I finished reading volume one of Marx’s Capital this past winter and have been meaning for a while to write up some brief notes and observations. A ton of things have gotten in the way of doing that and since then I’ve probably lost a lot of the sharpness of my observations. Nevertheless, it’d help me to jot some of these thoughts down and I might as well share them (and, perhaps quixotically, encourage some out there to pick up Capital this summer).
Capital has the unfortunate reputation of being a dry and boring economics text (please, pardon the blaspheme). A lot of “M. Smith buys cotton at 100 pounds sterling and sells it for” yadda-yadda. Obviously this sort of straightforward accounting is featured heavily in the book, and is crucial, indispensable even, to understanding Capital, Marxism, the world, and so on. For my part, I find numbers intimidating and I’ve never had any patience for them. But luckily, for my fellow Marxist arithmophobes out there, these parts are in reality only a fraction of the book.
Marx’s wears the hat of a scientist or a philosopher in Capital, more than the hat of an accountant. And even the numbers, are digestible if you consider what Marx is trying to illustrate with them. This was the first thing that stood out to me: Marx’s approach to economics in Capital. His work isn’t so much trying to understand the economy as such, but rather, trying to grapple with the question of how society produces and reproduces its own every day existence, and the impact that has on all other human social relations.
Marx, and Marxists after him, believe that to understand society, one must have a radical analysis of social relations. That is, an analysis that goes beyond mere surface appearances, and digs down to their inner core. An understanding of social phenomena is not possible, writes Marx, without first grasping society’s inner nature, “just as the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies are not intelligible to any but him, who is acquainted with their real motions, motions which are not directly perceptible by the senses.”
This is what it means when Marx discusses his philosophy as being “scientific.” Not narrow, mechanistic positivism, but rather an approach to analyzing society that refuses to be satisfied merely with how phenomena represents itself to us. Indeed, Marx once wrote elsewhere that if things always appeared as they really were, there would be no need for science at all.
Throughout the text Marx is pulling things apart, and putting them back together again, then pulling them apart again in an ongoing process of dialectical abstraction and exposition. David Harvey, in his indispensable Companion to Marx’s Capital, compares this to dissecting an onion. (I think this may be a poor analogy, since you don’t really find anything new when you dissect an onion. You just find more onion, but I digress.) Elsewhere, Marx illustrates and gives an example of his own reasoning, noting that “it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly falling towards another, and as, at the same time, constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion which, while allowing this contradiction to go on, at the same time reconciles it.”
For example Marx begins his analysis of the capitalist mode of production, not with the class struggle, exploitation, etc. (he doesn’t get to that until chapter 6 or so!). He starts with the commodity. A thing of use that is exchanged for something else. Harvey explains that there’s been a lot of debate and discussion over why Marx chose this as his starting point. Harvey suggests that this is because literally everyone must come into contact with commodities, precisely because the commodity form is the form that our means of subsistence and every day life take under capitalism. Capitalism tries to commodify everything it can: food, housing, culture, education, love, sex, everything.
The commodity isn’t as simple as it looks, says Marx. The commodity internalizes a contradiction. Commodities have a value based on their usefulness and utility, but also a value based on what they can be exchanged for, and these forms of value are in contradiction with each other. But at the same time they compliment each other (one can’t exchange something, for instance, if it has no use to anyone, even if to just be exchanged), and in the end, you just have value. Marx is constantly pulling things apart, showing their contradictions, and bringing them back together again. Harvey illustrates this form of reasoning in his book with this helpful chart:
So Marx starts with the commodity because that’s the form our means of survival take under capitalism. From here he gradually exposes the manner by which these commodities are exchanged and produced, which begins to expose how that mode of exchange and production affects and determines other forms of social relationships. A lot of attention has been given to Marx’s statement that “each special mode of production and the social relations corresponding to it, in short, that the economic structure of society, is the real basis on which the juridical and political superstructure is raised.” Many call this “reductionist” or “economistic.” For example, radical author Michael Albert, in his debate with the editor of Socialist Worker, Alan Maass, says that Marxism “mainly conceptualizes economics” and denies that “influences from other domains [i.e., gender, race, polity, and the environment] can centrally contour economic relations, just as vice versa.”
Harvey doesn’t completely disagree with the argument that this is a “reductionist” statement. However, in his online lectures, he argues that if we weren’t prepared to make reductionist arguments, we would have missed out on a lot of valuable insights that things like biology and the hard sciences have to offer us. To understand vast, complicated phenomena, we need to be prepared to break these processes down to simpler and more digestible terms, and work our way out from there.
But while Marx begins with an analysis of the mode of production, his analysis doesn’t view society as a narrow, unilateral, causal process. “Cause and effect” is the method of the metaphysician, wrote Engels in Socialism: Utopian & Scientific. Throughout Capital, Marx spends literally hundreds of pages writing long, boring, yet important exposition on battles over English factory legislation (a so-called “superstructural” matter of politics).
In a letter Engels criticized those who were already vulgarizing the materialist conception of history in his own time, to turn it into a dry, economistic method. Engels wrote:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
What Marx is showing in Capital in writing on laws, legislation, debates in the English parliament, etc., is precisely how politics can determines and contour economic activity. Culture, religion, philosophy, politics, etc. can constrain and limit the range of motion, possibilities, etc. But capital cannot abide any barrier to growth. And hence, the economy must “assert itself.” Capital did not emerge under prime conditions for its own growth. It had to force its way into the world with civil war, colonialism, enslavement, etc. “Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” wrote Marx. And things had to change in order for capital to continue accumulating. Hence, capital emerges out of the contradictions of feudal society, but become restricted by the political and social forms of the society that it emerges under, capital then seeks a way around those barriers, or else finds a way to smash them.
Harvey points out that one sees virtually no use of causal reasoning in Capital. Marx doesn’t look for cause-and-effect, but rather examines processes, contradiction, tension, etc.
Capital is not just a study in Marxist political economy, but of the Marxist method itself. And there is no better time to read this work than now. While we’re in the midst of a “recovery” from the largest economic meltdown to hit our world since the Great Depression, and resurgence of mass movements and mass struggles in response to this crisis, much of what Marx lays out in Capital is far clearer to see than it has been for a long, long time.