Capital, vol. I (1867)

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Capital: a critique of political economy is a book published in 1867 by Karl Marx after 10 years of research and analysis on the capitalist mode of production.

Whereas liberals believe that capitalism, absent proper regulation, is destructive and exploitive, Marx shows that capitalism is inherently so do to the contradictions that make up its character. Under capitalism, workers no longer have the ability to produce for themselves. Most societies have gone from serfs to proletarians. Now, people must work to get money in order to buy commodities both for and from someone who owns capital, which means that ownership of capital leads to the ability to have others labor for your benefit. While one may have some ability to choose among available jobs, most people have little choice but to work for someone. And the needs of workers to acquire money to buy food, shelter and other things are more immediate than those of the capitalist, who already has money for such things. The “freedom” of workers in this situation is an illusion. Marx insists that as long as the means of production (the non-human inputs in production) are not held in common—those who do own them will always benefit from the labor of workers. He details why capitalism involved a constant search for greater profits and thus constant expansion. Marx shows that production under capitalism is not, as it is so often presented, individual but inherently social. This is a consequence of how commodities are produced to be sold rather than produced for self-consumption, the norm under pre-capitalist modes of production. It is also because capitalism brings workers together to labor collectively, and therefore more productively, in the production of these commodities.

While it’s easy to imagine that what Marx had to say has no relevance today, things like his discussion of how employers seek to get more out of workers, via the production of absolute surplus value (longer hours) or relative surplus value (increasing productivity with improved productivity or forcing workers to work more intensively) remain just as relevant to us. Additionally, globalization can be understood, in part, as primitive accumulation—the historical process of divorcing producers from the means of production, thus enriching capitalists while coercing ever more people to become workers within capitalism.

Reading the book, as opposed to learning about it from other sources, is important. For one, there are all sorts of disagreements about what Marx said. It’s best to go to the source and decide for yourself. Often those disagreements are esoteric. Reading the text itself allows you to focus on what is most important. Also, because Marx’s approach is so different from standard ways of thinking, it’s difficult to be able to grasp at a fundamental level. Summaries just aren’t going to be as good for getting you to see the world in the way he is asking you to look at it. Indeed, in some ways the style of presentation itself helps you better understand what he’s getting at. Marx can move back and forth in the text in a way that gives you a feel for dialectical thinking that a description just couldn’t do.

Reading Capital is difficult but not impossible, and it’s not just for academic types. Marx wrote it with working people in mind. It’s important not to think it’s too hard. Also don’t be fooled. This is a good read. Capital is loaded to the gills with references. "Shakespeare, the Greeks, Faust, Balzac, Shelley, fairy tales, werewolves, vampires and poetry all turn up in its pages alongside innumerable political economists, philosophers, anthropologists, journalists and political theorists.”[1]

  1. David Harvey (2010). A Companion to Marx's Capital.