Karl Marx and the case of the never-ending theft

Marx's masterwork turned 150 years young this month. Hadas Thier pays tribute.

Left: title page from the 1867 edition of Capital; right: Karl MarxLeft: title page from the 1867 edition of Capital; right: Karl Marx

ONE HUNDRED and fifty years ago, the first volume of Karl Marx's Capital was published. It was the crowning achievement of Marx's developing economic analysis and the culmination of over 20 years' worth of work.

Sixteen years prior to its publication, Marx wrote to Frederick Engels, his lifelong friend and collaborator, that he should be done with "this economic crap" in five weeks. Intervening world events, revolutionary movements and counter-revolutionary reactions, the complexity of the questions, as well Marx's own health, financial problems and the illnesses and deaths of three children intervened to delay completion of this very ambitious project for many years.

Marx's outline for Capital had many iterations. In each case, some number of volumes would cover the topics of capitalist production, circulation and exchange; system-wide processes in their totality; the state; international trade; the world market; and capitalist crisis.

In the end, only the first volume of Capital was published during his lifetime. Its aim was to uncover the economic laws of the capitalist mode of production. Two other volumes were completed by Engels based on Marx's notes and published posthumously.

Though the grand outline first conceived of by Marx did not come to fruition, Capital remains the single most insightful and comprehensive guide to capitalism. It was written to provide a theoretical arsenal to a workers' movement for the revolutionary overthrow of the system--and to do so on the most scientific foundation possible.

As Ernest Mandel wrote in his introduction to Capital: "Precisely because Marx was convinced that the cause of the proletariat was of decisive importance for the whole future of mankind, he wanted to create for that cause not a flimsy platform of rhetorical invective or wishful thinking, but the rock-like foundation of scientific truth."

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DURING THIS past decade, Capital has gained in popularity as new generations of radicals try to understand the functions and dysfunctions of our political and economic system.

But it still remains a daunting read, not only for its formidable length, but also for the depth of its sometimes abstract theoretical points, detailed historical and anecdotal accounts, and numeric examples and formulas.

This is particularly true of the first chapters of volume one, in which Marx sets out to define the key concepts--commodities, value, surplus value, money-- that are necessary to understand the broader themes and processes he lays out later.

As Marx himself wrote in the preface to the French edition:

The method of analysis which I have employed, and which had not previously been applied to economic subjects, makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous, and it is to be feared that the French public, always impatient to come to a conclusion, eager to know the connection between general principles and the immediate questions that have aroused their passions, may be disheartened because they will be unable to move on at once.

That 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.

Reading Capital is unlikely to happen before bedtime as you doze off, or as a light read on the beach (though I've attempted both). It is meant as a text to be enjoyed, but also struggled with. The reward is not only a clear understanding of the way the system works, its laws of motion and its long-term trajectories and processes, but also an incredible education in Marx's dialectical approach.

Marx employed a method of investigation that was meant to go beyond static, everyday surface appearances to uncover the essence, motion and inner contradictions of capital--unraveling, step by step, its economic laws. The dialectic was key in this, as Marx described in a preface to the second edition of Capital in 1873:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

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AN EXPLORATION of all the important concepts and themes of Capital is clearly beyond the scope of this article or even a whole series of them. But we can touch here on two central themes: that capitalism is a social relation of production, and that human labor is critical to making it tick.

What Marx meant by a "social relation of production" is that profits are not the result of good accounting or the inventive ideas of the super-rich, but rather by an exploitative relationship between two classes of people: bosses and workers.

Under capitalism, employers and workers meet each other on a very unequal playing field, in which one owns the means of production (land, factories, tools and machinery, technology, etc.) and the other has no choice but to sell their labor to live. As Marx wrote:

For the transformation of money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find the free worker available on the market; and this worker must be free in the double sense that as a free individual he can dispose of his labor-power as his own commodity, and that, on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realization of his labor-power.

In other words, workers are so "free" of any means of producing wealth that they have no choice but to work for someone else in order to survive.

This social order of haves and have-nots is neither natural nor timeless. In fact, the precondition for the early development of capitalism was the violent expropriation of the masses of people from their land. "The expropriation," wrote Marx, "of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil is the basis of the whole process."

Marx vividly described in the pages of Capital the cruel history in which displaced peasants-turned-workers were subjected to a new hell on earth in the "dark satanic mills" of early capitalism, as the poet William Blake called them. The new working class was disciplined to this social order via legislation against vagabondage, joblessness and begging, punishable by beatings, imprisonments, branding and mutilation.

The new capitalist class, meanwhile, amassed the wealth necessary to dominate workers by engaging in wholesale conquest, slavery and plunder. As Marx described:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginning of the conquest and plunder of India, the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the rosy dawn of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.

Capital, wrote Marx, "comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt."

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AT THE heart of this new social order is the buying and selling of labor power. Whereas previous class societies made no pretense to obscure rulers seizing persons, their land or the products of their labor through force, capitalism cloaks these processes as operations of the "free market." Workers, we're told, freely sell their labor power to bosses for "a fair day's wage."

Labor has been a permanent feature of the human existence long before the rise of capitalism. Some kind of expenditure of physical or mental energy is necessary to create the necessities for our species' survival: shelter, clothes, machines, tools, food and so on. In Marx's words: it is "a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself."

Marx celebrated the extraordinary potential of human labor, writing:

We presuppose labor in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax.

At the end of every labor process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally. Man not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials.

But Marx understood "wealth" to mean the things that we need or want to live, survive, and thrive (he called them "use values,") as distinct from the socially assigned "value" (sometimes referred to as "exchange-value," as a quantitative reflection of value) attached to these varying goods.

Marx wrote: "So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or in a diamond." That is to say, value is not a physical attribute, but a historically determined reflection of the social relationship of production. As Marx put it: "It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things."

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IN WHAT way does value reflect social relationships?

On the one hand, labor is necessary to create the various things that make up the wealth of society. Baking is necessary to make bread. Woodwork is necessary to make chairs.

On the other hand, the labor imbued in goods made for sale (commodities) has an added role as a measure of value. If I bake bread for my family to eat, the question of value is moot. However, if I bake bread in order to sell it, I need to know in what quantity my loaves of bread will trade for chairs?

Because labor is necessary to the production of every commodity, it is the common denominator across all goods. The cost to society of making a given commodity--its "value"--can therefore be measured by the amount of labor devoted to its production. So if it takes 10 times as long to make a chair as it does a loaf of bread, that would make a chair about 10 times more valuable.

This is a very rough sketch of the labor theory of value. The calculation of quantities of labor doesn't translate directly into prices at the store--those are affected by a few extra layers of complications! Nevertheless, for Marxists, the amount of labor needed to produce a commodity is at the heart of things.

Marx himself refined the understanding by pointing out that exchange value reflects socially necessary labor time--that is the average amount of time that it takes to produce a commodity "under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labor prevalent in that society."

To return to our example above, the question is: How much labor time, using the common tools, technology and skill levels in society will it take to construct a chair? If the social standard is two hours, but it takes me four hours, my chair won't be twice as valuable--I will have just wasted two hours of my life.

Socially necessary labor time, as the name of the term implies, is socially and historically determined. How long it takes to produce something in a given society changes over time.

IBM's first personal computer in the 1970s cost about $5,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The underlying value changed because the technology available to build computers is much more advanced, and therefore necessitates less labor to create more complex computers.

Today, you can buy a personal computer for less than $300 that is many times more powerful than its 1970s predecessor. "Value" under capitalism changes over time, further proof that it isn't an inherent quality.

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THERE IS another critical importance to labor. In addition to creating all the necessities and wants of human existence, and imbuing each sellable good with a value, labor has itself become a special commodity in capitalist society, Marx argued.

How? Bosses buy an employee's ability to work in exchange for a wage. But the worker will normally create more value during her shift than the daily wages with which the capitalist purchases her labor power.

"Labor power" is therefore a very special commodity--but it's the bosses, not the laborers, who reap the advantages.

Just as a baker parts with bread once she sells it, so too does the worker part with her labor power once she has sold it. As soon as she punches in, the conditions of her labor and the products of her labor are no longer hers--they are controlled by the boss.

"The use of a commodity belongs to its purchaser," explained Marx, "and the seller of labor-power, by giving his labor, does no more, in reality, than part with the use-value he has sold. From the instant he steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labor power and therefore also its use, which is labor, belongs to the capitalist."

The value of labor-power, paid out in wages, is based on the amount of labor that has gone into producing it. Just as the value of a chair is a reflection of how much labor time goes into its production--the design, the woodwork, as well as the labor that went into producing the wood and tools necessary to its production--the value of labor-power is similarly determined.

In this case, labor power's value reflects the labor time required to keep the worker alive, to daily reproduce her capacity and readiness to go to work every day, and to keep her children alive, so that they may one day replace her in the workforce.

The value of food, rent, clothing, training and education, along with other necessities deemed essential by society, therefore make up the value of labor power. If, for example, your average daily needs cost about $120, that is the value of your labor power.

If workers and employers met each other on an equal playing field, as capitalism's ideologues would have us believe, you would give over to your boss only the amount of time that it takes to reproduce the value of your labor power.

Say it takes four hours to produce $120 worth of goods--the equivalent of your daily wage. You could go home after four hours.

But if your boss allowed that, his inputs and outputs would be equal. What would be the point? Why not just keep the money he started with? But this--luckily for "Moneybags," as Marx referred to him--is not the arrangement at all. The capitalist pays you for the cost of your labor power, not for the value of the goods you produce.

Let's say you work for Starbucks, and they pay you $120 for an eight-hour shift. But you can probably make $120 worth of fancy-sounding coffee drinks in an hour or less at a busy store. Even once you subtract the cost of materials and use of the equipment, Starbucks doesn't pay you anywhere near the value you've created, which is hundreds of dollars a day.

Employers buy your labor power from you, not the actual fruits of your labor. And you make that value back for them in an hour or two. The rest of your shift, you're basically working for free!

The extra value produced during this stolen time--"surplus value" as Marx called it--is the basis of capitalist profits.

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THIS BRINGS us back to our first point: Capitalism is a social relation of production. Profits are the result of a relationship of exploitation between bosses and workers. This is both the product of history (the expropriation of peasants from the land, slavery, conquest) and upheld by current conditions (resource wars, displacement of indigenous populations, ongoing plunder of the earth's resources). As Marx wrote:

"One thing is clear--nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labor-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.

The state, via laws, prisons and guns, backs this arrangement. To simplify the point: If at the end of your shift at Starbucks you emptied the cash register and took home the hundreds of dollars that your labor brought in, you would be thrown in jail.

Marx's Capital, first published 150 years ago, captures and predicts aspects of capitalism in ways that seem even more accurate today than when Marx wrote them. The globalization of capital, ceaseless accumulation, the immiseration and displacement of workers by technology, growing concentration and centralization of capital, deepening recessions, destruction of the earth, inevitable class struggles--all are eloquently captured and explained in the pages of Capital.

The book is a stunning historical, philosophical and economic feat. But it is also rife with literary, Shakespearian and mythological references, as well as factory reports and imagery of vampires and other undead--and it is replete with more than a little bit of humor and biting sarcasm. It is at once both a challenging and a thoroughly enjoyable venture to read and contend with.

It will leave you with a framework for understanding the system and the potential for its revolutionary destruction.