Marx's models and actual capitalism

Best possible world

Blog post about Marx's Capital, what it is and isn't, partially in reply to Joseph Kay.

In my view, Karl Marx's analysis of capitalism is really powerful and important. I think the best formulation of this analysis is in his book Capital, Volume 1. Joseph Kay recently wrote a blog post about a book I've not read yet, by David Graeber, and that post made me want to write this post about aspects of Marx. Joseph described Marx as writing an immanent critique of capitalist economics. I understand this to mean that Marx tried to take on ideas about capitalism on their own terms and show how they have internal problems. I think this is a good way to understand Capital, Volume 1. (I'm just going to call it Capital from here on out.) In this blog post I lay out some further points about what I think Marx is and is not doing, matters that I think are useful for reading Marx.

What Capital presents is a sort of perfected capitalism, it's capitalism without any accidents, capitalism as presented by the ideologues of capitalism. In the Grundrisse Marx uses the phrase "rational abstraction" to mean a useful general model that helps us to think about various things in the world and society. Marx's presentation of capitalism is a rational abstraction: it's a general model of capitalism. This general model has a few uses. For one thing, it helps to show that any form of capitalism will be unjust. Injustice under capitalism isn't an accident, it's at the core of capitalism: capitalism is unjust. A perfected capitalism will still generate immoral outcomes. For another, it shows some of the general dynamics of capitalism as a social system - some things we can expect to see some of the time regularly in capitalist societies.

Both of these things are useful. It's important, though, that we not mistake Marx's model for actually existing capitalism. This is something that Joseph talks about in his post. Joseph quotes Graeber saying that many readers of Marx forget the "as if" quality of Marx's critical analysis of capitalism, which is to say, people forget that Marx's work present a model, not actual capitalism. The model of capitalism that Marx presents is really powerful, but that model is not the same thing as knowing the history of what actually existing capitalism has been, including the range of different forms that capitalist societies and capitalist enterprises have taken.

In the preface to v2 of Capital, Engels says something that can be read as compatible with this. He writes that

Quote:
“Marx’s surplus value (…) represents the general form of the sum of values appropriated without any equivalent by the owners of the means of production (…) many intermediate links are required to arrive from an understanding of surplus-value in general at an understanding of (…) the laws of the distribution of surplus-value within the capitalist class.” (10.)

Marx's model doesn’t just give us what actually happened in the history of capitalism or present capitalism. It gives us some concepts to use that help us conduct analysis of capitalism.

In the rest of this post I'm going to list a few places were I think we can see Marx suggesting himself that his work is dealing in models, or at least places where Marx seems amenable to that interpretation of his work. There are a few places where Marx suggests or implicitly admits that his model of capitalism is not the same thing as the reality of capitalism. For example, in Wage Labour and Capital, Marx wrote that:

Quote:
"The actual price of a commodity (…) stands always above or below the cost of production (…) the price of a commodity is indeed determined by its cost of production, but in such a manner that the periods in which the price of these commodities rises above the costs of production are balanced by the periods in which it sinks below the cost of production, and vice versa. Of course this does not hold good for a single given product of an industry, but only for that branch of industry. So also it does not hold good for an individual manufacturer, but only for the whole class of manufacturers."

That is to say, when Marx talks about the labor theory of value and the determination of commodity prices by the labor time required to make commodities, he means it in very, very general terms. The point about the value of commodities was again a matter of Marx dealing with models and rational abstractions. Under a perfected, accident-free capitalism, Marx argues, commodities would be priced at the labor time it took to produce them. And that perfect pricing would be exploitive, because waged labor involves capitalists owning and selling goods that workers make, and the capitalists get to keep the additional value added to the goods by workers' labor. Workers aren't paid the value that we add to the goods and services our employers sell.

Another place were we can see the status of Marx's model as a model is on chapter 26 of Capital. Here Marx writes about the violence that helped make capitalism possible in the first place. He calls this primitive accumulation. He writes that primitive accumulation "in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods. In England alone, which we take as our example, has it the classic form." The actual history of capitalism has varied tremendously. Marx focused on just one example of capitalist society, that of England, in order to build his model for understanding capitalism in general. This is powerful conceptually, but it makes it hard to tell the difference between traits of English capitalism and capitalism as such. It's also not necessarily the case that Marx always drew that line correctly - that is, it's not always clear that Marx was right when he said something was part of English capitalism or part of capitalism as such.

In chapter 24 of Capital, Marx distinguishes between capitalists re-investing their money in order to make more money and capitalists spending their money for their own enjoyment. The first, investing money to make money, creates more capital. The second "consumes or expends it as revenue." Marx adds that some of the time he analytically treats the same thing differently. That is, he has two different ways of discussing the wealth that capitalists extract from workers. Some of the time he discusses it "solely as a fund for supplying the individual consumption of the capitalist." That's what Marx means by revenue. Other times he treats it "solely as a fund for accumulation," which is to say, solely as a matter of capitalists spending money to make more money. Marx points out that in actual social practice, capitalists' wealth is "neither the one nor the other, but is both together. One portion is consumed by the capitalist as revenue, the other is employed as capital, is accumulated," which is to say, wealth expended to create more wealth for capitalists.

Marx adds that through Capital he treats capitalists "as personified capital." Capitalism as a social system exerts pressures that encourage capitalists to act in certain ways - to live up to the character type of "personified capital" - but no actual people are really just personified capital and nothing more. Marx's point is an analytical one. By creating this character type who is only a capitalist and nothing else - that is, someone who cares only about the creation of wealth for it's own sake - Marx can get at some of the core dynamics of capitalism. In actual social reality we never see this pure capitalism where capitalists are personified capital and nothing more. To the degree that capitalists are personified capital, the money they spend for their own personal consumption - money spent as revenue, Marx calls it - is money wasted, because it's money that could have been spent making even more wealth. Marx writes that "So far (…) as his actions are a mere function of capital — endowed as capital is, in his person, with consciousness and a will — his own private consumption is a robbery perpetrated on accumulation." Of course, actual existing capitalists don't just care about capital accumulation. They also spend their wealth on things they enjoy and which don't add to the creation of greater wealth - the expansion of their wealth is their primary priority in general, but it's not their only priority all the time in all places. To put it another way, actually existing capitalists rarely conform 100% to the logic of the capitalist system. Capitalism is a system which rewards and encourages economistic behavior, and the best of Marx and the marxist tradition is an attack on that.

In chapter 10 of Capital, Marx notes that at this point in the book he has made an assumption that workers under capitalism in general are legally and formally free. He further notes that this assumption isn't really accurate to the history of actually existing capitalism. It's another rational abstraction. He writes that "as far as we have at present gone only the independent labourer, and therefore only the labourer legally qualified to act for himself, enters as a vendor of a commodity into a contract with the capitalist. If, therefore, in our historical sketch, on the one hand, modern industry, on the other, the labour of those who are physically and legally minors, play important parts, the former was to us only a special department, and the latter only a specially striking example of labour exploitation.”

In chapter 15 of Capital, Marx again not this analytical assumption and how it differs from the actual history of capitalism. Here he begins to suggest that this assumption should be abandoned. He notes that in the early part of the book, "Taking the exchange of commodities as our basis, our first assumption was that capitalist and labourer met as free persons, as independent owners of commodities; the one possessing money and means of production, the other labour-power." That is, the first several chapters of Capital assumed that the working class worked for wages under relatively free circumstances, in the sense that they were compelled by the need to have wages and not by external force.

To put it another way, early in Capital the book assumes formally, legally free workers are the normal workers under capitalism. In chapter 15, however, Marx puts this assumption to the test of some aspects of the actual history of English capitalism. Marx notes that the introduction of machinery in various industries led to greater employment of women and children. These workers were not formally and legally free but rather legally disqualified. Marx writes that "now the capitalist buys children and young persons under age. Previously, the workman sold his own labour-power, which he disposed of nominally as a free agent. Now he sells wife and child. He has become a slave-dealer." Marx here claims that there is a growth in the use of legally disqualified workers under capitalism, breaking the assumption of legally and formally free workers. Marx also probably underestimates the degree to which the working class was never all that formally and legally free. It's not clear to me if this underestimation is another methodological assumption on Marx's part or something he just got wrong.

These examples I've listed are moments when Marx seems to let on that he is dealing in models. Marx's models are useful conceptually, but less so if we forget that they're models. Marx used his models in part for this usefulness, but also in part because he was engaged with classical political economists. Political economists dealt largely with theoretical models. (I'm told the same is largely true of economists today, though their models are much more mathematically presented these days.) Marx learned from and criticized political economists and, as Joseph Kay wrote, he conducted an immanent critique of them. This meant dealing in models just as political economists did.

In my view, Marx's models are very useful for thinking about capitalism and people should read volume 1 of Capital. (I recommend starting it with chapter 26 and reading to the end, then starting at the beginning and reading to the end. Or, read chapter 26 to the end, then chapter 4 through 25, then the first three chapters. The first three chapters are like the beginning of the movie The Usual Suspects: the ending totally changes the meaning of the beginning. Except the beginning of Capital is much more dull than that film.) I plan to read that Graeber book that Joseph reviewed. I would like to recommend a few other books here that I find useful alongside Marx. They're not primarily theoretical works, though they're smart sophisticated works.

One is the short book Historical Capitalism by Immanuel Wallerstein. The book collects some talks Wallerstein gave. In the beginning of the book Wallerstein makes a comment that speaks to what I've been saying here and what Joseph and Graeber talk about with regard to Marx and readings of Marx. Wallerstein described a limitation in a lot of things "written about capitalism by Marxists and others on the left," namely the fault of "logico-deductive analyses, starting from definitions of what capitalism was thought to be in essence, and then seeing how far it had developed in different places and times." Wallerstein instead aimed “to see capitalism as a historical system, over the whole of its history and in concrete unique reality.” Wallerstein suggest that Marx moved back and forth between these two approaches. For Wallerstein, this is a “tension in [Marx's] presentation of his work between the exposition of capitalism as a perfected system (which had never in fact existed historically) and the analysis of the concrete day-to-day reality of the capitalist world.” The rest of Wallerstein's book sketches elements of the over-all history of capitalism in his interpretation. It's worth a read, especially alongside Marx's Capital.

In addition to Wallerstein's book, I'd also highly recommend Michael Perelman's excellent book The Invention of Capitalism. Perelman compares the public writings of classical political economists with the journals and letters and the political and policy writings of those political economists during early capitalism and the transition to capitalist society. Their more public writings tended to treat markets as self-constituting and self-regulating but their private writings and their political interventions showed a keen understanding of the role of the state and of violence in creating and maintaining capitalism. The book is useful for its reminder that some capitalist ideologists know full well that their hymns to markets are ideological and false.

I would also highly recommend that people who want to understand the history of actually existing capitalism should engage with some recent-ish writings on the history of slavery, in particular Gavin Wright's short and very readable book Slavery and American Economic Development, Dale Tomich's book Through the Prism of Slavery and Walter Johnson's essay "The Pedestal and the Veil." Often slavery has been conceptually defined as not-capitalist or as pre-capitalist. Marx often discussed capitalism and slavery this way. This assumption is little more than an assertion about how to define the words capitalism and slavery - "if there's slavery it's not full capitalism, because we define full capitalism as not involving slavery" - and it's not an illuminating definition. The reality of the history of slavery and capitalism is that they're complicated - not all capitalism involved slavery and not all slavery was noncapitalist. In particular, the southern United States became a society which was no less capitalist than the north, it was just differently capitalist. The U.S. Civil War was a war between two different capitalist governments.

I'm going to end this blog post in a moment, with two quotes from E.P. Thompson, which I already posted in the discussion on Joseph Kay's blog post. As I read Marx, Marx's work in Capital was motivated by a sense like what Thompson expressed. Marx understood capitalism as a social system that limited human possibilities, and in ways that could and should be done away with. Marx's metaphors sometimes show this, like when he talks about capitalists coining the blood of children into money. As someone who buried several of his children, Marx wouldn't have used that imagery lightly. Marx's judgements motivated his immanent critique of capitalism and the ideas of political economists, and these judgments are pretty clear in Marx's writings, but most of Capital is spent developing the models.

Thompson said “

Quote:
The injury which advanced industrial capitalism did, and which the market society did, was to define human relations as being primarily economic. Marx engaged with orthodox political economy, and proposed revolutionary economic man as the answer to exploited economic man. But it is also implicit, particularly in the early Marx, that the injury is in defining man as “economic” at all.”

Thompson said elsewhere that

Quote:
“While one form which opposition to capitalism takes is in direct economic antagonism – resistance to exploitation whether as producer or consumer – another form is, exactly, resistance to capitalism’s innate tendency to reduce all human relationships to economic definitions. The two are inter-related, of course; but it is by no means certain which may prove to be, in the end, more revolutionary. (…) [People] desire, fitfully, not only direct economic satisfactions, but also to throw off this grotesque “economic” disguise which capitalism imposes upon them, and to resume a human shape.”

Comments

Nate
Jan 26 2012 19:13

Just saw this article about the role of slavery in the history of U.S. capitalism. It's very good.
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-24/how-slavery-led-to-modern-capitalism-echoes.html

Nate
Feb 15 2012 04:51

Another point where Marx says "I'm talking in terms of models, for the sake of conceptual clarity" then points out the distance between the model as he's presented it so far and actually-existing capitalism:

"we have assumed in our illustration that the capital-value of the quantity of commodities created at the stage of production is equal to the total sum of the value originally advanced in the form of money; or, in other words, that the entire capital-value advanced in the form of money passes on in bulk from one stage to the next. But we have seen that a part of constant capital, the labour instruments proper (e.g., machinery), continually serve anew, with more or less numerous repetitions of the same process of production, hence transfer their values piecemeal to the products. It will be seen later to what extent this circumstance modifies the circular movement of capital."

http://marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885-c2/ch01.htm#4

Nate
Feb 16 2012 15:29

hey Revol, thanks for that. I've marked the Harvey lecture to view but haven't seen it yet. That lecture series is what made me sit down and start reading v2 again. I've had a similar experience w/ v2 as I first had w/ v1. I tried for years to read v1 and kept giving and feeling stupid. I once made it as far as 180 pages into v2 before breaking off. This time around I'm trying to avoid taking notes and making it all make sense, just going for broad strokes rather than all the details. I'd like to get a bit further then start the Harvey videos and read at the pace he's suggesting. Speaking of which, is there a list somewhere of how much of the book each video goes with?

Nate
Mar 13 2012 21:32

More from volume 2 of Capital, places where Marx flags the difference between his theoretical assumptions and actual capitalism. Marx writes that in considering exchanges under capitalism, we should think of them as "not merely replacement of one commodity by another, but replacement with value-relations remaining the same. we assume that this takes place here. As a matter of fact, however, the values of the means of production vary. It is precisely capitalist production to which continuous change of value-relations is peculiar, if only because of the ever changing productivity of labour that characterize this mode of production." (72.) Marx then says that he will deal with this issue in detail later, which means among other things that at different points in his writing Marx has different models and assumptions in mind.

Marx writes a few pages later that in his initial discussion of what he calls simple reproduction he was "assuming that the entire surplus value is spent as revenue. In reality under normal conditions a part of the surplus value must always be spent as revenue and another part must be capitalised." He then says that he makes this assumption in part "in order not to complicate the formula," which is to say, he makes this point for the sake of theoretical simplicity and clarity. This clarity helps us think, as long as we don't mistake the clarity of the theory for the idea that the world operates in such clean categories. Marx also points out that he is dealing with capitalism "on average" and that "the general formula can represent only the average movement" within capitalism. Again this is a case of Marx dealing with models or abstractions, and in a way that he notes openly.

Nate
May 15 2012 05:42

I just found these quotes which speak to the stuff in this post about slavery.

‎"the idea that "free" market capitalism corresponds best with "free" wage labour (...) appears not only in liberal theory but also in the work of authors such as Marx. In Capital we read that free wage labour is the only "true" capitalist way to commodify labour power. Marx states emphatically that "labour-power can appear on the market as a commodity only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers it for sale or sells it as a commodity." Traditional interpretations of the working class are based on this idea. After all, if only the labour power of free wage labourers is commodified, the "real" working class in capitalism can only consist of such workers. (...) Marx's thesis is based on two dubious assumptions, namely that labour needs to be offered for sale by the person who is the actual bearer and owner of such labour, and that the person who sells the labour sells nothing else. Why does this have to be the case? Why can labour not be sold by a party other than the bearer? What prevents the person who provides labour (his or her own or that of somebody else) from offering packages combining the labour with labour means? And why can a slave not perform wage labour for his master at the estate of some third party? Asking these questions brings us very close to the idea that slaves, wage-labourers, share-croppers, and others are in fact an internally differentiated proletariat. The target approach is therefore one that "eliminates as a defining characteristic of the proletarian the payment of wages to the producer." The main point appears to be that labour is commodified, although this commodification may take on many different forms. (...) Although the relative importance of "free" wage labour gradually increased, capitalism continued to accommodate various modes of labour control, ranging from share-cropping and self-employment to forced labour and outright slavery."

- Marcel van der Linden

http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/llt/52/linden.html

Nate
Jun 1 2012 22:58

Just starting reading Martin Sklar's book The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism. Relevant quotes:

Sklar says we should "approach (...) capitalism and the capitalist class (...) not as static categories but as social formations changing in time. Specifically, with respect to capitalists, it means that they should be studied not simply, and certainly not in essence, as "interests," but, like, say, workers and farmers, as a social movement or social movements. No less than other classes, the capitalist class consists of associated people with goals, values, ideas, and principles, as well as interests." (2.)

Along similar lines, we shouldn't view particular ways to organize or institutionalize capitalism as "the natural outcome of "objective" techno-economic evolution." Rather, capitalist "historical development proceeded through human agency in such forms as social movements, political and ideological conflict, struggles over the shape and role of the law and government, and so on, and in such ways as usually to yielded wide disparities between intentions and consequences." (3.)

jdoggg
Jun 3 2012 01:40

Here's a thought. Please tell me what you think.

When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848?), he aimed his criticism at capitalism even though there was hardly a single clearly capitalist controlled nation in Europe. The crowned heads were still on their thrones. The aristocracy held the heights of power.

Today, the capitalists are in the same position the aristocracy held in 1848. Nevertheless, we still aim our criticism at the capitalists instead of at the new emerging ruling class: the professionals. If we want to learn from Marx, we should see the growing power and arrogance of this new elite.

Nate
Jul 14 2012 01:20

Gotta go back over Sklar's book and cull quotes. Another book I read that's relevant here, James Livingston, Origins of the Federal Reserve System. Part of the book's over all argument is that while capitalists respond to systemic pressures, capitalists' actions are still cultural and political and require capitalists and their states to organize people in real time, so that narrowly economistic explanations don't explain what all happens in actual capitalism.

kingzog
Sep 24 2012 00:46

Nate, you miss the point of Marx's method and of Capital in general, I am sorry to say. He starts in the abstract (the commodity, value etc) and then goes into the concrete (primitive accumulation and history) in order to better explain capitalism based on certain principles. You seem to confuse this with him just simply critiquing other peoples models? Does he criticize Smith, Ricardo and Say? Of course! But, he also goes about to explain how things actually do work (in contrast to their explanations), why else would he be critiquing the bourgeois economists' mistakes and prejudices? Just for a good laugh? As a joke? Marx doesn't accept their assumptions, he destroys them and moves on to truthful ones.

Also, I seriously suggest that people who want to start reading Capital, start with an open mind and do not read companions or primers or introductions, other people have too many different interpretations and one needs to meet Marx on his own terms (I would say the same thing about any author actually!).

I also suggest that people do not read Capital (or any other book) out of order, the chapters come in a certain order for a reason. if the book was meant to be read starting with the last chapter, than the author would have ordered it in that fashion. [Not to say you cannot re-read it in any fashion you want to later on for clarification! :)]

Nate
Sep 24 2012 04:48

It's hard to respond to a claim about what I do or don't understand about Marx when you don't quote or paraphrase-and-identify anything I wrote or anything Marx wrote. Then again, discussions about Marx's method are a rabbit hole I don't currently have the time or the interest in disappearing down. So I'm probably not going to respond further on this line of discussion. All I'll say here is the following

My over all point was that Marx's generalized depictions of capitalism are not descriptions of actually existing capitalism and should not be mistaken for such. When not mistaken for such, Marx's work is incredibly powerful. When people do mistake them for such, people tend to get a lot wrong about actual capitalism.

And, it sounds here like you're saying the more empirical and evidence-based parts of Capital are mostly just illustrations of the more abstract parts. If that's not what you mean, then I'm pleased to be wrong. If it is what you mean, that seems false to me, and undervalues what are in my view some of the best parts of that book.

The only reason I have opinions about the order in which people read v1 of Capital is that I really want people to read the book. The only worthwhile reason to read Capital v1 out of order is that people are more likely to actually read the book then. That's my experience anyway, after being in and facilitating several Capital study groups. I'm fine with saying "start w/ the beginning and read to the end." Totally. People should try that. If it works, fuck yeah. If it doesn't work, and a lot of people have that experience, then read it in a different order.

kingzog
Sep 27 2012 07:56

I think there is a lot of confusion here, Nate.

Quote:
What Capital presents is a sort of perfected capitalism, it's capitalism without any accidents, capitalism as presented by the ideologues of capitalism.

When I read that I cringed because it just doesn't fit into my knowledge of Capital. I know that in this article you are only talking about vol1, but you should consider what Marx talks about in Capital as a whole. I think that it doesn't make sense to write about just vol 1 or vol 1 and 2. Maybe part of the issue is that the author has not read vol 3? It really is a unitary body of work and to not include material or ideas from vol 3 is a real shame.

Quote:
Marx's generalized depictions of capitalism are not descriptions of actually existing capitalism and should not be mistaken for such. When not mistaken for such, Marx's work is incredibly powerful. When people do mistake them for such, people tend to get a lot wrong about actual capitalism.

this paragraph is confusing me for some reason. If Marx's generalized depictions are incorrect, in a general way, to how capitalism works, then his analyses would be useless. However, if his generalized depiction simply miss exceptions that exist here and there (and in any generalized picture we should expect that) then what is the point of this article? Are you saying that Marx's conclusions are incorrect or that he is logically inconsistent? Are you saying that his value-theory is wrong as compared to existing capitalism? Are you saying that his theory of surplus-value is not true to real life? What is a good example, besides some of the more obvious or ridiculous, of people incorrectly mistaking Marx's work as a description of how capitalism works in general? Or are you saying that these models are simply not useful for revolutionaries and we should just stick to the passionate judgments Marx levels at Capitalism?

(On an aside: Vol 3 is the book where everything previously written comes together. In Vol 3, Marx presents why he thinks Capitalism doesn't work on it's own terms, not just why it is a moral failure, but a material failure for mankind. Marx doesn't say that the collapse of Capitalism is inevitable, but he explains why re-occurring crises are inevitable. In short, it's because capitalist firms are driven to use more machines than humans, even though only labor produces value so this undermines the system as a whole.)

LBird
Sep 27 2012 08:20
Nate wrote:
And, it sounds here like you're saying the more empirical and evidence-based parts of Capital are mostly just illustrations of the more abstract parts. If that's not what you mean, then I'm pleased to be wrong. If it is what you mean, that seems false to me, and undervalues what are in my view some of the best parts of that book.

Nate, could you explain a little further what you mean by the bolded bits above?

I'm inclined to the view that that is exactly what Capital does, ie. Marx outlines his axioms and assumptions and then uses those to explain the workings of capitalism (at least in a general sense, forgetting for the moment the complexities of reality).

I think that I agree with kingzog's point:

kingzog wrote:
If Marx's generalized depictions are incorrect, in a general way, to how capitalism works, then his analyses would be useless. However, if his generalized depiction simply miss exceptions that exist here and there (and in any generalized picture we should expect that)...

There's no need to quote chapter and verse from Capital in your reply, because I'm more interested why you think the way you do.

kingzog wrote:
[Marx] starts in the abstract (the commodity, value etc) and then goes into the concrete (primitive accumulation and history) in order to better explain capitalism based on certain principles.

I'm inclined to regard kingzog's and my view as following the modern scientific method, but I'm keen to clarify, because perhaps either we're misunderstanding you or we're both incorrect.

georgestapleton
Sep 27 2012 12:02

kingzog, I think if you want Nate to engage with you you need to be a bit less condescending.

Nate writes

Quote:
after being in and facilitating several Capital study groups.

He's not coming from a position of 'hey I think Marx is wrong'... He's coming from a position of 'having read capital a number of times, I have a problem with the relationship between the theoretical parts and the empirical parts. And they are reasonably clearly delineated. For example in Vol 1, Chapters 10, 14, 15, 26-33 are all empirical/historical whereas Chapters 1-6, 12, 16 etc have almost no empirical or historical information. And this poses some serious problems on how to interpret the historical specificty of Marx's theory of value. See for example Chapter 2 of Chris Arthur's book. blah blah blah' (Where blah blah blah substitutes for the arguments in the above blog).

In this context calling him confused about an issue that divides and confuses people who have spent their entire lives working on the 'history of thought/philosophy' specializing by looking at Marx, and telling him banalities like "Vol 3 is the book where everything previously written comes together" make you come across more than a bit of an arrogant.

Also, I'm once again in a reading group, reading Capital and my plan for this one is to take up Nate's challenge and read capital more as a work of economic history than how I've read it before i.e. as a work of critical theory.

Something I would also be interested in doing at some point is reading 'A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy' in a similar vein. In it he situates his theory of value more historically and I'd like to get a chance to go through that. Plus its not very long.

Nate
Sep 27 2012 16:43
LBird wrote:
Nate, could you explain a little further what you mean by
Nate wrote:
it sounds here like you're saying the more empirical and evidence-based parts of Capital are mostly just illustrations of the more abstract parts. (...) that seems false to me, and undervalues what are in my view some of the best parts of that book.

I don't think there's any textual evidence to support the view that the final section of Capital, on so-called primitive accumulation, is just a restatement of points made theoretically elsewhere in the book. I think that section does theoretical work. The chapters on the working day and on machinery do relate in important ways to the more abstract sections of Capital. But as I read it, for Marx the struggles over the length of the working day that he describes in chapter 10 are the pivot through which English capitalism was pushed from an arrangement of accumulations centered on absolute surplus value to one centered on relative surplus value. I think that makes a theoretical point something like the following. Part of the dynamism in the system is not narrowly economic, where capitalists acting based on narrowly economizing rationality figure out how to move capitalism forward. Rather, a key part of the development of capitalism is historical and political, driven by a process of conflict. I think the 20 pages or so in section 6 of Chapter 10 are particularly relevant today in a time of rising social movement response to capitalist crisis, as in that section Marx describes, in my reading, a process whereby workers' struggles plus visionary leadership by some state personnel, manage to make clear to some capitalists how to better act in line with their interests, then provide some force to help those capitalists push the capitalist class (or its leading fraction) into making changes that were good for capitalism as a whole and for manufacturers in particular. He also discusses some of the health effects of production on the English working class and how this became a matter of concern to the British government because of the military ramifications of English workers' health (smaller, weaker workers might be less effective in wars against the French, among other things.) Those dynamics are not summed up in the excellent theoretical descriptions in the book. Which is why the empirical portions are just as worth reading as are the more abstract parts, rather than just skipping over them or skimming them in order to get to the next theory passages.

Likewise in the sections on machinery Marx describes some of the changes in the make up of the industrial workforce wrought, in part, by introduction of machinery (a shift to more fixed-capital intensive arrangements) in terms of gender relations. (I think Marx is questionable on some of the particulars there - looking back from 2012, unsurprisingly, Marx is not quite the feminist I'd like him to have been.) Those sections too do a kind of work which is not reducible to mere illustrations of the more abstract and theoretical portions of the book.

kingzog wrote:
I think there is a lot of confusion here, Nate.

Yeah I agree, I definitely feel confused as I read your comments. cool

kingzog wrote:
consider what Marx talks about in Capital as a whole. (...) It really is a unitary body of work and to not include material or ideas from vol 3 is a real shame.

I'm not convinced that's true nor do I see the point of the claim. "A unitary body of work" is sort of in the eye of the beholder. For one thing, asI tried to suggest in the post, and comments I wrote to follow up, that Marx changes the operating assumptions in the book at a few points. He also changes the types of material he reads (from political economists who were primarily theorists without much empirical content to empirical work by factory inspectors and state commission, to which he attributed great scientific value in his correspondence with Engels, I can find the source on that if you want). So there are important differences within v1 of Capital alone.

For another, v1 is the only part of Capital that Marx finished for publication, unless you want to count the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy and some of his more journalistic pieces. And after its initial publication in 1867 he substantially revised v1 of Capital for the French translation in the early 1870s, completely reworking the intro sections. (I can find the original starting sections if you like, there on libcom someplace.) And according to Engels, Marx wanted to further revise the text but wasn't able to for reasons of health. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p5.htm So that unitary work changed a great deal over time as Marx wrote it and it never really reached a point where Marx felt it was fully finished.

If you want to take v3 as the best bit of Marx, that's fine. All of this subject to interpretation. But you're wrong on an important empirical particular when you say

kingzog wrote:
Vol 3 is the book where everything previously written comes together.

While v3 was published and of course is numbered after v1 and v2, it wasn't written afterward. Here's Engels's in his preface to v2. "Book III (...) was written, at least the greater part of it, in 1864 and 1865. Only after this manuscript had been completed in its essential parts did Marx undertake the elaboration of Book I which was published in 1867. I am now getting this manuscript of Book III in shape for press. The following (...) in 1865 or 1867, is the first separate, but more or less fragmentary, elaboration of Book II as now arranged." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885-c2/ch00.htm#1885

So Marx didn't write them in the order of book I, book II, book III, and the Theories of Surplus Value, the order they were published in. He wrote a lot of bits following on from the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, wrote most of the Theories of Surplus Value, wrote book III, then wrote book I, then wrote some of book II in the early 1870s. In that period Marx also reworked parts of v1, and late in life wrote more of book II.

So none of that sounds like an essential whole to me, except two ways. One is to say "look, there are persistent themes." Sure. Most writers have those. Another is to hold Marx up as an unrealistic superhuman philosophico-critical genius who layed out a fully coherent body of thought systematically and flawlessly across a period of decades. That's a handy founding myth for erecting a tradition to stand upon, but it seems to me simply not to be upheld by the actual record that exists. Rather it seems to me that Marx was an ordinary human genius, a furious reviser and rethinker.

Finally, given that v1 is the work Marx finished and revised, I don't see that we should take unpublished work over published work as stating what Marx REALLY thought unless there's actual evidence that Marx preferred the unpublished work or unless the unpublished work was written after the published work. (And I suppose I should add the usual caveat that while I have personal interest in Marxology because I find Marx very fruitful to think with, I think our main criterion should be "is this reasonable?" rather than "did Marx say it?" I listed several bits in what I wrote that lays out what are, in my view, places where Marx says something along the lines of "here's how to read my book more reasonably - I'm giving you categories with which to think about capitalism, don't mistake those categories for the history of actually existing capitalism.")

kingzog wrote:
if his generalized depiction simply miss exceptions that exist here and there (and in any generalized picture we should expect that)

No. It's not a matter of exceptions. It's a matter of variations. Marx's work offers a useful framework for conducting investigation into actually existing capitalism. It's incredibly powerful and hard to over-rate. But reading Capital doesn't tell you what is happening in the economy today. It tells you some good starting places for figuring out what's happening. That's not a matter of rare exceptions to otherwise true generalizations. (And if there are exceptions, the general framework has to be able to explain them. I think marxism can do so, but it can't do so without inquiry, just by reading and restating Marx's canonical writings.)

kingzog wrote:
Are you saying that Marx's conclusions are incorrect or that he is logically inconsistent? Are you saying that his value-theory is wrong as compared to existing capitalism? Are you saying that his theory of surplus-value is not true to real life?

It's a question of in what way Marx is correct. I quoted a bit from Marx in Wage Labor and Capital where he says, basically "at any given moment commodities don't trade at their value. They trade at their value on average, in the aggregate." That means it's a mistake to assume that any particular commodity is trading at its value as determined by the current labor time socially necessary to produce it. This kind of mistake is something like thinking averages explain particulars without mediation. That doesn't mean we discard the discussions of socially necessary labor time and surplus value and so on, it means we apply them in a nuanced way and that we do additional inquiry.

Likewise for the passages where Marx says 'insofar as the capitalist is perfectly capitalist...' - we shouldn't assume that all actual capitalists are perfectly capitalist, and we should be more careful about this assumption the more particular the case we're dealing with. Historically, employers repeatedly have other priorities than straightforward and narrowly capitalist interests of profit maximization. Assuming actual capitalists act only according to narrowly capitalist interests explains less of what happens. There are examples of this in the pre-WWII history of US Steel, at a large scale. On a smaller scale, I've repeatedly been involved in organizing where employers are economically irrational in response to organizing. I think one area where this is politically relevant is to do with reform. Often reform movements take a form/use a rhetoric where they say "look the current arrangement of capitalism benefits one bloc of capitalists but it has these social costs that reduce productivity in the aggregate and create social instability, we should rearrange things in order to achieve aggregate gains." This happened with workmen's compensation law and social security in the US, with US industrial relations law especially in the 1930s, and it's what advocates of green capitalism (less climate change prone capitalism) are saying now. That is, reform movements often argue for a more efficient, more perfectly capitalist capitalism, in ways that are to the detriment of some actually existing capitalists who are politically powerful in a given historical moment. That's a challenge to Marx if we read Marx as exhaustively delineating how capitalists act and are motivated. That's not a challenge to Marx if we see Marx, as I've tried to suggest here, as offering a framework for how actual capitalists act when they act in line with their general interest, while Marx recognizes that actually existing capitalists don't conform perfectly to this framework.

Edit:
One other thought. Michael Perelman's book Railroading Capitalism gives a good overview of the economic history of railways in the late 19th century US as well as the history of economic thought seeking to understand that industry. More fixed capital intensive industries operate differently than less fixed capital intensive industries because the per-unit cost is less important in fixed capital intensive industries, it's the fixed costs that are the problem. Under more competitive conditions, these industries do badly because prices tend to fall. They have an interest in market control to keep prices up. There were a rash of bankruptcies in railroads and similar industries partly in response to highly competitive markets in these industries in the late 19th century, before there were moves to less competitive and more cooperative (or more monopolistic) arrangements. These are particulars that are fully compatible with a marxist framework, I think they make more sense from a marxist perspective than otherwise, but again only reading Marx's descriptions of capitalism in general doesn't explain the particulars. It especially doesn't explain *how* companies in these industries came to understand the need to avoid competition, or why it took them so long to do so, nor does it explain the contradictory responses of the US state, which largely sought to maintain or restore competitive market arrangements that were bad for key sectors of American capitalism for quite a while.

Nate
Sep 27 2012 16:50
georgestapleton wrote:
Something I would also be interested in doing at some point is reading 'A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy' in a similar vein. In it he situates his theory of value more historically and I'd like to get a chance to go through that. Plus its not very long.

I don't have the time for ambitious projects right now as it's all I can do to get through my week between work and parenting but I would someday like to read Marx's economic writings in the order he wrote them, from the Grundrisse forward, trying to read about the context Marx wrote them in (as he clearly paid a great deal of attention to the world around him) and to read Marx's political/journalistic writing from around the same time, to see if anything's made clear by that. Among other things, I think it's striking that there's so little (if anything?) written about Marx and the English factory inspectors. Marx makes extensive use of their published materials and praises their 'scientific' value. But/and the existence of those reports are the result of political conflicts among some people in Britain (either capitalists or politicians or both) because factory inspection programs don't establish themselves, and they had some level of disciplinary power against English capitalists. And the introduction of new forms of coercing people, capitalist otherwise, tends to be resisted, even when it's ultimately good for the people coerced (ie coercing them to act in their own best interests). That connection between Marx's writing and the modern British state, and the early social/statistical sciences, strikes me as relevant or at least interesting. And all stuff I may not actually get to...

georgestapleton
Sep 27 2012 17:03

Yeah, I'm currently in four reading groups (five if you count the international email list on Gerstenberger as well as the IRL group I'm in). So I really don't need to be in more. But I've been meaning to read it for the above reason for ages and i know I never will unless at least one other person reads it with me.

kingzog
Sep 29 2012 04:15

I want to write a big reply a little later. but, I did want to say that earlier, when I said there is confusion, I meant that I was confused sorry that wasn't clear. so I didn't mean to sound condescending to Nate.

Nate
Sep 29 2012 04:23

Thanks dude.

kingzog
Sep 29 2012 22:04

georgestapleton, I'm actually reading 'Contribution' right now. It's a good primer on Marx's value theory. I might also suggest Ivan Rubin's essay's on Marx's Value Theory http://www.marxists.org/archive/rubin/value/index.htm it's very clear and readable. Rubin positions Marx's theory of commodity fetishism at the base of his value-theory.

kingzog
Feb 9 2013 20:22

kingzog wrote:

Quote:
Are you saying that Marx's conclusions are incorrect or that he is logically inconsistent? Are you saying that his value-theory is wrong as compared to existing capitalism? Are you saying that his theory of surplus-value is not true to real life?

Nate wrote:

Quote:
It's a question of in what way Marx is correct. I quoted a bit from Marx in Wage Labor and Capital where he says, basically "at any given moment commodities don't trade at their value. They trade at their value on average, in the aggregate." That means it's a mistake to assume that any particular commodity is trading at its value as determined by the current labor time socially necessary to produce it. This kind of mistake is something like thinking averages explain particulars without mediation. That doesn't mean we discard the discussions of socially necessary labor time and surplus value and so on, it means we apply them in a nuanced way and that we do additional inquiry.

For certain. but in 'what way' is he correct? "at any given moment commodities don't trade at their value." Reading that I thought to myself, this reminds me of the fact that Marx did not formulate a system fro determining prices, no one should ever interpret him that way it's so obvious. His 'models' are not made to explain something so exact and 'banal' (like georgestapleton said). I'm not sure what you're getting at when you say, "This kind of mistake is something like thinking averages explain particulars without mediation." The fact is, it's a mistake that has no basis in Marx so it's really not an issue, so I don't see your point about particulars or 'mediation'. My original question was, do you agree with Marx's value theory or his theory of surplus-value and do you think it is true to actually existing capitalism? To put it another way, is it an abstraction that has a basis in the concrete, or a 'real-abstraction' or a concrete-abstraction in your eyes? You may not feel such a thing is useful, but I believe Marx clearly does.

Kingzog Wrote:

Quote:
Vol 3 is the book where everything previously written comes together.

Nate wrote:

Quote:
Marx didn't write them in the order of book I, book II, book III, and the Theories of Surplus Value, the order they were published in. He wrote a lot of bits following on from the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, wrote most of the Theories of Surplus Value, wrote book III, then wrote book I, then wrote some of book II in the early 1870s. In that period Marx also reworked parts of v1, and late in life wrote more of book II.

So none of that sounds like an essential whole to me, except two ways. One is to say "look, there are persistent themes."

There sure are some "persistent themes!" And also, Marx makes direct references to formulations he made in the previous volumes, you cannot read vol III by itself and have any clear understanding of it.

Quote:
(marx)..wrote book III, then wrote book I, then wrote some of book II

from what you're saying it sounds like Vol III is either a stand alone volume, or precedes vol I!

EDIT: Also, on your point about vol III "preceding" Vol I: A lot of mystery writers write the endings of their novels before the beginning. But, you wouldn't read the ending first. Why? Because it wouldn't make any sense without having first read the beginning and middle of the book. The unfinished nature of Marx's Capital aside, you're still missing out by not reading vol III!

I didn't want this to be a Marxological debate, I thought that was mutual. But... I do stand corrected. So let me make an edit to what I wrote before: Vol 3 is the book where everything previously published(as opposed to written) comes together. That said, If you read Vol III (and it's still unclear whether or not you have) you find Marx writing things like, "remember in Vol 1 and 2 when we examined this and that, well... now lets look at how this plays out in system as a whole." (Also, you might actually enjoy Vol III since Marx uses more references from the Factory inspectors reports, like the parts of Vol I you are fond of)

The point here is that Vol I examines production. Vol II examines circulation and Vol III puts fits these elements into a society (among other things). Was Vol III (or II for that matter) totally finished? No. But Marx finished a great deal of it, and it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to not read all 3 volumes before making a pretty sweeping interpretative judgement on Marx's 'Capital'. But, hey that's my opinion I suppose.
Nate wrote:

Quote:
Finally, given that v1 is the work Marx finished and revised, I don't see that we should take unpublished work over published work as stating what Marx REALLY thought unless there's actual evidence that Marx preferred the unpublished work or unless the unpublished work was written after the published work.

That paragraph is kind of absurd. I'm not 'taking published work over unpublished work'. I'm not saying that Vol III is better than Vol I, they are different, but they also are in an order for a reason and Marx completed a heck of a lot of the stuff that was published. so it's unfair to Marx, and the people reading this critique when you do present to them an a only partially painted picture of Marx's Capital. you're just gonna have to read vol III, Nate, and decide on it's value based on your reading of it.

Nate wrote:

Quote:
...Marx's work offers a useful framework for conducting investigation into actually existing capitalism. It's incredibly powerful and hard to over-rate. But reading Capital doesn't tell you what is happening in the economy today.

this would make sense if we no longer lived in a Capitalist society. But we do, so it's contradictory. Reading Capital may not tell us why the price of corn went up today, but it can tell us a great, great deal, about what is happening in our Capitalist economy today...
Nate then wrote: ...

Quote:
It tells you some good starting places for figuring out what's happening.

Perhaps you could clarify this confusion by being a little more concrete. How is it that 'giving a good starting place for figuring out' is exclusive from explaining what is happening in the economy today? If you say something like, "Marx cannot tell us why the price of corn went up today" I would agree with you completely, but I think that Marx provides more than just a starting point as well. Perhaps your interpretation comes from the erroneous view that Vol I is just about "simple commodity production' and so it is only a starting point by definition. If that is what you think, I would like to provide you a link to an essay that deals with that myth (started by Engesl): http://www.marxmyths.org/chris-arthur/article2.htm

Nate wrote:

Quote:
Likewise for the passages where Marx says 'insofar as the capitalist is perfectly capitalist...' - we shouldn't assume that all actual capitalists are perfectly capitalist, and we should be more careful about this assumption the more particular the case we're dealing with. Historically, employers repeatedly have other priorities than straightforward and narrowly capitalist interests of profit maximization. Assuming actual capitalists act only according to narrowly capitalist interests explains less of what happens.

when did I say that capitalists are perfect capitalists? I think you tend to conflate capitalists with capitalist firms, but that's another story. I never said that Capitalists are just seeking "narrowly capitalist interests of profit maximization" if that were true, then they would just be pirates and we wouldn't have a capitalist system.

maybe I should sum up some of the questions I have for you:

1) Do you think that Marx's value-theory is inconsistent with 'actually existing' capitalism?

2) Do you really think it is fair to leave out Vol III in a critique of marx's Capital and make generalizations about Capital like, "What Capital presents is a sort of perfected capitalism, it's capitalism without any accidents" even though the content of Vol III contradicts that?

3) How is it that 'giving a good starting place for figuring out' is mutually exclusive from 'explaining what is happening in the economy today'? If you say something like, "Marx cannot tell us why the price of corn went up today" I would agree with you completely, but I would like some clarity on this

I think I can provide an example of how Marx's "models" can help explain the economy today; Marx's value-theory show's how only abstract, social labor creates value, so a rise in the organic composition of capital(constant capital vs variable), and this is contingent on some other factors of course, will cause a decrease in the rate of profit, recent empirical evidence (not theoretical!) seems to support this as an explanation for the last crisis.

Nate
Oct 7 2012 17:26

I've not read vol 3 yet, I thought I said that, sorry for not doing so. I'll read that eventually. I'm still on v2. Take my remarks here as a statement on v1. I'm not going to argue with you about the value of v3 as I haven't read it. I'm trying to find something in your reply to what I wrote other than "you'd see it differently if you read v3" but if you're saying more than that, I'm missing it. I apologize if that's my mistake, I admit I read your reply very quickly.

kingzog wrote:
from what you're saying it sounds like Vol III (...) precedes vol I!

vol.3 does precede vol. 1. Marx wrote vol3 before he wrote vol 1, according the stuff I quoted.

kingzog wrote:
they also are in an order for a reason!

Sorry, what's the reason?

Quote:
Reading Capital may not tell us why the price of corn went up today, but it can tell us a great, great deal, about what is happening in our Capitalist economy today...

Sure. Because it equips us with useful categories.

Quote:
when did I say that capitalists are perfect capitalists?

You didn't. The post says don't do this. If you already don't do this, great. Then you agree with a lot of the substance of the post. So.... what are we arguing about again?

Quote:
1) Do you think that Marx's value-theory is inconsistent with 'actually existing' capitalism?

I'm not sure. I've not read much of the stuff by value theory heads because it often sounds annoying to me. I keep meaning to read that stuff and not getting around to it. As I haven't this work and haven't read v3 I'm not going to make a strong claim here but I do have a hunch that "Marx's value theory" is as much a matter of marxist theorists as it is something Marx said and put forward consistently throughout multiple works (much like "Marx's theory of alienation" or "Marx's theory of fetishism").

Quote:
Do you really think it is fair to leave out Vol III in a critique of marx's Capital and make generalizations about Capital like, "What Capital presents is a sort of perfected capitalism, it's capitalism without any accidents" even though the content of Vol III contradicts that?

I didn't mean to criticize Marx. I think you're misreading me but if I did say that then I retract the point. My point "was don't read v1 as presenting actual capitalism but rather a presenting a series of useful models for thinking about actual capitalism." I actually think, as I thought I said in repeated places in the post and in follow up comments, that Marx pointed out this character of his work, that it was a model, so I'm not trying to criticize Marx. Even though I'm not criticizing v1, I also do think it's fair to criticize v1 without having read v3. Saying "don't criticize this work until you've read that other work" is silly. As I said at the start of this comment, I meant the post to be about v1 of Capital. I thought that was clear in the post but apparently it wasn't as you seem to be hearing "Capital" as meaning "all three volumes" rather than "volume 1." Okay. I'm not interested in arguing about which book(s) constitute Capital nor am I interested in arguing about the essentially unit or not of all the works that constitute Capital. Take the post as about how to read v1.

Quote:
I think I can provide an example of how Marx's "models" can help explain the economy today. Marx's value-theory show's how only abstract, social labor creates value, so a rise in the organic composition of capital(constant capital vs variable), and this is contingent on some other factors of course, will cause a decrease in the rate of profit, recent empirical evidence (not theoretical!) seems to support this as an explanation for the last crisis.

If I said that the models have no use in explanations, I retract the point as an error. The models are useful for helping understand capitalism today. But as you said - "this is contingent on some other factors." So we use Marx's framework and investigate further to get at what actually happens.

georgestapleton
Oct 8 2012 10:39

I think underneath all of this though, there is a tricky point: what is a 'model' and can Marx's theory be described as one? Here again we come to Marx's ideas about abstraction. And here, once again, we are faced with a problem, Marx is abstracting from capitalist society to describe phenomena that are not particular to capitalism (ex. money).

kingzog
Feb 10 2013 20:59

Sorry it took so long to reply, I've been really busy lately.

Nate:

Quote:
I'm trying to find something in your reply to what I wrote other than "you'd see it differently if you read v3" but if you're saying more than that, I'm missing it. I apologize if that's my mistake, I admit I read your reply very quickly.

Well, something that did strike me, is how much you seemed to dismiss vol III in your replies. But, I was trying to make this about more than "you'd see it differently.." I think I did that by getting into value-theory issues and how Marx's theories can explain concrete happenings in the economy today. because you're piece seems to miss that, or say otherwise.

Nate wrote:

Quote:
kingzog wrote:
they also are in an order for a reason!
Sorry, what's the reason?

I think, and this is a theme which runs within each volume as well as overall, it is partially related to how Marx goes from the abstract to the concrete. And also, how stuff in Vol II and III are a progression from what is touched on in Vol I. You wouldn't start with Vol III or Vol II and work your way into Vol I. Although, perhaps Althussar would suggest that, I think only those who already have a really good understanding of Capital should attempt to read it out of order.

Quote:
I do have a hunch that "Marx's value theory" is as much a matter of marxist theorists as it is something Marx said and put forward consistently throughout multiple works (much like "Marx's theory of alienation" or "Marx's theory of fetishism").

It seems pretty consistent throughout his work, to me at least. i also believe it is probably the most important thing to grasp about Capital in order to make heads or tails of it. But, I come from a perspective that values the metaphysical aspects and the 'objective' stuff. I believe this might be in contrast to people like Cleaver, who, I believe, try to sanitize Capital. But, that is totally my opinion and people should decide for themselves by reading Marx without interpreters. But. I would really love to hear more of your thoughts on it, if and when you read more about value-theory. not to be confused with value-form theory.

Nate wrote:

Quote:
I also do think it's fair to criticize v1 without having read v3. Saying "don't criticize this work until you've read that other work" is silly.

I would say yes and no. You are right that what you wrote is clearly a critique of vol I, and so 'other works' don't matter as much (even though I do believe that vol1-3 should be considered together). However, and this is my fear (should it really be a fear though?), I wouldn't want people new to Marx to mistake this article as a critique of Capital in general, which is what it looks like, at least superficially.

Quote:
If I said that the models have no use in explanations, I retract the point as an error. The models are useful for helping understand capitalism today. But as you said - "this is contingent on some other factors." So we use Marx's framework and investigate further to get at what actually happens.

I believe you wrote that Marx's models cannot explain what goes on in the economy today. That is why I made that point about crisis theory.I certainly agree that Marx provides a 'framework.' (on an aside, I hear this term 'framework' a lot in anarchist literature, and it's sometimes unclear what it means precisely.) But it looks like in this sense, what you mean by 'providing a framework' is similar to what I mean by "Marx's "models" can help explain the economy today. " So I think we actually are in agreement.

Maybe one reason I am confused is that I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'model' So perhaps georgestapleton made a good point. What even is a 'model'?
.

Overall, I think you made a really good reply, Nate. And I also think we agree more than I thought we did, at least at the beginning of all this. And thanks for not getting too offended(I hope) by my persistent, nagging criticism. Even the ones that were perhaps born of misunderstandings wink

Nate
Nov 16 2012 17:06

hey there, sorry for the protracted delay, my life got hectic so I busy, and I was also feeling grumpy and so trying to stay off discussions on libcom (because often stress in my life + libcom discussion=me being a jerk then feeling bad about it).

Another way to put this is that I think of v1 as a useful analysis of a lot of tendencies in capitalism that occur, but those tendencies are something like averages over a large scale and a long time. So that the smaller the instance is that we look at (in time or in scale) the more variation we're like to find. For instance, there was an IWW organizing at a small business (they made lights or something) a few years ago where after while the owner said basically "fuck this and fuck you, I will go out of business before I concede to you fucking people" and from the decisions he made/how he acted, he seemed to have meant it. There are a lot of things about this that Capital v1 illuminates, but it's also behavior that's unexpected from the analysis in v1. That's not say there's anything wrong w/ v1, just to say that it's explanatory power has limits. (I think that's probably true of anything that truly has explanatory power.) To put it another way, I think parts of v1 are excellent criticisms of capitalist ideology but that actual capitalism doesn't always conform directly to that ideology. Parts of it are an excellent criticism of an actually existing capitalist rationality (as in, capitalists often operate as Marx describes) but not all capitalists always act in line with that rationality. Yet another way to put this is that I think Marx provides a good criticism of capitalism's reduction of life to the economic, narrowly understood, but we should be careful about using narrowly economic concepts to explain what goes on in capitalism. Some of the time those concepts are accurate (for those times and places when the reduction of life to narrowly economic calculations has worked) but not ALL the time. I'm reading a great deal in here but I think Marx recognizes this at least implicitly when he says stuff like "So far (…) as [a capitalist's] actions are a mere function of capital." Treating capitalists as personified capital (or, as perfect instantiations of capitalist rationality) is often useful but not ALWAYS useful, because capitalists (as individuals and collectively) are sometimes 'imperfectly' capitalist. (I wrote a piece here - http://libcom.org/blog/workers-state-struggle-13122011 - a while back that sort of says that the state plays an important role in disciplining capitalists into acting as capitalists and/but also into acting in the interest of their class as a whole.)

To put it yet another other way, I think Marx is great on describing some of the constraints that capitalism imposes on workers and on capitalists, and he offers some useful tools for explaining how people act within those constraints. But it's important, I think, to note that there are a range of options for people within those constraints and that the basic framework/the more theoretical moments within v1 doesn't give us all the details for explaining/understanding/preparing for the different decisions people might make. (I think the historical passages go a long way though in helping see some different ways things can play out, particularly the stuff around the struggle over the Factory Acts.)

kingzog
Nov 18 2012 23:37

I don't disagree with any of that. Marx was not a determinist- Engels and Kautsky only made him out to be. I think that Marx sets down the laws of motion of capitalism, in general, and his critique is not about providing us with explanations for all the specifics.

We should remember that Capital is also a critique of Proudhonist politics and other reformist socialists of his time. This is very important to understand, today, because there are so many anarcho-reformists about who essentially hold the same position as Proudhon or Darimon did- That is, abolish money or simply put workers in control of commodity production and Capitalism fades away.

Capital is a great tool for showing why reformism will not solve any crisis in Capitalism. It is also good for showing us the underlying cause of crisis in general, which I believe is; the rise of the organic composition of capital and the resulting LTFRP.

FLleftcom
Nov 19 2012 18:46

It'd be nice if you linked the thread or post where Kay had his original discussion you're responding to, for completeness and clarity.

NVM: Didn't see the link

Nate
Nov 20 2012 01:35
kingzog wrote:
reformism will not solve any crisis in Capitalism

I don't understand this point. Can you say more? It seems to me that past crises of capitalism have been solved. I assume you agree, right? If so, are you saying that political reform of some sort has never had a role in any solution of any capitalist crisis?

kingzog
Nov 20 2012 09:49

let me be more specific: Social-democratic or Keynesian type reforms will not solve the basic contradictions in Capitalism which are the underlying causes of crisis. They might displace particular crisis or push them into the future, like debt saving a failing bank, but they will not solve the root causes of them at least not in any meaningful sense of the term.

The only thing which can 'solve' a crisis- and i'm not even sure that's a good way to put it because its never really 'solved,' nor is this ever a certainty - is enough value destruction to clear the way for a boom. Can a 'reform' speed up this process of value destruction? Maybe, but I'd like to see a good example because governments, especially since the great depression, are pretty much mandated to prevent value destruction- capitalist don't want there capital de-valuing nor do they want their firms going bankrupt! Most workers don't want this to happen either, incidentally.

There is a fine line between the highly improbable and the outright impossible.

Nate
Nov 20 2012 15:22

I get you and I'm pretty sure I agree. You're saying "capitalism won't be reformed away, and reformed capitalism is still capitalism, with the same basic underlying dynamics." More or less, right? If so, then I'm in complete agreement.

kingzog
Nov 21 2012 08:31

Let me add something, in light of what I said earlier, above:

Quote:
Can a 'reform' speed up this process of value destruction? Maybe, but I'd like to see a good example...

A social-democratic reform is highly unlikely to 'solve' any particular crisis caused by the contradictions in capitalism. Would you still agree with me now? This position is a completely anti-Keynesian one. One which is, surprisingly, hard to find, even on the radical left.