karl marx

Capital (Part I)

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Marx and originality

I am finally all caught up in the Great Books of the Western World reading project! My goal now is to stay on time with the reading and post twice each month with updates. Thank you for your patience to all who have been following this project. The first year is now nearly complete and it has been tremendously fruitful so far. I am looking forward to the rest of this year’s readings, none of which I have read in the past, and beginning a 2016 that, I hope, will be at least as fruitful as this year has been.

Marx, whose Communist Manifesto is our most recent read for the project, is another thinker who, along with Smith and others, I have had the opportunity to spend a great amount of time with during my PhD seminar on Wealth as a Great Idea this semester. Our readings for the seminar were all from the much longer and more in depth Das Kapital, so it was a delight to read this Manifesto, which is essentially a simplified and abbreviated treatment of Marx’s philosophy. So far as I can tell, Marx’s point in the Manifesto was to present his philosophy to a popular audience in a way that any fairly educated person could understand. If this was indeed his goal, as it seems to me to have been, I think he did a great deal to accomplish it, though I think he might have spared us some of the rhetoric.

Like Smith, I believe Marx is another great economic thinker who is frequently misunderstood and so unappreciated. When reading and interpreting Marx, we tend to view him through the lens of the atrocities committed in his name in the 20th century. While it is beyond the scope of this blog post to offer an assessment of whether those atrocities were the inevitable result of Marx’s philosophy, I am willing to aver that Marx himself would not have approved of a Stalin, a Mao, or Pol Pot, nor probably even of a Lenin. Ultimately, what motivates Marx’s philosophy, however different it may be from Smith’s, is identical to what motivated Adam Smith, namely, a concern for the suffering of the poor. If viewed in this light, I think it is possible to have an authentic appreciation for Marx and for his ideas, no matter how much one might disagree with him.

With that said, one of the things that strikes me most when reading Marx is his lack of originality. While Marx’s is a unique formulation of the ideas to which he subscribes, remarkably few of Marx’s ideas are original to him. The only idea that I am able to identify in Marx’s philosophy which is, as far as I know, unique to Marx is the idea of the alienation produced by industrial society. It is notable that I also find this idea the most interesting, compelling, and accurately descriptive in Marx’s works.

Marx on the origin of money

In the opening chapter of Das Kapital, Karl Marx explains his theory of the origin of money, beginning with the prerequisite discussion of the respective origins of value and exchange. He posits first that the primary source of the value of any given commodity is that a commodity is, by definition, a product of a certain amount of human labor expended to produce an item that others find desirable or useful. It is the combination of the factors of having been produced by human labor and having been produced for others that creates a commodity and lends it values to it. If a thing is useful but not the product of human labor, it possesses a measure of “use-value,” says Marx, but not “exchange value,” the actual value of an object in terms of its exchangeability with other objects. It is not, then, a commodity at all. If, on the other hand, the object is the product of human labor but is not produced “for others” or “if the thing is useless,” says Marx, the labor which produced it is also useless and should not be considered real labor at all as it “creates no value.” When an object is produced for the purpose of exchange, however, it is a commodity in the proper sense of the term and “commodities . . . are something-two-fold,” Marx continues, “both objects of utility and, at the same time, depositories of value.”

The second subject which Marx discusses before approaching his theory of the origin of money is the origin of exchange. The origin of exchange, implicit in Marx’s discussion of the origin of value, Marx locates in human need and the progress of the means by which human need may be satisfied. While, for example,“the human race made clothes for thousands of years, without a single man becoming a tailor,” the production of greater qualities and quantities of clothing entailed the specialization of labor. This specialization of labor, in turn, necessitates exchange as the specialized laborer is incapable of producing everything that he requires to satisfy all of his needs. Marx’s theoretical tailor, for instance, continues to require a home, which he no longer possesses the ability to make for himself due to his dedication of time and knowledge to the production of clothing. As he a result, his needs require the specialization of a carpenter.

Exchange now becomes necessary. The tailor and the carpenter must trade with each other for the needs of each to be met. To facilitate this exchange, however, there must be an agreed-upon value of the commodities being exchanged. “The simplest value relation is evidently that of one commodity to some one other commodity of a different kind,” says Marx. In other words, the exchange relationship between two commodities determines the value of each commodity.

A simple one-for-one exchange of commodities, however, is nonsensical. In an exchange in which a tailor trades a single item of clothing he has produced for an entire house, the carpenter clearly has taken a great loss as the latter has undoubtedly put a great deal more labor into building a house than the former did while producing an item of clothing. As a result, the natural means of equivalence between commodities is “congealed labor.” In other words, says Marx two commodities are of equal value because they “have each cost the same amount of labour or the same quantity of labour time.” The amount of labor put into a commodity, then, is, in fact, the value of the commodity. It is only in this agreement that the tailor and the carpenter are able to proceed with an exchange, the carpenter gaining from the tailor an amount of clothing items in the production of which the tailor has expended an amount of labor equivalent to the labor of the carpenter in the production of the tailor’s new home.

From this system of labor-equivalent trade Marx goes on to extrapolate his theory of the origin of money. A prevalent flaw in the system of commodity trade was the continually fluctuating and difficult to determine equivalencies of value. For each trade, it was necessary to calculate anew the labor expenditure on each commodity to be traded. Improvements in the process of production of certain commodities also caused the relative values of said commodities to shift, sometimes dramatically, in value relations to other commodities as the amount of labor necessary to their production decreased. As a result, a new commodity with “the character of direct and universal exchangeability” became necessary. This tertiary commodity, gold, became, “by social custom,” a commodity whose stable value provided the means by which the relative value of other commodities could be determined. In this agreement upon a commodity of stable value, says Marx, is the origin of the money system of exchange.

The power of the great books

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been around small children that humans naturally crave the security of a familiar and nonthreatening environment. While this innate human tendency is most pronounced in small children, it follows all of us into adulthood and throughout our lives. In the same way that a child might bring a beloved toy or blanket along with him to act as a source of comfort in an unfamiliar environment, so most adults choose to partake of books and television which reinforce the views they already hold. The Pew Research Center, for example, discovered in a recent study that most political liberals in the United States listen to, watch, and read their news from media outlets that skew to the left while American political conservatives tend to consume media with a distinctively conservative bent.

It is a unique strength of an educational program based in the great books that the student is required by the very nature of the great books themselves to broaden his mind by reading literature that, often even when he agrees with the author, presents a challenge to his presuppositions and preconceived notions, and sometimes even his most certain convictions. While the students’ beliefs will not necessarily be changed, as beliefs are terribly difficult things to change in a person, there is no doubt that they will be clarified and that the students will walk away with a greater sense of the complexity of a topic and the diversity of positions available on that topic. In addition, he will have developed an appreciation for even those positions to which he is opposed, recognizing in them some aspect of or commentary upon the universal human condition.

This is an accurate summary of my own experience over the past semester as I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in those great books which take up the topic of history. Having read widely in the history of thought on history over these four months, I have been able to hear from some of the greatest minds of the Western tradition their thoughts on this uniquely Western idea that is history, allowing them to speak for themselves and to elucidate upon their own experience of and meditations upon the subject.

The range and diversity of possible positions has been one rather jarring feature of this reading. Given the great differences between, for example, St. Augustine, on the one hand, and Karl Marx on the other, it has occasionally been difficult to understand how each of them could be talking about the same thing. While Augustine sees the guiding hand of providence behind each movement in history, Marx sees instead the interplay of economic, and therefore solely material, forces, a wholly different moving force in history. Yet again, there is Niccolo Machiavelli, a thinker of equal eminence and erudition when compared to either Augustine or Marx, who raises his hand to object to both and assert rather that Fate of any sort can indeed be resisted by any man whose “valour has … been prepared to resist her” and whose “defences have … been raised to constrain her.” Still more thinkers, of no less excellence and import, might chime in with any number of other positions on the matter, running across a great array from freedom to fatalism, each arguing in favor of his position with great gusto and compelling evidence.

As Leo Strauss noted in his 1959 essay “What is Liberal Education?,” it comes as a surprise to some, upon approaching the great books, to realize that “the greatest minds do not all tell us the same things regarding the most important themes; the community of the greatest minds is rent by discord and even by various kinds of discord.” It might, at this point, be tempting to fall into the sleepy indifference of relativism or, for those with a personality more caffeinated than that of the relativist, to abandon the great books altogether as hopelessly confused and irreconcilable. Hopelessly confused and irreconcilable they may be, but the answer is certainly not the slumber of relativism nor the despair of intellectual defeat.

On the contrary, in encountering this great diversity of well-reasoned opinions on the topic of history I have been afforded a tremendous opportunity to refine my own viewpoint by taking into consideration the various challenges and alternatives to it. In his Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that “it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” While it may be going too far to claim, as Nietzsche does, that all philosophy is really biography, there is a certain element of truth in this claim. Stated with less polemic and more fairness, it might be said that all philosophy is the result of a particular individual’s attempt to extrapolate from his unique subjective experience of human life in the world to the universal, general, and objective nature of human life in the world. This is true also of one’s philosophy of history.

Over the past 16 weeks, I have taken up and considered the philosophy of history espoused by a significant number of admirable thinkers, including ancient Greeks like Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle, Romans like Marcus Aurelius, Christians of the Middle Ages such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and finally early modern and modern thinkers of great diversity, including Marx, Sir James George Frazer, Johan Huizinga, Pascal, and Karl Barth. It would be difficult to enumerate and elucidate the effect each has individually had upon my thought on history. Collectively, however, even without my thought on history having dramatically changed during this period of study, their effect has been tremendous. They have allowed me to recognize the limitations of my own worldview while opening my mind to the appreciation of others, and therefore of the human experience as a whole, and this is perhaps the most important thing any book, no matter how great, can do for a person.