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Das Kapital One Hundred Fifty Year Later

Both the admirers and critics of Das Kapital agree that it was one of the most influential books of the 19th century. As Nancy Holmstrom said, it is “an unsurpassed explanation of the very specific nature and development of the system of capitalism.” 150 years later, people believe that it still provides a relevant and cogent analysis of contemporary capitalism, notwithstanding the radical changes into the now seamless, globalized market, legitimated by neoliberalism which celebrates “prosperity” while rendering dysfunctions opaque. Most wealth, not value per se, is increasingly based on financialization e.g. mergers and acquisitions, hedge funds etc. speculative “casino capitalism,” that together with digitalization and advanced technologies have spurred the rapid growth of a transnational capitalist class. The ascent of “free market” ideologies, the privatization of services, the retrenchments of benefits, the relaxation of regulations, and the destruction of union movements have led to an astronomical rise of wealth. Nevertheless, most of that wealth has been appropriated by a small number of capitalist elites; the majority of workers have generally faced wage/income stagnation, decline in employment. This has often been called the “hollowing out” of the middle classes as jobs disappear and incomes decline. For many younger workers entering the workforces, or older workers whose job skills were acquired several decades ago, the plight is growing precarity, contingency, resulting in insecurity and anxiety along with economic hardships.

Mainstream economists, typically intellectuals allied with the ruling classes, have shown little concern with the dysfunctions of capital inequality, social justice, fair trade or rising poverty. Thomas Piketty (2014) attempted to sound a warning to his fellow economists of the growing disparity between incomes based on wages, versus investments; this inequality has grown considerably worse over the last few years and potentially dangerous. But he offered little to ameliorate this growing disparity other than a global tax on investment incomes.[1] A far more cogent analysis of stagnation, growing inequality and crises has come from scholars informed by Das Kapital. The foundations for understanding contemporary capitalism were clearly laid out at a time in which most societies were still rural, industrialization nascent, while banking and finance played a subordinate role.

One could argue, that the central concept linking many aspects of Das Kapital was the organization of commodity production, distribution and exchange in which labor power, qua commodity enabled the transformation of raw materials into commodities produced for the market, sold for “exchange value” with the expectation that it would be purchased by a consumer for his/her personal use. Marx exposed the mystifications and illusions of capitalist exploitation, degradation, and dehumanization of laborious toils in the “satanic mills” of industrial capitalism. The workers became alienated, estranged and objectified, devoid of communities, bereft of their species being. With the domination by the capitalist system their labor produced, the worker was rendered powerless, instead of the possibility of creative self-realization, they became dehumanized objects without meaning, devoid of human dignity. Capitalist production made the social relationships of commodity production c appear as “things. But this social relationship of production was concealed in which the commodity produced was seen as independent of the social relationships of its production – this was what Marx called “commodity fetishism.” Capitalism thus created monstrosities of selfhood. In the course of the “working day,” the worker’s labor increased the “exchange values” of the commodities they produced/transformed, but they were not compensated for the “surplus value,” they created. Such commodity production based on wage labor was the basis of capitalist wealth and the proletarian poverty which in turn was the basis of class conflict that would foster social mobilization and indeed revolution. For Marx, the contradictions of capital would lead to its demise. Yet the capitalist system has not only endured, but now dominates most of the world. Can a book written 150 years ago remain relevant? Progressives, indeed Marxist scholars all over the world have held a number of meetings and symposia to attempt to appraise the enduring significance and continued utility of Das Kapital.

There are indeed a number of ways to highlight the essential insights of Das Kapital, we might start with the nature of commodity production as the central concept linking many aspects of beginning with the organization of commodity production, distribution and exchange which leads us to consider the importance of value (use value, exchange value, surplus value and abstract value). Or perhaps we might consider class dynamics, indeed conflict between workers who sold their labor power to produced goods or provided services in which the surplus value of their work was appropriated by the capitalists and embedded within the “exchange value” of commodities, that is to say the labor congealed within commodities was resold at a higher price but the worker received quite little for his or her efforts.

For Marx the history of all hitherto societies has been a history of class conflict. What is unique about contemporary capitalism, was that capital itself was not simply a resource such as money, as is often assumed, but a social relationship of production between social classes; a “free” worker sells his labor power to a capitalist as a commodity to produce commodities for the market, the worker has no claims, upon the product, whilst the capitalist eventually resells the labor power embedded in the commoditybut at a much higher price that was paid to the laborer for creating its added value. For Marx capitalism was inherently based on contradictions, the dynamics of its exploitation X told by its growth imperatives were such that the ruling classes grew wealthier over time, while at the same time, the inequality would get greater and greater

Further, as Marx showed in his analyses of capitalist crises, from overproduction, to the falling rates of profit, it was an inherently unstable system and is growing inequality made its long-term reproduction problematic. Marx clearly anticipated that the growing concentration of industrial workers, facing onerous conditions, would move from an agglomerated group, a class in itself, to a class conscious of itself only as a class but as the fundamental basis of capitalist exploitation. As the workers began to understand that relationship, as they understood their own power, this would translate into mobilizations for the transcendence of capital. But Marx really hadn’t anticipated mass consumption, mass media, and rising wages that enabled consumerism that would together to shroud the vast adversities of capital and sustain its general growth at least for most of the 20th century. As global capital became increasingly based on financialization and speculation, the ingredients fell into place that led to the implosion of 2008. Since then, the wealth of the ruling classes has skyrocketed while the average family is off today. Throughout the industrial societies, we’ve seen growing classes of precarious workers, from migrants to older working-class folks without contemporary digital/computer skills and recent college graduates unable to find jobs that promise a stable career, many have taken to a variety of “gig jobs” from dog walking, to rideshare services to handyman services.

To what extent does Das Kapital help us understand the economic conditions of today and does its basic understandings of capital remain relevant? To deal with such questions a number of American Marxist scholars came together at the Left Forum in June 2017 and presented two panels dealing with such questions. Both sessions were SRO and the discussions lively. With such a reception, the organizer of the sessions, Lauren Langman joined with Michael Thompson, editor of Logos, in order to publish the papers in this special issue In addition to the original participants, there were contributions by Richard Wolff ,Tony Smith and Daniel Krier.



[1] See Langman, L., and D. Smith, Inequality in the 21st Century: Marx , Piketty and Beyond.   Leiden: Brill, 2018