Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Article by Elmar Altvater

Why read Capital”, and how?

An introduction by Elmar Altvater

Consider a US-soldier in Iraq, or an employee of a private security company, or a messenger in Hamburg or a skinny model from Rio de Janeiro. None of these people need Karl Marx’s “Capital” in order to do their jobs. Quite the opposite, in many ways it would actually be more of a hindrance and therefore it’s certainly not included as part of the army’s survival kit. But it can happen that the GI develops doubts about the justification of the aggression against the Iraqi people. Perhaps the messenger demands a minimum wage and finds himself in conflict not only with his employer, but also with “expert opinion”. The skinny model decides to eat whatever she likes. None of them will start reading Capital simply because of these small doubts and these big deviances from the respective roles that they are expected to play. But it could happen that they accidently meet; the person who doubts the justification of the war, the person who fights for social justice and the person who criticises the dominance of consumption and commercialised ideas of beauty. They discover connections, and together with many others they decide to collectively draw political conclusions from their doubts. They begin to discuss their social conditions in order to be able to formulate coherent strategies. They realise the limits of their knowledge about social interrelations, their contradictions and the dynamics of conflicts. Then, however, the unexpected can happen, that they start studying “Capital” in order to understand these social contradictions, political conflicts and historical tendencies and in order to be able to formulate the strategies required by the times in which they live.

Some start reading “Capital” out of individual interest: out of curiosity, out of philological interest, to be able to join in discussions, or out of frustration about the mainstream explanations offered in the social science departments of our universities. A collective ‘Reading Capital’ movement on the other hand can only come into being when people share similar experiences in different social and geographical places, when similar questions occur and when it then becomes necessary to identify what one has in common by formulating it. Immediately, there is a problem: How does one do this? Where does one start? Which steps follow others? How is it possible at all to transform the individual act of reading into a collective movement of reading individuals who, on top of that, claim to practically and politically change the world? And, how can we understand the society we want to change at all? What is capitalism and how does capital work? Thankfully there is help we can find when we try to answer those questions.


Das Kapital”, the “Critique of Political Economy” (the subheading of Marx’s work) is the most systematic of all literary works available. Reading “Capital” therefore is an obvious choice, although it is difficult. The sketch of an explanation of “Capital” as outlined in the “Grundrisse” gives some insight into Marx’s overall plan, but the steps Marx makes in the first volume of “Capital” can be hard to follow. When discussing the form of value (whilst everything appears to be simply an exchange of equivalents) one might stumble in the process of reading and of discussing. We can understand why Marx begins with an analysis of the commodity, because, as Marx states at the beginning of “Capital”, the “wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an immense collection of commodities”. The individual commodity is the elementary form of that wealth. The form therefore is the decisive difference as to the appearance of wealth. Only in capitalism does it take the form of commodities. It therefore makes sense to begin with an analysis of the commodity form in the first chapter of “Capital”.

Then, step by step, social forms, their appearances and their corresponding forms of consciousness are developed. We usually accept social forms as self-evident, inherent necessities without understanding that we ourselves have created them. Therefore we are all ‘fetishists’, not because nature has condemned us to it but because we are all acting within social forms which require a lot of effort to understand. The fetishism embodied in the commodity is, as Marx says, “mysterious”. The individual effort to disclose the secret is made easier if reading happens collectively. For the first chapter on the commodity it is important to take some time and proceed carefully with some questioning.


How does money come into the world, when things are produced by labour? The question is by no means trivial. Neoliberals think that money at every stage is brought into circulation by the central bank, as if dropped off by a helicopter. They are not interested in the notion of money, only in its quantity in relation to the quantity of commodities, which, in their view, determines the rate of inflation. Marx goes deeper than this. He asks questions about the form of money, before examining its function and quantity. The form of money is already given in one single act of exchange of commodities. It originates in the equivalent form of value. If the commodity A (let’s say, bread) is expressed in its equivalent, the commodity B (let’s say, chewing-gum), the equivalent (chewing-gum exchanged for bread) can be replaced by money.

Originally, money was as physical as the products exchanged, in Europe mainly gold and other precious metals. Other cultures, for example, used cattle as money. Today this task is fulfilled by (Central-) banknotes, i.e. paper money and electronic money, because nowadays Central Banks assure the value of money, gold and other substances being more and more “de-monetised”. It becomes clear that the form of money and the tasks it performs can be fulfilled by very different kinds of material, even by electronic bits and bites. Nevertheless, money is always tied to real values and to the real economy. During certain phases money and the highly developed sphere of finance can become more and more independent. We can understand the reasons for this when we read the chapter on fetishism, about the vile products of our own action which then become circumstances of constraint to our action. In his historical analysis of the transition to the market economy in the 18th and 19th century Karl Polanyi describes this as a tendency of the markets to disembed themselves from society, and as we have to add today, from nature.

The reading movement stops?

Many committed Marxists and followers of Marx’s theory, for instance around the Frankfurt School, have stopped here, with the Marxist theory of alienation, of the critique of ideology, of false appearances and distorted consciousness. But it is necessary to continue reading, for it is only now that we are confronted with the conditions under which modern industry functions. Only when reading the later chapters of the first volume of “Capital” and volume 2 and 3, does it become clear how the process of accumulation of capital functions and which contradictions within it lead to substantial crises. Reading capital therefore requires persistency, which not everyone might have. Not because they are weak or impatient but because they cannot always combine the time-consuming reading of “Capital” with their studies. This has always been the case, also in the Reading Capital movement in the aftermath of 1968. Reading “Capital” as a political project cannot avoid the possibility of a group of “Capital”-experts either.

Brecht said that it is expensive to be a good Marxist. Does this suggest Marxist human resources? Marx strictly opposed that idea, just as one would not think of describing the eye as the resources of seeing. This does not mean that it is not necessary to gain much knowledge in order to meet Brecht’s claim (which Marx shared) that in order to change the world we need to understand it. A ‘reading Capital’ movement always has to consider that knowledge can only be gained in collective effort and that this, together with the analysis of the social situation, determines the space for social praxis. The GI, the messenger and the model already got to the third chapter of “Capital” on “Money, or the Circulation of Commodities”. While reading they had many light-bulb moments and gained insight. They also believe that they dispose of the categories of analysis of forms with which they can understand their social situation, its contradictions and conflicts which initiated their reading in the beginning: The greed for oil and the interests behind the invasion of Iraq, the strategies to reduce wages (and not just in the privatised postal services) and the beauty fetishism as an expression of fetishised commodity aesthetics.

But the mentor of their reading group warns them. Reading “Capital” is a necessary precondition in order to understand the process of accumulation of capital but it is not sufficient. We also have to tackle an analysis of the “surface phenomena” of contemporary real capitalism, in order to be able to formulate strategies of action. For this reading “Capital” is indispensable, but we need to read it with the same method Marx used to analyse it: Firstly, “Capital” is the product of the vast research Marx made in the British library and secondly it is a serious critical examination of the thinking of his time. This is true for a “Critique of Political Economy” today. Reading groups cannot limit themselves to reading, they have to critically analyse contemporary ways of thinking and acting in order to fulfill the claim of being a political project.

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