The way we decided to do it is to read chapters of Capital every 2 weeks, and every other week we'd read another short Marxist text. This way different people can participate at different paces. We only just read chapter 1 so you should all be able to catch up easily. I don't know yet if I should post about these other readings on here or just focus on Capital though (the first one we're reading is the first 3 sections of Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism). I'm hoping to eventually get through all volumes of Capital but it might take a while!
You can find the text of Capital and its translations (and most of the other readings) on marxists.org: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/
My discussion notes from
- Chapter 1: https://rhizzone.net/forum/topic/15885/?page=1#post-397143
- Chapter 2-3: https://rhizzone.net/forum/topic/15885/?page=1#post-398300
- Chapter 4-5-6: https://rhizzone.net/forum/post/399003/
Edited by proceduraldialectics ()
- Use value exists in all human societies, it’s about fulfilling a need or want. Different use values cannot be compared to each other quantitatively.
- Exchange value is unique to market societies, societies with commodities: it’s the basis on which all commodities can be compared and therefore exchanged with each other. It’s shown to be an expression of “value”, or the “socially necessary labour time” going into its production, that is, the expected quantity of labour needed to produce the commodity.
- When Marx talks about “value” in itself he is describing something unique to societies where production is dominated by the production of commodities for exchange (such as industrial capitalist society). It’s not a universal but a social construct specific to these societies. It’s also not about how things “should” be, but purely descriptive of how such societies value things. In fact this capitalist “law of value” is to be abolished by communism.
- In general, value is not the same as price. However so far Marx is making the assumption that they are, by abstracting away a lot of complexity. It’s only in later volumes of the book that this theory is complicated further. Think of it like a scientific theory that makes assumptions to simplify things (like a physics theory that works by assuming everything is a sphere).
- Similarly, this is why Marx focuses on simple “objects” as commodities, in order to keep the explanation simple. However anything that is exchanged on the market is a commodity (for example services) and as we’ll see very soon, a very special commodity is labour power itself, which is what is exchanged for money in the wage labour system.
- This abstraction from Marx can be misleading if we try too hard to make real world examples “fit” into the framework developed in early chapters. Keep in mind that there are a lot of “exceptions” that the theory can’t explain yet and won’t be able to until it gets developed further in later chapters/volumes!
- Marx spends a lot of time talking about how commodities exchange for each other because he is trying to build towards his explanations of the money commodity in terms of exchange value, and therefore of labour, rather than starting with “common sense” unfounded assumptions about money as the inherent measure of all value.
- “Nature” is not a source of value (remember “value” is how capitalism values things, not what we may think it should be). Similarly there is debate about unpaid human labour such as non-commodified domestic labour or slavery. Capitalists can profit from unpaid labour through rent, which is explained much later in the book (volume 3). But rent is one of the ways that real prices and value actually differ from each other.
- Products of unpaid labour appropriated (usually by force) can also be sold as commodities even if they were originally produced outside a market society context. This is an example of “primitive accumulation”, which is described in the last chapter (chapter 6) of volume 1. Some people recommend reading that chapter before starting with chapter 1, so feel free to look ahead if you’re curious.
- The example of Netflix, Steam games, or digital commodities in general, are examples of commodities commanding a price mostly through rent (monopoly ownership of legal intellectual property rights, enforced by the state). Prices for those have little relation to the amount of labour that goes into producing them, the commodity you buy is like a “ticket” giving you the right to access the media. However when the initial movie is commissioned, the creation of this “master copy” from which all copies are made, it is a unique commodity itself and here the simple chapter 1 explanations can be applied more easily.
- Commodity fetishism: the ideology we all develop by existing within the capitalist mode of production. We fulfill our needs and wants by purchasing commodities. We acquire money by selling commodities (such as our own labour power). We understand ourselves as having social relationships with objects (money, commodities, etc) rather than each other. The labour that went into the creation of the things we buy is invisible to us, and the people who buy the products of our own labour are similarly alienated from us. Money becomes the ultimate measure of all things.
It’s called fetishism because we attribute to commodities powers that are actually external to them and in fact our own doing that we project onto them, we see commodities as having “value” in a way that’s inherent to them, but behind the veil this value is actually a social construct and a reflection of the labour that goes into producing them.
Imagine an alien scientist with no concept of money trying to study human society. They would only see humans working to make useful things (or services) that are distributed and consumed in various ways throughout society. They would see a lot of inequality, that some humans work a lot harder and that a few others seem to mostly consume a lot without working. They would look at the state and see that the threat of force is involved in some way. Without commodity fetishism placing commodities and money as the central actors with agency in society, this material reality becomes apparent.
The next reading is Vol.1 chapters 2+3, for the 16th of April (My group is reading Discourse on Colonialism for the 9th)
I’m actually just starting to go through this syllabus and the lectures on YouTube right now so nice timing. Almost everything is on libgen too (at least for the first lecture). Ill post in this thread.
e: if anyone has a pdf of Heilbroner’s The Nature and Logic of capitalism and Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command, and Change by Bowles and Edwards pls share but I doubt anyone does. I don’t particularly care if I miss the occasional reading that isn’t publicly available .
what did you guys make of discourse on colonialism, i was read that fairly recently and was really struck by how succinct and insightful it was. also it's just a great polemic
My group is meeting to discuss it tomorrow actually! I guess I'll post the notes for the in-between-capital readings here too. But yeah I agree Césaire is a great writer. I love his insight about seeing fascism as colonialism turned back on itself.
You can find most of those online pretty easy by googling if anyone's interested in reading along.
http://www.anwarshaikhecon.org/images/docs/current_courses/GECO%205104%20Syllabus%20(Fall%202013).pdfI’m actually just starting to go through this syllabus and the lectures on YouTube right now so nice timing. Almost everything is on libgen too (at least for the first lecture). Ill post in this thread.
Thanks this is super useful, I didn't know about those syllabus/lectures. I'll try go through them as well if I can!
- Discourse On Colonialism (Aimé Césaire)
- ch. 13 of Women, Race and Class (Angela Davis)
- ch. from Caliban & The Witch (Sylvia Federici)
- The Path Which Led Me To Leninism (Ho Chi Minh)
- Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan (Mao)
- ch. from Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (Engels)
- Imperialism and the Split in Socialism (Lenin)
- Socialism: Utopia and Scientific (Engels)
- The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels)
- On Contradiction (Mao)
- ch. from Dialectic of Nature (Engels)
- A United Front Against Debt (Thomas Sankara)
- ch. from Imperialism in the 21st Century (John Smith)
- Fascism (Clara Zetkin)
- ch.1 from The German Ideology (Marx)
- Engels on historical materialism from Anti-Duhring
- The Shock of Recognition (J Sakai)
- The Rise & Fall of the Professional Managerial Class (Barbara & John Ehrenreich)
- Reform or Revolution (Rosa Luxemburg)
Any other recommendations?
- When Marx explains paper money, he is careful to distinguish it from debt money, and to mention that the tools needed to analyze and explain debt money have not been introduced into the text yet at that point. Paper money emerges out of money’s role as a means of circulation, debt money out of its role as means of payment. The paper money acts as a symbol for a given quantity of commodity money, as guaranteed by a state.
- Marx is also careful to emphasize that the fact that commodity money can be replaced by a simple symbol does *not* mean that money is simply a symbol itself, as some bourgeois theorists assume (he makes fun of them).
- Hoarding: hoarding first develops out of the role of money as “general equivalent”. It can be exchanged for any value. Beyond just using money as an intermediary step between selling the product of their work and buying use values they need, accumulating money becomes a sort of end in itself for the hoarder. Once money’s role as a means of payment comes into play, it also becomes necessary for a sort of reserve treasury to be kept so as to be able to make owed payments if called on them. (The amount of money that needs to be in circulation at any given moment fluctuates, so reserves are necessary to serve as “reservoirs” that can be filled and emptied for the “canals” of money circulation to flow efficiently).
- The hoarder or the miser are not capitalists. So far in these chapters we are still talking about social relations of market exchange that have existed since antiquity (including debt, which Marx mentions as being the form that class struggle took in ancient Rome) - we haven’t begun talking about capitalism as such yet.
- Prices and values constantly differ in practice. This is not a flaw, but is actually fundamental to how the law of value emerges from market society. In a sense this is where Marx rejoins the “supply and demand” econ 101 explanations of price. If more commodities are produced than actually needed and they can’t all be realized as use values, their market prices will decrease and the producers will have wasted part of their labour, its value going unrealized. The division of labour will then be re-organized as they on average transition to spending less time producing this commodity and use the time for other activities instead. Similarly this is what happens to producers using an outdated technique who cannot keep up with new technologies that reduce the socially-necessary-labour time needed to produce their commodities, and therefore the value of these commodities. Thus the “law of value”: there is a general tendency for commodities to have a price that corresponds to their value (even if in practice the 2 differ constantly), through the same process that determines the general division of labour in society.
- More discussion about what counts as a commodity: Marx writes “Objects that in themselves are not commodities, such as conscience, honor, &c., are capable of being offered for sale by their holders, and of thus acquiring, through their price, the form of commodities.” Note that these examples (honor, conscience, etc) are counted as “objects” and although they are not commodities “in themselves”, they acquire that form through being exchanged as such on the market. This seems to support the notion that anything that has a price (that is exchanged on the market) is in fact a commodity, whether it has value (is the product of labour) or not.
- The above might provide clues to trying to understand today’s money form in terms of a commodity money with a different commodity than previous metals serving as “general equivalent”, a commodity with a price despite having no value: perhaps a form of debt/tribute etc?
- In discussion it was brought up that another example of valueless object being exchanged at a price, like honor or conscience etc, would be indulgences. In general the process of human social relations (such as honor) becoming commodified is one that is often violent and provokes a strong reaction from people, especially the more “meaningful” to society the relation happens to be, (an example is how people still react to the commodification of sexual relations). This is why the idea of buying someone’s conscience seems abhorrent to us, or maybe in part why protestantism developed in response to the sale of indulgences by the catholic church. But this same process happened at some point for every social relation that is now commodified! The commodification of the act of feeding each other, providing health care for each other, creating shelter for each other, etc probably felt just as violent and sacrilegious as these other examples to people at the time it was happening to them.
- Discussion about what Marx means by the word “ideal” when he talks about price being an ideal attached to the commodity: it’s someone’s “idea” of what the commodity is worth, the price is not part of the commodity itself materially, but something we attach to it in an imaginary way. There needs to be no actual gold involved.
In general Marx calls himself a “materialist” in opposition to the “idealism” of philosophers like Hegel etc, but he can also be understood as a “monist”: what he is rejecting is the idea that there exist separate substances of ideas and matter (human ideas are constituted by human material reality).
- Similarly to indulgences, today there are many commodities which are marketed as “ethical consumption” and command a higher price on the market for that reason (free trade / organic / etc). Part of the use value being purchased here by the buyer is the moral meaning of making the purchase, something which has no value (but has a price).
- Is Marx talking about the transition from barter to money-based market exchange and then debt as a historical development? Or simply as a logical/dialectical development that explains what these things are? Often liberal economists seem to mistakenly present the “story” of barter between atomized individuals, leading to the invention of money, as a historical one. Marx talks about commodity exchange as being something that first happens at the periphery of the “community”, at points of contact with other, external, communities, and at first only for getting rid of surplus production. But then throughout history market relations of exchange gradually infiltrate the community, replacing the existing non-market social relations.
- David Graeber’s book on debt mentions that historically/anthropologically barter exchange only seems to happen in market societies after a collapse of the money form and market, and that forms of “debt” are as old as commodity money itself if not older. (Interestingly, there is also mention in this book of precapitalist societies where different currencies exist in parallel, each being used in its own “sphere” of exchange for different categories of commodities, and where exchange between these separate spheres is unthinkable/taboo)
- Marx brings up in passing the use of cattle as the first currency. An interesting example as cattle served such a purpose as a store of value and general equivalent means of exchange in many ancient nomadic societies. Cattle are animals but their value as a commodity comes purely from the human labour that goes into raising them domestically. Many societies that used cattle as money had cattle feature prominently in their religious beliefs.
- “We shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.” in the original german, Marx talks of “character masks” worn by human actors but personifying economic relations (very detailed wikipedia article here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_mask). Think of when you’re talking to a salesperson and you have this weird feeling of the interaction being “fake” and inauthentic because they are just trying to sell you something, or the feeling of alienation when an old high school acquaintance gets back in touch with you and you slowly dawn upon the realization that they are trying to get you to buy into a pyramid scheme.
Edited by proceduraldialectics ()
Last week the in-between-capital reading we had was Angela Davis' Women, Race, and Class (ch.13), which went great. Since I wasn't able to post notes from our discussion of Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism I think I'm giving up on keeping notes for those shorter text discussions though, for lack of capacity.
The next such short reading is a double one for next week: The Path Which Led Me To Leninism (Ho Chi Minh) + Imperialism and the Split in Socialism (Lenin)!
Chapter 4 & 5:
- Money on its own is not capital: capital is a *process*. The process of exchanging money for something that leads to a later exchange for *more* money. Money by itself doesn’t “grow”. Like capitalists love to say “you need to spend money to make money”.
- When we use money as workers, this money is not capital for us. We just earn money by selling commodities (for example our labour power) and spend money to acquire commodities we need. But it might be part of the process of capital for someone else! For example the money we spend on commodities we buy is part of the process of capital for the capitalist selling those commodities to us, and will go towards growing their capital.
- This is the difference between the “miser” and the capitalist. The miser seeks to hoard money because of its role as the universal equivalent. For the capitalist, hoarding money has an opportunity cost: rather the money needs to be invested or you lose out on potential profits.
- Money and commodities need to be circulating for capital to be in motion. What happens when this motion stops? We see this happening in market crashes: and capitalists are left holding either simple money or commodities, no longer able to be capital in motion. If they hold a commodity they revert to the “miser” mentality and exchange it for money which they hoard as there are no investment opportunities to turn it into capital (they stop using it to buy labour power and people lose their jobs for this reason). Hence the mass sell-offs and crashes in stock prices. Hoarding money is seen as the “safest” investment in a crisis, and capitalist fiscal policy in response to a crisis is designed to encourage money to be spent again, in order to get the motion going again - for example by providing extremely cheap credit to capitalists etc.
- Our own labour power as workers is also capital, just not for us! It is the commodity that capitalists buy with their money in order to grow their capital. Later in the book we’ll see that capital invested in salaries is called “variable capital”, as opposed to “fixed capital” (capital invested in buying any other commodity like machines, raw materials, etc).
- When a capitalist buys a “stock” from a company, they are investing money into that company. This is money that then goes to pay salaries and cover other costs. The stock represents ownership of a share of that entire company’s capital, and its price as a commodity on a stock market will grow and shrink based on the valuing of that capital. Stocks and other more complex financial assets are not simply made up fictions separate from the process of capital, but are connected to production (in more or less convoluted ways), which is why they are worth anything, and why they are an investment that can generate profits.
- Marx mentions that all capitalist investment is “speculation” - and the speculation doesn’t have to be successful for it to be capital: lots of capital investments fail to generate a profit and generate a loss (but on average over the entire capitalist society, there tends to be a positive “rate of profit”). There is always a risk involved, since unlike the miser the capitalist has to part with his money first to make a profit, and might not get it back! (Hence why capitalists center themselves as “risk takers” and justify their claim on profits this way).
- Marx even dismisses bourgeois economists who try to distinguish between bad “speculation” and other “legitimate” forms of investment. It’s a common trope that is repeated today to defend some ideal form of capitalism that would be better for everyone, arguing that it’s merely corrupted by bad agent “speculators” who are the ones to blame for the cyclical crises of capital.
- John Locke was discussed: one of the main “founders” of liberal ideology. Liberalism aims to justify capitalism by mystifying social relations. Part of that is what Marx mentions about the confusion as to whether surplus value comes from labour or just emerges from market exchange. The role of Locke’s “social contract theory” and his concept of human nature was also brought up in relation to this.
- How do we know that circulation of money and commodities by itself cannot produce new value? Even if a given trader can consistently make a profit by exchanging goods for more than their exchange value, it’s always at the expense of the trader they are making the exchange with, who is cheated out of that value. Overall there is no change in value by such unequal exchanges.
- What’s the difference between “labour power” and “labour”? Labour power is your potential to do work, it’s the commodity that as a worker you sell to your employer on the job market. “Labour” is the actual activity of the work that you do, and its product is more valuable than the labour power you sold, but it belongs to the capitalist who bought the labour power from you. The capitalist consumes the labour power he bought from you by making you work for him, and he keeps the product of that work.
- Humans in general are capable of surviving on less than what they are capable of producing. It’s what allows us to survive and thrive in the first place, and what allows this extraction of surplus value by capitalists who buy our labour power and sell the products of our labour.
- It’s important to understand that labour power is *not* sold at less than its value. On average labour power is sold at its exchange value. Surplus value does not come from the capitalist “cheating” you in that exchange, it comes from the capitalist being the one who consumes your labour power when you perform your labour in his factory/office/etc.
- Why do you sell your labour power to an employer rather than the product of your labour directly to consumers on the market if you’d make more money that way? Because you don’t have access to the things you need to do your work. Without entering into a deal with a capitalist you do not have access to the means of production, since they are owned by capitalists.
- The “exchange value” of your labour power is simply the combined value of all the commodities you spend your salary on. You purchase these commodities in order to “reproduce” your labour power - that is to regenerate it, to ensure its continued existence (which on the level of the working class includes biological reproduction, education, etc needed to produce new workers to replace the ones who die).
- Different workers will need to buy different commodities to reproduce their labour power, for example depending on the part of the world they live in they might have different needs - but also some types of work require a more expensive education to be purchased, and the labour that went into producing that education contributes to the exchange-value of the labour power of the educated worker.
- When the commodities you need to reproduce your labour power become cheaper - for example because of technological improvements reducing the socially-necessary-labour to produce them, your labour power also loses value as a result.
- Of course there is also a lot of work that goes into reproduction of labour power which is *not* done through commodity exchange - the domestic labour traditionally done by women being the most obvious example. Because it is not free wage labour though, this labour is not recognized as value-producing by capitalism, and so does not contribute to the exchange value of labour-power (this is as far as I can make sense of this question, but it is often debated by marxists and a topic of discussion that keeps coming back).
- We mentioned education as a commodity that goes into the exchange value of a given labour power, and part of the reason why different workers sell their labour power at different exchange values. Communism seeks to abolish the capitalist law of value: one example of this could be that unpleasant jobs that no one wants to do would be rewarded more even if they do not require expensive training, while jobs that require a lot of education might not necessarily command a higher reward. In socialist Cuba for example, medical doctors receive free education and are paid much lower wages than they would be in capitalist countries, including relatively to other occupations. This education is understood as being granted to the individual by society and coming with a responsibility towards it and the workers who made it possible for the doctor to receive it in the first place.
- Capital can only grow through the purchase of labour power, as it is the only commodity that can produce a surplus value when consumed. Labour power is only sold on the market if there is a class of dispossessed workers who have nothing to sell but their own labour power - the proletariat. The proletariat has no choice but to sell their labour power to be able to survive at all. Such a class of workers has to be created somehow historically, and later chapters will show how.
- Capitalists don’t really care about workers getting sick or dying as long as they can be replaced. The individual capitalist is also not concerned with the reproduction of the working class as a whole. However, workers will also tend to refuse salaries that do not allow them to even survive at all. This ensures that labour power tends to generally be sold at its exchange value. Labour power is a commodity and subject to the same law of value as other commodities.
- It’s because the wage worker is not a slave, but is treated as a free individual subject capable of making choices and having ownership of their own body (which is what lets them sell their own labour power), that their labour is recognized as having value in exchange by capitalist society. This free individual liberal subject, making self-interested choices on the market, is the subjectivity produced by capitalist society, and it is those "choices" that make the law of value come alive on a greater level, seemingly independently of all these individual decisions.
- How do welfare programs enter into the value of labour power and its reproduction? In general public programs in capitalist society, under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, exist to benefit the bourgeoisie. Despite what libertarians/objectivists might believe, public tax-funded roads exist because it benefits capitalists to all pool together into this shared infrastructure. Same reason we have a tax-funded police force to enforce private property. In this sense, a lot of welfare reforms can be seen as ultimately being subsidies to capitalists covering part of the cost of labour power. In the US for instance the example of how Wal-Mart benefits from the food stamps program is commonly brought up: Wal-Mart is able to pay its workers less than what they need to survive (reproduce their labour power), because the workers rely on government food stamps in addition to their wages.
- It is true that many social reforms have been won for workers as a result of working class struggle against capital. But they are still concessions that benefit capitalists in the sense that they appease workers (and in the first world, often buy their complicity with the pillaging and the super-exploitation of the third world). As long as capitalist relations are in place, the law of value prevails, and minimum wage increases, universal basic income, or any other social reform will in the long term fail to prevent capital from finding a way of extracting surplus value from the working class.
- It’s important to keep in mind that prices differ from exchange value, and when thinking about the situation today they can differ from each other in extreme ways, due to the prevalence of factors such as rent or unequal exchange, which have not been covered by Marx yet and won’t be until later volumes.
For example, the value of education has decreased a lot over time, as methods and infrastructure for education and information access/transmission/storage have become cheaper (less labour intensive). This means that the exchange-value of an educated worker’s labour power is much cheaper today as well than it might have been in the past. However, the price of education keeps rising - and workers who go to college find themselves saddled with debt they are likely to never be able to repay. Sooner or later, this contradiction between the expected wages of future graduates and the reality of the labour market will probably lead to a debt crisis.
Education has a class-reproduction function in our capitalist society, as expensive higher education is inaccessible to lower classes and does not enter into the reproduction of their labour power. In many cases where a benefit to capitalism in terms of specialized labour power is not clear, it seems to be the primary or only function of higher education.
A lot of our economy today functions similarly to this education example: things are kept moving and capital continues to be invested based on the promise that the speculation will pay off some time in the future. When a crisis hits capitalists are bailed out by creating new debts and financial instruments in an attempt to postpone the crisis further, always in anticipation of a future realization of expected value. In a way capitalism has become or is becoming a zombie economic system: dead but still walking. (The reason why is because of something called the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which will be covered later)
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The Lenin text is shorter than the whole Imperialism text, so a good one to suggest to people as a reading who are just getting started learning about the crucial topics of social democratic opportunism, imperialism, the first-world labor aristocracy, etc. I think it's particularly relevant right now after Trump's election and the failure of the social-democratic movement in the US - lots of people are looking for answers to make sense of it all and Lenin has them.
It's also Lenin, so it's a great one to push on the sort of western communist who has an aversion to J. Sakai's Settlers because of some discourse they received about it, but who really need to learn about the first-world labor aristocracy and privileged "parasite nations" like the US (Lenin's words in this text!).
The Uncle Ho text is just a few paragraph but a great complement to the previous because it demonstrates the way Lenin's approach resonates so strongly with the oppressed & colonized people of the world, and also he dunks on french communists and the second international in it. It's good if you have anyone in your group coming at things from a generally anti-colonial point of view but who might have a intuitive suspicion towards Marxism for being western, for example.
In June 1861, at the beginning of his most productive three years during which he wrote the second draft of Capital and the Theories of Surplus Value in the Economic Manuscript of 1861-1863, Marx asks Engels,
“If it could be done very briefly, without making undue demands on you, I should like to have a sample of Italian book-keeping (with explanations). It would help throw light on Dr Quesnay’s Tableau economique” (Marx and Engels, 1985b, p.381).
From his study of ‘Italian book-keeping’, that is, double-entry bookkeeping, Marx would learn how it automatically accounts for flows of capital by simultaneously recording the effect of every transaction as both a source (a credit) and a use (a debit) of capital (Bryer, 1993a). He would also learn that capitalists used DEB to produce integrated departmental profit and loss accounts that calculated profitability as the increment to capital at the level of the individual department and at the level of the firm. This would certainly help him understand that it was necessary to distinguish between ‘capital’ and ‘revenue’ at the level of the individual firm or sectors of production (as Adam Smith did), and at the level of society (which Smith did not). ... This was critical to Marx’s understanding of ‘total social capital’
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