The relevance of Marx’s Das Kapital to the modern capitalist world is once again getting a hearing. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the opening up of China to international capitalism, the political and economic elites declared that a new economic paradigm had arrived, bringing with it undreamt promises of wealth and consumer bliss as long as the market was left to do its own thing. Plenty of people listened to them. But their hubris and complacency rested on a massive historical amnesia that blinded them to an elementary truth borne out by nearly 400 years of history: namely that capitalism remains structurally prone to major economic crises.
That is one context in which it makes sense to return to Marx’s Das Kapital. As the title of the book makes clear: it names the beast. Without a name, we cannot really begin to define what the problems are – in their deep fundamentals; without naming this system of social and economic arrangements, the deep structural causes elude us.
Whether we are talking about obesity epidemics, water shortages amid torrential downpours, or environmental degradation and toxification, the hollowing out of representative democracy, the erosion of workers rights, the growing inequalities between the rich and the rest, the dismantling of the public sector and the destruction of social gains and rights built up over decades; whether we are talking about a lost generation of young people whose skills and potentialities can find no gainful employment; the reduction of education to obedience, conformity and discipline; the transformation of the media from tools of information, connection and creativity to purveyors of ignorance, sensationalism and tired clichés; whether we are talking about the economic violence of the system or the surveillance society or the decreasing room to peacefully protest without being truncheoned, tasered or worse – all these problems and more can be traced back to the question of capital and unless we name the system within which these problems are developing, public debate, public discourse and policy agendas, are doomed to stay at the surface level, addressing symptoms at best, or making the problems worse by following the same discredited capitalist nostrums and prescriptions that are responsible for the problems in the first place.
This is why a book whose first volume appeared in 1867 remains compellingly relevant to our times. Marx’s great work has a universality about it – an applicability to capitalism in whatever country and whatever century it develops. Yet this universality is not an empty abstraction – Marx develops a critique that is both empirically responsible and more importantly cuts through to the essential relations of the system.
That is a rare blend. While Darwin’s The Origin of the Species has become accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community, Marx’s work remains –as he would wish – a scandal and abomination for the bourgeoisie. It is in many respects a deeply challenging counter-intuitive attack on cherished assumptions, held both by the political economists and the lay man and women in the street, in so far as they fall under the spell of the spontaneous ideology secreted by capitalist exchange.
Marx showed that the capitalist system is torn apart by structurally irresolvable contradictions. Adopting Hegel’s methodology, Marx deconstructed bourgeois political economy from within, starting with its own conceptual universe and discovering the contradictions and conflicts within that system and showing what bourgeois political economy had to repress in order to retain a semblance of coherence. The really big repression within bourgeois political economy is this: where does value come from? Bourgeois political economy cannot really confront this question and prefers to stay at the level of secondary phenomena, such as supply and demand, interest or mark up, to explain the origin of value.
In this repression bourgeois political economy mirrors the capitalist system itself. The origins of things, and indeed capitalism’s own historical origins are anathema to capital. Marx tracks the source of value to exploited labour power and historically capitalist commodity production emerges when labour power becomes a commodity on a large scale. This requires separating labour power from any private or common ownership of the means of production. Forced to sell their labour power to survive they meet the owner of the means of production, the capitalist, in the market place on very unequal terms.
The concept labour-power is one of Marx’s conceptual innovations that marks a decisive break from bourgeois political economy. For labour-power produces more value than it costs in the market. That innovation in turn required Marx to develop another conceptual innovation. For labour-power produces value surplus to what it is paid and this surplus value is owned and controlled by capital.
Today we are told incessantly that the origin of wealth depends on innovative entrepreneurs, risk takers, visionaries and corporations who we must bow down to, do everything in our power to mollify and attract (by cutting their taxes and worsening labour conditions) because they bring jobs and investment.
But where does this ‘investment’ come from? Marx’s answer is unequivocal: it has in effect been seized by capital from labour and turned into monetized assets that obey the logic and dictates of the capitalist system. But behind the concepts lies a struggle written in sweat and blood as capital seeks to reduce the cost of labour and expand the surplus value which labour-power produces.
‘Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labor power’ says Marx, after remarking on the premature deaths of bakers and blacksmiths. ‘All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour power that can be rendered fluent in a workday’. Any worker in a call centre today would recognize that analysis.
Similarly, the product of labour is degraded by capital in the pursuit of profit. Marx noted the extensive adulteration of bread with alum powder in the English bakeries and saw this as the flip side of worker exploitation. When we look at the crisis in food production today we can see that Marx was indeed prophetic.
Another one of those big conceptual innovations that Marx handed down to us and which explain so much today was the concept of commodity fetishism. This concept helps explain how the daily and routine practices of capitalist exchange structurally inhibits our cognitive capacities to grasp the network of social relationships, the causal forces at work in the phenomena of everyday life.
Capitalism works as a giant act of decontextualisation, by making people, events and institutions, work as if they had no social basis, no social connections, no social requirements and no social conditions of existence.With the concept of commodity fetishism Marx also anticipates and helps us understand a very important aspect of advanced consumer capitalism: namely the giant orchestration of psychological investments and satisfactions in the decontextualised phenomena of everyday life.
Today we are heading towards a perfect storm: a massive economic crisis, a political crisis, a social crisis and an ecological crisis – a multiplication of crises that will bring war in its wake. Marx’s Das Kapital, which was a huge laborious expose of this monstrous system’s inner and essential tendencies towards crises, remains the book that every generation must rediscover.
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