In his masterpiece, Capital, Karl Marx attempts to make sense of capitalism. This was not just out of scientific curiosity—he believed that a clear understanding of capitalism would help to overthrow it.
The mainstream view of economics sees capitalism as a static and unchanging system.
Marx, by contrast, sees capitalism as a historical system—it hasn’t always existed and is constantly developing.
Marx looks at how capitalism emerged from previous and very different ways of organising society. By doing so he shows how in turn a new kind of society can arise out of capitalism.
Marx does not pretend to be a neutral observer—his moral outrage at the exploitation of human beings is clear throughout.
He describes the factory system of industry under capitalism as “a mechanical monster” devouring the lives of workers.
Marx’s starting point in Capital is to ask what is distinctive about how things are produced under capitalism compared to the systems that have gone before.
His answer is that nearly everything we produce is turned into a commodity—something to be bought or sold.
Under capitalism we produce goods for sale on the market.
But what decides the value of a commodity?
We don’t think twice about the fact that gold is more valuable than aluminium, but is gold more useful?
Value is not determined by how useful a commodity is, but by how much labour went into producing it.
Of course machines and raw materials are also used to produce commodities.
But these are themselves the result of previous acts of labour which produced the machines and extracted the raw materials in the first place.
This “dead labour”, as Marx called it, must be combined with “living labour”—people working now—to produce a new commodity.
Marx points out that on the surface capitalism is a system that seems to have its own laws independent of human control.
But he then shows how its workings actually derive from the activity of human beings—and so can be changed.
He calls this process of mystification “commodity fetishism”—the way inanimate objects seem to dominate us, reaching its highest expression in the power of money.
Marx goes on to ask, if value comes from labour, why aren’t those who do all the work the richest people in society?
He explains that because the means of production—the factories, call centres, oil rigs etc—are owned by capitalists, the majority of people cannot work unless they sell their capacity to work, or their “labour power”, to the capitalists.
But our labour power is not valued by what comes out of it, only what goes into it—like any other commodity.
Your wage is simply the amount you need to survive and keep coming back to work.
The rest of the value, or “surplus value”, you create is taken by the boss.
This is the great swindle of capitalism—the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class.
Marx then looks at the relationship between the capitalists themselves—a “band of hostile brothers” each competing with the other.
Capitalists are forced to accumulate wealth or face being driven out of business by rivals.
Exploitation is not something the bosses could choose to opt out of—it’s a life or death necessity.
And the process of accumulation is not coordinated across society: investment is made anywhere a profit can be made. There is no reference to what people need.
This blind drive to accumulate lies behind both the dynamism of capitalism, and its tendency towards crisis.
The unplanned anarchy of production means that crisis is a constantly recurring feature of capitalism.
Capital might seem a daunting read, but the clarity of Marx’s arguments and the rich historical detail make it fascinating.
It is a powerful weapon in the fight to transform society—placing production and workers at the heart of society.
It reveals how capitalism has created a force capable of the revolutionary overthrow of this rotten system.
Unravelling Capitalism by Joseph Choonara is a good introduction to Capital. It is available from £6.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, as are all three volumes of Capital. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk