Marx (1818-1883). German-Jew in a family converted to Christianity. Student in Bonn and Berlin, met Friedrich Engels in 1844, from which his first important works date, together they wrote the German Ideology, a critique of right Hegelians, and The Communist Manifesto -
Manifesto – this was written over the winter of 47-48 for the International Workingmen’s Association. First drafted on the train from Manchester to London, then finished in a frenzy of work by Marx in Brussels in January 48. It influence astonishing, global, relevant still, etc.
Everyone can quote from it: from its first words: ‘Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa’ (1848/1970:41) – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’, to its last words ‘Mögen die herrschendenKlassen vor iner kommunistischen Revolution zittern. Die Proletarier haben nichts in ihr zu verlieren als ihr Ketten. Sie haben eine Welt zu gewinnen. Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch’ (1848/1970:82-3) – ‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite’.
Perhaps most important for anthropologists is the passage on how the capitalist system forces the bourgeoisie to expand everywhere, to try to extend its mode of production to all lands, to recruit and co-opt all peoples, increasingly, through advances in means of production, communication and coercion, to draw all peoples and all lands into industrial production. Hence colonialism, imperialism, transition…
The Manifesto was written just as Europe launch into a period of revolutionary turmoil. Marx was himself an activist, expelled from Germany for political reasons, exiled in Paris then London. He was, apparently, a rebel rousing type, turning up to demos and meetings a little pissed, but able, in repartee, to make mince meet of any other ideologues – but the revolutionary period of 1848 did not deliver freedom, and Marx’s hope for the situation was disappointed. He turned to the library – although never gave up activism – to provide an explanation. I want to stress this – the Manifesto, and his other works, including the most theoretical, are written in the context of actual political events – of the type I’ve been emphasising…
Marx’s most important work is Das Kapital, written 1867. This is so whether you go by his own assessment, evidenced by his allocation of so many years to its writing, or the uses made of the host of Marxists which follow his work in a multiplicity of ways.
Marx, of course, was the first to announce that he was not a Marxist. The various interpretations and reinterpretations offer good reason for thinking there is no one Marxism. Interpretation becomes key, much of it done by anthropologists, but also done in practical politics and the sometimes violent scene of really existing Marxisms ranged across the globe throughout this century.
We will start with Das Kapital, but any introduction is a misconstrual. So often, like Argonauts, only the fist chapter is read. To read just the section on commodities, even as this is the key to the whole, would be only to begin and thus to misrepresent. Das Kapital though is a fat book.
The first chapter that we read is actually the rewritten version of 1873. Marx was already revising Marxism six years after publication.
What did he change in that first rewrite? The analysis of commodities as enhanced. The argument proceeds by abstraction, by abstracting the kernel of a wider and more complicated system and showing the workings of the unreal scene of exchange, and then increasingly in chapter and chapter, widening the analysis, adding ethnographic examples and heading towards the – never completed – comprehensive understanding of capitalism as a global system.
The procedure is dialectical. This is not exactly the same as Hegel’s ‘mystified dialectic’, (its always more complicated than thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis etc) but a procedure that allows a stitching back and forth between complex examples and accumulating understanding.
Starting with the difficult scene of commodity exchange, this is nonetheless a very clear and accessible read. Marx tells us that the presentation differs from the mode of inquiry. The analysis of commodities was not his first object of analysis, it is an abstracted presentation, a writerly, rewritten, text.
The first sentence of the text: ‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”, the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Marx 1867/
I’ll first focus upon the word appearance here – it is a translation – a bad one – of ersheint. The wealth of capitalist society appears as a collection of commodities. This is not a straight description. Erscheint has the sense of appearance both as how something looks, and the theatrical sense of putting in an appearance, staging something. This is important because the whole of capital, in it presentation, is a staged drama. Throughout the literary theatrical code is prominent. Characters perform in Marx’s theatre, even at the very beginning – the ‘immense collection of commodities’ is characterised as something like the World Fair, those mad exhibitions of the produce of the world, before which – in 1851 for example – Marx had marvelled as a visitor The plunder of the world (in a huge potlatch something like that discussed last week).
The burden of the first section of Kapital is to convince us that the way wealth appear as a collection of commodities, and as the exchange of these commodities in the market/world fair, is merely the appearance of things. An abstraction. He does this by working through notions of use-value and exchange-value, and categories divined by political economists who have not any idea of how things work- you need to read the spiteful footnotes for yourself.
The commodity is first of all an external object that satisfies human needs of whatever kind – arising from the stomach or the imagination, it doesn’t matter – as an object of consumption or in production of other objects….
The commodity then has quality and quantity, and can be useful in various ways, and these use-values are discovered through history. Of course it will be no surprise that commodities are subject to socially devised modalities of calculation and measurement. This is because they are exchanged – exchange first of all – in the abstracted analysis – calculates quantity – x coats can be exchanged for x amount of linen etc – Marx’s examples seem often to do with the cold or hunger, coats or recipes for sup etc. The British Museum being badly heated…
Exchange, then generates a measurement system in which exchange values are calculated first in terms of other commodities and then through the development of a universal equivalent, for which money stands in the first place. Coin as the measure of things, enables exchange.
At first look, Marx notes, the commodity seems to have a double character, as both a use-value and an exchange-value. But commodities only have exchange value in relation to other commodities, not in themselves. A coat is a coat, but it can only be exchanged, for linen, for food, whatever, if there are other commodities – hence a market, etc… At first look. But what is missed here is analysed by Marx under the category of fetishism.
A famous example shows Marx’s key point on fetishism and reveals the secret of exchange. He discusses a table, which may be something that could be exchanged, say, for ten coats, or 20 yds of linen, etc. … It is worth reading a passage:
‘A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.
The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use-value. Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the ground-work for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labour, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labour-time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must
necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development. [(Footnote:) And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form.
Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour…. Kapital – 163-165
Its important that Marx shows that even the isolated Robinson on his Island make his objects according to a social code, not as an isolated individual. We are all social, even when it seems not. This is a key to anthropology isn’t it?
I am leaving out some key notions. For example that of Socially necessary labour time (not actual specific labour times, but averaged and abstracted over the whole of society) in which the debate around calculating the origin of value, and increases in value, emerges.
Let me schematically condense and abstract the next few chapters even more brutally:
The money form as the expression of value is that which circulates value (this money could even be the Nuer’s cows, Marx in fact gives and example of such a use of cattle (p183) and also of shells – he was more and more fascinated by the emergent ethnographic work of Henry Morgan, and Spencer and Tylor in his later life. He wrote 30,000 foolscap sides. largely on ethnology, in the last ten years of his life (his most ‘unproductive period!).
Money expresses the value of all commodities in terms of each other.
One of these commodities is labour, which is bought in the marketplace like any other.
‘When the great English landowners…
Rough sketch (note, not an essential and guaranteed pattern, but an abstraction). This is the model of transition, the reason the capitalist system must seek out and colonise all lands…
In the Economic Notebooks of 1857-8 (The Grundrisse), Marx sets out his moment in a vivid, if abstracted, passage:
“when the great English landowners dismissed their retainers, who had consumed with them the surplus produce of their land; when their tenant farmers drove out the small cottagers, etc., then a mass of living labour power was thrown on to the labour market, a mass which was free in a double sense: free from the old client or bondage relationships and any obligatory services, and free also from all goods and chattels, from every objective and material form of being, free of all property [eine Masse, die in doppeltem Sinn frei war]. It was reduced either to the sale of its labour capacity or to beggary, vagabondage or robbery as its only source of income. History records that it tried the latter first, but was driven off this road and on to the narrow path which led to the labour market, by means of gallows, pillory and whip” (Marx 1857/1987: 431 my italics, trans. from 1857/1974: 406)
The goods that had previously been consumed by the feudal lords and their retainers, and the released produce of the land, are thrown on to the exchange market, as are those who would be henceforth known as labourers. That the sale of labour power must be instilled by discipline – the gallows, the workhouse, the prison – becomes the only choice. Even the poorhouses and their charity instil the discipline of work (only Dickens’ Oliver dares ask for ‘more’ it seems). That this was conceived by Marx as part and parcel of capitalist development can be confirmed from other (re)writings of almost the same paragraph.
In Capital Marx returns more than once to this scene:
Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system (Marx 1867/1967: 737)
The trick of course – again the fetish, is to think that this wage system and this market is a level playing field. That the commodities get to market like the table, without the intervention of social actors. The social includes differential privileges and starting points – some own the means of production, some own nothing. The exchange of wages is not a fair deal in this circumstance, since the payment of wages – which comes through competition etc to be the equivalent of socially necessary labour time, that which is required to replenish the capacity of the worker to work (the reproduction of labour, and labourers). Obviously this is not necessarily the only possible way of distributing that which is produced.
Why is it not a fair deal? Because the payment that comes to the worker is never as much as that value that the workers’ work adds to the products worked upon. How? The capitalist only pays the worker that which is necessary to reproduce labour. This may, for example, be that which the worker can produce in four hours of work, say, making more valuable coats out of mere linen. These then, taking overhead costs and distribution costs etc into account, can then be sold at a price that covers both the cost of necessary materials and the cost of the labourer for the day. But of course the labourer contracts with the capitalist to work for a full day, not just four hours. The extra hours are in a way a free gift to the capitalist. This is called surplus labour, and the profit that can be made through selling the extra coats made by the – here unpaid – worker are surplus value. In the sense this terminology is important because it is in effect surplus production – surplus to the needs which maintain the worker (and his family – the whole problematic of unpaid housework and sexwork enters here). Marx doesn’t just use these dry words – he also notes the capitalist sucks vampire like on living labour, sucking more and more value and offering less and less in return.
Here then arises Marx as advocate of the workers, who raise their voice in protest. Who first smash the machines, who agitate for rights etc. But who are, of course, also tricked into compromises – religion in which thy seek solace and are taught to accept their lot, (the opium of the people, the first cry of the oppressed masses); they are bought off in the West by welfare and national pride in industry, they are forced into competition with each other – shopping and bargaining as civil war – racism, isolation and petty bourgeois greed….
The trick is everywhere – the owners of the means of production are of course interested in making greater and greater profit. Why? The necessity of their production requires them to constantly strive for efficiencies and expansion so as advance, or at least to simply to maintain their privilege. Where does this come from? It is not greed, but a structural factor.
Marx wants us to develop the x-ray eye that will be able to see through the trick which conjures social relations between people as relations between things, and the system of capital as a force arrayed above the heads and outside the influence of workers. Hence al manner of campaigns – for better conditions, for shorter hours, for more pay, are only parts of a wider anti-capitalist project.
But why must the capitalist be so greedy? Why not rest with this level of profit. Marx is amazed to find that the capitalist does not simply enjoy the lusts of the flesh made available by wealth, but even sublimates this just for the lust for gold. Profit becomes a joy in itself. Weird alienation of even the rich.
The ways of increasing profit are either to make workers work longer hours or to pay them less – usually both. There are of course limits – the length of the working day being one obvious one. Marx was heavily involved in campaigns about limits on the working day – there are some moving and emotive passages on child labour and long hours in the book.
The reduction of wages is a way of reducing necessary costs – overheads – for the capitalist this is a major struggle. Why need to do this? Why not sit satisfied with a certain level of profit.
It is because of the cut-throat cannibalising violence of the capitalist system that the capitalist must always strive to expand. The producer of commodities that succeeds in the market soon find there are others producing the same item and sometimes at a slightly cheaper price (in order to capture a slice of the profits). To maintain profitability the first producer must also reduce prices, find cheaper more efficient ways to get the products to market, to introduce new methods of work. This then spirals out of control until everything finds a socially necessary average minimum and profit margins, work conditions, and quality are all squeezed. Drudgery, horror, danger, violence, industrial accidents, brutalisation – the workers work as adjuncts to machines, the machines do not work for us – alienation, chaos.
We have both the amazing good of new and brilliant technologies at the same time as there appears new managerial regimes and discipline, the mass extension of the railways, but only to turn everyone into commuters, the production of massive abundance, and the impoverishment of most. The expansive-reductive double play of capital contradicts.
Even as the capitalist business works towards a minimum price and minimum average profit as others enter a given mode of production or market niche, there is still movement in this infernal scene. Some capitalists – your entrepreneurial types of moneybag – then will strive to find a new product a new opportunity to profit, but this is not always available. Others will try to introduce new more efficient techniques, some will try to reduce overheads by moving production to places where materials – including workers – are less expensive. All these offer up extensive examples of the immiseration of human life in the face of the pursuit of profit. The cal mines of Bihar, the copper mines of Bougainville, the tea plantations of Sri Lanka, the Nike factories of Indonesia, etc etc.
But eventually all these factors even out as well, and the only hope of the capitalist to maintain levels of profit is to expand the size of the operation. Of course in reality – as opposed to the abstract sketch/analysis – these things happen in tandem. But by doubling the size of production it is possible to increase the size of the profit. Economies of scale come into play, but of course this is no ultimate source of value either, since eventually every other producer expands or goes out of business.
This is why the system is doomed – eventually the need to expand leads to amalgamation and consolidation, take-overs, and bankruptcy-buy-outs. The huge conglomerations are beset with the need to turn over their production faster and faster to produce more to maintain the same profit, and of course this requires ever greater reserves of capital to pay the necessary costs to fuel the new round of production. At some point the business gets to big for another turnover to be funded – and we get a slump, periodic crises and collapse. These happen in massive cycles which some people have discussed under the name of Krondatieff. We are as yet to see the final collapse – there is no guarantee it will happen – there are still new regions, new products, new spaces for expansion. And the movement of opposition also has its ups and downs. Globally, it remains strong. In our consciousness and media it is suppressed by the universal blanket of Murdoch televisual infotainment and dull dull dull.
Btw workers and capitalists
Capitalists and capitalists
Production and consumption
Forces of production and relations of production
Capitalism and feudalism
Capitalism and communism
- this is a series of displacement expressed in contradiction which constitutes the terrain of class struggles.
Capital organizes the periphery as site of cheap labour production for export and for services, but must retan high wages through privileged productivity in the centres so that privileged age earners can consume the exports and services offered them – thus recouping extracted surplus (valourization) and plundered mercantile booty.
Labour is activity
Labour power is sold as commodity
- these are not the same
Capitalist wants to reduce costs, so hires the cheapest labour – women, blacks, third world workers etc. Thus economic problems are also questions of racism, sexism, ageism, imperialism.
Capital threatens labour with dismissal if labour power is not applied, but only the threat of being caught slacking ad getting fined should force the worker to work. Why then does the worker voluntarily sweat it out? All manner of little disciplinary practices induce the worker to work rather tan to sabotage the process.
A key issue is how capital extracts work from the worker: ie the disciplinary coercion of labour to expend its labour power.
What are the ways?
- threat ofdismissal
Wages Prices and Profit
- soup and share of production – 364
- use real examples – 367
- source of profit (12th hour?) 368
- aganst fixed conceptions 368
- capital wants to reduce costs 370
- social nature of labour power 379
- wear and tear on coins 372
- costs of production, tools etc 380
- co-operation of production process 382
- innovations of production process 381
- market-buyers and sellers doubly free 385
- reproduction, cildren 386
- surplus 387.
Marx has been a kind of intimidation for anthropologists – an often unacknowledged model
- he, like Malinowski, wanted to start with the real activity or real human beings
- like contemporary writing/culture school inspired anthropologists, his reflexive thinking about textual construction was key
- like someone such as Bataille, he was motivated by a refusal to be crushed by the brutality of events, war, oppression, morality
- like Adorno, he attends to culture as industry
- like most anthropologists, he changed his focus from one area of the world to another – he learnt Russian in the last years of his life
- in terms of micro-macro and globalization there is no more capable analyst
- in terms of engagement, commitment, zeal and in terms of metaphor, spite, gossip
Marx may, or may not, have been wrong on any number of things, but his importance cannot be dismissed.
 Michel Foucault’s somewhat reluctant Marxist inheritance in his inspiring and influential work on asylums, clinics, punishments etc., emerges from these insights, although it is important to remember that labour itself is a major mode of disciplinary formation.
 Also: ‘They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working-class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as “voluntary” criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed’ (Marx 1867/1967: 734).
(given in 1998 to my undergraduate ‘General Principles of Anthropology Class)