A guide for the journey through Capital

January 6, 2011

Aaron Hess reviews a book for the aspiring reader of Marx's most important work.

WIDESPREAD UNEMPLOYMENT, endless wars, corporate-controlled elections, environmental destruction and countless daily injustices make it clear that something is deeply wrong with a system that puts the interests of profit before those of humanity and our planet.

For anyone seeking to understand why capitalism fails, Karl Marx's Capital, published in 1867, remains unsurpassed.

There is an unfortunate tradition among academics--deliberate or not--to present Marx's work as obscure or outdated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Capital is a literary masterpiece with greater political relevance today than ever. With cool wit and devastating satire, Marx unravels the central dynamics of the profit system and shows how the working class has the strategic power to get rid of it.

But reading Capital is a challenge, a fact its author was well aware of. Writing in 1872, Marx feared that activists in his own era:

eager to know the connection between general principles and the immediate questions that have aroused their passions, may be disheartened...This is a disadvantage I am powerless to overcome, unless it be by forewarning and forearming those readers who zealously seek the truth. There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.

Just as you would want an experienced guide for a mountain climb, ditto for Capital. The Marxist geographer and activist David Harvey provides an excellent guide in his Companion to Marx's Capital, a book based on the author's online lecture series, which is in turn a great supplement to Harvey's book.

Having taught Capital in various settings for nearly four decades, Harvey is well-qualified for the expedition. His writings on imperialism, urban geography, neoliberalism and economic crisis have provided a touchstone for a small but important recent revival of Marxist thought.

A great strength of Harvey's Companion is that it is written with an activist audience in mind. He rightly asks the reader to approach Capital "on Marx's own terms." But Harvey continually relates Marx's analysis to the rapidly changing nature of contemporary capitalism, making connections between concepts that may be new to the reader, like commodity fetishism and relative surplus-value, to issues such as whether "fair trade" is possible, China's emergence as an industrial superpower, and the revival of sweatshop and family labor systems in the neoliberal era.

As he writes in the preface, "My sense is that those who wish to read Marx now are far more interested in practical engagements, which does not mean they are fearful of abstractions, but rather that they find academicism boring and irrelevant."

HARVEY'S COMPANION rightly stresses Marx's innovative method of analysis. In contrast to the usual method of building an argument "brick by brick," Harvey compares Marx's method in Capital to that of peeling an onion:

Marx starts from the outside of the onion, moving through the layers of external reality to reach its center, the conceptual core. Then he grows the argument outward again, coming back to the surface through the various layers of theory. The true power of the argument only becomes clear when, having returned to the realm of experience, we find ourselves equipped with an entirely new framework of knowledge for understanding and interpreting that experience.

Marx developed his damning judgment of the capitalism of his own time by uncovering the contradictions in the models previous classical liberal economists had created to explain the system. Marx accepted a number of insights from Adam Smith, John Locke, David Ricardo and others, but showed how these political economists' models were flawed on their own terms. As Harvey explains:

Rather than saying that perfectly functioning markets and the hidden hand can never be constructed and that the marketplace is always distorted by political power, Marx accepts the liberal utopian vision of perfect markets and the hidden hand in order to show that these would not produce a result beneficial to all, but would instead make the capitalist class incredibly wealthy while relatively impoverishing the workers and everyone else.

Capital begins by assuming a number of concepts as given, starting with the commodity--any product or service created by human labor and sold on the market. Concepts like these are abstractions from the messy complexity of the capitalist market. But by successively situating these concepts in relation to one other, they become, in Harvey's words, "ever richer and more meaningful." What results is an increasingly developed picture of how the system works--and why it is driven into crisis.

Contrary to a claim made by many of Marx's detractors, this is not a closed, deterministic method of analysis, but an expansionary one, capable of incorporating new contradictions.

Crucially, this dialectical method allows Marx, as Harvey writes, to "pinpoint the duplicity that lies at the heart of the bourgeois conception of freedom." The capitalist market appears, on the surface, as a natural, politically neutral mechanism for allocating resources. Workers "freely" exchange their labor for a wage. If we don't like our jobs, we are "free" to get another one (although of course even this freedom can hardly be taken for granted).

But Capital allows us to see that capitalism's "freedom" hides a new kind of bondage. The value that workers produce beyond what it takes to survive and keep working--the "surplus value"--is extracted (i.e., stolen) by the capitalists in the labor process, taking the form of profit. This process of exploitation is possible because, unlike any other commodity, labor is capable of creating more value than it takes to reproduce itself.

What drives the process of exploitation? Capitalists tend to be greedy and corrupt, but their greed and corruption by themselves do not drive the system.

What Marx calls the "the coercive laws of competition" operate as an "external force" on every capitalist. As Harvey writes, "No matter whether they are good- or bad-hearted, capitalists are forced to engage in the same labor practices as their competitors. If your competitors shorten the lives of laborers, you have to, too. That is how the coercive laws of competition work."

Competition between capitalists--the never-ending race to accumulate more capital--inevitably drives capitalists as a social class to push down wages, degrade working conditions and destroy the environment. Rather than being incidental to how the system works, competition between capitalists and the capitalist class's collective exploitation of labor are hard-wired into it.

BUT CAPITALISM also produces new forms of class struggle between exploiters and exploited. An interesting dimension of Harvey's Companion is the attention he gives to how class struggle under capitalism expresses itself as a battle over control of time and space.

To extract maximum value out of the workers' labor-power, the capitalist has to obsessively search for ways to discipline, control and extend workers' time at work. "Moments," Marx writes, "are the elements of profit." As Harvey explains:

Capitalists seek to capture every moment of the worker's time in the labor process. Capitalists do not simply buy a worker's labor-power for twelve hours; they have to make sure every moment of those twelve hours is used at maximum intensity...This is what a factory disciplinary and supervisory system is all about.

Capitalists also seek to maximize profits by controlling space--constantly expanding and breaking down geographic barriers to trade, investment and production, while simultaneously concentrating workers in factories, offices and huge urban centers.

In the era of neoliberalism, capitalists across the globe have used their ability to control time and space to dominate labor, squeezing as much out of workers as possible.

But the relationship between capital and labor is never one of absolute domination, even if it appears that way--it is always one of interdependence. While capitalists try to "capture every moment" to maximize profit, workers have the strategic power to recapture this time, cutting off the source of profits by collectively withholding their labor power.

Likewise, the spatial dynamics of capitalism can be a source of workers' strength. As Harvey writes, "Workers, brought together in a large factory, can become all too aware of their common interests and become a potentially powerful collective political force."

Harvey makes the point that while capitalism can "internalize" a certain level of class struggle without it posing a threat, "There is also a point at which struggle over the length of the working day and the empowerment of the working-class movement can go beyond trade-union consciousness and morph into more revolutionary demands...The question here is, at what point does reform go too far and actually challenge the very basis of capitalism?"

Today, the bosses and bankers of the world are doing everything they can to make workers pay for the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. But a new resistance to capitalist austerity is growing. David Harvey has given us a valuable guide to understanding Marx's analysis in Capital, which remains an indispensable weapon for those who want to understand capitalism--the better to overthrow it.

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