Reading Capital & the master-slave dialectic

I’ve been reading Capital, Vol. 1 and am nearly finished with the book — I’m ecstatic, not just because I finally get to move on to some other reading (Lukacs’ Lenin is next on my list), but because I also get to go over some of my notes and examine some parts of the book more closely. Capital is an dense book, but not nearly as dry as people may anticipate, or accuse it of being — density is not synonymous with being boring.

Nevertheless, while reading David Harvey’s Companion (an absolutely essential text to read alongside Capital, whether you’re doing it as part of a group or on your own — I cannot stress this enough) I came back across this passage from Capital,

The labourer therefore constantly produces material, objective wealth, but in the form of capital, of an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist as constantly produces labour-power, but in the form of a subjective source of wealth, separated from the objects in and by which it can alone be realised; in short he produces the labourer, but as a wage labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the labourer, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production.

In other words, the worker produces capital which dominates and reproduces the worker, and so on in an endless spiral.  What caught me this time when reading the passage is the obvious reference Marx is making here to Hegel’s “Master-slave dialectic,” but with his own obvious materialist alteration.

For Hegel, the conflict between master and slave was idealistically rooted in consciousness — the master, for example, becomes self-conscious through their recognition of the slave as their negation, and vice-versa.  In that process of recognition, however, the master loses their own self-determination, by depending upon the slave.  The master seeks to reassert his/her self by destroying the slave, but since the existence of the slave is the necessary condition for the existence of the master, they are caught in a contradiction.  To resolve the contradiction, the master settles to simply subordinate the slave (Hegel argues here that the master is able to dominate the slave because, unlike the slave, the master does not fear death).

For Marx, it is not a subjective process of recognition, but the objective process of production.  Labor is constantly producing its own master, capital, which also constantly reproduces its creator, the worker.  Capital, constantly seeking to maximize the pace and intensity of production for as little pay as possible, seeks to work and starve the working-class to death.  But if it did so, than it would lose the source of its own creation.  Of course, the working-class, unable to simply escape from capital, (since capital controls the means of life — e.g., food, shelter, clothing, etc.) struggles against capital, and so on.

For Hegel, the key to the liberation of the slave was the conscious recognition on the part of the slave, to recognize that their labor produced the means by which the master lived, and thereby recognize that they are the ones who truly enslave the master, etc.

For Marx, it is the objective expropriation of capital by the working-class that is the key to labor’s liberation.

The great thing about Capital here is the recognition of these references, the playing out and unfolding of Marx’s dialectical and materialist method.  This is what makes Capital, for me at least, more than just dry political economy.  He approaches economics primarily as a philosopher (and a revolutionary!), not as a dry, mechanical accountant.

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