Why read Capital?

Marx drinking coke by Medi Belortaja (2013), accessed from toonpool.com

The following is an edited version of Matthijs Krul’s “Why read Capital, 150 years later?”, originally published in 2017 on New Socialist.

  1. It is an indispensable guide to political economy.

[…] Marx was very keen that his book should be seen not simply as a polemic against capitalism, but as a serious and sober-minded analysis of how it actually works. This also explains the abstraction of the first three chapters: they are essentially Marx defining his terminology and the way he is going to use his concepts for the rest of the work […] In order to understand what the book is about and why it is still important, it is essential to know that it presents a pure theory of capitalism: […] stripped of any historical and geographical particulars, and so applicable to any capitalist society. […] Marx wanted to understand capitalist society as a historically specific way of life, a particular way of organizing labour and goods. […] he observes capitalism as it appears to us: based on the two major drives of competition and accumulation, showing constant technological changes and increases in labor productivity, an almost complete system of private ownership of all things, a regimented workforce that sells its labor for wages during a given working day (or week, or month), plus of course such everyday things as money, finance, and credit. Marx sees these things and describes them, but he goes further than that. He asks why they are the way they are. In that sense, Capital is the answer to a series of questions: why should it be that in this society, the vast majority of people work for someone else for a living? Why is it that not only (almost) all goods and all land, but also our own ability to work is exchanged in markets as private products, and what role does money play in making those markets possible? And if all these goods exchange at the price that they are ‘worth’, and everyone gets as wages what their work is ‘worth’, then where does profit come from? Why is it that while technology was relatively stagnant for most of history, under capitalism everything changes all the time, and there are constantly more things being produced in the same amount of time and work? Why does capitalism need there to be economic ‘growth’, or accumulation, or else it falls apart? […] Although the discussions of ‘value’ and ‘commodities’ may appear strange and difficult, […] the point of them is to answer these questions, and to show how the answers follow from the way capitalism works at its very core: a system in which accumulation takes place under private ownership of competing owners of means of production, and where everything is produced as commodities for the market by competing individuals who sell their labor-power for a wage. […]

  1. It is a great read.

[…] As soon as Marx is past the most abstract discussion […], he gets into a very lively narrative description of the various ways in which capitalism appears immediately at the surface, so to speak. First he discusses how money accumulates, how people sell their ability to work for a wage, and how this creates ‘the market’ in the abstract that is always the subject of economic discussions in the media. Then he describes in great detail, and with many critical comments, the fight over the length and intensity of work-time, the division of labour, the development of modern industry, the different ways in which workers are exploited, and the historical process of robbery, violence, force and extermination that brought capitalism about in the first place. Finally, he points out what all this leads to: endless accumulation that makes capital, and the owners of capital, seem productive, when in fact it is the people working for them that are productive and that make the existence of capital possible even as it exploits them and forces them to compete. In this way, he shows how people unwillingly and unwittingly produce the very system that oppresses them and how that system makes it seem as if it is a force of nature. All this is done in a very readable and vigorous way. Marx’s writings here are some of the best that 19th century polemical writing could produce […] he invokes Don Quixote in order to criticize the idea that the answer to capitalism’s problems is a return to a supposedly better and unproblematic past, or to ways of living that are no longer compatible with modern circumstances. […] He contrasts throughout the glorification of capitalism as a system of liberty, individual rights, and prosperity by the commentators of his day with the reality on the ground that is found in government and newspaper reports […] This reality was and is one of poverty, disease, drudgery, hopelessness, and death for working people, and all the while – then as now – being lectured to about your moral failings in the bargain. […]

  1. It is a political must.

[…] without Marx’s analysis, it is all too easy to blame unemployment, poverty, and economic crisis on other things: strangers in our midst, immigrants, moral failures, insufficient hard work, bad management, or conspiracies. Marx […] shows in this book where the weak points of capitalism are. […]  the chapters on the working day, on wage and piece work, and on co-operation are essential for understanding the labour process and resistance against it. Similarly, the indignant analysis of the forced expropriation, murder, and repression of people in pre-capitalist social relations, and the discussions of ongoing legislation and violence against the working class, jointly help to comprehend the class nature of laws, governments, and their enforcers. […] understanding the political significance of finance and credit systems is also indispensable […] Capital is about understanding the way that technology and technological change affect the way society is organized and the division of labour, and the impact this has on every aspect of social life. It is hard to think of a topic more politically relevant [in] the age of automation […]

  1. It makes you rethink the nature of our society.

[…] Marx’s preoccupation was with the idea that the social forces that determine the course of people’s lives in our society appear to us as if they were inescapable and unchangeable forces of nature, even though they are simply the product, the aggregate result, of our own actions and relationships. […] It is also meant to help the reader understand just how bizarre capitalist society actually is. Why should we survive by spending the vast majority of our lives working for someone else in someone else’s office or shopfloor? Why should the way to get the best out of people, and to create the most liveable and fruitful society, be having everyone compete against each other to produce objects (or services) that exchange for the smallest amount of pieces of paper that have a value printed on them? How come a few people own most things, in terms of the amount of work they can be exchanged for in the market, and most people only own their own ability to work? And most importantly, how come that technology that should make our lives easier never seems to make the workload less, or mean we can stop accumulating and competing? […] he shows […] [capitalist social relations] has come about in a particular historical way, and that it took – and still takes – an enormous amount of both ideological and real violence to make it seem natural. […]