Means of Production

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 18, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • The means of production, first described by Marx and Engels, consists of all of the physical and abstract resources, aside from labor, that are used to produce goods and services.
  • Examples include building such as factories, machinery, land, commodities such as gold (which can be turn into jewelry) or potatoes (which can be turned into chips), tools used by workers to make products, and anything else labor needs to make things, such as money.
  • Factors of production are means of production, plus labor. Some examples of means of production within this category are natural resources, technology and innovations, and equipment.
  • Capital — or the financial or human variety — is neither directly a means nor factor of production, though it can be used to acquire both. Indeed, capital is sometimes called a produced means or factor of production.
  • Marx differentiates means of production from labor to highlight the underlying class dynamic of capitalism. While the capitalist or bourgeoisie class own the means of production and capital required to obtain labor, the proletariat only owns their labor.
  • As a result, according to Marxism, the bourgeoisie are able to exploit the proletariat and further build their capital, while the proletariat becomes trapped in a cycle of selling their labor for sustenance.

History and Overview

The means of production of a society refers to all of the physical and abstract elements, aside from people, that go into producing goods and services. These include natural resources, machines, tools, and distribution systems, such as shops and the internet.

The means of production change based on waves of technology and scientific thinking, and are an important element in discussing how wealth is created and maintained.

According to Marx and Engels (1847), for individuals, the mode of production is a form of expressing life, and that people are inextricable from both what they produce and what they produce. 

Marx believed that capitalism was different from the modes — or systems — or production that existed before it in that, in this system, people neither owned the tools, materials, and so on that they used to create their goods nor the ability to reap the full value of what they produced.

Instead, employers pay workers for their labor, and take the value left when the goods are sold, which they may or may not reinvest into those that they employ.

Marx believed that, in a fair and just society, workers ought to be able to take this means of production back so that they may be fairly remunerated for the products of their labor (Bottomore, 1975). 

Means vs. Factors of Production: Examples

Factors of production are the inputs needed for the creation of a good or service, including labor, entrepreneurship, and capital. In essence, factors of production are equivalent to the means of production with the inclusion of labor. Thus, all factors of production have an element of means. 

The factors of production in an economy are its labor, capital and natural resources. Labor is the human effort that can be applied to the production of goods and services. People who are employed — or would like to be — are part of the labor available to the economy.

Meanwhile, Capital is a factor of production that has been produced and provided for being used to produce other goods and services. These can include office buildings, machinery, and tools. Finally, natural resources are the resources of nature that can be used for the production of goods and services. These can be, for example, water or wood (Principles of Economics). 

The one factor of production that is not also a means of production is Labor. Labor is a human effort that can be applied to production. Some mMrxists distinguish between two forms of labor.

The first is essentially the human equivalent of a natural resource: the natural ability that an untrained and uneducated person brings to a production process in doing things such as walking, basic reasoning, and moving their arms. These are abilities that most humans have (Principles of Economics). 

Most workers, however, have more to provide than this natural ability. The skills that a worker has as a result of their education, training, or experience useful in production are called human capital. Students in a master's degree program are, ideally, acquiring human capital, as are workers gaining skills through training or experience and children learning how to read.

There are two ways to increase the amount of labor available to an economy. The first of these is to increase the total quantity of labor. This can happen by either increasing the number of people available to work — such as through reforms pushing elderly adults or migrants into the workforce — or increasing the average number of hours of work per week.

The other way to increase the supply of labor is through increasing the amount of human capital possessed by workers, such as through training or encouraging people to gain more education prior to entering the workforce.

Capital

Capital is neither directly a factor nor means of production; however, it is intertwined with both concepts. Capital describes any tool that can be produced for use in producing other goods. Perhaps the first human example of capital was stone tools used to, say, produce food or clothing (Principles of Economics).

More modern versions of capital can range from saws to sewing needles to hammers, airports, office buildings, high-speed wifi, and taxis. 

Capital does not solely consist solely of physical objects. For example, the score that a composer writes is capital because it can be used to produce concerts. The computer software that a business uses to write reports is capital.

The emails that accountants write to invoice their clients are capital. What all of these forms of capital have in common is that they can all help to produce goods and services. Capital can even include intellectual discoveries, such as knowledge of how to create a new drug. In essence, any resource is capital if it meets two criteria (Principles of Economics):

  1. The resource is produced;

  2. The resource can be used to produce other goods and services.

One notable thing that is not usually considered to be capital is money. People cannot use money directly to produce other goods — save some exceptions.

Firms, however, can use money to acquire capital. Financial capital includes any form of money or abstract asset (say, a stock) that represents a claim to a future payment. These can be used to produce the factors of production of goods and services (Principles of Economics). 

Natural Resources

There are two main characteristics of natural resources. The first is that they are found in nature — humans did not need to make or alter them. The second is that they can be used for the production of goods and services.

Nonetheless, using natural resources to produce goods and services requires knowledge: before they become resources, people need to know how to use the things they find in nature before they become a resource (Principles of Economics).

For example, oil was not a natural resource until the 19th century, as people did not know how to use it to create goods and services. The mid-19th century brought a method for refining oil into kerosene which could then be used to generate energy. Oil has moved from a nuisance to something that can be used to make things such as clothing, drugs, gasoline, and plastic. 

Being a natural resource also does not necessarily entail that it needs to create a physical object. For example, if people gain utility from walking through a forest — such as feeling calmer or appreciating the beautiful trees — the forest provides a service. This makes the forest itself a natural resource (Principles of Economics). 

Natural resources can expand their function in ways. Firstly, they can be used to discover new natural resources, such as  discovering that a cave has ores inside of it. Secondly, natural resources can result in the discovery of new uses for resources.

For example,  sand can be used for manufacturing computer chips — however, this use was not discovered until the 20th century. The third and final way that natural resources can be expanded is by discovering new ways to extract them, such as through discovering new oil deposits. 

Technology and Enterprise

Technology and enterprise each play a crucial role to put the means of production — and the labor corresponding to them — to work. Technology is knowledge that can be applied to the production of goods and services.

Enterprise consists of people — entrepreneurs — who seek to earn profits within a market economy by finding new ways to organize all of the factors of production (Principles of Economics). 

In Marx’s Social Classes

Marxist scholars often analyze the technological sophistication of the means of production and their ownership in understanding political economy and economics. Marx defined and structured classes based off (Bottomore, 1975):

  1. who owns or possesses property and means of production vs. who performs the work in the production process;

  2. the social relationships involved in work and labor;

  3. and, who produces and who controls the surplus human social labor can produce.

Marx believed that these three factors governed social relations in capitalism to a much greater extent than earlier systems. 

According to Marxists, it is the ownership or non-ownership of the means of production (machines, tools, factories) which determine an individual's position in the class structure.

There are two main classes in capitalism: the Bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Although subtleties exist between the classes, Marx uses these to demonstrate the dynamics of capitalism.

The Bourgeoisie

In capitalism, the bourgeoisie — sometimes called the capitalists — own the means of production. They are the owners of capital and are able to acquire the means of creating goods and services — such as natural resources, or machinery.

With their capital, the bourgeoisie can purchase and exploit labor power, using the surplus value that their employees generate to accumulate or expand their capital (Wolf & Resnick, 2013).

The key differentiation between the bourgeoisie and other social elites is this ownership of the means of production. Managers of the state or landlords, for example, are not part of the bourgeoisie because capitalists must be actively involved in capital accumulation by using money to organize the means of production and employ and exploit labor to further generate capital.

Marx believed that the bourgeoisie began in medieval Europe with traders, merchants, craftspeople, industrialists, manufacturers, and so on who could increase wealth through industry. These individuals employed labor to create capital (Wolf & Resnick, 2013). 

The Proletariat

The second major class in Marxism is the proletariat, who own their labor, but none of the means of production. Because these workers have no property, they must find employment in order to survive and obtain an income.

The exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalist, however, means that the proletariat is unable to earn enough to acquire his own means of production.

Because he does not own the means of production, he does not have all of the factors of production. This keeps him in a continual cycle of exploitation by capitalists (Wolf & Resnick, 2013). 

Other classes: the petty bourgeoisie and middle class

In addition to the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, Marx also described numerous social classes. Perhaps the most relevant of these to means of production is the petty bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie consists of small owners who still work on their own means of production (Adams & Sydie, year).

Members of this class must work to survive, as they do not have the capital to purchase enough labor to get work done on its own merit.

This dual role causes members of the class to have divided interests; while they generally wish to preserve private property and property rights, they often have interests opposed to the capitalist class (Wolf & Resnick, 2013).

Means vs. Modes of production

While means of production describe the things that are combined with labor in order to create goods and services, the term mode of production refers to the specific organization of economic production in a given society. This is not a term original to Marx, but the sociologist Eric Wolf (1983).

The term modes of production has been used to describe the socioeconomic dynamics that people have used to survive throughout history.

These can be separated into kinship, tributary, and capitalist modes. Each of these specify the dominant social structures of eras.

The kinship mode was characterized by labor carried out primarily for subsistence by familial ties, the tributary mode by a ruling class taking some percentage of the goods produced by the lower class, and the capitalist mode by two different groups owning labor and the means of production. 

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 18). Means of Production. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/means-of-production-sociology-definition.html

References

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Marx, K. (1967). The Communist Manfesto, trans. Samuel Moore and Engels.

Marx, K., Cohen, J., & Hobsbawm, E. J. (1966). Pre-capitalist economic formations. Science and Society, 30(3).

Marx, K., Engels, F. (1847). Manifesto of the communist party.

Modes and Means of Production. (2021, July 22). https://socialsci.libretexts.org/@go/page/56423

Wolf, E. R. (1982). Europe and the People without History. Univ of California Press.

Resnick, S. A., & Wolff, R. D. (2013). Marxism. Rethinking Marxism, 25(2), 152-162.

Wolpe, H. (1980). The Articulation of Modes of Production: Essays from Economy and Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wolf, E. R. (1982). Europe and the People without History. Univ of California Press.