03-2018, tome 115, 1, p. 53-70 - Christophe Darmangeat - Le « surplus » et la stratification socioéconomique. Une causalité au-dessus de tout soupçon

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03-2018, tome 115, 1, p. 53-70 - Christophe Darmangeat - Le « surplus » et la stratification socioéconomique. Une causalité au-dessus de tout soupçon

Une abondante tradition de pensée accorde au concept de « surplus » une place centrale dans la théorie de la stratification socioéconomique. C’est notamment le cas du courant marxiste, qui lie ce surplus à la question de la productivité du travail, dont l’accroissement durant le Néolithique aurait joué un rôle majeur dans l’apparition et la généralisation de l’exploitation. Cet article entend souligner les principales difficultés logiques et empiriques que soulève ce raisonnement. Après avoir mis en évidence la polysémie du terme de « surplus », qui a beaucoup contribué à obscurcir les termes du débat, on s’efforce de démontrer que les progrès de productivité du travail consécutifs à la « révolution néolithique » n’étaient pas une condition nécessaire de la structuration de l’exploitation ; ensuite, qu’ils n’en étaient pas non plus une condition suffisante ; enfin, que ces progrès sont généralement très surestimés et que la rentabilité de l’exploitation naissante doit certainement bien davantage à l’élévation de la productivité de la terre (en laquelle, via les mécanismes exposés par Malthus, était converti l’essentiel du progrès technique). On expose ensuite succinctement une voie matérialiste alternative en se focalisant, à la suite d’A. Testart, sur la naissance de la richesse, c’est-à-dire des paiements (pour l’essentiel, compensation matrimoniale et wergild). Le critère discriminant du stockage, identifié par A. Testart, est reformulé afin de tenir compte des cas rares, mais avérés, de sociétés à richesses et non stockeuses.


Mots-clés : surplus, exploitation, marxisme, productivité, intensification, néolithisation, stratification sociale.


Socio-economic stratification and surplus: a causality above suspicion? 

Abstract: An extensive tradition of sociological and archaeological thought gives the concept of ’surplus’ a pivotal role in the process of socio-economic stratification. It is especially true with the Marxist current, which links this surplus to work productivity. Its increase during the Neolithic is supposed to explain the origin of exploitation and its generalization. Engels had already stated that if exploitation did not exist in foraging societies, it was because the hunter and the gatherer could not produce a regular surplus susceptible to be seized. This surplus came into existence along with the exploitation of human labour, as a result of agriculture and animal husbandry.

This article aims at putting forward the main logical and empirical problems to which this reasoning gives rise.

First, it brings to light the multiple meanings of ’surplus’ which have contributed greatly to obscuring discussion. Surplus is an excess in the amount of something, but if one does not specify the nature of that excess, one perpetuates ambiguity and confusion. In fact, scientific literature commonly mentions four main forms of surplus:

– Sectorial surplus: that which producers of a given economic sector produce besides what they themselves consume. The sectorial surplus on which attention has been focused for a long time is the food surplus, traditionally regarded as the key factor in the sectorial division of labour.

– Physiological surplus is defined as the excess of production of a society over and beyond its vital needs. It is a surplus dealt with by cultural ecology.

– Social surplus is the fraction of production which is not appropriated by workers and which therefore corresponds to exploitation. This social surplus stands, of course, at the heart of Marxist analysis.

– Temporal surplus is the excess of production over consumption during a given period of time. If this surplus is regular, it will very probably take the shape of stocks.

The main point is that, contrary to what intuition may suggest, these four forms mutually have very weak links of causality, especially physiological surplus which is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to social surplus. A society may enjoy some level of material comfort without necessarily giving birth to a layer of exploiters. Conversely, assuming that manpower comes from an external source, it is possible to exploit it without even allowing its reproduction. Regarding stocks, they are, on the analytical level, completely independent of the other forms of surplus.

This article then strives to demonstrate that labour productivity was already sufficient to make exploitation possible in nomadic foraging societies. Each worker had to feed unproductive people (children, sick people, elders…) and it would therefore have been possible to exploit the labour of certain adults, for instance, prisoners of war. The question of work productivity among hunter-gatherers, especially in the production of food, is very closely linked to their demography. Recent research has shown how combined oscillations of the number of humans and natural resources could explain that long periods of dietary comfort were interrupted by more or less severe crises – which were not, as a principle, incompatible with the survival of unproductive individuals.

An increase of labour productivity during the Neolithic could only have been in three forms: a decrease in working time, an improvement of the standard of living of the producers, or the appropriation of the ’surplus’ thus created by the dominant layers of society. The archaeological and ethnological material, even if it does not allow any certain conclusion, does not contribute many elements in favour of the first two options. On the contrary, it is worth thinking that, on the one hand, working time actually increased with the Neolithisation process and, on the other, that this process, at least on the nutritional level, induced a decline compared with foraging economies. Concerning the development of an exploiting stratum and the material achievements connected with it, they do not prove a corresponding increase of work productivity as much as is commonly believed. The other—and, as we are trying to demonstrate, the more plausible—hypothesis is that of overproduction that remained relatively meagre for each producer, but which could henceforth be more easily levied on a large number of individuals.

These societies were indeed doomed to be subject, to a large extent, to what is called the ’Malthusian trap’: technical progress increased available means of livelihood, enabled more individuals to survive, and thus the growing population, living among limited natural resources, faced the law of diminishing returns. The potential increase in labour productivity was thus, if not entirely, at least to a large extent, converted into an increase of land productivity (these two notions, although very different, are often confused under the general term of ’productivity’ or ’intensification’).

This considerable augmentation of human density due to the Neolithisation process (or to sedentariness alone, in the case of stocking hunter-gatherers) may have contributed to make exploitation more profitable, not by increasing the gross product that every worker could generate (the common ’surplus theory’ reasoning) but by reducing the costs of its control and of overproduction extortion – that is, by increasing its net product.

However, in order to explain the rise of exploitation relationships, one must also take into account the birth of wealth that brings together social means and goals. Following a path opened by A. Testart, we consider as a crucial upheaval the introduction of payments in goods (as opposed to compensation with work or with blood), the most common being the bride price and the Wergild. Once again, the materialist perspective gives fruitful elements of understanding. While A. Testart has emphasized the key role played by storage, the case of some societies with payments but deprived of storage leads us to restate the techno-economical conditions of the transition towards payments. We have identified these conditions in the presence, on a sufficiently large scale, of the production of goods that were moveable, lasting, and the manufacture of which required a large amount of work—these goods are precisely those that become a substitute to direct work in matrimonial compensations (bride price). Thus, stocks did indeed play a decisive role in the birth of socio-economic inequalities, and then of social classes; not, per se, because they were embodying a “surplus” due to an increase of labour productivity, but because they were part of a material form of production that induced a deep reconfiguration of social relations.


Keywords: surplus, exploitation, Marxism, productivity, intensification, Neolithisation, social stratification