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Relations of Production
Relations of production are not, as the English phrase suggests, simply the social relationships formed in the actual process of production. Rather, they are the de facto power relationships that both underlie and are the result of the division of the fruits of a society‘s total labor. Household head versus dependents, chief versus subjects, master versus slaves, feudal lord versus peasants, and capitalist versus workers – relations of production are basic asymmetries of power grounded in the organization of material life. In capitalism, relations of production rest upon actual control over productive forces in the process of production, but in other modes of production, as anthropologists and historians eventually showed, this is not necessarily the case.
In relation to the last point, consider the contrast between capitalism and precolonial chiefdoms in Africa. Capitalists put the production process into motion; they or their representatives oversee and supervise in order to ensure that a profit is produced at the end of the work cycle. In many chiefdoms, chiefs did not control the production process itself. Yet, having produced, subjects brought tribute, the fruits of their own labors, to the chief. This contrast illustrates the fact that relations of production, by definition, correspond to the basic structures of power in a society, however that power is constituted – whether by economic, coercive, or religious means (or some mix of these). This makes the reformed notion of modes of production quite different from what is often assumed of Marxism; most particularly, it is not a form of economic reductionism.
Why do productive inequalities occupy a central place in Marx‘s thought? The answer is that they locate the basic divisions within any society, the lines of potential opposition – of contradiction. Marx saw these as the potential fault lines along which tensions tend to build up are routinely dissipated by small readjustments, and are sometimes violently resolved by radical realignments. These fault lines are structural; they do not necessarily lead to actual struggle and conflict (indeed, the function of the superstructure is precisely to prevent such occurrences). Nevertheless, contradictions always exist as potentialities; they lie just below the surface.