bakery is. One needs a sophisticated account of the nature of the family under capitalism.) But the muffin tray doesn’t seem nearly as complicated to me.

  11. Hi Nicole, you ask “wouldn’t you agree that even under socialism she has every right to hang on to her muffin tin, oven, sugar, flour, and vanilla extract?”; and my short answer is “yes”.

    So would could revise Marx’s famous passage from the German Ideology to be “…we hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, *bake muffins* in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, *baker*, or critic”. And this would be consistent with a modified version of the slogan of the communist society: “from each according to their ability (including baking ability), to each according to their needs (including needs for muffins)” 🙂


  12. Sorry Noëlle, I hastily spelt your name incorrectly.

  13. I ask as a provocation, but who cares about the muffin tin? I’m no great Marx scholar, but it seems to me that if we are talking about “productive forces” one of the questions worth asking is what do these productive forces do? The reason Marx is interested in these forces, it seems to me, is because they shape history. The less Hegelian, more 20th century way of saying this is that they make our world. The productive forces effect our political possibilities, our customs and mores, our laws, and even (and I’m thinking Paris Manuscripts here) the human condition.

    In this context, concern about a single muffin tin sees to me to amount to a geologist following the path of a single drop of water. It’s not in any way meaningful to the scale of the inquiry.

  14. Colin,

    Trivial factoid: Jonathan Wolff speculated a while back on the “Philosophy Bites” podcast that your famous quote from “The German Ideology” as actually written by Engels and that in the manuscript notes, Marx actually had a derisive comment about it in the margins.

  15. Since in a communist (or even socialist) society there is no such thing as surplus value, the latter cannot be a means of determining whether something is a means of production or not.

  16. Forgive my coming in late on this, but I am curious about Rawls’s understanding of the concept. He says the choice of fundamental principles in the original position leaves open the later, majoritarian legislative choice between property-owning democracy and liberal socialism. So, as a matter of basic justice, ownership of personal property is guaranteed, but ownership of productive means and a say in how such means are deployed “are not necessary for the adequate development and full exercise of the moral powers, and so are not an essential social basis of self-respect….” Is there something I should read on Rawls’s understanding (which he seems to have taken from Marx)? Reply off-list if you like.

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