The Wealth of Capitalist Societies
Adam Smith investigated the wealth of nations, offering an analysis that can be localised in history, but that did not thematise the historical specificity of its own categories.
Marx begins Capital with a similar question, but asks it, not of nations, but of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. The question is posed from the beginning in a socially-specified form.
The wealth of such societies presents itself – at what Marx will later call “first sight” – as a tremendous accumulation of commodities. An accumulation that possesses an elementary form – that of a single commodity. The text begins with the analysis of this elementary form, and so unpacks the first form of appearance of the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails.
Architectonically, this first form of appearance is situated within a longer critical analysis of approaches that attempt to understand the wealth of capitalist societies on the assumption that capitalism is a form of “social metabolism” – a process in which material goods, satisfying various utilitarian needs, are produced and then circulated to the site of consumption via the medium of money. This arc within the text – the exploration of all the approaches whose understandings of the wealth of capitalist societies fall under this broad umbrella – occupies the text from its opening chapter, until chapter 6.
Capitalist production includes a process of social metabolism – goods really are produced, and really are circulated – and so there’s a certain “social validity” to the categories generated by forms of political economy that understand capitalist production in this way. The categories are expressive of real aspects of our social practice. Treating capitalist production as nothing more than a process of social metabolism, however, reduces a complex process to only one of its moments.
This reductive, partial and one-sided treatment of capitalist production is associated, in Marx’s text, with a specific kind of politics. Throughout these chapters, while exploring the sorts of practices and theoretical claims that are suggested by the “social metabolism” view of capitalist production, Marx also repeatedly targets social contract theory – with its emphasis on the politics of mutual recognition, formal equality, and rights. This undercurrent is introduced in the third section of the opening chapter, and culminates in Marx’s sarcastic declaration at the end of chapter 6 that this perspective on capitalist production understands capitalist societies to be “a very Eden of the innate rights of man… the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham”. This sort of politics does not provide an adequate basis for the critique of capitalist production – as Marx flags when he draws attention to the change in the “physiognomy of our dramatis personae” at the end of chapter 6, as
He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to marker and now has nothing else to expect but – a tanning.
I’ve written below on an overarching joke that structures this arc within the text, which is that the text begins, and continues to assert in multiple chapters, that commodities are objective – are things – in a way that implies that these “things” are external, passive objects that are separate entities from the human subjects busily engaged in the intersubjective social contract relations of mutual recognition, consent, and formal equality that also populate these chapters.
With the derivation of the category of labour-power, this subject-object dualism is undermined. The category of the commodity is redetermined as something that can also include a particular class of human subject – a class whose separation from the means of production requires it to objectify and sell its own powers and capacities on the market. These subjective powers and capacities are thus plausibly experienced and enacted in an objectifying way – and the compulsion that arises from the need to sell them is, by chapter 6, presented as something that is social in origin, but that can plausibly appear to social actors to be an objective physiological constraint, rather than an arbitrary social one:
If his capacity for labour remains unsold, this is of no advantage to the worker. He will rather feel it to be a cruel nature-imposed necessity that his capacity for labour has required for its production a definite quantity of the means of subsistence, and will continue to require this for its reproduction.
Chapters 7-10 then explore a new perspective on the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. This new perspective is a positive appropriation of the perspective that has been introduced negatively in chapter 6. In chapter 6, the need to expend human labour-power in order to preserve one’s life is experienced by social actors as a “nature-imposed necessity”, and this necessity is experienced as a curse. In chapter 7, this necessity to expend human labour-power has been seized upon and redeployed in a positive valorisation of the creative importance of human labour as the source of social wealth. Note that both approaches – the one presented in chapters 1-6, and the one presented in chapters 7-10 – accept that the need to expend human labour-power is imposed by nature, not by an arbitrary social convention that can be transformed:
The labour process, as we have just presented it in its simple and abstract elements, is purposeful activity aimed at the production of use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.
The text goes on to say that, because this category of productive labour is socially transcendent, it was not necessary to investigate social relations between people in order to present the category. It sufficed to examine, in isolation, the relationship of the worker with natural raw materials, mediated by instruments of labour, rather than by social relations.
The perspective in this section of chapter 7 needs to be understood as an immanently-voiced representation of a particular understanding of social wealth – one that Marx intends to criticise, and has already flagged that he intends to criticise in earlier chapters. Earlier chapters have already laid the groundwork for grasping why a contingent social relation should appear to social actors as an objective natural constraint – for grasping why this sort of perspective would be “socially valid”, but also one-sided and partial, confused by the fetish character of social relations that makes these relations appear to be objective and asocial – appear to be attributes of natural processes or of human interactions with nature – rather than social relations that arise under determinate and changeable conditions that are constituted by human practice.
As he does with the social metabolism conception of social wealth, Marx explores the sort of politics that he associates with the labor-centric perspective – and is considerably more sympathetic towards it, than he was to the “very Eden of the innate rights of man” associated with the social metabolism understanding of wealth, which Marx revisits at the end of chapter 10:
It must be acknowledged that our worker emerges from the process of production looking different from when he entered it. In the market, as owner of the commodity ‘labour-power’, he stood face-to-face with other owners of commodities, one owner against another owner. The contract by which he sold his labour-power to the capitalist proved in black-and-white, so to speak, that he was free to dispose of himself. But when the transaction was concluded, it was discovered that he was no ‘free agent’, that the period of time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the period of time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited’. For ‘protection’ against the serpent of their agonies, the workers have to put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital. In the place of the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man’ there steps the modest Magna Carta of the legally limited working day, which at last makes clear ‘when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins’. What a great change from that time!
While the politics of the labor-centric view is presented sympathetically, this sympathetic treatment does not reflect Marx’s endorsement of either the conception of social wealth, or the political adequacy of the labour-centric view. At the beginning of chapter 10, Marx characterises the fight for the normal working day as one that takes place within the realm where – as Marx has the voice of the worker announce – “You and I know on the market only one law, that of exchange of commodities”. The worker’s demand in this conflict, as Marx voices it, is: “I demand the value of my commodity”.
Marx presents the contestation over the working day as an essential conflict, in order to constrain what Marx characterises as a vampire that “lives only by sucking living labour”. The conflict is necessary to prevent the trammelling of the working class – and, interestingly, also to prevent the self-destruction of capitalist production itself, which does not possess the ability to self-regulate without the external “universal” compulsion that can be provided by the state, which emerges in this section as an essential aspect of capitalist production whose necessity was not foreseen by the social metabolism conception of capitalist production, but which comes clearly into view once working-class contestation is factored into the account.
Yet this contestation is not the sort of politics Marx has written Capital in order to endorse, and the labor-centric conception of social wealth associated with this kind of politics is one that his argument will ultimately undermine. As he moves past both the “very Eden” of political economy, and the “modest Magna Carta” of working-class self-assertion as a working class, Marx contests the notion that human labour specifically must be central, in all societies, to social wealth. The analysis soon to come – of cooperation, the division of labour, and machinery, of the development of socially general scientific and organisational knowledge – will open up the possibility for the development of forms of social wealth to which the expenditure of specifically human labour grows increasingly contingent – increasingly sustained because it is imposed, not at all by nature, but by human practice.
Marx is not advocating for a politics predicated on the notion that human labour is an “everlasting, nature-imposed necessity” – to him, the notion that readers would take literally such representations of perspectives he sets out to criticise, would seem as unlikely as the notion that his readers would agree that commodities are, by definition, external objects separate from their owners. He will acknowledge in places that some expenditure of human labour-power – some ongoing realm of necessity – will likely be required into the future, but this is a very different proposition from the claim that human labour is always and eternally the way nature forces humans to mediate their relations to the natural world. Moreover, the specific descriptions of the labour-process here – and the raw material conception of nature that accompanies it – are “practical truths” for capitalist production, in a way that they would not have been in other human societies.
It is capitalist production, for Marx, that specifically sanctifies and glorifies the expenditure of human labour in this way – and that treats the natural world as disenchanted “raw material” that passively awaits reworking by humans. The presentation in chapters 7-10 is therefore not of a transhistorical labour process, as contrasted with a historically specific valorisation process. It is rather a representation of a socially specific process that possesses a fetish character, such that aspects of the process have taken on an objective, socially-transcendent character, while aspects appear intuitively social and contingent. This complex bifurcated process, both parts of which are equally historically specific in Marx’s argument, is enacted in such a way that a significant dimension of the social process appears not to be social, or subject to transformation by human actors, at all.
One implication of this argument is that attempts to eliminate “the socially specific side” of this dual construction – the part that intuitively appears “social” – while preserving the “transhistorical” side – attempts to abolish the valorisation process without also simultaneously transforming the labour process itself – will not succeed in abolishing capitalist production, on Marx’s analysis. There are the seeds here, in Marx’s text, of an analysis of aspects of the Soviet system, as well as of aspects of the period of more “organised capitalism” in the 20th century in the West.
Another implication of this argument is that Marx is not advocating the social centrality and importance of the expenditure of specifically human labour power – still less is he asserting that the expenditure of human labour-power in the forms described in these chapters are anything like everlasting nature-imposed necessities. He is instead, in the longer arc of the text, advocating something much closer to the “right to be lazy”, as expressed in Paul Lafargue’s classic work, which opens:
A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work. Blind and finite men, they have wished to be wiser than their God; weak and contemptible men, they have presumed to rehabilitate what their God had cursed. I, who do not profess to be a Christian, an economist or a moralist, I appeal from their judgement to that of their God; from the preachings of their religious, economics or free thought ethics, to the frightful consequences of work in capitalist society.
The frightful consequences of work in capitalist societies will preoccupy much of the later chapters of Capital – a work that is oriented toward, not the apologist justification of labour as an everlasting nature-imposed necessity, but instead the question of why – after the development of machinery, automation, the dramatic increase of scientific and organisational knowledge we possess – the expenditure of human labour-power should nevertheless remain so central to capitalist societies. The standpoint of Marx’s critique – no more transcendent to the society he is criticising than the various perspectives he criticises in the course of his work – requires appropriating the insights of more of our collective experience than is expressed in either the social metabolism or the labour-centric understandings of capitalist production.
His critique operates by mobilising insights from one portion of the argument, against incomplete perspectives suggested by other portions. So the social metabolism conception of capitalism runs aground on the introduction of a category that breaks apart the subject/object and form/content dualisms this perspective attempts to assert. The labour-centric conception of capitalist production runs aground on both the earlier analysis of why social phenomena take on a fetish character that entails that they are experienced as physiological processes, and also runs aground, retrospectively, on the later analysis of the growing role of machinery, which suggests the possibility to organise production in a way that undermines any “nature-imposed” necessity for human labour to be central to social wealth. The nature of Marx’s argument thus becomes clear only when the individual parts are able to be thought – and, often, re-thought – in tandem with the implications of the whole.
The problems posed by his text replicate those posed by the analysis of capitalist production itself – a process which contains something that could be described as “social metabolism”, a process for which the expenditure of specifically human labour-power is essential, and essential in ways that plausibly imply to social actors that this necessity is driven by nature, rather than by contingent social practices. In attempting to demonstrate the social validity of partial and one-sided analyses of capitalist production – analyses that fixate on only small portions of a complex social phenomenon – Marx generates a number of opportunities for readers to stumble across his re-presentations of the partial and one-sided views of political economy, mistaking those views for Marx’s own, rather than understanding them as perspectives specifically put forward to be criticised in the course of a more complex analysis of capitalist production and the wealth of capitalist societies.