Late this summer, I mentioned to a colleague that I had just finished Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and was working on Karl Marx’s Capital. He replied: “Now you just have to read Darwin’s The Origin of Species.” Of course he was right: Darwin’s book had a huge impact on everything, but especially on economics via Marx and Engels. So, as is my practice with classic books, I downloaded the cheapest Kindle version I could find.
The Origin of Species didn’t provide me with any fundamentally new ideas, of course—but that’s because it’s one of those basic texts whose ideas have been worked into most subsequent works. The fundamental shift was in understanding the world in terms of “modification and coadaptation,” as Darwin put it, rather than as static systems. Darwin applied this viewpoint to the biological world (and, through Lyell’s work, the geological world); Marx and Engels made their breakthroughs by applying it to the economic and social world as well. Engels is clearest about this borrowing in Dialectics of Nature, in which he makes clear that biological evolution is just one example of dialectics.
Darwin’s approach to the argument was interesting to me as well. He brings the reader along quickly, starting with a basic discussion of coadaptation with which no one could disagree, then using that discussion as a basis for challenging the notion that each species was created in place, as is. As he builds the argument, he uses Lyell’s work in geography to give us an idea of the vast spans of time in which the coadaptation process could work. Later, he answers the question of why we don’t see continual adaptation in the fossil record—the record is incomplete. (Modern evolutionary theory suggests that this answer is only partial and that coadaptation typically happens in spurts rather than gradually.)
Overall, I was glad I read this book, especially in terms of my current project, understanding how it provided the basis for Marx’s and Engels’ work.
At the end of this book, Maurya tells us: “A book, like large software, is never finished—only released.” And that’s the approach he took: as he describes the process in Running Lean, he floated the idea of writing a book on his blog, iterated the concept and ideas with his community, released the book, and now invites us to enter the conversation via his blog, workshops, and newsletter.
Running Lean describes the lean startup approach well, and it’s easy to read and follow. The subtitle emphasizes the key lesson, which is to iterate. And iteration spreads across the entire startup, including the product but also the business model, marketing, value proposition, and the other parts that make up a successful startup.
Beyond iteration, Maurya provides plenty of other advice that may be surprising to new startups:
- “Your product is NOT ‘the product'”: The solution you offer is only part of the overall product you produce; your overall product is actually the business model within which the product makes sense.
- Your key question is: “Do I have a problem worth solving?” A problem worth solving must be a must-have (something the customers want); viable (either the customers or someone else must be willing to pay for it); and feasible (something you can actually solve).
- “How do I accelerate growth?” Maurya offers this simple principle: “pivots are about finding a plan that works, while optimizations are about accelerating that plan.”
Interested in one of my articles, but can’t find a free copy? Unwilling to pay lots of money to download one from a journal? Or just want to get a free preview to decide whether it’s worth pursuing?I’ve recently posted several preprint (legal, freely a…
I reviewed Capital just over ten years ago, while doing research for my second book. At the time, I had enough grounding to see how the book related to my other readings, but not enough to provide a thoroughgoing critique. Now, with ten years’ worth of other readings, I’m perhaps a little better situated to understand and critique Marx’s claims.
This time, I’m linking to the free version at Marxists dot org. I actually read a version of Capital from a Kindle collection, but I’ll point to the freely accessible version instead. I’ll also refer to sections and chapters rather than page numbers.
Chapter 1, Section 1
Marx begins by defining commodities. His initial claim is that “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities,’ and “A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.”
He acknowledges that at first glance, this seems incorrect. “Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place.” Yet, he argues, exchange value is not arbitrary; it also has no existence apart from the commodity. That is, exchange value can be reduced to a single, universal unit: “all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.” Thus, “A use value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialised in it.” And the magnitude of the value is measured in its duration. That is, value can be reduced to labor-hours. That is, “that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production.”
Thus variations in the amount of labor to produce a commodity result in variations of value.
Chapter 1, Section 2
Here, Marx goes on to consider an illustration: the value of a coat. In the context of activity theory, consider this passage:
But coats and linen, like every other element of material wealth that is not the spontaneous produce of Nature, must invariably owe their existence to a special productive activity, exercised with a definite aim, an activity that appropriates particular nature-given materials to particular human wants. So far therefore as labour is a creator of use value, is useful labour, it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race; it is an eternal nature-imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and Nature, and therefore no life.
Here, Marx shows his orientation to labor activity, which would later underpin Leontiev’s activity theory.
Back to commodities. “Productive activity… is nothing but the expenditure of human labour power. … the value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general.”
Chapter 1, Section 3
Marx argues here that since commodities are twofold, “both objects of utility, and, at the same time, depositories of value,” they therefore “manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form, and a value form.” Human labour “creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object.” In an object brought about by human labor, such as a coat, “the coat, in the expression of value of the linen, represents a non-natural property of both, something purely social, namely, their value.”
Marx adds that Aristotle tried to understand exchange value, but could not come to a satisfactory answer because it requires taking equivalent human labor into account, and Athens’ society was founded on slave labor, and therefore did not regard human labor as equivalent. Once we do, we can understand a universally equivalent unit of labor, and thus we have a universal unit for understanding value.
Chapter 1, Section 4
Here, Marx addresses “the fetishism of commodities”—roughly, the belief that a commodity is more than just materials plus labor. “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.” That is, “Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers.” The societal division of labor hides the labor itself from the purchaser, making it mysterious.
Suppose we lift the veil of mystery? Marx uses the opportunity to describe his ideal socialist state:
Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. … The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as means of subsistence. A distribution of this portion amongst them is consequently necessary. … We will assume, but merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labour time. Labour time would, in that case, play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the proper proportion between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants of the community. On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of the common labour borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution.
Marx immediately claims that religion is driven by economics, and that when commodity fetishism disappears, so will religion:
The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion. In the ancient Asiatic and other ancient modes of production, we find that the conversion of products into commodities, and therefore the conversion of men into producers of commodities, holds a subordinate place, which, however, increases in importance as the primitive communities approach nearer and nearer to their dissolution. Trading nations, properly so called, exist in the ancient world only in its interstices, like the gods of Epicurus in the Intermundia, or like Jews in the pores of Polish society. Those ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent. But they are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection. They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and Nature, are correspondingly narrow. This narrowness is reflected in the ancient worship of Nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions. The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature. (my emphasis)
Note that this is one of the points that Weber strongly contests—the claim that economics is the root of sociology rather than being codeterminant with other social phenomena such as religion. (I think Weber has the better part of this argument.) Notice also the assumption of linear cultural development, which is key to Marx’s argument and which firmly underpins Engels’ later work as well. See the link to Engels for some discussion of the problems in this assumption.
Here, Marx considers exchange. He argues that exchange-value comes first:
All commodities are non-use-values for their owners, and use-values for their non-owners. Consequently, they must all change hands. But this change of hands is what constitutes their exchange, and the latter puts them in relation with each other as values, and realises them as values. Hence commodities must be realised as values before they can be realised as use-values.
On the other hand, they must show that they are use-values before they can be realised as values. For the labour spent upon them counts effectively, only in so far as it is spent in a form that is useful for others. Whether that labour is useful for others, and its product consequently capable of satisfying the wants of others, can be proved only by the act of exchange.
And “Money is a crystal formed of necessity in the course of the exchanges, whereby different products of labour are practically equated to one another and thus by practice converted into commodities.”
Chapter 3, Section 1
Marx considers the measure of values here, focusing on gold. Let’s skip to section 2.
Chapter 3, Section 2
Here, Marx considers the exchange of commodities for money:
The leap taken by value from the body of the commodity, into the body of the gold, is, as I have elsewhere called it, the salto mortale of the commodity. If it falls short, then, although the commodity itself is not harmed, its owner decidedly is. The social division of labour causes his labour to be as one-sided as his wants are many-sided. This is precisely the reason why the product of his labour serves him solely as exchange-value. But it cannot acquire the properties of a socially recognised universal equivalent, except by being converted into money. That money, however, is in some one else’s pocket. In order to entice the money out of that pocket, our friend’s commodity must, above all things, be a use-value to the owner of the money. For this, it is necessary that the labour expended upon it, be of a kind that is socially useful, of a kind that constitutes a branch of the social division of labour. But division of labour is a system of production which has grown up spontaneously and continues to grow behind the backs of the producers.
But now the cry is everywhere: money alone is a commodity! As the hart pants after fresh water, so pants his soul after money, the only wealth. In a crisis, the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money, becomes heightened into an absolute contradiction.
As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or main-spring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.
And “Value therefore now becomes value in process, money in process, and, as such, capital.”
Here, Marx contemplates how the capitalist makes more money through circulation:
The commodity owner can, by his labour, create value, but not self-expanding value. He can increase the value of his commodity, by adding fresh labour, and therefore more value to the value in hand, by making, for instance, leather into boots. The same material has now more value, because it contains a greater quantity of labour. The boots have therefore more value than the leather, but the value of the leather remains what it was; it has not expanded itself, has not, during the making of the boots, annexed surplus-value. It is therefore impossible that outside the sphere of circulation, a producer of commodities can, without coming into contact with other commodity-owners, expand value, and consequently convert money or commodities into capital.
It is therefore impossible for capital to be produced by circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to originate apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and yet not in circulation.
Marx sets up the mystery here and solves it in the following chapters.
Marx argues that the capitalist finds the extra value in
a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in capacity for labour or labour-power.
But for labor-power to be a commodity,
(a) the laborer must own his labor and be able to sell it (i.e., he can’t be a slave).
(b) he must not be a producer of commodities himself: “the labourer instead of being in the position to sell commodities in which his labour is incorporated, must be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power, which exists only in his living self.”
Thus, “For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.”
Marx argues here that this arrangement results from the extinction of a previous economic relationship (feudalism). “[T]he economic categories, already discussed by us, bear the stamp of history. Definite historical conditions are necessary that a product may become a commodity.” And “The appearance of products as commodities pre-supposes such a development of the social division of labour, that the separation of use-value from exchange-value, a separation which first begins with barter, must already have been completed.” And “Capital, therefore, announces from its first appearance a new epoch in the process of social production.”
So here’s one piece of Marx’s solution to the mystery: “The consumption of labour-power is at one and the same time the production of commodities and of surplus-value. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the limits of the market or of the sphere of circulation.”
Chapter 7 Section 1
Let’s start with a large block quote on the question of labor independent of a specific economic form:
Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.
The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1, the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, 2, the subject of that work, and 3, its instruments.
Note that labor is seen as man’s ability to change nature and to simultaneously change himself—a theme that Engels expanded in Dialectics of Nature, Ch.9, in which he made labor key to human evolution. That account in turn became key to Leontiev’s activity theory.
Labor here is differentiated from instinct—for man, labor’s object is also projective, envisioning what the laborer might achieve even before it is begun. Labor involves material and purpose. Again, this distinction becomes key in activity theory.
Finally, Marx calls out the labor activity, its subject, and its instruments, all of which were used by Leontiev.
Subject of labor: “All those things which labour merely separates from immediate connexion with their environment, are subjects of labour spontaneously provided by Nature. … All raw material is the subject of labour, but not every subject of labour is raw material: it can only become so, after it has undergone some alteration by means of labour.”
Instruments: “An instrument of labour is a thing, or a complex of things, which the labourer interposes between himself and the subject of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity. … Thus Nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself in spite of the Bible. ” Tool use, as Engels later elaborated, is key to labor: “No sooner does labour undergo the least development, than it requires specially prepared instruments.” And “The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, although existing in the germ among certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labour-process, and Franklin therefore defines man as a tool-making animal”—a claim that Vygotsky repeated.
Instruments also tell us a lot about the economic conditions under which they were used: “It is not the articles made, but how they are made, and by what instruments, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs. Instruments of labour not only supply a standard of the degree of development to which human labour has attained, but they are also indicators of the social conditions under which that labour is carried on.” And “in the great majority of cases, instruments of labour show even to the most superficial observer, traces of the labour of past ages.”
And we forget that the products are products unless we encounter defects: “it is generally by their imperfections as products, that the means of production in any process assert themselves in their character of products. A blunt knife or weak thread forcibly remind us of Mr. A., the cutler, or Mr. B., the spinner. In the finished product the labour by means of which it has acquired its useful qualities is not palpable, has apparently vanished.” Notice the parallel with Leontiev’s concept of operations.
Chapter 7 Section 2
The commodity that I have sold to you differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own. That is why you bought it. That which on your side appears a spontaneous expansion of capital, is on mine extra expenditure of labour-power.
There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.
Capital further developed into a coercive relation, which compels the working class to do more work than the narrow round of its own life-wants prescribes. As a producer of the activity of others, as a pumper-out of surplus labour and exploiter of labour-power, it surpasses in energy, disregard of bounds, recklessness and efficiency, all earlier systems of production based on directly compulsory labour.
At first, capital subordinates labour on the basis of the technical conditions in which it historically finds it. It does not, therefore, change immediately the mode of production. The production of surplus-value — in the form hitherto considered by us — by means of simple extension of the working day, proved, therefore, to be independent of any change in the mode of production itself. It was not less active in the old-fashioned bakeries than in the modern cotton factories.
At first, therefore, the difference is purely quantitative. …
Nevertheless, within certain limits, a modification takes place. The labour realised in value, is labour of an average social quality; is consequently the expenditure of average labour-power.
For instance, “it costs less labour to build one workshop for twenty persons than to build ten to accommodate two weavers each; thus the value of the means of production that are concentrated for use in common on a large scale does not increase in direct proportion to the expansion and to the increased useful effect of those means.”
Marx defines cooperation: “When numerous labourers work together side by side, whether in one and the same process, or in different but connected processes, they are said to co-operate, or to work in co-operation.”
Obviously, “the sum total of the mechanical forces exerted by isolated workmen differs from the social force that is developed, when many hands take part simultaneously in one and the same undivided operation.” This is the origin of the power of masses.
But man is a social animal, so groups often produce more than individuals: “Apart from the new power that arises from the fusion of many forces into one single force, mere social contact begets in most industries an emulation and a stimulation of the animal spirits that heighten the efficiency of each individual workman.”
Cooperation means changes in spatiality of work: “On the one hand, co-operation allows of the work being carried on over an extended space; it is consequently imperatively called for in certain undertakings, such as draining, constructing dykes, irrigation works, and the making of canals, roads and railways. On the other hand, while extending the scale of production, it renders possible a relative contraction of the arena. This contraction of arena simultaneous with, and arising from, extension of scale, whereby a number of useless expenses are cut down, is owing to the conglomeration of labourers, to the aggregation of various processes, and to the concentration of the means of production.”
Under capital, cooperation means a new type of control:
The work of directing, superintending, and adjusting, becomes one of the functions of capital, from the moment that the labour under the control of capital, becomes co-operative. Once a function of capital, it acquires special characteristics.
The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus-value, and consequently to exploit labour-power to the greatest possible extent. As the number of the co-operating labourers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital, and with it, the necessity for capital to overcome this resistance by counterpressure. The control exercised by the capitalist is not only a special function, due to the nature of the social labour-process, and peculiar to that process, but it is, at the same time, a function of the exploitation of a social labour-process, and is consequently rooted in the unavoidable antagonism between the exploiter and the living and labouring raw material he exploits.
Marx appeals to the 18th-century understanding of human social development:
Co-operation, such as we find it at the dawn of human development, among races who live by the chase, or, say, in the agriculture of Indian communities, is based, on the one hand, on ownership in common of the means of production, and on the other hand, on the fact, that in those cases, each individual has no more torn himself off from the navel-string of his tribe or community, than each bee has freed itself from connexion with the hive. Such co-operation is distinguished from capitalistic co-operation by both of the above characteristics. The sporadic application of co-operation on a large scale in ancient times, in the middle ages, and in modern colonies, reposes on relations of dominion and servitude, principally on slavery. The capitalistic form, on the contrary, pre-supposes from first to last, the free wage-labourer, who sells his labour-power to capital. Historically, however, this form is developed in opposition to peasant agriculture and to the carrying on of independent handicrafts whether in guilds or not. From the standpoint of these, capitalistic co-operation does not manifest itself as a particular historical form of co-operation, but co-operation itself appears to be a historical form peculiar to, and specifically distinguishing, the capitalist process of production.
Chapter 14, Section 1
Marx develops his discussion of cooperation here, extending it to manufacturing, which was at the time “the prevalent characteristic form of the capitalist process of production.”
Manufacturing can involve two forms of cooperation.
- In one, many trades are assembled in a workshop and each applies its trades to a mutual product (say, a carriage); they specialize in that product and lose the ability to work in other aspects of their trade.
- In the other, everyone on the workfloor practices the same trade, making the entire commodity. Eventually, they also specialize, developing a specific division of labor.
Chapter 14, Section 2
what is it that forms the bond between the independent labours of the cattle-breeder, the tanner, and the shoemaker? It is the fact that their respective products are commodities. What, on the other hand, characterises division of labour in manufactures? The fact that the detail labourer produces no commodities. It is only the common product of all the detail labourers that becomes a commodity.
For activity theorists, this passage suggests a basis for differentiating objects and activities appropriately.
As the chosen people bore in their features the sign manual of Jehovah, so division of labour brands the manufacturing workman as the property of capital.
cf. Lenin’s vision of eliminating the division of labor.
By decomposition of handicrafts, by specialisation of the instruments of labour, by the formation of detail labourers, and by grouping and combining the latter into a single mechanism, division of labour in manufacture creates a qualitative gradation, and a quantitative proportion in the social process of production; it consequently creates a definite organisation of the labour of society, and thereby develops at the same time new productive forces in the society.
Those productive forces are exploitative in capitalism, but Marx will eventually argue that they can yield better outcomes in socialism.
Chapter 15, Section 1
Here, Marx considers machinery in modern industry.
Chapter 15, Section 2
By means of its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the labourer, during the labour-process, in the shape of capital, of dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual powers of production from the manual labour, and the conversion of those powers into the might of capital over labour, is, as we have already shown, finally completed by modern industry erected on the foundation of machinery.
The whole system of capitalist production is based on the fact that the workman sells his labour-power as a commodity. Division of labour specialises this labour-power, by reducing it to skill in handling a particular tool. So soon as the handling of this tool becomes the work of a machine, then, with the use-value, the exchange-value too, of the workman’s labour-power vanishes; the workman becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment.
cf. deskilling. Marx provides copious figures here.
Let’s skip a bit through the remainder of the sections of this chapter, which become thick with Dickensian details from Marx’s England in the Industrial Revolution. Marx brings us back to the mystery propounded by the exchange of commodities for money:
Modern industry rent the veil that concealed from men their own social process of production, and that turned the various, spontaneously divided branches of production into so many riddles, not only to outsiders, but even to the initiated.
Later in the chapter, Marx looks forward to the revolution that will inevitably (by his lights) occur:
there can be no doubt that when the working-class comes into power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working-class schools. There is also no doubt that such revolutionary ferments, the final result of which is the abolition of the old division of labour, are diametrically opposed to the capitalistic form of production, and to the economic status of the labourer corresponding to that form. But the historical development of the antagonisms, immanent in a given form of production, is the only way in which that form of production can be dissolved and a new form established.
Here, Marx discusses absolute and relative surplus-value. Again, the then-current arrangement is portrayed within historical and material context:
Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.
It is not the tropics with their luxuriant vegetation, but the temperate zone, that is the mother-country of capital. It is not the mere fertility of the soil, but the differentiation of the soil, the variety of its natural products, the changes of the seasons, which form the physical basis for the social division of labour, and which, by changes in the natural surroundings, spur man on to the multiplication of his wants, his capabilities, his means and modes of labour. It is the necessity of bringing a natural force under the control of society, of economising, of appropriating or subduing it on a large scale by the work of man’s hand, that first plays the decisive part in the history of industry.
Here, Marx discusses changes of magnitude in the price of labor-power and surplus value. He makes these assumptions:
I assume (1) that commodities are sold at their value; (2) that the price of labour-power rises occasionally above its value, but never sinks below it.
On this assumption we have seen that the relative magnitudes of surplus-value and of price of labour-power are determined by three circumstances; (1) the length of the working-day, or the extensive magnitude of labour; (2) the normal intensity of labour, its intensive magnitude, whereby a given quantity of labour is expended in a given time; (3) the productiveness of labour, whereby the same quantum of labour yields, in a given time, a greater or less quantum of product, dependent on the degree of development in the conditions of production.
Marx names three laws:
(1.) A working day of given length always creates the same amount of value, no matter how the productiveness of labour, and, with it, the mass of the product, and the price of each single commodity produced, may vary.
(2.) Surplus-value and the value of labour-power vary in opposite directions. A variation in the productiveness of labour, its increase or diminution, causes a variation in the opposite direction in the value of labour-power, and in the same direction in surplus-value.
(3.) Increase or diminution in surplus-value is always consequent on, and never the cause of, the corresponding diminution or increase in the value of labour-power.
After much discussion, he concludes: “In capitalist society spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labour time.”
Here’s an indictment of capitalism:
Capital, therefore, it not only, as Adam Smith says, the command over labour. It is essentially the command over unpaid labour. All surplus-value, whatever particular form (profit, interest, or rent), it may subsequently crystallize into, is in substance the materialization of unpaid labour. The secret of the self-expansion of capital resolves itself into having the disposal of a definite quantity of other people’s unpaid labour.
Marx repeats his claim that the value of a commodity is “The objective form of the social labour expended in its production” and expands it.
Marx discusses time-wages.
Marx discusses piece-wages.
Marx discusses national differences in wages.
Marx discusses simple reproduction. “Whatever the form of the process of production in a society, it must be a continuous process, must continue to go periodically through the same phases. A society can no more cease to produce than it can cease to consume. When viewed, therefore, as a connected whole, and as flowing on with incessant renewal, every social process of production is, at the same time, a process of reproduction.”
Here, Marx describes two objects and a contradiction between them:
The labourer consumes in a two-fold way. While producing he consumes by his labour the means of production, and converts them into products with a higher value than that of the capital advanced. This is his productive consumption. It is at the same time consumption of his labour-power by the capitalist who bought it. On the other hand, the labourer turns the money paid to him for his labour-power, into means of subsistence: this is his individual consumption. The labourer’s productive consumption, and his individual consumption, are therefore totally distinct. In the former, he acts as the motive power of capital, and belongs to the capitalist. In the latter, he belongs to himself, and performs his necessary vital functions outside the process of production. The result of the one is, that the capitalist lives; of the other, that the labourer lives.
Capitalist production, therefore, under its aspect of a continuous connected process, of a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer.
I found this quote interesting in terms of its spiral imagery, which is also used by Lenin, Ilyenkov, Vygotsky, and Leontiev:
From a concrete point of view, accumulation resolves itself into the reproduction of capital on a progressively increasing scale. The circle in which simple reproduction moves, alters its form, and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.
Marx discusses the law of capitalist accumulation, including its tendency toward centralization. He also touches on deskilling again in terms of contradiction:
That the natural increase of the number of labourers does not satisfy the requirements of the accumulation of capital, and yet all the time is in excess of them, is a contradiction inherent to the movement of capital itself. It wants larger numbers of youthful labourers, a smaller number of adults. The contradiction is not more glaring than that other one that there is a complaint of the want of hands, while at the same time many thousands are out of work, because the division of labour chains them to a particular branch of industry.
The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.
Much of this lengthy chapter describes statistics and anecdotes demonstrating the depredations of the Industrial Revolution.
Marx discusses “the secret of primitive accumulation.” Since those who already have capital become capitalists, how did they get the capital? One explanation is that they worked hard—that is, they or their ancestors earned it. Marx says instead that
The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.
The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.
Marx discusses how the shift from feudalism to capitalism involved expropriating serfs from the land with which they formerly had been associated, with special attention to Ireland.
Marx continues by discussing how the expropriated laborers were held down by legislation.
The advance of capitalist production develops a working class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus-population keeps the law of supply and demand of labour, and therefore keeps wages, in a rut that corresponds with the wants of capital. The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the labourer can be left to the “natural laws of production,” i.e., to his dependence on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves.
Marx discusses the genesis of the capitalist farmer,
Marx discusses the creation of the home market for industrial capital:
Formerly, the peasant family produced the means of subsistence and the raw materials, which they themselves, for the most part, consumed. These raw materials and means of subsistence have now become commodities; the large farmer sells them, he finds his market in manufactures. Yarn, linen, coarse woollen stuffs — things whose raw materials had been within the reach of every peasant family, had been spun and woven by it for its own use — were now transformed into articles of manufacture, to which the country districts at once served for markets. The many scattered customers, whom stray artisans until now had found in the numerous small producers working on their own account, concentrate themselves now into one great market provided for by industrial capital.
Marx discusses the genesis of the industrial capitalist.
Marx discusses the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation. He begins:
Private property, as the antithesis to social, collective property, exists only where the means of labour and the external conditions of labour belong to private individuals. But according as these private individuals are labourers or not labourers, private property has a different character. The numberless shades, that it at first sight presents, correspond to the intermediate stages lying between these two extremes.
But the wheel turns. Here, Marx confidently predicts that capitalism will in turn be supplanted. As feudalism gave way to capitalism through the expropriation of serfs from the land, so will the capitalists themselves be expropriated:
As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.
Capitalism was the negation of feudalism; socialism will be the negation of the negation. And Marx adds:
The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialised production, into socialised property. In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.
Thus ends Capital.
A few thoughts about the book.
First, Schumpeter was right in that Marx doesn’t seem to have a theory of entrepreneurship. Perhaps this is because Marx deals specifically in commodities. But there seems to be no room in his theory of value to explain entrepreneurship, which involves creating new combinations to solve specific problems. As mentioned earlier, Marx doesn’t even seem to recognize service value such as the value that a merchant might add to the process by filtering goods for quality or identifying potential uses.
Second, and related, Marx’s argument about value encapsulates the value within the good as a manifestation of labor. That is, this argument assumes goods-dominant logic, which makes sense for commodities but not for services, including services that are centered around a good.
Third is something that we really can’t blame on Marx, but it’s interesting to notice anyway. Marx indicts capitalism for the following:
- It alienates workers from their work, forcing them to sell it to others because they don’t own their own tools of production.
- Because of this arrangement, it squeezes more out of the workers without fair compensation (surplus value).
- Workers are expropriated from their land.
- Families are broken up and children are exploited for their labor.
- Children are thus uneducated. When they are older, they turn to crime.
- Adults turn to licentiousness and prostitution.
- Working conditions are nearly unlivable; “The means of production employ the laborer.”
If you’re in a school of information, or if you’re interested in information studies, consider attending this conference:
Dates: Sunday, March 20 through Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Location: Loew’s Philadelphia Hotel, Philadelphia, PA
Host: College of Computing & Informatics, Drexel University
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Much more at the link.