Saturday, August 23, 2014

Das Krazy Kapital

Reflections on Marx's economic text, Das Kapital.

Well, his heart was in the right place. After the French revolution and its complex aftermath had gone grievously astray from its égalité promises, Marx decided that the immense wealth generated in the epoch of industrialization was going to finally be sufficient to bring the utopia to pass. If only it were rationally organized! I am working from a classic heavily abridged edition put out by the Modern Library and edited by Max Eastman at perhaps the height of Communist respectibility in the English speaking world, 1932.

It is very hard to believe that this book launched a thousand demonstrations, millions of AK47's, dozens of dictatorships, and a century of misery for millions of people. It shows the incredible power of confident obfuscation and false hope. Yes, religions have known this forever, but still, having it framed in this pseudoscience-y way really hurts. It reads like a crank manifesto, with occasional gems of lucidity set within a vast heap of intellectual-sounding blather. Quite a bit of time is spent creating cracked accounts of national income, profit and loss, the circulation of capital, etc. The bottom line is that Marx was in no way an economist, but a polemicist and propagandist of great political rather than economic acuity. His work on the 18th Brumaire, not to mention the Communist Manifesto itself, far transcends his economic work, even if Das Capital contains a few seeds of economic insight.

His touchstone is the conviction that all surplus value comes from labor. Nothing else "makes" money. Not the free resources lying on the ground, not the inventiveness of the entrepreneur, not the far-sightedness of the capitalist, not the marketing & trading accumen of the merchant. Every dollar that the capitalist makes is on the back of some laborer who is made to work partly for his own bread, and during the balance of his employment time, for the capitalist. It is one of those great monomaniacal theories of everything that the monomanic batters like a ram through every wall of reason's ramparts.

The surprising thing is that he does provide a rather sensible (if exceedingly brief) presentation of one aspect of the opposing view at the time:

"The French economist Condillac wrote in 1776, in an essay on commerce and government: 'It is false taht, in the exchange of commoditiies, equal value is given and obtained. The contrary is true. Each of the two contracting parties, invariably gives a smaller value for a greater one ... Why? The value of things resides solely in their relation to our wants
...
Exchange value appears primarily as the quantitative relation in which values in use of one kind are exchanged against values in use of another kind. A definite quantity of one commodity is regularly exchanged for a specific quantity of another: that constitutes its exchange value- a relation which changes constantly according to time and locality. Thus does exchange value seem to be something accidental and purely relative, i.e. (as Condillac expressed it) it seems 'to consist solely in the relation of the commodities to our wants.' A value in exchange inherent in commodities appears thus an impossibility. Let us consider the question more closely. 
[... there follows a couple of turgid pages of implausible sylogisms ...] 
Thus it is only the quantity of labor or of working time socially necessary for its production which determines the exchange value of a commodity."

So Marx starts in reality, and ends up in his own private world of economics, which, being volume 1, chapter 1, forms the premise of everything that follows, more or less. While all this is flattering to the worker, and conducive to a labor-centric and mechanistic view of economics, it is nevertheless so far from reality that one wonders how anyone could possibly read onwards. But there are certainly flashes of interest, such as damning quotes from earlier writers:

"As early as 1696 John Bellers says: 'For if one had a hundred thousand acres of land and as many pounds in money, and as many cattle, without a laborer, what would the rich man be, but a laborer? And as the labourers make men rich, so the more labourers, there will be the more rich men ... the labour of the poor being the mines of the rich.'  So also Bertrand de Mandeville at the beginning of the eighteenth century (1728): 'It would be easier, where property is well secure, to live without money than without the poor; for who would do the work? ... As they ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. ... it is in the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get ... for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make him desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy. ... it is requisite that great numbers of them should be ignorant as well as poor; knowledge both enlarges and multiplies our desires, and the fewer things a man wishes for, the more easily his necessities may be supplied."

Well, this certainly lays it all out, eh? Labor is certainly a necessary ingredient to all economic activity and wealth. But its value is devilishly hard to measure, indeed impossible most of the time, and all sorts of other activities in the economic (and governmental) system both create and destroy value. But Marx presses on...

"There is not a single atom of its [capital] value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labor. ... When viewed as a transaction between the capitalist class and the working class, it makes no difference that additional labourers are employed by means of the unpaid labour of the previously employed laborers [i.e.capital]. The capitalist may even convert the additional capital into a machine which throws the workmen who made it out of work, and which replaces them by a few children. In every case the working class creates by the surplus labor of one year the capital destined to employ additional labor in the following year. 
The accumulation of the first additional capital of $10,000 presupposes a value of $50,000 belonging to the capitalist by virtue of his 'primitive labor', and advanced by him. The second additional capital of $2,000 [all this assumes an annual return/profit of 20%] assumes, on the contrary, only the previous accumulation of the $10,000 of which the $2,000 is the surplus value capitalized. The ownership of past unpaid labour is henceforth the sole condition for the appropriation of living unpaid labor on a constantly increasing scale. The more the capitalist has accumulated, the more is he able to accumulate."

Well, well- shades of Thomas Piketty. Of course, the self-perpetuating nature of wealth and privilege was hardly news in his day any more than in ours. Marx gives it a faux-quantitative gloss by way of a wealth of assumptions, but loses in the process virtually everything of interest about the capitalistic system.

Marx did see other self-feeding aspects of the process, such as the way fewer workers end up doing more work:

"The production of a relative surplus population, or the setting free of labourers, goes on therefore yet more rapidly than the technical revolution of the process of production that is accelerated by the advance of accumulation; and more rapidly than the corresponding diminution of the variable part of capital as compared with the constant.[]  In proportion as the productiveness of labor increases, capital increases its supply of labor more quickly than its demand for laborers. The over-work of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the formaer, forces these to submit ti over-work and to subjugation under the dictates of capital."

He spends some insightful pages on the transition from feudalism, where the lower classes had some right to sustenance and to land, at the cost of freedom and low status, to the modern system of private property, where the former feudal owners may have cleared the estates of farmers in favor of sheep, and in any case took ownership in the radical modern notion untethered by any social obligation. The poor were then turned into "independent contractors", i.e. sharecroppers, or out entirely to form the proletarian army of the industrial age.

"The laborer could only dispose of his own person after he had ceased to be attached to the soil and ceased to be the slave, serf, or bondman of another. To become a free seller of labour power, who carries his commodity wherever he finds a market, he must further have escaped from the regime of the guilds, their rules for apprentices and journeymen, and the impediments of their labor regulations. Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers inot wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeios historians. But, on the other hand, these new freemen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire."

Again, Marx's strength is not in accountancy and technical economics. It is in broad social critique with historical awareness and incendiary sarcasm. To finish up, I'll add a quote on national debt, showing a bit of Marx's woozy analysis while he has his finger on something truly important. Something Alexander Hamilton, for example, understood far better.

"The system of public credit, i.e. of national debts, whose origin we discover in Genoa and Venice as early as the middle ages, took possession of Europe generally during the manufacturing period. The colonial system with its maritime trade and commercial wars served as a forcing-house for it. Thus it first took root in Holland. National debts, i.e. the alienation of the State- whether despotic, constitutional, or republican- marked with its stamp the capitalistic era. The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possessions of modern peoples is thier national debt. 
The public debt becomes one of the powerful levers of primitive accumulation. As with the stroke of an enchanter's wand it endows barren money with the power of breeding and thus turns it into capital, without the necessity of its exposing itself to the troubles and risks inseparable from its employment in industry or even in usury. The State-creditors actually give nothing away, for the sum lent is transformed into public bonds, easily negotiable, which go on functioning in their hands just as so much hard cash would. But further, apare from the class of lazy annitants thus created, and from the improvised wealth of the financiers, middlemen between the government and the nation- as also apart from the tax-farmers, merchants, private manufacturers, to whom a good part of every State loan renders the service of a capital fallen from heaven- the national debt has goven rise to joint-stock companies, to dealing in negotiable effects of all kinds, and to agiotage [speculation and stock manipulation], in a word to stock-exchange gambling and the modern bankocracy."

Marx goes on for a couple of pages of meandering outrage, but fails to clearly analyze the nature of this particular beast. Which basically goes for the rest of this work as well.

I guess the real issue is that money and its concentrated form, capital, has a somewhat mesmerizing physicality which misleads us into thinking that it constitutes something intrinsically valuable and real. But it is a notional / legal accounting for labor and other goods owed- a matter of credit to its very core. If the future workers on whom this claim is made fail to see the claim as legitimate, due to any number of causes- the corrupt way it was concentrated, the age-old privilege and unjust social rules that give it to the idle and worthless- then they may revolt against this entire system of accumulated credit and decide to work for themselves instead.

Unfortunately, the extreme complexity and lack of resilience of the existing economic system makes blowing it up virtually unthinkable. We are all enmeshed in it, and can not imagine reconstituting even its most essential operations with any speed from new principles and with new actors. Thus the choice of revolution is the direst and most destructive extremity. Our real choice is typically between sclerotic decline at the hands of incumbent receivers of rent, (and social and political power), or continuous reform driven by those who have power and both understand the system thoroughly and are disinterested enough to wish for its general and durable prosperity. Which is not an easy combination to attain, now or ever. Communism's most enduring, positive legacy was to serve as the spectre that prodded reform in the liberal West, towards the modern regulatory, social welfare, middle class state. But no sooner did that spectre vanish at the end of the cold war than the old forces of rapacious capital retook the fields of ideology and power.

"More than 90% of the young black men killed by gunfire today are not killed by police but by other black men."

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