Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Demystifying Capital

A lot of bollocks has been written about Karl Marx's masterwerk, not least about its alleged difficulties and forbidding reputation. At over a thousand pages in length and on a topic as seemingly arid as the Sahara during a dry spell, Capital's popular reception and perception is in about the same area as War and Peace and Ulysses: a fantastic accomplishment, but more a monument than anything else. This couldn't be further from the truth. Marx may have published the first edition of this book in 1867, but rare are the works of social theory that read fresh and alive after 150 years in circulation.

It has taken me a long time to read Capital. I had a bash at it during my first summer holidays as an undergrad, but got waylaid by Lenin's Selected Works in One Volume. Still, it furnished me with a basic understanding of the labour theory of value, and that made immediate sense to me as a low paid worker for a rob dog "family owned" northern supermarket. And then in the early 00s I had another bash, this time taking very comprehensive and detailed notes. This took me up to chapter eight - Constant and Variable Capital - until distracted by other things again. And there the bookmark remained for 15 years until taking it up again and finishing it over the course of the last month.

One reason it took so long wasn't just the length and the attendant time sink, but because of the literature surrounding it. Having read loads of stuff and commentary on Marx's arguments and on Capital, the various debates had a way of mystifying the book as opposed to opening it up and encouraging others to read it. Althusser, for example, co-wrote Reading Capital arguing that there was a master key to materialist social theory in there but only by wading through his own dense arguments and digressions on Theory, science vs ideology, and what not could we hope to retrieve it. You had the idiots from what was the Revolutionary Communist Party (the boring provocateurs now trading under the Koch Bros-funded Spiked Online, among other guises) arguing that Capital could only be understood in the original German. Even old Lenin was far from helpful when he polemically declared against the official Marxism of the Second International that reading and understanding Hegel's Logic was a precondition for getting to grips with the book. As far as I'm concerned, giving Capital the bible code treatment is not an aid to understanding and is counter productive from the point of view of propagating Marx's ideas.

For readers contemplating the effort, it's worth ignoring the flim-flam and piling straight in. Stylistically, Capital is an excellent read. Unlike Tolstoy's infamous novel, there's no equivalent of a minor Russian princeling popping up several hundred pages after his first introduction. Marx goes through his argument methodically and painstakingly. In places, perhaps he belabours his points too much. But then again, given the level of abstraction and the complex and contradictory ways capital and capitalism works who can blame him? Clarity of exposition is a skill too many latter day thinkers and philosophers have happily abandoned. Sure, sometimes you have to stop and think through the discussion - particularly so with the first part on the commodity (the one Althusser used to get sweaty about), but it's hardly Science of Logic territory. Remember, Capital wasn't written for stuffy academics to build careers out of. Marx's analysis was geared toward a popular readership and, particularly, the very workers at the heart of the book's argument. The only issue I have with the presentation (mine is the 1976 Penguin Classics edition) is the inclusion of The Results of the Immediate Process of Production in the appendix. This is a scrappy collection of drafts and fragments that condenses many of Marx's earlier points about exploitation, the value of labour, the "surplus population" and so on. It's good for the Marxology but going straight into it from reading the book detracts from the coherence and narrative pace.

Writing a review of Capital is a difficult task because there are so many aspects to it. Volume One is, effectively, our The Origin of the Species. The basics are there: the definition and circulation of commodities, the source of profit, class exploitation, the determination of wages, why unemployment is inevitable, the origins of capitalism, the inescapable fact of class struggle. Capital is our way in, it gives us the basics to which we must supply the subsequent detail, such as how exploitation remains with us but is changing. Times have changed but the method remains relevant and the concepts are sound because capitalism in the 21st century is still capitalism.

While reading, I did so with an eye to some of the subsequent debates and trends in Marxism and social theory generally. These included the relationship between the degradation of wage labour and health (including mental health), Althusser's argument that there was an 'epistemological break' between the early, Hegel-influenced Marx and his mature work (unconvincing), whether there is discontinuity between Marx's treatment of machines in The Grundrisse and Capital (no), and Richard Brenner's contention that capitalism originated in the English countryside and not the towns as Marx supposed is challenged by, um, Marx's account that capitalism emerged from the destruction of the English peasantry and the replacement of serfdom by waged labour in the countryside(part eight).

Capital is long, and there are another two volumes to shout about as well. But don't let that put you off. It deserves to be read, demands to be read. Sitting down and patiently making your way through is at odds with our attention economy and the millions of videos, GIFs, tweets, and so much digital babble demanding time. But doing so is rewarding, leaves you wanting to more, and an appreciation why, despite its age, Marx's Capital remains the utterly indispensable work.


Ken said...

Excellent post!

I have one minor quibble over an arcane point of sociological method: your link for the summary of 'Brenner's contention' is to a source on which it is always unwise to rely for any kind of fair-minded account of any debate whatsoever.

Ken said...

I think that no one should attempt this as an individual. If you had a few like minded comrades who agree to meet regularly, it would have “only” taken about 18 months. I would advise skipping the first two chapters on method and start with his substantive argument. He might have been an intellectual giant but I think his pedagogy is awry. “It is no accident, comrade” that left groups hand out the chapter on “Wages, Prices, and Profit” to read as an introduction to the gist of his argument. I think that more people have been put off reading Capital by these chapters as they seem to justify its reputation for difficulty.

Boffy said...

I agree.As I said in my Introduction to my 21st Century Translation of Marx's Capital, Volume I, Marx wrote it so that workers of his time could understand it. However, there are some caveats that have to come with it.

Firstly, Marx wrote the book on the basis that whilst he understood that his opponents would attack it - though initially they responded by ignoring it - the workers themselves would read it honestly. So, be aware that Marx deals with definitions of terms, and having done so, does not feel the need to continually do so. I am in the process of writing a response to John Bridge of the WW, on precisely this point, in relation to the term Value, and The Law of Value.

So, Marx often in Capital uses the term "Value", when in fact, what he is really talking about is Exchange-Value. Wherever, Marx is discussing the inadequacy, or fallacies involved in the use of those terms, by others, he is, however, clear in his distinction. The same thing with Labour and Labour-Power. In Capital I, Marx makes clear that the term value/price of labour is irrational. Labour is value, and value is labour, so to talk of the value of Labour makes no more sense than to enquire after the value of value, or the length of length.

What is meant by those who speak of the value of labour is alternatively the value of labour-power (wages), or else the value created by labour. These are two entirely different things, and the difference between them is the source of surplus value. Yet, in dealing with the writings of bourgeois economists, who routinely talk about "the price of labour", Marx himself uses that phrase, because his main concern in these instances is to analyse the wider context in which that phrase is used.

A similar thing can be seen in Theories of Surplus Value, where Marx uses throughout the term "cost-price", but in looking at what Marx actually means by it, in these instances, he means an equivalent of Adam Smith's natural price, i.e. the cost of production, plus the average profit, which is what Marx defines in Capital III, not as "cost-price", which generally has a different meaning, but "price of production".

So, its necessary, to look first at Marx's definitions of terms - which is why I have created my own glossary of those terms, so that whenever I use them I can link to its definition, rather than continually have to define the term - and then, whenever you see that term used compare it with Marx's definition, so as to put it in the right context.

That is especially important given that Marx only published Volume I, and all the rest is based upon only his notebooks, and as any author will attest, the way you write things in note form, is completely different to the way you would present the finished work.

Boffy said...

A further point is that Marx does actually state that capitalist production begins in the towns, in the fifteenth century, rather than in agriculture. Its development in agriculture is hindered by the existence of landed property, which prevents competition from creating prices of production and an average rate of profit.

It is the development of capitalist production in the towns, that leads to the development of an average rate of profit, and prices of production, so that prices are no longer determined by exchange-values, which means that it is this industrial rate of profit, which determines the agricultural rate of profit - any surplus profits being appropriated as rent, any fall below the average industrial profit resulting in an outflow of capital to industry - and thereby also determines rent.

Jim Denham said...

Otto Ruhle's abridgement is no substitute for reading the original, but is by far the best introduction:


Dialectician1 said...

Why read Marx (and Engels)? Because it's the only game in town (and the countryside). In brief, a non-Marxist methodology offers you the choice of either crude materialism (drum and trumpet history) or epistemological anarchy (postmodernism). By placing the production process (not the economy) as the starting point, we have the possibility of exploring the human condition through the dialectical relationship between agency & structure: humans change the world but not from circumstances of their choosing.

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

What is "value"?

Ken said...

After Volume 1, give Volume 3 (Theoriesof Surplus Value,as I recall) a miss. Sraffa would have to be your next stop, but only if you felt it necessary to enter a long debate with profrsional political economists

DTFM said...

This post offers absolutely nothing, there is literally not an atom of value contained in this post.

Jim Denham speaks as if he is a Marxist, you have to cry, yes you really have to cry.

Even if Marx wanted to ‘dumb’ this down so the average joe could understand it, the nature of Marx’s method made this impossible. Capital is a struggle, it isn’t easy but it does include enough context, for example the factory inspectors reports, to make joining the dots at least possible. But to understand the capitalist system takes groups of people working honestly and objectively. That becomes impossible when charlatans like Denham are involved. It can only descend into hysteria and witch hunting.

Boffy writes,

“These are two entirely different things, and the difference between them is the source of surplus value.”

The best way, in my opinion to get to grips with surplus value and incidentally avoid sraffa altogether (a blind alley) is to take the physical products and work backwards, in this way we can see that value is not simply a quantifiable value but more an immaterial relation, bringing in power, control and command, command over labour, resources, infrastructure etc. Now while it is not so much quantifiable it can be analogous to a worker providing unpaid labour to the capitalist, but this service provided by the worker translates into a value system which is more than money. Boffy misses this point which is why he can incredulously claim that the West in no way relies on the unpaid labour via super exploitation in the developed nations. I say incredulously because when you actually follow the logic through neo Liberalism cannot possibly operate without this dynamic. On logic I think it is important to see the early chapters of capital in logical terms, where the logic naturally flows as the argument progresses. So for example once you accept commodities have in common labour time the logic compels you to conclude this labour time must be socially necessary labour time. The issue with this approach is that some people can read Marx as an historical narrative, and actually believe there was a period of simple commodity production.

“A further point is that Marx does actually state that capitalist production begins in the towns, in the fifteenth century,”

This might seem a pedantic point but capitalism doesn’t begin and then develops but itself develops out of feudalism, so capitalism had a pre-history so to speak. This pre history grew out of the evictions of tenant farmers etc, as Marx said the workers were free in the sense that they were freed from control of property, particularly in land.