Dialectic Perfected

18 Oct 2013: Capital (Ch. 25, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” 1867, Karl Marx)

With a monumental and (at least at one point) academically esteemed economist like Marx, you’d expect, based on contemporary (though perhaps less monumental) academicians of esteem, to read a “general law” as a certain mathematical formula, maybe a little abstruse and removed from daily considerations but unopinionated and uncontroversial. Whereas the essence of this general law, dropping as it does by surprise halfway through the 100-page-plus-long chapter toward the end of the book, is this: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is accumulation of misery at the other.” There’s no hope of expressing this sentiment to a broad audience without opinion or controversy, but the evidence and the argumentation is overwhelmingly in favor of Marx’s view, and the cases he uses to illustrate it are frightfully analogous enough to the present day that there would not be controversy or difference of opinion about it without the also analogous disinformation campaigns of ongoing wealth apologetics. The kind of reports through which Marx plumbs seem no longer to be produced by state agencies, for obvious reasons, as they provide lengthy detailed testimonies from inspectors who document things like the overcrowded and unsanitary lodgings into which agricultural laborers are forced to cram themselves to survive when consolidating property-owners decide to remove all cottages from their land to avoid taxes on housing poor populations and funnel previously comfortable farmworkers into small towns with monopolized rent and subsistence costs. (This happens throughout the rural counties of England as well as, most devastatingly, in Ireland.) Along with this are increasing rates of pauperhood (i.e. poverty) in industrial towns, and in great cities like London where the worst living conditions neighbor the grandest displays of wealth. Accumulation itself depends on creating these surplus populations, this reserve army of labor, constantly pressing down wages and ever at the whim of the cyclical needs of business and its changing technologies. The Malthusian idea, vastly influential upon political economy, of overbreeding bearing the responsibility for lowering wages, as a result of the thoughtlessness of the lower classes, has it completely backwards, because accumulation insists on these spates of population for its boom periods of immense (over)production and then throws them into the street when things inevitably slow in crisis phases, leaving them disposable to whatever needs will eventually arise elsewhere. The lengthy example of Ireland demonstrates that even when immense levels of emigration take place in short periods of time (1.5 million over 20 years), real wages still plummet, because this very ouster of population enables further consolidation and accumulation of existing property (and an associated implementation of large-scale technology), thereby forcing more laborers to submit to lower wages and deteriorating states of existence. Things are shinier and cleaner for the middle class today, which is probably even more ignorant of the conditions that obtain because they are largely endured by those who cannot speak English (agricultural labor, for one) and those who suffer across oceans and continents to manufacture every object that middle class enjoys.

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