What should one do with a reading of Marx now? It seems the last fifty years have been a long detour through psychoanalytic, structuralist, and deconstructive readings. Blame Althusser. He took up Jacques Lacan’s insistence that one should return to the foundational texts of a discourse, Freud for Lacan, Marx for Althusser. Many people have thought or been told Read Marx during these decades, perhaps even by people who never read Marx themselves, an encouragement that Mike Davis recounts recently: Read Marx! Okay. How?
That question—how?—has given rise to a small but persistent industry of guides to Marx, some academic, some popular. In academia, the answer to how? was answered by post-structuralist urges themselves often informed by Lacanian ideas, beginning with Althusser himself. Readings of Marx are always re-readings, of course, and re-readings are always interpretations and redefinitions. Read Marx! But, you know, read him using someone else to make sense of it.
That’s not entirely fair, but it’s also not entirely wrong. Attempts to send readers back to the language of Marx’s texts, for instance, need other theoretical supports, whether analyzing his rhetorical devices, his metaphors, his literary references. These are helpful turns but they open up fundamental questions about hermeneutic method: how do we interpret a text? What are the processes and theoretical supports for our so-called “close reading”? This is all the more pressing when it isn’t clear that a critic means to offer a psychoanalytic reading of Marx, or a deconstructive reading, or a Spinozist reading…
To answer the how, I think we have to answer another question, one which is more important but often seems to go unasked: Why? I mean, I started a band after I bought The Velvet Underground and Nico. Capital has the same effect on people, but that doesn’t justify another reading (or writing of a reading). So why do it?
In all fairness, most of the reasons why come down to a question of the writer’s now and Marx’s then. How can I make Marx’s ideas applicable to my world? Such an approach is effectively what Marxism means. Yet that approach founders, I think, on something we can see when we read Capital, volume one carefully. Marx’s only completed volume does not mean to describe capitalism in order to demystify its workings. No. That would make it a piece of political economy, not a critique of political economy. What is it, then?
It extracts categories from capitalism necessary to imagine its overcoming.
The categories that Marx devises in Capital—surplus-value, constant and variable capital, means of production and labor-power—are not useful for capitalists, and capitalists who know Marx’s terms and analysis of their interaction are unlikely to be any better at the work of managing their production than those who haven’t.
The divergence between Marx’s notion of surplus-value and the capitalist idea of profit offers a useful example of the problem posed by his terminology. Marx sometimes treats surplus-value and profit as the same, sometimes as different. The rate of surplus-value would seem to indicate the profit rate, yet it does not, and Marx is never terribly concerned about the divergence between the two categories, even in the notes collected in volume three. Yet Marx’s famous ”falling rate of profit“ is for all intents and purposes the falling rate of surplus-value: the continual accumulation of capital in means of production leads to the devaluation of living labor. The result is that labor-power is worth less and less, a vertiginous devaluation as capitalism presses itself to produce more in order to accumulate more and thus, perversely, devaluing labor-power as a result of its persistent drive to accumulate. Marx clearly sees the two terms as distinct, yet this intermittent use of them as interchangeable means that Marxist economists spent an inordinate amount of time trying to account for profit rates. And that’s before we introduce Pierro Sraffa into the mix.
Marx is unconcerned about this terminological distinction because the rate of profit is beside the point. His categories and analysis are not meant to fine-tune capitalist economies but to give workers the tools to take those economies apart.
The fundamental categorical division for this work is between use-value and exchange-value. It’s no surprise that the nineteenth century’s other famous socialist, William Morris, grasped the importance of this distinction in Marx more than any other. It’s the one that matters. Capitalism produces use-values almost incidentally—it needs use-values to be part of its commodities, but it is not concerned with use-values as such. What capitalism wants is exchange-value, pure value, money for money’s sake. It will consume labor-power and means of production without concern for what is enough because exchange-value lacks the very concept of enough. This is why Marx begins Capital with exchange and the system of signification which structures capitalism. Exchange in capitalism is essentially a linguistic system, one which seems to be capable of producing new values endlessly by exchanging equivalents within a closed system. Exchange-value is endlessly generative, like language.
But if exchange in capitalism is like a language, it is one that will talk us all to death.
It is this indifference to material wealth that Marx wants us to understand about capitalism. This, more than anything else, even surplus-labor or the falling rate of profit, explains why capitalism once produces more material wealth than prior modes of production and terrifying immiseration. Marx uncovers the operations of this pair, which is to some degree unconscious on the part of capitalists. What matters isn’t their lack of consciousness, though. It is our understanding that we can divorce material wealth from exchange-value. We can organize production for use rather than exchange. We can determine how much surplus-value, if any, is necessary to extract in production for a society to reproduce itself. We can control the anarchy of production for the benefit of humanity and the earth.
And Marx is insistent throughout capital that these are the two agents who we should care about. Human labor and the natural world are two of the three productive forces which capitalist production uses to expand its powers. Capital offers a set of categories and analysis which allow us to imagine social, political, and economic forms of life which would place care for humanity and the earth at their core. This would alter the third productive force which Marx highlights as yoked to capitalism, scientific and technical knowledge, by allowing it to develop in the service of care for the human and natural world. In all, then, use-value, along with the other central concepts and analyses of Capital, lay the ground work for a new ecological social world, one which values the well-being of life and its needs rather than the extraction of an inhuman value for indeterminate ends. That is the point of Capital and of reading it as well.
One can see this best in Marx’s persistent focus on metabolism. The idea would initially seem to come from the Physiocrats, the first economists to theorize the connections between different forms of production and consumption. Throughout his work, Marx exhibits a surprising (for him) amount of respect for the Physiocrats, especially Quesnay, and Marx’s analysis of social circulation in volume two of Capital recalls Quesnay’s table of circulation and his account of a national economy as a physical body with the flow of goods, services, and finances as its blood flow (Quesnay was trained as a physician). Yet Marx’s notion of metabolism is not limited to the human economy like Quesnay’s. Quesnay does make agricultural production the source of all value, which connects his circulation to the natural world. Marx’s metabolism, however, begins with the interchange between these productive forces (forces that are use-values and create more use-values) in order to show us how production organized by exchange will inevitably deplete these productive forces. This is the point of the analysis.
It also explains why Marx recurs to discussions of metabolic arguments when it is not in any way necessary for his argument. This is most apparent in his discussion of the value of labor-power. Marx recurs to labor-power’s value as the cost of its means of subsistence:
The value of labour-power, i.e., the labour-time requisite to produce labour-power, determines the labour-time necessary for the reproduction of that value. If one working-hour be embodied in sixpence, and the value of a day’s labour-power be five shillings, the labourer must work 10 hours a day, in order to replace the value paid by capital for his labour-power, or to produce an equivalent for the value of his daily necessary means of subsistence. Given the value of these means of subsistence, the value of his labour-power is given;1 and given the value of his labour-power, the duration of his necessary labour-time is given. The duration of the surplus labour, however, is arrived at, by subtracting the necessary labour-time from the total working day. Ten hours subtracted from twelve, leave two, and it is not easy to see, how, under the given conditions, the surplus labour can possibly be prolonged beyond two hours. (430 in penguin; 318 in MECW)
His reference there is is to a stack of political economy texts: Petty, Turgot, and Malthus. Considering his account of Malthus later on, the choices here are curious. I do not believe Marx wants us to understand that the cost of means of subsistence determine the value of labor-power for capitalists. He himself states this later on. Capitalists begin with an amount of capital, divide it into constant and variable capital, and invest it with an set of rate of profit in mind. This rate of profit drives their labor practices and extraction of surplus value. Marx doesn’t need the cost of means of subsistence to describe this process at all. His discussion sometimes has the curious suggestion that capitalists factor workers’ cost of living into their production decisions, which is obviously untrue.
The discussion of surplus-value is so abstract because Marx wants to make a point that would be much harder to make with a more accurate and complicated analysis of market economies: there is a distinction between necessary and surplus labor. The presentation indicates that workers are somehow able to produce enough value to pay their wages in one part of the day and surplus in another. This is nonsensical by Marx’s own analysis. The problem with capitalism, Marx rightly insists, is that production is directed toward exchange, not use. And in capitalism, Marx says, use only takes place after exchange. This is the realization of capital. One cannot, then, produce means of subsistence or the value equivalent of means of subsistence within production under capitalism. It’s not possible! What workers producer are commodities which have yet to be sold—that is, realized—and which may become at any moment unexchangeable—that is, unrealizable. The problem of capitalism is that it has delinked production from use by inserting an irrational, impersonal, and anarchic process of exchange. Workers produce the EXPECTED EQUIVALENT OF THEIR WAGES, or rather the equivalent of the capitalist’s variable capital.
But that’s not Marx’s point or his interest. What he wants us to see is, again, simple: workers need means of subsistence, and any ethical ecological system of production would have to account for means of subsistence (not as bare subsistence but as the means of living). Capitalism makes this a game of equivalents and their reproduction, of signs swapping with one another. If we want another world, we have to get past that.