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Marx’s Capital gets to grips with a mystified system

This article is over 17 years, 2 months old
In the first of a new series, Joseph Choonara shows how capitalism hides its secret foundation
Issue 2045
Who decides if a newspaper is worth a pint of milk?
Who decides if a newspaper is worth a pint of milk?

In 1872 Karl Marx dashed off a letter applauding plans to publish a French edition of his book Capital in serial form.

“In this form the book will be more accessible to the working class, a consideration that outweighs everything else,” wrote Marx.

Capital is rather different from traditional treatises on economics.

Passages drip with venom: “Within the capitalist system, all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer.

“They mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into hated toil.”

The three volumes produced by Marx were written for a single purpose – to grasp capitalism’s “laws of motion” in order to hasten its overthrow.

But Marx feared that readers might be “disheartened” by their attempts to grapple with Capital.

“There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits,” concluded Marx in his letter to his French publisher.

The difficulty many readers face is not primarily due to Marx’s writing style, but to his subject matter – capitalism.

Capitalism differs from earlier societies. Since humans emerged as a species, they have found ways of working together to produce the things they need.

Centuries ago they hunted or farmed – today production harnesses advanced technology.

Those in earlier societies produced primarily for their own consumption, but capitalism is different.

Car workers cannot consume an endless quantity of cars and forgo food, McDonald’s workers cannot build houses out of burgers.

As Marx wrote on the first page of Capital, “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.”

Capitalism is a system of commodity production – goods are produced to sell on the market.

Consider a very simple economic act under capitalism, such as purchasing a newspaper at a corner shop. Money leaves your hands and in return you get a commodity.

On the surface this looks like a relationship between things – a newspaper for some coins. But it raises an interesting question.

Where did the newspaper come from?

The contents were produced by journalists, photographers and designers. The words were reproduced by print workers on paper that was the result of its own process of production.

The printing press and the journalists’ computers were produced by yet more groups of workers.

What seems like a simple exchange of “things” in fact unlocks an endless network of relationships between people, and in particular between workers who produce commodities.

In previous societies relationships between people who produced goods were obvious.

In capitalism they are hidden and mysterious. “A definite social relation between men” instead takes on “the fantastic form of a relationship between things”.

Marx called this the “fetishism of commodities”.

A religious “fetish” is an object endowed with mystical properties. In capitalism things that are produced by humans take on a life of their own – they become fetishised.

There is a difference between this fetishism and religious fetishism – under capitalism the powers that commodities seem to have are real powers.

Take, for example, money, a special “universal” commodity that can be exchanged for all others. Money is a source of real power.

It even seems to attract more money, through interest payments for example. But the reason why money has these powers is mystified.

Marx’s Capital is complex because he sought to penetrate the surface appearance of capitalism and examined the social relationships between humans that can actually explain the system.

Capital begins with a simple question – what makes one commodity exchange for another?

Why might the pint of milk cost the same as the newspaper?

They have different uses and qualities. They are produced in different ways. So why are they worth the same amount of money?

This will be the subject of my next column.

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