The Value of Capital

Capital doesn’t merely show us how capitalist production works. It shows us why capitalism is an affront to freedom.

The night shift at an Indiana glass factory, 1908. Lewis W. Hines / Library of Congress

David Harvey has done me a great honor by reviewing my book, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital. Harvey’s wide-ranging response highlights a number of disagreements of broad significance, not only for academic Marxologists, but for the political left.

He claims that my book will be “a first salvo in what promises to be a grand battle to redefine Marx’s legacy, both intellectual and political.” I certainly hope that he is right.

At present, the Left is energized but weak. Young people are widely disenchanted with capitalism and the post–Cold War global order, and are open-minded about socialism. At the same time, the political and economic organizations of the Left are in shambles, and there is no theoretical or tactical center of gravity. I think this is precisely the moment to reread the history of socialist theory, to return to and rework first principles.

No one is more important, in this respect, than Marx. The question is, which Marx?

My book defends the dignity of the first volume of Capital and argues that it contains a Marx we need to recover today. Harvey disagrees, arguing that “taking Volume 1 as a standalone treatise is deeply problematic.”

This disagreement, his “most serious objection” to my book, is refracted through three substantive differences between our approaches to Marx. One concerns the sort of theory Capital provides. The second concerns the content of Marx’s arguments in Volume 1. The third concerns Marx’s relationship to socialism, then and now.

I want to bring each of these deeper disagreements into the open, for wide-ranging debate on these matters is of the utmost importance.

What Sort of Book Is Capital?

The research question that my book poses and tries to answer is the old question of Marx’s “method of presentation” in Capital. Why does Volume 1 take the form it does?

Because Marx himself addresses this question — however elliptically — in the course of rebutting the claim that he is applying a Hegelian method to the study of political economy, the scholarship on this question is dominated by efforts to find a Hegelian or quasi-Hegelian method of presentation in Volume 1. This has had mixed results.

Everyone acknowledges that parts of the text look rather Hegelian. On the other hand, major chunks of the book don’t look Hegelian at all: much of Parts 3, 4, and 8, together adding up to about 40 percent of the book. These are the “historical” parts.

Hegelian Marxists tend to be embarrassed by these parts, since they don’t add much to the development of the concepts. Social historians like Gareth Stedman Jones think they are the only valuable part of Capital. The two halves are never knit together, though.

My idiosyncratic answer to this problem is that Marx structured Volume 1 on the model of Dante’s Inferno. This is not as weird as it might sound.

Metaphorical descents into hell were widespread in the socialist literature of the nineteenth century. Marx’s bête noir, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, did the most with the trope. Moreover, the moral categories that structure Dante’s Hell — incontinence, force, fraud, and treachery — were pervasive in the moral economy of early socialism, for the simple reason that the Christian-Aristotelian heritage permeated popular morality.

Marx, I argue, wrote Capital as a descent into the social hell of modern capitalism. He wanted to acquaint his readers with the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production, while displacing the categories of socialist moral judgment onto “the ensemble of social relations.”

As my book shows, reading Volume 1 in this way allows us to make sense of its arguments in a connected and holistic way, and as a carefully constructed intervention into the socialist movement of Marx’s day, without excising large swaths of the book, either as “digressions” or “illustrations” or as wrong-headed metaphysical encumbrances.

David Harvey objects, however, that this “builds a singular and exclusive account that pushes other readings to one side,” and that it rests “on the shallow but convenient grounds” that only Volume 1 was seen through to publication by Marx.

According to Harvey, “if we only read Volume 1 of Capital, . . . we will also misunderstand the point of Volume 1.” We will do so because “the assumption throughout Volume 1 is that all commodities exchange at their value.” This allows Marx to construct “a model of capitalist activity that reflects ‘the hell’ of the laborer,” but it does not allow him to consider the “alienation” of “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.”

Nor does it allow Marx to explain how “capital accumulation . . . rests on [the] ‘rational consumption’” of the working class, which must be enabled by the capitalist class. Harvey claims that these issues can come to the fore and receive their proper explanation only once Marx drops the assumption that prices equal values, which he does in Volumes 2 and 3.

Hence, Volume 1, on its own, gives us a partial, and hence false, picture of capitalism. My book, by arguing that Volume 1 can stand on its own, does Marx and my readers a disservice.

The basic presupposition of Harvey’s interpretation is that, when Marx wrote and published Volume 1, he was “presenting his findings,” and that, in the service of presenting them in a “persuasive” and “palatable” way to a readership of “self-educated artisans and laborers,” he “simplified” those findings, “even to the point of falsification.” Hence, only Marx’s unpublished works — the Grundrisse, Volumes 2 and 3, the various preparatory drafts — can give us a true picture of his “findings.”

In short, Harvey’s Marx is an explainer. He has a grand, unified theory, but knows that it is too difficult to communicate to “self-educated artisans and laborers,” so he simplifies it, and dresses it up with “literary and cultural references,” so as “to make sure his audience would get what he was talking about.”

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully worked-out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can.

The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to ongoing arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements.

I think my picture of Marx, and of Capital, is more accurate that Harvey’s. After all, it is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume 1 if you read it on its own. After all, Marx published Volume 1 on its own. In fact, he did so three times — twice in German and once in French. He was preparing to publish it again — on its own — when he died. And he approved a Russian translation — on its own — in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes 2 and 3, he clearly thought that Volume 1 could be read and understood on its own.

Unfortunately, we seem to be more comfortable with Marx if we picture him as a scholar unable to communicate the complexity of his truth in a mere nine hundred pages, instead of as an engaged political thinker, working out his ideas in the scrum of debate.

This proclivity for Marx the explainer over Marx the arguer is symptomatic of an anti-political tendency on the Left. Secure in the knowledge of its correct ideas, and bemoaning the need to dumb things down for the sake of persuasion, the anti-political left is saved the trouble of reconstituting its theory on the basis of political engagement.

What Is Marx’s Theory in Capital?

But, you might say, I am just talking past Harvey’s real concern. While I am arguing that Volume 1 of Capital can be read and understood on its own, isn’t Harvey arguing that capitalism cannot be understood on the basis of Volume 1 alone?

I suspect this is right, and I agree with Harvey about this. Volumes 2 and 3 may well deepen our understanding of how, according to Marx, capitalism works.

However, Harvey’s review does not differentiate between understanding Capital and understanding capitalism. It simply proceeds as if the inability to understand Fordism or consumer society on the basis of Volume 1 invalidates my claim that Volume 1 can be read and understood on its own.

I am confident that we have to read much that Marx never wrote in order to understand the vagaries and varieties of twentieth-century and contemporary capitalism. However, I also think that Marx, in Volume 1, does a better job than those who came before or after at getting at what is wrong with capitalism.

First, he has a better grasp of the fundamental dynamics of the market, the workplace, the pattern of capitalist development, and the role of the capitalist state than his competitors. But he also shows how all of these offend against the all-too-human desire for freedom from dominating power.

Marx’s innovation is that he married this concern for freedom to a systematic dissection of capital. Capital shows how and why the market dominates the producers, the capitalist and the factory dominate the wage-laborer, and capital comes to dominate the state.

Capital, therefore, doesn’t merely show us how capitalist production works; it shows us why we would, for the sake of freedom, want to get out from under the regime of capitalist production.

This prompts Harvey to claim that, while I have rightly drawn attention “to the political in Marx,” I have gone too far in the direction of “dismissing the economic.” I disagree. What I have tried to do, on the contrary, is to show that Marx had a better understanding of economics than Proudhon, the Owenites, or the Saint-Simonians, precisely because he saw what was political in the economy, and in arguments about the economy.

Take, for example, Harvey’s claim that, in Volume 1, Marx assumed, contrary to his considered position, that commodities exchange at their values, or that price equals value. According to Harvey, Marx did so “in order to make the value theory more palatable to his audience.”

This badly misrepresents the political intention and stakes of Marx’s argument. The default position among socialists in Marx’s day was that the suffering and exploitation of workers was attributable to the fact that their labor and their goods were unable to command their fair value on the market.

Marx’s insistence on treating prices as if they reflected value would have made his value theory more controversial, not more palatable. Marx was cutting against the grain here, picking a fight. Why?

The prevailing diagnosis, by harping on the divergence between price and value, missed both the dynamics of the market (by which prices converge on value) and the distinctiveness of capital, which can accumulate without extracting rents, as a form of economic power.

Far from soft-pedaling the complexities of his theory, Marx is concerned to confront head on the weak points of existing socialist theory.

To take another example, Harvey claims that, by assuming that all commodities exchange at their values, Marx is able to “avoid” the problem of effective demand, and thereby — “on the basis of these assumptions” — to construct “a model of capitalist activity that reflects ‘the hell’ of the laborer.”

But, as I argue in Marx’s Inferno, Marx does not “avoid” this problem at all in Volume 1. Rather than assuming away the issue, Marx builds it into his accounts of the commodity, of exchange, and of money.

That “the course of true love never did run smooth” is crucial for Marx’s argument that using the market to mediate the social division of labor produces anxiety, uncertainty, and slavish watchfulness among those dependent upon the market for their livelihoods. If it were otherwise, every commodity could become ready money, and Proudhon’s scheme to “republicanize” money would be realized.

For a final example, there is the matter of primitive accumulation, which Harvey ties into the same claim about Marx’s simplifying assumptions. According to Harvey, there is a “dramatic shift of assumptions” at the beginning of Part 8, and “the figures of the usurer, the banker, the merchant, the landlord, the state (and its debt) flood back into the narrative, as does the power of effective demand in the market.”

I agree that the landlords and the state are centrally important to Marx’s account of primitive accumulation, and say so in Chapter 6 of my book. Our real disagreement regards the importance of usurers’ and merchants’ capital.

According to Harvey, it is the autonomous spread of these “antediluvian” forms of capital — “the spread of commodification and monetization” — that drives primitive accumulation.

There are at least two problems here. First, Harvey cannot point to anywhere in Part 8 where Marx actually stresses the role of merchants or usurers. He cites the Manifesto, Volume 3, the Grundrisse, and complains that I “ignore all of these,” but he fails to show how Marx’s argument in Volume 1 depends upon or reproduces Marx’s claims in these other places.

In fact, there are only two places in Part 8 where the antediluvian forms of capital play a role in Marx’s presentation. First, in Chapter 26, Marx says that the demand for wool in Flanders motivated lords to clear their estates and turn them into sheep pastures. This episode is integral to my own account, so I can’t see what Harvey’s complaint is on this score.

Second, in Chapter 31, Marx claims that “The money capital formed by means of usury and commerce was prevented from turning into industrial capital, in the country by the feudal constitution, in the towns by the guild organization. These fetters vanished with the dissolution of feudal society, with the expropriation and partial eviction of the country population.”

In other words, primitive accumulation empowers money capital to begin functioning as industrial capital. Money capital does not, by its own action, dissolve the feudal constitution of society. Marx’s claim here is the very opposite of Harvey’s. If we are talking about what Marx says in Volume 1, then I don’t see any justice in Harvey’s criticisms.

More importantly, I think Harvey’s reading of primitive accumulation erases one of the most important political points of Marx’s argument: the sharp, epochal break between the feudal constitution and the capitalist mode of production.

Commodification and monetization are not, according to Marx, autonomous processes. They do not spread by contagion. A revolution in the relations of production is necessary.

Yes, Marx does claim that “the circulation of commodities is the starting point of capital.” But, as I argue, he also begins each major section of Volume 1 with a new origin story for capital: in the circulation of commodities, in the exploitation of labor, in large-scale production, and in the primitive accumulation of the factors of production.

Harvey’s reading, by stressing only the first origin, risks making the market into the root of all evil, and Marx into another socialist moralizer, inveighing against money and commodities, merchants and usurers, cheating and gouging.

I happily admit that my reading of Marx’s economic arguments in Volume 1 is not the standard reading. Neither is it sui generis, however: it accords with some of the theses advanced by value-form theorists, like Michael Heinrich, for one. My borrowings from this approach to Marx situate him as a proto-Austrian rather than a post-Ricardian (yes, I know that will be a controversial claim!), and transform the reading of both Marx’s value theory and his account of exploitation.

These are fundamental economic matters. What my book brings to the table that is novel is the claim that the political context and intent of Marx’s argument is crucial for understanding the true content of Marx’s position.

When you appreciate Marx’s opposition to all the labor-money schemes, and you see what was motivating those schemes to begin with, you are better positioned to understand Marx’s arguments in Part 1. When you recognize the contrast between Marx’s approach to exploitation and all of the Saint-Simonian-inspired accounts of exploitation-as-extortion, you can appreciate the force of Marx’s argument in Part 3. When you understand the anti-political separatism rampant in the socialist camp in the 1800s, the argument of Part 8 comes into focus.

That is my gamble, at least: Marx’s opposition to other socialist positions, both theoretical and political, animates his economic arguments in Volume 1.

Socialisms, Then and Now

This emphasis upon clarifying “Marx’s relation to Proudhon, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Robert Owen” is what Harvey most appreciates about my book.

In particular, he is convinced by my argument against GA Cohen, who (along with many others) stressed the continuity with this socialist tradition, and its emphasis on “equality and social justice.” I insist, on the contrary, that Marx was decisively opposed to much of this tradition, which he regarded as both moralistic and mistaken about the social dynamics of the capitalist economy.

Although Harvey praises this aspect of my argument, I am a bit puzzled by his response to it, for three reasons.

First, Harvey seems to skip right over the point of my argument. In his words, I argue that Marx “reached back into an older aristocratic tradition of republican governance as non-domination,” which “transformed by the experience of capitalist industrialism, produced a unique Marxist political vision.” Harvey asks, “If inequality and social justice are insufficient to the task of defining a socialist alternative then what might replace it?”

He then goes on to talk about Owen and Saint-Simon on industrial administration, without even pausing to consider the answer my book proposes (and that I think Marx proposed): freedom.

The “older aristocratic tradition of republican governance” was not just older and not just aristocratic. The republican concern with freedom from servitude and domination ran through much of the radical, popular, and plebian politics of the nineteenth century.

It ran alongside the Rousseauvian concern with popular sovereignty and the utilitarian concern with rational administration, even as it clashed with these. It preached resistance to concentrations of power, and cooperative and deliberative association. My book argues that Marx’s entire argument in Capital is oriented by this republican desire for freedom from domination.

And so I find it disconcerting that Harvey only mentions freedom once in his entire review, and then only to ask why I don’t talk more about the Jacobin tradition of republicanism.

I will return to the Jacobins. For now, let me just indicate that my reconstruction of Marx’s republicanism resonates with some analyses on the contemporary left. Alex Gourevitch has argued both for the historical credentials and the contemporary salience of “a vision of a society of equal freedom.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has made a powerful argument for reviving the movement for black liberation. Corey Robin has, for several years now, called on the American left to re-appropriate the politics of freedom from the Right. On my reading, Marx would agree with these calls.

Given that this is the orientation of my book, I am also puzzled by Harvey’s attempt to rehabilitate the Saint-Simonians.

Harvey rightly claims that “Marx was reluctant to let go of the obvious enhancements in labor productivity achieved under industrial capitalism.” He also rightly notes that this reluctance was part of the basis for Marx’s appreciation of Robert Owen. However, he then uses one of Engels’s footnotes in Volume 3 to bring in Saint-Simon as a harbinger of the joint-stock company, which has the potential — “when democratized to include the ouvriers as well” — to provide “modes of collective governance and administration” for the socialist future.

I am extremely skeptical that there is anything of value for the Left in the thought of Saint-Simon. And, Engels’s footnote notwithstanding, there is no credible evidence that Marx thought much of Saint-Simon’s schemes either. Engels always had a soft spot for Saint-Simon, as I point out in my book, but Marx left no record of sharing his friend’s high estimation. That Engels assures us, after Marx’s death, that his friend had come around to his own opinion is not very credible evidence that Marx was “attracted” to Saint-Simon’s “mode of thought.”

For one thing, Saint-Simon was an authoritarian rationalist who dreamed only of benevolent hierarchy and orderly improvement. Therefore, he was utterly allergic to anything so disorderly as popular political movements or majoritarian democracy or government from below.

When Harvey seemingly identifies the question of the socialist alternative with the question of how “to devise a form of governance that will be consistent with the objective of the principle of association [and] with the need to organize the macro-economy in productive and constructive ways,” he frames the issue in a way that is very congenial to Saint-Simon. I don’t see how it is congenial to a project of building a political movement for universal emancipation, though.

Finally, there is the matter of the Jacobins. Harvey notes that my book “ignores the Jacobin element” in the socialism of Marx’s day. This is basically right, with the caveat that the British Jacobinism of Bronterre O’Brien does appear in my story.

It is certainly right that Auguste Blanqui and his followers play no role in my account of the argument of Capital. On the one hand, Marx’s relation to Blanquism has been exhaustively and authoritatively treated in Richard N. Hunt’s The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels (an underappreciated and hard-to-find classic, unfortunately); I saw no value in retreading that ground.

Second, Blanqui produced almost nothing by way of a distinctive theory, and Blanquism was not a force to be reckoned with in the International Working Men’s Association. Marx was concerned to close down Proudhonism and Saint-Simoneanism because these were the two substantial and influential bodies of theory. Blanqui’s conspiratorial Jacobinism was relatively inconsequential and uninteresting.

Most importantly, however, the French republican tradition, of which Blanqui is one offshoot, is, as Harvey realizes, “very different” from the republican tradition that I think influenced Marx. Rousseau had a massive influence on the French tradition, but almost none on Marx (as David Leopold has shown). I simply see no signs of Jacobin or Blanquist influence in Capital, and Harvey does not point to any either. In the absence of any such indication, I am a bit baffled by the suggestion that I cannot pursue the evidence that is in the text “without first opening up the question of Jacobin republicanism.”

With this, we seem to have come full circle. Harvey’s overwhelming objection to my book is that it is a reading of Volume 1. He does not think that I can establish my interpretation of Volume 1 on the basis of Volume 1. And he argues against my interpretation, but not, for the most part, on the basis of Volume 1. This result suggests to me that I am onto something. As I write in the introduction to Marx’s Inferno,

Marx undoubtedly thought of Capital as his chef d’oeuvre. Throughout the twentieth century it was relatively neglected, for it was supposed to be the seat of the Marx we already knew from the proclamations of the Marxist parties. Hence, people who were attracted to Marx but repelled by the parties went looking for one “unknown Marx” or another, as new manuscripts became available. This process has certainly enriched our knowledge of Marx’s thought, but it has also produced the rather perverse situation in which Marx is better known for his unpublished jottings than for his major public intervention. Ironically, we never actually knew the Marx of Capital very well. It is a long and difficult book, lacking the programmatic clarity and generality of Engels’s late works. . . . Volume one of Capital — Marx’s only fully elaborated and published work of theory — ended up being largely neglected. And, so, I think it is important to go back to it, to read it carefully from beginning to end, and to do so without presuming that we know what we will find.

My hope is that my book might provoke exactly this sort of reading. If it does, then I am sure that people will encounter things that push against my interpretations, that suggest other interpretations, that open up onto other interlocutors. Until then, I am grateful to Professor Harvey for taking the time to read and respond to my book, but I remain unmoved by his objections.