Thursday, 14 September 2017

Happy Birthday Marx's Capital

























Today marks the 150th anniversary of Marx's Capital, for my money the most significant and monumental work of social science ever published. Something would be amiss if a few words couldn't be summoned up to mark this occasion.

While not one of Marx's better read works, it's level pegging with the Communist Manifesto for the mantle of most influential. Indeed, such is the power of the analysis explored in this breeze block of a book that it jumped its pages and, over the last century-and-a-half, set up residence in the heads of hundreds of millions of people. It would be fair to say Capital is the most influential book that hasn't been read.

Marx's project was simple in inspiration and exhaustive in its scope: to unmask the dynamics and tendencies of capitalism (which, curiously, is not a term he himself used) and in the process critique and damn the economics of apologia used to justify, and thereby mystify, the system. Capital is truly an execution of Marx's dictum of "the ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be." Marx dissected and deconstructed the arguments of his contemporaries and forebears, chiefly Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and with wit, sarcasm, and the marshalling of voluminous data destroyed their muddled, convoluted schemes. Marx's great achievement is that Capital peeled back the liberal and conservative bullshit and showed the system for what it was: a turbo-charged, expansive (and expanding) dynamo that owes its revolutionising qualities to the class antagonism at its heart. He showed definitively that profit was not rooted in buying cheap and selling dear as per the fairy tales of mainstream economics, but was in fact the consequence of the exploitation of one class by another.

Volume One was to be the first in a series of volumes. It was concerned with the process of production of capital, the second its circulation, the third on profit and forms of surplus value (or "the process of capitalist production as a whole"), and the never finished volumes four, five and six were to deal with wage labour, the state, and the world market. Arguably the work of Marxists since has been the filling out of the planned-for volumes. Certainly the work of Toni Negri, who's featured here quite a bit of late, straddles these phantom works and particularly the unwritten book on wage labour.

Unfortunately, the status of Capital in economics and the other social sciences demonstrates the efficacy of the materialist assumptions underpinning the methodology of Marx's work. Despite eviscerating capitalism, revealing its class bound character and its inexorable tendency to crisis, economics particularly and social science generally carry on as if the book never existed. The half-truths, errors, and ideological fallacies Marx critiqued and lampooned from his desk in the British Library continue to crop up in the 21st century iteration of the dismal science. Capitalism is exploitative and, more to the point, mortal, but these findings are overridden and overwritten by the class truths that dominate all capitalist societies. Mainstream economics is always partial and frequently nonsensical because it is bound to the class power of the owners of capital. Yet just as capital without a working class is impossible, no matter how Capital is critiqued and dismissed, the class truths it speaks, of a propertyless class who have to rent out their labour power in order to live, are never going away either.

Capital today remains relevant because the social and economic system it describes and critiques is still with us. Should capitalism last another 500 years the analysis Marx made will retain its explanatory force. The three published volumes are to social science what Darwin's The Origin of the Species is to natural sciences, a tremendous achievement that gives us the tools to diagnose the condition of the present and think about what we need to do about it. This book may be 150 years old, but the theory and polemic it contains are still among the most modern there is.

9 comments:

Padmadipa said...

Good summery there Phil! all I would add is that I personally have found the lecture series by David Harvey a really excellent way to study it. (The lectures are downloadable for free from his web site www.davidharvey.org) We could do with much more discussion of Capital - indeed Marxism as a whole, within the Labour movement - thanks for posting.

Chris said...

"Should capitalism last another 500 years the analysis Marx made will retain its explanatory force."

Really?

Phil said...

Absolutely. If we have a social organisation that produces commodities for markets for profit and this is based on the extraction of surplus value, the basic analysis will remain valid.

dermot said...

Nice summary! Makes me want to read it - but I fear it's too long and dense for me at the moment.

Can you recommend a good book by a more recent author that explains/analyses 'Capital'?

(also, thanks Padmadipa, I'll check out that site).

Phil said...

As per Padmadipa, David Harvey's lectures on Capital are a good companion to reading it yourself. But if you don't fancy that there are loads of reading guides and practically every book introducing Marxism takes the time to summarise Capital. Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right remains the best intro in my opinion ...

Anonymous said...

It must be said that his quote about history consisting of class struggle is the biggest stroke of capitalist genius ever - because it's only true a in a non-globalised world. Talk about making the foolish run in the wrong direction.

Darwin on the other hand explains the world pretty well. Social science is the study of one particular animal. What was his book called again?

"On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life"

Phil said...

What a load of codswallop. It also demonstrates our anonymous friend has no familiarity with Marx at all. If they had, they would know Marx demonstrated that capitalism was an expansive (or "globalist") system from the very beginning, and this itself was driven by the compulsion to extract ever greater quantities of surplus value from the labour it exploited. It is a dynamic that exists by virtue of capitalism's character as a system of class rule.

davidjc said...

Boffy's Capital series worth a mention. Can't claim to have read it all, but it's certainly helped me.

Mathias Alexander said...

Does anyone think that Marxist ideas like dialectics and class strugle are what now might be called emergent systems?