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Relations of production
Relations of production (German: Produktionsverhaltnisse) is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx in his theory of historical materialism. Beyond examining specific cases, Marx never defined the general concept exactly. It is evident though that it refers to all kinds of human interconnections involved in the social production and reproduction of material life. 'Social' denotes belonging, group membership and co-operative activity (in Latin, 'socius' means comrade or associate).
A social relation is, in the first instance, (a) a relation between individuals insofar as they belong to a group, or (b) a relation between groups, or (c) a relation between an individual and a group. The group could be an ethnic or kinship group, a social institution or organisation, a social class, a nation or gender etc. A social relation is therefore not identical with an interpersonal relation or an individual relation, although all these types of relations presuppose each other. Society for Marx is the sum total of social relations connecting its members.
Social relations of production in Marx's sense refer to (a) (often legally encoded) ownership & control relations pertaining to society's productive assets, (b) the way people are formally and informally associated within the economic sphere of production, including as social classes (c) work relations (including household labor), (d) socio-economic dependencies between people arising from the way they produce and reproduce their existence, (e) the quantitative proportions of different aspects of the sphere of production, considered from the point of view of society as a whole.
Combined with the productive forces, the relations of production consitute a historically specific mode of production. Karl Marx contrasts social relations with technical relations; in the former case, it is people who are related, in the latter case, the relation is between people and nature (the physical world they inhabit).
However, Marx argues that with the rise of market economy, this distinction is increasingly obscured and distorted. In particular, a cash economy makes it possible to define, symbolise and manipulate relationships between things that people make in abstraction from the social & technical relations involved. Marx says this leads to the reification (thingification or Verdinglichung) of economic relations, of which commodity fetishism is a prime example.
Thus, the marketplace seems to be a place where all people have free and equal access and freely negotiate and bargain over deals and prices on the basis of civil equality. People will buy and sell goods without really knowing where they originated or who made them. They know that objectively they depend on producers and consumers somewhere else, that this social dependency exists, but they do not know who specifically those people are or what their activities are. Market forces seem to regulate everything, but what is really behind those market forces has become obscured, because the social relationship between people or their relation with nature is expressed as a commercial relationship between things (money, commodities, capital).
Some social relations of production therefore exist in an objective, mind-independent way, not simply because they are a natural necessity for human groups, but because of the mediation of social and technical relations by commerce. In addition to creating new social and technical relations, commerce introduces a proliferation of relationships between tradeable 'things'. Not only do relationships between 'things' (commodities, prices etc.) begin to indicate and express social and technical relations, the commercial relations also begin to govern and regulate the pattern of human contact and technique.
The fact therefore that particular social relations of production acquire an objective, mind-independent existence may not be due to any natural necessity asserting itself but only to a purely social necessity: commodity exchange objectifies social relations to the point where they escape from conscious human control, and exist such that they can be recognised only by abstract thought.
It is frequently objected by sociologists in the tradition of Weber that Marx paid insufficient attention to the intersubjective dimension of social relations, i.e. the meanings consciously attached by people to their social interactions. However, Marx's argument is that these subjective or intersubjecti ve meanings permit of infinite variations, and therefore cannot be the foundation for a genuine science of society. Rather, one must begin with understanding those objective interdependencies which by necessity shape and socialise human beings, i.e. those social relations which people as social beings must enter into, regardless of what they may think or wish.
In this context, the young Vladimir Lenin commented:
"Hitherto, sociologists had found it difficult to distinguish the important and the unimportant in the complex network of social phenomena (that is the root of subjectivism in sociology) and had been unable to discover any objective criterion for such a demarcation. Materialism provided an absolutely objective criterion by singling out "production relations" as the structure of society, and by making it possible to apply to these relations that general scientific criterion of recurrence whose applicability to sociology the subjectivists denied. So long as they confined themselves to ideological social relations (i.e., such as, before taking shape, pass through mans consciousness - We are, of course, referring all the time to the consciousness of social relations and no others - they could not observe recurrence and regularity in the social phenomena of the various countries, and their science was at best only a description of these phenomena, a collection of raw material. The analysis of material social relations (i.e., of those that take shape without passing through mans consciousness: when exchanging products men enter into production relations without even realising that there is a social relation of production here)-the analysis of material social relations at once made it possible to observe recurrence and regularity and to generalise the systems of the various countries in the single fundamental concept: social formation . It was this generalisation alone that made it possible to proceed from the description of social phenomena (and their evaluation from the standpoint of an ideal) to their strictly scientific analysis, which isolates, let us say by way of example, that which distinguishes one capitalist country from another and investigates that which is common to all of them... Then, however, Marx, who had expressed this hypothesis in the forties, set out to study the factual (nota bene) material. He took one of the social-economic formations- the system of commodity production-and on the basis of a vast mass of data (which he studied for not less than twenty five years) gave a most detailed analysis of the laws governing the functioning of this formation and its development."
(quoted from Lenin, "What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats" 1894).
Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats
Goran Therborn, Science, Class and Society.
Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism.
Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd and Ernst Fehr, Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life.
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