Commercial Capital and the Political Economy of Agricultural Overproduction

Date of Award

December 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Mark Rupert


agro-food systems, Cargill, commercial capital, global commodity / value chains, Marx, merchant capital

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation examines the role of commercial capital in constructing and maintaining a globalized agro-food system undergirded by the overproduction of grain and other basic commodity crops. Drawing on Marx’s Capital, I develop a theory of commercial capital that delineates the accumulation strategies of transnational corporations governing the production and circulation of wage-goods through their control over global supply chains. Capitalism’s structural drive to maintain a cheap stock of wage-goods, as a universal source of relative surplus value, means that commercial capital faces difficulties in raising wage-good prices through the pursuit of monopoly power. Accordingly, commercial capital seeks monopsony power over its suppliers in order to widen chronically low profit margins, which are further offset by increasing the volume and velocity of commodities in circulation. The general effects of wage-good supply chains governed by commercial capital are heightened rates of labor exploitation and systematic overproduction.

This theory of commercial capital is applied to the global grain economy, with specific attention to the Cargill Corporation, arguably the world’s most powerful agricultural commodities trader and food processor. Cargill’s high-volume, low-margin business model has rested upon the globalization of industrial grain production and the successful absorption of crop surpluses. Cargill has worked to construct the global grain economy in its own image by 1): putting downward price pressure on farmers through supply chain monopsony power; and 2): working within the state-capital nexus to institutionalize policies that promote systemic overproduction, global supply chain expansion, and surplus absorption. In the United States, Cargill and its agribusiness rivals won the institutionalization of the grain overproduction regime during the depths of the Great Depression by coopting large commercial farmers with a weak supply management system that has been ineffectual in curbing overproduction. Since the postwar era, the progressive retrenchment of price supports and the further weakening of supply management schemes illustrates the power of the overproduction coalition in setting the developmental trajectory of the American, and global, agro-food systems.

Overproduction is at the core of many problems facing the global agro-food system today, from depeasantization and the decline of smallholding to obesity and environmental degradation. The centrality of overproduction to Cargill’s business model suggests fundamental incompatibilities between our current food regime – a food regime governed by the logic of commercial capital – and an alternative system, democratically designed to sustainably maximize human developmental capacities.


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