Tuesday, 31 March 2009

‘The Transformation of Money into Capital’

Take Capital home over the holidays, because when we return Biswadip Dasgupta, a member of the KCL Reading Capital Movement, will introduce a discussion on

‘The Transformation of Money into Capital’.
Tuesday 5th May

Ground Floor Strand Building Room 1

“The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the limits of the market or of the sphere of circulation. Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

N.B. We are reading Part II: Chapters 4-6 in preparation for this meeting.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

‘Money or the Circulation of Commodities’

The reading movement continues to grow with 20 people attending our second session. At the next meeting, John Cooper, of the KCL Reading Capital Movement, will introduce a discussion on:

‘Money or the Circulation of Commodities’.
Tuesday 24th March
Ground Floor Strand Building Room 1

“It is not money that renders commodities commensurable. Just the contrary. It is because all commodities, as values, are realised human labour, and therefore commensurable, that their values can be measured by one and the same special commodity, and the latter be converted into the common measure of their values, i.e., into money. Money as a measure of value, is the phenomenal form that must of necessity be assumed by that measure of value which is immanent in commodities: labour-time.”

N.B. We are reading Chapter 3 in preparation for this meeting.

In case of doubt the original: “Capital” – an overview of its interpretations

For more than a hundred years introductory and accompanying literature to “Capital” has been produced. For as long as the work itself, the need has existed for comprehensible summaries, because the original text is extremely long and at times difficult to approach. In some places the book raises more questions than it answers and secondary literature can be helpful here. But we should be aware that every text accompanying “Capital” also has its own subjective interpretation and views the text from a certain angle.

The text can be read from a logical as well as from a historical point of view. It can be seen in the perspective of gender politics or interpreted with regard to law, etc. In addition there are many political traditions that each interpret Marx’s work in their own way (see below). This is how a lively debate about the “correct” interpretation of “Capital” has developed. As a beginner one can easily lose track of this jungle of debates and the hundreds of contributions made. And one should be careful not to have read more of the secondary literature than of the actual text. This way one can also avoid the danger of being too quickly taken up by any one particular way of reading “Capital”.

In the Reading Capital group we do not want to insist on one specific version. Since we are starting without preconditions the primary text by Marx is at the centre and should also be the point of reference in discussions.

The following table illustrates very basically the different (historical) schools of interpretation of Marx, or of the different “Marxisms”. The schematic subdivision follows a very rough and simplified pattern. The years are merely to give an approximate orientation – the actual transitions were much more fluid and the blocks represented here are by far not that homogenous. Who wants to have a look at the different “schools” of Marxism can find useful indications in Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume work “Main Currents of Marxism”. Each of these different perspectives has produced texts accompanying “Capital”, each with specific nuances – which is why there can be no “objective” secondary literature.

What? / When? / Where? / Main focus

Traditional Marxism 1st Generation / from 1878 on / SPD, 2nd International, Engels, Kautsky, Bebel, Bernstein and others / development of history along laws of nature

Traditional Marxism, 2nd Generation / 1914 until early 1920’s / Early 3rd International, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Bucharin / Revolutionary perspective, against Reformism of 2nd International

Trad. Communist Interpretation, Marxism-Leninism / after 1928 / Communist Parties after Stalinisation / Party as the centre of praxis and theory, Marxism as state- Doctrine (USSR)

Western Marxism, Reference to working class / from 1923 on / Korsch, Lukács, Gramsci / Subjectivity of revolutionary praxis

Western Marxism, Frankfurt School / from 1930 on / Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer / Mechanisms of integration of late Capitalism

Neue Marx-Lektüre / from 1968 on / Backhaus, Heinrich, Hirsch / Critique of forms of capitalist socialisation

The different schools of Marxism stimulate the vivid debates around the interpretation of “Capital”. But the reason for this struggle of interpretation is the work itself. In the following comments we want to exemplify the controversies amongst Marxists by highlighting some points which are the objects of those controversies.

The status of the dialectical method:

In “Capital” Marx does not explicitly state whether and to what extent his analysis uses Hegelian dialectics. How do we therefore have to interpret formulations which seem to follow Hegelian categories (such as form and content or appearance and being)? [FORM, INHALT, SCHEIN, SEIN] And if the dialectic is always implicitly present, how can we understand the work without philosophical knowledge at all?

Historical or logical account in chapter 1 of volume I:

Does the depiction of the development from simple exchange of commodities to the capitalist wage labour (respectively the development of money) follow an imagined, real historical course or does Marx use abstractions in order to identify the specifically capitalist basic forms [GRUNDFORMEN] of value, labour and capital?

There are also differences as to where and when value is developed. An approach which is sometimes referred to as “the substantiveness of value theory” [“werttheoretischer Substantialismus”] situates the creation of value already in production. Others hold the view that value is only created when commodities face each other as commodities, i.e. in the exchange-process.

Another important field of debate is gender relations. To what extent does the analysis of “Capital” consider the oppression of women? What is the relation between wage labour and reproductive labour (Reproduktionsarbeit) in the determination of the value of labour-power?
This is only a small selection of questions and controversies which have emerged from “Capital”. The most important questions, however, often develop in the reading groups themselves and they can be completely different from the ones outlined here. These illustrations do not aim at working along a pre-modelled catalogue of questions, they merely show that reading “Capital” can open up many exciting debates in reading groups.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Following an interesting discussion at our first session with 18 people attending, Rob Jackson, of the KCL Reading Capital Movement, will introduce a discussion on

‘The Secret of the Fetishism of Commodities’.
Tuesday 10th March
Ground Floor Strand Building Room 1

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour."

N.B. We are reading section 4 of Chapter 1 in preparation for this meeting.

All good things come in threes - Michael Heinrich

When Frederick Engels once again urged Marx to publish at least the first volume of “Capital”, Marx replied on August 31st 1865 that he could not bring himself to send off anything until it was finished. For him, whatever shortcomings they may have had, the advantage of his writings was that they were an artistic whole and could only be published at once.

Two years later, in 1867, the first volume of “Capital” was published although the project as a whole remained unfinished. Marx believed however that he would be able to complete the two remaining volumes within the following two years. As we know by now this was a miscalculation: Marx died in 1883, without having been able to complete “Capital”. The revision of Volume I for the second edition, his exhausting activity in the International Workingmen’s Association, publications on current political events such as the Paris Commune and finally his worsening physical condition made it impossible for Marx to complete Volume II and III. It was not until 1885 and 1894 respectively that Engels published Volume II and Volume III from Marx’s literary estate. The unfinished character of the manuscripts and their less sophisticated style of writing are visible despite Engels’ efforts. It is no surprise that the first volume of “Capital” dominates its reception even today. When someone says that they have read “Capital”, they usually refer to Volume I, and indeed, this first volume appears to be quite cohesive.

Volume 1

In Volume I Marx starts out by examining commodities and money and then proceeds to the “general formula for capital” M-C-M. He asks himself how the valorization of capital (Kapitalverwertung) is possible when ideal equivalents (i.e. the same values) are being exchanged. Marx explains that it is possible because labour-power (i.e. the ability to work) is sold as a commodity. The value of the commodity labour-power is less than the value that its application can produce. Therefore it is the exploitation of labour-power which delivers surplus value. Volume I is dedicated to the analysis of the capitalist process of production, and its largest part deals with the different possibilities of increasing the production of surplus value as well as with the social fights which take place under these conditions.

Marx shows at the same time how capitalist relations (kapitalistische Verhältnisse) veil themselves. The chapter on commodity fetishism is concerned with the representation (Darstellung) of social relations as objectified (sachliche) qualities of things: the world appears to be governed by material constraints we all have to submit to.

In the part dedicated to the form of the wage (Lohnform), Marx shows that although it is labour-power which is being paid for (so that it can reproduce itself and continue to be available for exploitation), the form (Gestalt) of the wage conveys the impression that it is in fact the work which has been done that is being paid for. It therefore seems as if a just and appropriate wage could abolish exploitation.

The chapter on accumulation then deals with the continuing repetition of the capitalist process of production on a growing scale, which is what economic science calls ‘economic growth’. Contrary to mainstream economics, however, Marx reveals the inevitable consequences of this process: periodically growing unemployment and increasing social polarization between those who appropriate the advantages of the development of society and those who have to bear the weight of this development. Volume I then concludes with an examination of the historical formation of modern capitalism and with a short perspective on the surmounting of that system.
Looking at Volume I as a whole, we are confronted with a rather difficult introduction, several very intriguing main parts and finally a happy end on the horizon. One is inclined to ask, what else (that is of major importance to the system) can there still be to come? Howard Zinn, a left-wing historian from the US who is politically committed in many ways, wrote in the epilogue of his theatre play “Marx in Soho” that although “Capital” is the most important one of Marx’s works, it is unnecessary to read Volume II and III unless one is serving a long prison sentence. But the second and third volumes can be very useful and interesting even outside of prison walls.

Volume 2

The second volume is concerned with the process of circulation of capital. Production and circulation (i.e. the entirety of the exchange-process) do not take place independently of one another. The examination of the process of circulation provides Marx with new definitions, for individual units of capital and for the economic reproduction of the whole of society.

It is only on the basis of his description of the unity of production and circulation in Volume II that Marx is then able to develop “the process of capitalist production as a whole” in Volume III. This confronts us with categories which play an important role in everyday life under capitalism, but which were absent from the first volume, as for instance “profit”, “prices of production”, “profit of enterprise” and “interest”. These categories are often confused with something which they are not: the value of commodities is by no means the centre of fluctuating market prices (Schwankungszentrum der Marktpreise), and surplus value is by no means simply the same as profit or profit of enterprise.

Volume 3

Volume III answers many questions one might have while reading Volume I. It is only in the third volume that Marx deals with the conversion of the different rates of profit into one average rate of profit. It is only in the third volume that he examines interest-bearing capital and following from that the functioning of banks and finance markets. Indeed, it is only in the third volume that we read about the mechanisms which again and again produce economic crises. And in the last section of Volume III Marx finally deals with the “Trinity Formula”, the summary of all fetishisms and mystifications, the analysis of which he had only begun in Volume I with the depiction of commodity fetishism and the form of the wage (Lohnform). These mystifications which naturally spring from capitalist society are the background of the development of a spontaneous everyday consciousness. Marx therefore also called them the “religion of everyday life”. We have to face this phenomenon everyday, whenever we attempt to criticize capitalism.
It is only now that we have obtained a general picture of the capitalist mode of production. Without volumes II and III the first volume does not only remain incomplete, but taken in itself it cannot be totally understood. The three volumes of “Capital” indeed form an ‘artistic whole’, which needs to be perceived as a whole. This is exhausting, it requires time and energy and persistence. But in return we gain an understanding which is fundamental for every form of political practice and we experience an exciting intellectual adventure.