Karl Marx's capital- The main points?

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gypsy
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Nov 16 2009 13:55
Karl Marx's capital- The main points?

Is it the best book to understand capitalism? I read one quarter of it two years ago or so, but found it so difficult to read.

Boris Badenov
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Nov 16 2009 14:23

difficult to get through yes, but I would argue that it continues to remain the best book for understanding capitalism.
You may find these threads helpful if you plan on giving Capital another shot:
http://libcom.org/forums/theory/online-lectures-capital-david-harvey-30062008
http://libcom.org/forums/theory/reading-marxs-capital-02092009

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oisleep
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Nov 16 2009 15:05

i think it remains to this day the best (if not only) book available to gain a solid understanding of the essence and dynamic of capital - but given as the name suggests it's a political economy of capital, and not a political economy of labour, the idea that it's the last word on a full understanding of capitalism in totality (even in marx's day let alone now) is probably not correct, however there doesn't seem to be anything else around that even attempts to go down that route (save for the stuff from lebowitz on beyond capital, but even then it's only tentative steps towards something like that)

also this may sound purist, but there's also a danger in just reading volume I in isolation and thinking that's it - volumes II & III are just as important in terms of the overall understanding and if you don't intend/have the time to read them it's worth reading something on them to get a better idea of the overall context of his account of capital

Mike Harman
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Nov 16 2009 17:05

Yeah I still think it's the best. Also I'd say it gets slightly easier to read once you're past the first few chapters, which are definitely denser.

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Steven.
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Nov 16 2009 17:38

Yes I would echo what people above have said. It took me a very long time to get through the first three chapters. But they basically explain most of the fundamental concepts you need - after that the chapters are very simple to understand, and everything starts to fall into place.

I think the key concept of it is the labour theory of value. The basic premise behind this is that all commodities are exchangeable in relation to each other. X amount of commodity a the exchangeable for y amount of commodity b. This means that all commodities share a common feature.

This common feature, their value, is that they are created by human labour. Their value depends on the amount of labour time expended in their production.

Human labour power is also bought by capitalists - the value of this labour is the same as the value of all other commodities, in that its value is the same as the amount of labour time expended in producing it. So basically the labour time for all the food, education, health services, housing and consumable items needed to get a worker to stay alive and keep turning up to work every day. For the purposes of this discussion, let's say it takes four hours of average, socially necessary labour to produce enough to keep a worker alive and able to work the next day.

However, human labour is a unique commodity in that it can add value to other commodities by its application to them. So workers receive only the value of their labour in wages. But then a worker does seven hours work in a day, adding seven hours of value to commodities which the boss sells. This leaves a surplus value equivalent to three hours labour time which is the boss's.

There's a whole bunch extra in there, so I would recommend giving it a go, with those online lectures perhaps, and this is just volume I, but this is just a very brief explanation of part of it.

A text on libcom where this is explained in very practical terms in relation to the food service industry in particular is abolish restaurants. I think it's a really great text, and relates these concepts very concretely to everyday life:
http://libcom.org/library/abolish-restaurants

gypsy
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Nov 16 2009 17:46

Cheers guys for links. And especially you steven for your das Kapital like post! I shall give the online lectures a go. Then when I have more time I shall give the books another go. Ta

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Nov 16 2009 17:48

Let me warn you against watching Harvey's lectures without actually reading the book. I know it's tempting smile but after you see the first three you'll start to realize you're not really familiar with the material.

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Nov 16 2009 21:47
Steven. wrote:
I think the key concept of it is the labour theory of value. The basic premise behind this is that all commodities are exchangeable in relation to each other. X amount of commodity a the exchangeable for y amount of commodity b. This means that all commodities share a common feature.

This common feature, their value, is that they are created by human labour. Their value depends on the amount of labour time expended in their production.

Human labour power is also bought by capitalists - the value of this labour is the same as the value of all other commodities, in that its value is the same as the amount of labour time expended in producing it. So basically the labour time for all the food, education, health services, housing and consumable items needed to get a worker to stay alive and keep turning up to work every day. For the purposes of this discussion, let's say it takes four hours of average, socially necessary labour to produce enough to keep a worker alive and able to work the next day.

However, human labour is a unique commodity in that it can add value to other commodities by its application to them. So workers receive only the value of their labour in wages. But then a worker does seven hours work in a day, adding seven hours of value to commodities which the boss sells. This leaves a surplus value equivalent to three hours labour time which is the boss's.

the interesting thing about this (the summary) is that most of it, in essence and also explicitly, could be got from the classical school of economics (in particular Ricardo), with which marx was trying to create a rupture with

for example the first sentence of the first page from ricardo's main work on political economy pretty much sums up everything in the summary above:-

The value of a commodity, or the quantity of any other commodity for which it will exchange, depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production, and not on the greater or less compensation which is paid for that labour

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Joseph Kay
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Nov 16 2009 23:12

did Ricardo write about surplus-value being the product of the difference between the reproduction of labour power and its product? i don't remember anything on that in 'General Principles...'

Yorkie Bar
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Nov 17 2009 01:09

I thought the crucial theoretical jump from Ricardo to Marx was that Marx saw labour power as being abstract and social and Ricardo saw it as being actually embodied in the material form of the commodity.

~J.

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Nov 17 2009 09:04
Quote:
did Ricardo write about surplus-value being the product of the difference between the reproduction of labour power and its product? i don't remember anything on that in 'General Principles...'

you can derive it from the sentence i quoted above, the very first sentence in the book itself - labour power being a commodity has a value equivalent to that which is required to reproduce it (steven's 4 hours) , and the commodities which that labour power produce will also have a value equivalent to that (labour) which is required to produce it (steven's 7 hours) - add in the principle that things exchange for their value then surplus value is staring you in the face

or if you want it fleshed out in more explicitly (while adding nothing to that which hasn't already been shown), Ricardo says about labour power that:-

Labour, like all other things which are purchased and sold, and which may he increased or diminished in quantity...has its natural and its market price. The natural price of labour is that price which is necessary to enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race, without either increase or diminution.

as with above, add this to the labour theory of value already shown from Ricardo in the first sentence of his book and throw in the principle that equivalents are exchanged then there's your surplus value

there are of course some quite big differences between Ricardo and Marx, but at the level of high summary these differences don't really come into it - Ricardo like all other pre-marx failed to treat the production of surplus value separately from its form and manner of distribution, and a whole host of other things (socially necessary labour, abstract/concrete labour, social relations, capitalism as historically/socially defined, emphasis/viewpoint/agenda, lack of sociological perspective in ricardo, etc..), some of which seems more just like marx trying to win an argument on a message board rather than really having a massively fundamental point and are really just minor but required refinements and corrections of his positions, ,and other areas as you know where there is no difference in assumptions/positions lead to diametrically different outcomes when fleshing out the consequences and taking things to their natural conclusions but these differences are not really relevant when considering the high level summary sketched out initially above by steven in terms of basic concepts like labour theory of value and surplus value

as for marx's opinion on all this - from his theories of surplus value chapters on Ricardo:-

Apart from the confusion between labour and labour-power, Ricardo defines the average wages or the value of labour correctly. For he says that it [the value of labour] is determined neither by the money nor by the means of subsistence which the labourer receives, but by the labour-time which it costs to produce it; that is, by the quantity of labour materialised in the means of subsistence of the labourer. This he calls the real wages. (See later.)

This definition [of the value of labour], moreover, necessarily follows from his theory. Since the value of labour is determined by the value of the necessary means of subsistence on which this value is to be expended, and the value of the means of subsistence, like that of all other commodities, is determined by the quantity of labour they contain, it naturally follows that the value of labour equals the value of the means of subsistence, which equals the quantity of labour expended upon them.

Ricardo starts out from the actual fact of capitalist production. The value of labour is smaller than the value of the product which it creates. The value of the product is therefore greater than the value of the labour which produces it, or the value of the wages. The excess of the value of the product over the value of the wages is the surplus-value. (Ricardo wrongly uses the word profit, but, as we noted earlier, he identifies profit with surplus-value here and is really speaking of the latter.)

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/ch15.htm
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/ch16.htm

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Nov 17 2009 02:23

Marx could really have done with studying a bit more maths in school. Some of his equations are really dumb.

On a more serious note, I found that Otto Ruhle's condensed version was easier to get through, with occasional reference to the main text where something wasn't clear... however I have still not finished Vol. 1, something I intend to return to very soon.

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Nov 17 2009 09:06

oisleep

I don't think Ricardo had the conception of labour-power. I believe that concept originated with Marx. Ricardo simply referred to labour and its sale and price. Marx makes mention of this confusion in the quote from Theories of Surplus-Value you provide, i.e. "Apart from the confusion between labour and labour-power, Ricardo defines the average wages or the value of labour correctly." Marx saw the distinction between labour and labour-power as very important.

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Nov 17 2009 10:20

he didn't articulate semantically as such no (similar to the way he confuses surplus value and profit), but when he refers to the sale and the sale price of labour - what he describes in relation to that is the sale of and the sale price of labour power (and form this he also then assumes that the level of productivity is advanced enough so that the working day of labour itself produces more than it is required to reproduce itself - he's quite weak in this area i'd agree)

marx's summary pretty much sums up the discussion being had here:-

Quote:
Ricardo starts out from the actual fact of capitalist production. The value of labour is smaller than the value of the product which it creates. The value of the product is therefore greater than the value of the labour which produces it, or the value of the wages. The excess of the value of the product over the value of the wages is the surplus-value. (Ricardo wrongly uses the word profit, but, as we noted earlier, he identifies profit with surplus-value here and is really speaking of the latter.)

i.e. the value of the labour (power) is smaller than the value of the product it creates - i don't think this quote from marx is needed to come to this conclusion though it's fundamentally inherent in the quotes from Ricardo above - even just looking at it from basic principles you get the same answer - in that he believes that all value is produced by labour and all commodities exchange at their value, and he believes profits/surplus value flow to capitalists - the only way these things can be squared is to hold a theory where labour power as a commodity is different to labour itself - and from this pops out surplus value

if you look at something like rubin's history of economic thought he pretty much comes to the same conclusions and even attributes the seeds of a theory of socially necessary labour in ricardo's writings

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Nov 17 2009 15:42

Summary of Capital.

Marx's Capital, Ben Fine.

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oisleep
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Nov 17 2009 16:14

i'd recommend that ben fine book as a good short introductory summary/run through of all three volumes - it's pretty light, short and an easy read

gypsy
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Nov 17 2009 16:36

Thanks for download Marsella.

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Nov 18 2009 01:15

I think its okay as a summary, and it would be a good idea for someone to read it before reading Capital. But I think reading Capital is important because you really get the point Marx is trying to make about the economic system, even if he could have said what he wanted in half the space. But I disagree with you regarding volume 2; it is largely a waste of time.

The Economics of Karl Marx, Analysis and Application.

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Nov 18 2009 01:44
888 wrote:
Marx could really have done with studying a bit more maths in school. Some of his equations are really dumb.

He was fairly competent in calculus.

But I fail to see how his equations are 'dumb'; they're not intended to be complex but to explain various simple relations (and show how things like the expansion of the working day would modify those relations and all the class issues involved...which ends up being quite complex). They're not much more complex than primary school algebra, and I think that if Marx did use more complex mathematics it really wouldn't serve any pertinent reason apart from confusing the reader.

C = c + v.

C' = c + v + s.

Where C is the total capital, c is the constant capital, v is the variable capital and C' is the former total capital valorized (i.e. with the addition of the surplus value).

The rate of surplus value is s/v, the ratio of the surplus value to the variable capital. Or alternatively, the surplus labour over the necessary labour.

The rate of profit is defined as s/C, the ratio of the surplus value to the total capital advanced.

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Nov 18 2009 07:36
Marsella wrote:
I think its okay as a summary, and it would be a good idea for someone to read it before reading Capital. But I think reading Capital is important because you really get the point Marx is trying to make about the economic system

er yes, which is why i said it was a good introduction/summary - not a replacement

Quote:
But I disagree with you regarding volume 2; it is largely a waste of time.

everyone has their own opinion on it - but i'd disagree with your point - if you think marx's analysis of capital overall is not a waste of a time then i can't see how the areas covered in volume II could be seen to be a waste of time

i do think it could have been made shorter however while still covering what it needs to, as it tends to repeat itself quite a bit in the first two parts (and quite a bit of it is spent trying to slag off smith over things which may be important to clarify but are not really that relevant yet seem to get dragged on and on) , and the writing style is very different from vol I & III making it read more like a technical manual rather than the more literary satisfying I & III - but the areas covered are important nonetheless and I can't see how you can get a proper grasp of marx's conception of capitalism without going through them - the circuit and turnover of capital plus the reproduction schema (although incomplete and quite weak in areas) are pretty crucial things in terms of the overall conception of how things work - additionally as a by product of the investigations into value traversing the circuit/turnover of capital the basis for the credit system (in terms of how temporary unutilised capital arises necessarily as a result of traversing the circuit itself) arises naturally out of the circuit - this is a far more nuanced and insightful demonstration of the basis for the credit system that that which is offered in volume III which just starts with the assumption that capitalists are split into two types - those with money but no project and those with a project but no money when it actual fact it's a much more subtle and nuanced affair than this - vol III obviously gives a far more detailed insight into other areas of the credit system of course, and the impact of that on capital as a whole, but without this basis established in vol II for how temporally unutilised capital arises out of the circuit then i think it would leave quite a gap in the understanding of how the whole thing works in total - ditto for the capital circuit as a whole and the turnover of the component parts through that circuit

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Nov 19 2009 01:16

don't know if anyone is still interested in the Ricardo/Surplus Value thing, but here's a few quotes from Rubin's history of economic thought that comes from the same point of view as I was putting earlier

p259 wrote:
Ricardo saw profit as that part of the value of the product - created by the labour of the worker - which remains after deducting wages, and therefore moves inversely to the latter.
p259/p260 wrote:
His assertion that wages and profits change inversely to each other is comprehensible only under one condition: if profit has its source in the surplus value created by the worker's labour. We are compelled, therefore, to acknowledge that the idea of surplus value lies at the very basis of Ricardo's system, and that he applied it with greater consistency than Smtih. The fact that Ricardo concentrated his attention mainly on the exchange of commodities for other commodities and refrained from directly analysing the exchange of capital for labour in non way refutes this statement; nor does the fact that Ricard's specific mentionings of surplus value are less frequent than we find in Smith...For Ricardo the existence of profit is presupposed in the very first pages of his study, providing, so to speak, a permanent background to the picture he is going to paint. Although Ricardo does not inquire directly into the origins of profit, the general direction of his thinking leads him to the concept of surplus value. The value of the product is a precisely fixed magnitude, determined by the quantity of labour necessary for its production. This magnitude divides up into two parts: wages and profits. Of these, wages are firmly fixed, being determined by the value of the worker's customary means of subsistence...What is left after wages (i.e. the worker's means of subsistence) have been deducted from the product's value constitutes profit.
p327 wrote:
Ricardo had laid bare the basic class contradictions of the capitalist system: between the landlords and capitalists, and between capitalist and workers. Though himself an ardent defender of the bourgeois order, Ricardo had in fact forged the theoretical weaponry that the socialists were to make great use of

this quote isn't really on topic but is from marx lamenting the disintegration of the classical school of political economy (post Ricardo) and its replacement by vulgar economists (which pretty much remain to this day)

preface to capital volume I wrote:
It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prize fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic
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Nov 19 2009 01:32

yeah fair point, i read Ricardo and Smith after i was aware of basic Marxian ideas, so i wasn't sure how much i was reading classes and exploitation into them rather than it being there implicitly or explicitly (i got told off for being a 'marxist' by my economics lecturer for saying 'labour is the fund which supplies the nation with the nececcities of life' in a class purportedly about Smith and Ricardo - in practice reduced to the invisible hand and comparitive advantage respectively. it's actually a - now semi-remembered - quote of the first line to the intro to book 1 of the Wealth of Nations. so i guess it's implicitly 'marxist' enough for an economics lecturer). presumably that's what the 'hidden abode of production' is a reference to in Marx then, bourgeois political economy effectively observed surplus value in the realm of commodity exchange but investigated no deeper?

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Nov 19 2009 07:53
Quote:
i got told off for being a 'marxist' by my economics lecturer for saying 'labour is the fund which supplies the nation with the nececcities of life' in a class purportedly about Smith and Ricardo

I had been meaning to ask you how Smith/Ricardo were presented/taught in university - the above point pretty much sums up all that needs to be said I guess!

Smith & Ricardo would be horrified at the way they are portrayed in contemporary times - you kind of expect them to be used in the way they are by free marketers and the like, but you'd think in the field of academia there would have been a bit more critical engagement and reflection on them but even that sphere seems devoid of it - it shows how much political economy post marx has almost airbrushed the essence of smith/ricardo out of existence - for all their faults in terms of their own political perspective they were passionately engaged with the topic and had a genuine desire to get to the bottom of how capitalism operated (regardless of what those investigations then revealed) - the contrast with the 'hired prize fighters' of vulgar political economy that followed is massive

Quote:
presumably that's what the 'hidden abode of production' is a reference to in Marx then, bourgeois political economy effectively observed surplus value in the realm of commodity exchange but investigated no deeper?

perhaps, although i don't think there's any implication from marx that the likes of smith or ricardo deliberately didn't investigate it to the extent that marx did because they were afraid of the answers, more just a point of them developing the theory as far as they could and were able (given the actual development of capitalism at the respective times of when smith and ricardo were observing it) - but that aside it's pretty much all there in Ricardo in terms of the main themes, either explicitly or implicitly (minus the social relation/sociological perspective) - also ricardo & marx are very similar in terms of focus on ongoing development of productivity and that only being made possible within a capitalist context

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Nov 19 2009 14:42
oisleep wrote:
for all their faults in terms of their own political perspective they were passionately engaged with the topic and had a genuine desire to get to the bottom of how capitalism operated (regardless of what those investigations then revealed) - the contrast with the 'hired prize fighters' of vulgar political economy that followed is massive

i think that's the difference between those fighting for capitalism against feudalism, guilds, aristocratic privilege etc, and those who are apologists for capitalism once it triumphed.

sorry for straying off-topic allybaba. Value, Price and Profit by Marx is often considered a summary of the basic arguments in Capital and is quite short.