Reading Capital

David Harvey on a new book that looks at Marx's Capital through the lens of political theory and Dante's Inferno.

Workers at Early's Blanket Factory in Witney, England in 1897. Henry Taunt / Heritage Images

The 150-year anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marx’s Capital (September 1867) is likely to provoke an outpouring of new and ingenious interpretations of what Marx was up to in Capital in general and in Volume One in particular. A first salvo in what promises to be a grand battle to redefine Marx’s legacy, both intellectual and political, comes from the pen of political scientist William Clare Roberts, who engages with Marx’s magnum opus from the standpoint of political philosophy and linguistic and literary form. The book, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, is well-researched and clearly written.

The unique qualities of Roberts’s contribution derive from two innovations. First, he notices a parallel between the organization of the materials in Volume 1 of Capital and Dante’s Inferno. The descent into the living hell of the workplace and the search for redemption shapes Marx’s narrative in important ways, he suggests.

Secondly, he rejects the view that Capital should be read exclusively as an essay on political economy. He treats it instead as a tract in political philosophy. To that end, he concentrates upon the relations between Marx and the utopian socialists that preceded him. Roberts concludes that Marx went far beyond that tradition and reached back to an older tradition of republicanism as non-domination in his quest for a political alternative.

If nothing else, these two standpoints make for an imaginative and refreshingly enjoyable, if somewhat controversial, read.

The rich literary heritage upon which Marx draws in Volume 1 of Capital is well-remarked. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Milton, Shelly, Balzac, Dickens, as well as Greek philosophy and myths and figures from popular culture (table turning, vampires and werewolves, geese that lay golden eggs) erupt all over the place. But I had never thought much about Dante’s Inferno, and after reading Roberts I am persuaded that it had a role in shaping the way the theoretical argument of Volume 1 is presented. Kudos to Roberts for seeing this.

Yet, while Inferno affects the form of representation, does it affect Marx’s conceptual and substantive understandings? Roberts thinks so, but I see no evidence for this.

Marx was concerned with finding a persuasive way of presenting his findings to his potential audience (particularly the self-educated artisans and laborers of Britain and France). To this end, he sometimes deliberately simplified even to the point of falsification. For example, while he insisted that values and prices are not the same he often made them seem so in order to make the value theory more palatable to his audience. He also dropped much of his Hegelian language in part for the same reason: the term alienation dominates preparatory writings such as the Grundrisse but rarely appears in Capital, despite being all over the text of Volume 1.

Marx blended literary and cultural references into the text of Volume 1 to make sure his audience would get what he was talking about. He rarely used the “abstruse term” surplus value, Roberts notes, without putting “exploitation” alongside it, presumably to keep his projected audience affectively engaged. In Marx’s day, Dante’s Inferno was well known (William Blake had illustrated it), so why not appeal to it?

Metaphors and analogies of this sort are helpful, but only up to a point. Pushed beyond their limits, they can become misleading if not dangerous. It is one thing, for example, to regard the state organically and quite another to see it as an actual organism craving and requiring living space to survive (as became the case in German Nazi geopolitics with its emphasis on lebensraum).

Capital is particularly vulnerable to such misreadings. In forty years teaching Volume 1, I came to recognize the multiple ways in which the book could be read and understood, depending upon disciplinary formation (in the case of students and academics) or political experience (in the case of a broader public that varied from prisoners in the Maryland Penitentiary to trade unionists, community political activists, and even residual members of the Communist Party USA).

I concluded that this flexibility was a tribute to the genius of Marx’s manner of presentation. Not only could he communicate a universal message, but he could do so in a multitude of voices that engaged different people’s attention. Marx practiced the principle that “the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence the unity of the diverse.”

The different readings that emerged from various study groups enriched my own understanding of the text immeasurably. I could not help but notice, for example, that the incarcerated black prisoners in Maryland found much of what Marx had to say obvious while elite students at Johns Hopkins took an awful lot of persuading. Similarly, those trained as scientific economists often failed to get much out of the book while those with some background in continental philosophy did. And philosophers read the book in a very different way from anthropologists.

In this respect, my objection to Roberts’ reading rests not upon his particular perspective. There is much to be learned from it. To the degree that Roberts manages to bring Marx back into the center of political philosophical debate, I applaud his efforts. The problem is not that he seeks to illuminate a largely neglected aspect of Marx’s thinking that might lead us to revise some of our interpretations. It is that he builds a singular and exclusive account that pushes other readings to one side, often judging and dismissing them as hopelessly confused.

My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works. He does so on the shallow but convenient grounds that these other works were not prepared for publication and therefore not definitive. I suspect that the isolation of Volume 1 rests on the fact that the Inferno analogy simply doesn’t work with the content of the other two volumes of Capital.

But taking Volume 1 as a standalone treatise is deeply problematic. The proposed three volumes of Capital were designed to dissect and represent the capitalist mode of production as a totality.

The substantive part of Volume 1 takes the standpoint of the production. Volume 2 opens with a description of the different forms of capital circulation (money, commodities, production) within the totality and is followed by a detailed examination of the conditions of realization of value in the market. Volume 3 is about the distribution of the surplus value in money form. Production, realization, and distribution followed by reinvestment constitute the circulation of capital as a whole. Marx makes his intentions clear in Volume 1:

The first condition of accumulation is that the capitalist must have contrived to sell his commodities, and to reconvert into capital the greater part of the money received from their sale. In the following pages [of Volume 1 of Capital], we shall assume that capital passes through its process of circulation in the normal way. The detailed analysis of this process will be found in Volume 2. . . . The capitalist who produces surplus value . . . is by no means its ultimate proprietor. He has to share it afterwards with capitalists who fulfill other functions. . . . Surplus value is therefore split up into various parts. Its fragments fall to various categories of person, and take on various mutually independent forms, such as profit, interest, gains made through trade, ground rent, etc. We shall be able to deal with these modified forms of surplus-value only in Volume 3. . . . On the one hand, then, we assume here that the capitalist sells the commodities he has produced at their value. . . . On the other hand we treat the capitalist producer as the owner of the entire surplus value or, perhaps, better, as the representative of all those who will share the booty with him.

The assumption throughout Volume 1 is that all commodities exchange at their value. This permits Marx to avoid a problem identified at the end of the very first section of that book. “Nothing can be a value without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.” The wants, needs, and desires of a population are crucial for the realization of values, but this also depends upon the ability to pay.

Moreover, in the chapter on money Marx recognizes that although commodities are in love with money “the course of true love never did run smooth.”  This is preceded by the recognition that changes in the division of labor and the creation of new needs may lead some commodities that were crucial yesterday to be irrelevant today. But Marx assumes throughout the rest of Volume 1 (apart from Part 8 on primitive accumulation) that everything exchanges at its value and that there is no problem of effective demand in the market.

It is on the basis of these assumptions that Marx produces a model of capitalist activity that reflects “the hell” of the laborer:

All methods for raising the social productivity of labour . . . distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into torment; they alienate . . . from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital. . . . In proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. Finally the law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock. It makes the accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital.

When we read the factory inspector reports that Marx quotes or contemporary accounts of worker suicides in Foxconn in Shenzhen (which assembles my Apple computer) or the nightmarish labor conditions in burning textile factories (that produce my shirts in Bangladesh), we immediately sense that Marx is on to something here.

But this is not the whole story. Life expectancies for workers in Europe and North America have, until very recently, risen (from around thirty-five in 1820 to well over seventy now). Marx’s description of the workers’ hell would be unrecognizable to the “affluent worker” who is protected by a trade union, lives in a suburban house, has a car in the driveway, a TV in the living room, and a laptop in the kitchen, and vacations in Spain or the Caribbean. Their “hell” is constituted, as André Gorz points out, more by mindless compensatory and alienating consumerism and the lack of disposable time than by appalling conditions of factory labor.

Volume 2, which Roberts completely ignores, shows how this alienation happens. The aggregate effective demand of the workers plays a vital role in stabilizing the dynamics of accumulation.

Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production[:] The workers are important for the market as buyers of commodities. But as sellers of their commodity — labour power — capitalist society has the tendency to restrict them to their minimum price. . . . (The) sale of commodities, the realization of commodity capital, and thus of surplus-value as well, is restricted not by the consumer needs of society in general, but by the consumer needs of a society in which the great majority are always poor and must always remain poor.

Marx repeats this argument in Volume 3. The ultimate cause of crises, he there suggests, is the restricted consumer power of the workers. Once the assumption that “everything exchanges at its value” is dropped, a very different picture of how capital accumulation works emerges. Accumulation rests on “rational consumption” — rational, that is, in relation to capital accumulation.

Henry Ford made this clear when he adopted his strategy of the five-dollar, eight-hour day for his autoworkers. He recognized that somebody had to have the money to buy his mass-produced Model T’s. The reason some Silicon Valley moguls support a universal basic income is that they know their technologies are putting people out of work and that an effective demand must be preserved if they are to have a market for their products.

Roberts ignores all of this. He says nothing about the “contradictory unity” between the production and the realization of value that is so vital to Marx’s concept of capital.

Roberts’s decision to ignore Marx’s broader framework may stem from his preoccupation with Dante’s Inferno, which says nothing about such issues either (though Goethe’s Faust, to which Marx also frequently appeals, does). But ultimately, this is what disturbs me about Roberts’ book: his tendency to exclude anything that does not fit his thesis.

Granted, Roberts is right to complain that too much attention has been paid to the economy and too little to the political in Marx, but that imbalance cannot be rectified by dismissing the economic. There is also evidence that Marx did not think Volume 1 was finished even though it was published. Some of the materials Engels assembled in the other two volumes are well-prepared, and it is hard to imagine they would not have been incorporated in any final published version. Moreover, the reproduction schemas at the end of Volume 2 (which have been subjected to considerable later commentary) would almost certainly have been emphasized. These show why the value of labor power cannot be continually reduced and may, indeed, need to be augmented if crises of realization are to be avoided.

This crucial material helps us understand how the declining share of wages in national incomes in many parts of the world since 1980 (a trend that conforms to the Volume 1 thinking) has created an effective demand problem (of the sort defined in Volume 2), which has been glossed over in part by the rise of a constantly expanding credit system (a Volume 3 question).

None of this is in Roberts’s purview. Volume 3, furthermore, in spite of its incompleteness, shows that distribution is not an endpoint of capital circulation. It is a beginning point for the renewed valorization of capital (the opening chapters of Volume 2 make a similar point). This accords with Marx’s clear definition of capital as value in continuous motion. The shift from simple reproduction (to which Marx devotes whole chapters in Volumes 1 and 2) to expanded reproduction poses the problem of the limitless and endless accumulation of capital.

This cycle, according to Marx, constitutes a “bad infinity” (in contrast to the virtuous infinity of simple reproduction) that points to a different kind of hell for all of us — a spiral of endless expansion, at a compound rate, of capital accumulation no matter what the environmental, social, or political consequences. The central power behind this spiral is the circulation of interest-bearing capital (e.g. my pension fund seeking the highest rate of return). However, if we only read Volume 1 of Capital, as Roberts advises, we will not only see none of this, we will also misunderstand the point of Volume 1.

Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation demonstrates this further. In Part 8 of Volume 1, Marx deals with the question of primitive or original accumulation; in this section the figures of the usurer, the banker, the merchant, the landlord, and the state (and its debt) flood back into the narrative, as does the power of effective demand in the market. But Roberts is so anxious to line everything up to accord with Dante’s schema that he cannot see the significance of this dramatic shift of assumptions. Reading off from the Dante analogy, Roberts instead sees primitive accumulation as a series of betrayals:

The elements of capitalism were set free by the betrayal of the feudal order by the lords, by their infidelity to the very bonds of trust that created their social power. The beneficiaries of this betrayal, the nascent class of capitalist farmers, turned around and enslaved their patrons, subjecting the landlords to the domination of the market. The state, transformed by these revolutions into a corrupt servant of economic growth, acts at every turn to keep the mass of its subjects – whose commonwealth it is supposed to be – poor and desperate, and to use its organized forces to carry out a policy of conquest, plunder and colonization. Finally, political economy, the science of capitalist wealth and property, betrays its ideals. . . . Capital can only exist and engross itself so long as the laborers who form it can be continuously degraded and rendered insecure in their existence. By its very nature capital must eternally betray its creator.

This is a compelling account, and for all I know it may be historically true. But it’s not what Marx said.

Marx stressed the importance of the “antediluvian” forms of capital — the merchants and the usurers and bankers. “In the course of our investigation,” Marx says in Volume 1, “we shall find that both merchants’ capital and interest-bearing capital are derivative forms, and at the same time it will become clear historically, these two forms appear before the modern primary form of capital.” These crucial figures disappear entirely in Roberts’ account.

Elsewhere, Marx offers definitive accounts of “Historical Material on Merchant’s Capital,” (chapter 20), “Pre-Capitalist Relations” (chapter 36), and “The Genesis of Capitalist Ground Rent” (chapter 47) in Volume 3, as well as a fairly lengthy discussion of pre-capitalist social formations in the Grundrisse, all of which deserve some consideration. The role of merchant’s capital is highlighted in the Communist Manifesto.

Yet, Roberts ignores all of these. His account of “betrayal and corruption” also flies in the face of his quite correct insistence elsewhere that Marx does not interpret historical change in terms of individual or even collective motivations or betrayals but as manifestations of social processes that go on behind the backs of the active agents.

In this regard, Shakespeare is a far better guide than Dante. The bastard (and it is significant that it is the illegitimate heir) in King John soliloquizes as follows:

Mad World! Mad kings! Mad composition!. . . .

That smooth-fac’d gentleman, tickling commodity,

Commodity, the bias of the world;

The world, who of itself is peised well

Made to run even upon even ground.

Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,

This sway of motion, this commodity,

Makes it head from all indifferency,

From all direction, purpose course, intent.

And this same bias, this commodity

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word. . . .

And why rail I on this commodity?

But for because he hath not woo’d me yet.

Not that I have the power to clutch my hand

When his fair angel would salute my palm;

But for my hand, as unattempted yet,

Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.

Well, while I am a beggar, I will rail

And say here is no sin, but to be rich;

And being rich my virtue then shall be

To say there is no vice but beggary.

Since kings break faith upon commodity,

Gain be my lord, for I will worship thee.

Monetization and commodification are the underlying processes at work. The “circulation of commodities is the starting point of capital,” Marx confirms, and in the Grundrisse the dissolution of the traditional community through monetization such that money becomes the community is pictured as a necessary precondition for the rise of industrial capital.

Medieval Britain, the site of Roberts’ scenario, was a peripheral economy, an island off from the main locus of action in the Italian city states, the Champagne Fairs, the Bavarian Banks, and in relation to the proto-industrialization in twelfth century Flanders and Italy, which engendered the demand for wool that led to Britain being overrun by sheep farming, first by the Cistercian monks and then, after the expropriation of the monastic lands, by a new commercially oriented landowning class.

There was plenty of betrayal and corruption, of course, but the underlying story is about these deeper processes in which the spread of commodification and monetization from Europe (where double-entry book-keeping was already established) played a necessary even if not sufficient role in the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain.

Land, labor, and money were commodities way before industrial capital came upon the scene. The problem for Marx was to show how these pre-capitalist forms were transformed and adapted to work within the framework of industrial capital as value in continuous motion.

This brings me to what I consider the most interesting part of Roberts’ contribution, one that will I hope be lasting because it broaches issues of great import. A full engagement of political philosophy with Marx’s politics would be a great help, and Roberts’ insistence on going about it via Marx’s relation to the socialist tradition is entirely welcome.

Roberts is particularly concerned with Marx’s relation to Proudhon, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Robert Owen. The rhetoric of this socialist tradition focuses on questions of equality and social justice, and on the dignity of and respect for the worker.

But Roberts issues a powerful (and I think correct) challenge to G. A. Cohen’s view that Marx falls within this tradition. Marx, says Roberts, broke with moralistic socialism. He reached back into an older aristocratic tradition of republican governance as non-domination. This, transformed by the experience of capitalist industrialism, produced a unique Marxist political vision of what an anticapitalist alternative might look like.

I am not sure this is right, but it’s an important issue. If inequality and social justice are insufficient to the task of defining a socialist alternative, then what might replace them?

No alternative can be found, says Marx, by seeking a nostalgic return to the associationism or mutualism that derived from small-scale and intimate artisanal labor practices of the sort that Proudhon championed and which continue to this day to be the focus of anarchist and other local and small-scale anticapitalist initiatives.

Marx was reluctant to let go of the obvious enhancements in labor productivity achieved under industrial capitalism. The problem was and still is how to “scale up” any alternative, to embrace higher productivity while preserving the ideal of associated labor in collective control of their own means of production.

For example, in the midst of his exploration of the macroeconomic reproduction schemas in Volume 2, Marx announced his intention to “go on to investigate how different things would look if it were assumed that production was collective and did not have the form of commodity production.” Marx did not get there. But it was this sort of thing that led Soviet central planners to absorb the reproduction schemas into their input-output models.

Of course, as the Soviet experience shows, this was more than a technical and mathematical problem. In Volume 1, as Robert points out, Marx imagined “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” How and by whom was this to be organized was the question.

Roberts places Marx close to Robert Owen. He sees Owen as the bridge between an older aristocratic republicanism and a future socialism that would be created through the self-organization of workers in industrial settings. Marx in the incomplete Volume 3 compares Saint-Simon unfavorably to Owen.

But Roberts stumbles here when he ignores Engels’s footnote: “Marx would undoubtedly have modified this passage substantially,” Engels argued, and “subsequently spoke only with admiration of the genius and encyclopedic mind of Saint-Simon. If in his earlier writings Saint-Simon ignored the opposition between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat,” this was because of “the economic and political conditions of France at that time. If Owen saw further ahead here, this was because he lived in a different environment, in the midst of the industrial revolution and the class antagonism that was already acutely coming to a head.”

Engels made a very important point here. Most of the socialist and communist theory that Marx and Engels encountered arose from the artisan labor that predominated in, for example, the Paris workshops of the 1830s and 1840s (or earlier, in the cases of Fourier and Saint-Simon). Engels was perhaps the first to confront the horrors of the factory system head on in The Condition of the Working Class in England of 1844. Marx was preeminently the theorist of industrial capitalism and of factory labor, whereas Proudhon militated for the artisan.

Today we normalize the transition from artisan to factory labor, but at the time it came as a huge shock (as Engels recorded) which contemporary commentators found difficult if not impossible to grasp. This was particularly true of Proudhon. Since the artisan was not separated from the immediate means of production (the tools of the trade), Proudhon thought exploitation must be located in the marketplace — in the formal subsumption of labor under the power of merchant capital, and in the money and credit system. Proudhon simply couldn’t see the significance of surplus value production under what Marx called the “real subsumption” of labor, as described at great length in chapter 15 of Volume 1 of Capital.

This is where Owen and Marx come together. Both of them faced the problem of how to create a form of socialism that preserved the obvious productivity of factory and machine technologies while freeing the laborer from structures of exploitation, appropriation, and domination. (Marx prefigured some of this in his occasional commentaries on the positive effects of the development of machine technologies upon the laborer and family life in chapter 15 of Volume 1.)

Roberts is quite right, therefore, to see Marx as different in kind from the long line of socialists that preceded him. But the problem for Marx was to organize at a scale that went far beyond the nostalgic return to artisanal production. And it was precisely at this point that Saint-Simon offered something important that the other socialists did not.

What this was is worth revisiting, because it provides a historical materialist grounding for Roberts’s critique of G. A. Cohen. Saint-Simon, Marx noted, distinguished between “travailleurs” (property owners as “workers” who organized capitalist production) and “ouvriers” (the “laborers” they employed). For Saint-Simon, the parasitic rentiers (all those characters in Jane Austen novels who live on rents of so many pounds a year) were the main enemy.

Saint-Simon recognized that it was difficult for the travailleurs to collectively organize themselves to create the large-scale public works that would be required to facilitate human progress. When Saint-Simon advocated association, it was the association of travailleurs that he had in mind. This led Marx to wonder in Volume 3 if the joint stock company, as an association of travailleurs, might not be a progressive move when democratized to include the ouvriers as well. This was the alternative that Owen was exploring.

But in the hands of the Saint-Simonian faction in France (which included Louis Bonaparte, who flirted with funding a canal through the isthmus of Panama) this sort of project quickly turned into an instrument for speculation. Saint-Simon himself proposed modes of collective governance and administration that would have avoided this sort of perversion, however, and this is perhaps what attracted Marx to his mode of thought.

The Saint-Simon connection is important, because the typical organization of much value production in our contemporary society remains organized along Saint-Simonian lines. The family restaurant owner in Manhattan is a travailleur who engages in self-exploitation while employing ouvriers. Almost all forms of subcontracted tasks and cultural production (go into any small architectural firm or artist’s workshop), to say nothing of digital labor, are all organized along these lines.

When you ask where all the value jointly created by travailleurs and ouvriers goes (and gets realized), the answer is to the banks, the merchant capitalists, or the rentiers. The self-exploitation that goes on in the world of digital labor, which feeds the bottom line of Google, Amazon, and the like is a profound problem.

The difficulty, then, is to devise a form of governance that will be consistent with the objective of the principle of association with the need to organize the macro-economy in productive and constructive ways (including the production of necessary collective infrastructures).

Saint-Simon outlined a possible answer, and Marx was mightily impressed by the way the communards self-organized in the Paris Commune. In the short time given to them, the communards pursued all sorts of innovations in governance (in ways that Marx had not prefigured). Contemporary examples are those of the Zapatistas and the Kurdish movement in Rojava. The principles of confederal socialism they have embraced deserve serious consideration. This difficulty is still with us, and I think Roberts is on to something important when he broaches it.

There is, however, one notable absence in Roberts’s discussion of the socialist tradition. He totally ignores the Jacobin element. This is particularly odd given Roberts’s emphasis on Marx’s indebtedness to an older tradition of republicanism. Roberts may well be right that Marx echoes this earlier tradition that emphasized freedom from domination through republican governance. But I do not see how he can show this without first opening up the question of Jacobin republicanism, which is very different.

The relations between Marx and Auguste Blanqui — a powerful presence in French socialist history — need to be elaborated. Blanqui’s faction was a force in the Commune, and the Jacobin current throughout the history of socialism and communism needs to be critically addressed.

Saint-Simon confined governance to the administration of things, not of people. The Jacobin current contested that rule and openly confronted the question of the government of people as essential in any transition from capitalism to communism. Marx, for example, may well have taken the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat from Blanqui. This is not an easy question to confront, but totally avoiding it in relation to Marx is not at all helpful. But this is a discussion for another day.