Karl Marx: Capital

"I told you so..."

In the process of updating articles for the relaunched website I came across the following post on Karl Marx and his writings on politics and economics. I have to say that at this particular moment in time - late September 2011, with the world economy in dire straits - it sent something of a chill through me to read these words from nearly three years ago. Little did I think that the storm clouds gathering then would still be threatening us so far into the future. 

You might ask why Insubstantial Pageant should take an interest in such a controversial figure as Marx, given that it is not intended to be a political website, and how an article such as this relates to the other material we publish. I think a number of points are worth making:-

  1. Whatever else it may be, Capital is a major piece of writing that deserves our ongoing attention. If it is worth studying historical writers from the ancient Greeks onwards, then it is worth studying Marx.
  2. One of the fascinating aspects of Capital is how little mention it gets, despite its uncanny prescience in forseeing so much of what has happened since it was published. As a website that publishes material which we hope people around the world will read, it is a salutary reminder that you need more than a plausible story line to bring your work to the attention of the public.
  3. Finally, given Insubstantial Pageant's interest in the disaster novel genre, it would be remiss to ignore economic disasters and their causes, especially as we appear to be living through one at this very moment. So who better than Marx to provide some handy plot lines for future stories?

Anyway, here is the original article from November 2008:-

Time for a reappraisal

As the world teeters on the edge of a major economic depression, it is perhaps not surprising that an increasing number of people are taking an interest in the works of Karl Marx. After all, the people who have been loudest in rubbishing his ideas over the past few decades are precisely those who assured us that free-market theories would inevitably deliver ever increasing prosperity. Given the complete failure of their own pet theories perhaps there is something in those of their favourite bogeyman?

Anyone who has read through the works of Marx will realise that there are two distinct voices with which he addresses the world: one is the impassioned advocate of social revolution to be found in The Communist Manifesto, while the other is the more measured (though still passionate) analyst of 19th century economics in the painstakingly constructed Capital. While the exhortations in the manifesto are of historical interest, and clearly spring from the terrible conditions of organised labour in the mid-1800s, they are unlikely to fire many people with enthusiasm nowadays. The world has seen too much suffering in the old Soviet Union and other communist dictatorships to desire more of the same. Marx probably did not intend his utopian society to turn out like that but, if that is the case, he failed to see that human nature would inevitably make it so. The manifesto is the work of a young man eager to change the world and sweep away the bad old order. To some extent, and in certain parts of the world, it managed to do that, but it failed to provide a clear vision for what should come next and left the way open for unscrupulous leaders. Perhaps if Marx had gone on to spend as much time and effort on a critique of politics, rather than a critique of political economy as he did in Capital, then the story of the last century might have been very different.

Which brings us to that massive tome on economics, Capital, and the difficult question - in terms of commenting upon it - of where to start. Because Capital is more than just a dry textbook about economic theory – it is an attempt to explain, starting from first principles, the inexorable process whereby one class in society adopted a particular method of producing goods, and in the course of doing so ruthlessly exploited the great mass of employed labour. 

One of the features which sets Marx apart from other writers on economics is the vehemence with which he decries the excesses and injustices produced by the system. Capital is not a how-to-do manual for budding entrepreneurs, it is a detailed forensic analysis of how capitalism functions, and it does not pull its punches in documenting its darker side. In fact, it is probably this aspect of the book which has guaranteed its continuing relevance, because where other writers have tended to be too optimistic on the workings of the free market, Marx is not. As later economists such as Keynes pointed out, and as modern scientific studies have tended to confirm, the market is a chaotic system where future performance cannot be calculated with any certainty. Marx understood this and gave the world warning of the inevitable periodic crises which must ensue.

Capital is an exploration of the social, moral and political basis for the society of his day, as much as it is an analysis of the economics of 19th century manufacturing. It looks back to primeval societies in an attempt to understand fundamental human nature, considers the ideas of the ancient Greeks for an alternative take on economics, and traces the development of medieval guilds and commerce through to fully developed industrial capitalism. While it is possible to argue with specific ideas and theories it puts forward, it is nevertheless undeniable that Capital is one of the major works of world literature, and probably the most relevant at this moment in time.

30th November 2008