Capital Beginnings

10 Oct 2013: Capital (Ch. 24, “The Transformation of Surplus-value Into Capital,” 1867, Karl Marx)

Anyone who thinks Marx’s worldview can be reduced to something as simple as “capitalists are awful; capitalism is terrible” – i.e. anyone who acts as if he knows about Marx without having read a single one of his writings – is either de facto an ignoramus or simply unable to understand dialectical contradictions (not as the words I just used, which may be a little abstruse, but as the reality they’re describing). Almost like reading gossip columns or exaggerated headlines about televised political debates, it’s hard not to latch at least a little bit more onto those passages of Capital in which Marx details the worst abuses of the factory system (injuries, deaths, abominable conditions) and excoriates the bigshot nabobs along with their unctuous apologists (in this chapter, a lengthy and very harshly worded footnate citation of Martin Luther on usurers) than parts in which he merely outlines a technical process or a particular point of terminological contention. But the confounding and perhaps the most enriching part about the book is that it’s never as morally facile as Hollywood cinema seems convinced is the most people can handle – or, more likely, the most it wants us (and trains us) to handle. “Sympathy” would be the Hollywood route, but not accurate to describe Marx’s begrudged understanding of individual capitalist as mere agent of historically developed economic structuring. He deals here with how the surplus-value that is a necessary part of every capitalistic transaction, extracted from unpaid labor of low-level workers, is divided into revenue – the part accruing to the capitalist as his own income – and reinvestment, i.e. further means of production and labor for the subsequent expansion of business that is capital’s raison d’etre. Apparently there were several voices at the time of transition from handicraft production to manufacture and eventually large-scale capitalism that urged the individual capitalist’s separation or removal from the divvying up of surpluses, to ensure he wouldn’t slow down or otherwise hamper this expansionary urge by taking too much for his own luxury. (Adam Smith is not mentioned in this context, though he ridicules such spending on the part of these men, but others give stronger warnings that a strict division of fiscal duties would be necessary to keep capitalists more austere and abstemious, like the workers themselves.)

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