Overproduction is the accumulation of unsalable inventories in the hands of businesses. Overproduction is a relative measure, referring to the excess of production over consumption. The tendency for an overproduction of commodities to lead to economic collapse is specific to the capitalist economy. In previous economic formations, an abundance of production created general prosperity. However in the capitalist economy, commodities are produced for profit. This so-called profit motive, the core of the capitalist economy, creates a dynamic whereby an abundance of commodities has negative consequences. In essence, an abundance of commodities disrupts the conditions for the creation of profit.
The overproduction of commodities forces businesses to reduce production in order to clear inventories. Any reduction in production implies a reduction in employment. A reduction in employment, in turn, reduces consumption. As overproduction is the excess of production above consumption, this reduction in consumption worsens the problem. This creates a "feed-back loop" or "vicious cycle", whereby excess inventories force businesses to reduce production, thereby reducing employment, which in turn reduces the demand for the excess inventories. The general reduction in the level of prices (deflation) caused by the law of supply and demand also forces businesses to reduce production as profits decline. Reduced profits render certain fields of production unprofitable.
Is there, then, such a thing as overproduction? Manifestly, there cannot be, in any general sense, until more wealth is produced than is wanted. In any unqualified sense, over- production is preposterous, when everywhere the struggle to get wealth is so intense; when so many must worry and strain to get a living, and there is actual want among large classes. The manner in which the strain of the war was borne shows how great are the forces of production which, in normal times, go to waste; proves that what we suffer from now is not overproduction, but underproduction.
Relative overproduction there, of course, may be. The desires for different forms of wealth vary in intensity and in sequence, and are related one with another. I may want both a pair of shoes and a dozen pocket-handkerchiefs, but my desire for the shoes is first and strongest; and upon the terms on which I can get the shoes may in large measure depend my ability to get the handkerchiefs. So, in the aggregate demand for the different forms of wealth, there is a similar relation. And as, under the division of labor characteristic of the modern industrial system, nearly all production is carried on with the view, not of consumption by the immediate producers, but of exchange for other productions, certain commodities may be produced so far in excess of their proper proportion to the production of other commodities, that the whole quantity produced cannot be exchanged for enough of those other commodities to give the usual returns to the capital and labor engaged in bringing them to market. This disproportionate production of some things, which is overproduction in relation to the production of other things, is the only kind of overproduction that can take place on any considerable scale, and the overproduction of which we hear so much is evidently of this character.
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