As we near the end of the semester, my Economics 164 students are also nearing the end of Volume I of Karl Marx’s Capital, in which Marx appears to revert to the analysis of capitalism that he had avanced in 1848, in The Communist Manifesto. There, prior to the collossal and swift defeat of revolutions all across Europe, Marx had entertained the hope that the industrial working class would defeat the bourgeoisie and establish socialist forms of social mediation on an international scale. So swift and comprehensive were the defeats of revolutionary movements across Europe that Marx was compelled to admit gaping holes in his understanding of capitalism. These holes grew larger over the coming decade as Europe’s emerging industrial economies enjoyed spectacular growth unimaginable from the vantage point of 1848. Thus Marx’s cautious, meticulous, painstaking approach to capitalism in Volume I.
Up until Chapter 32, “The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation,” all has appeared relatively smooth sailing, with plenty of ups and downs, expansions and contractions, but no revolutions on the horizon. Then, suddenly, on page 929 of the Penguin edition, Marx discharges the following salvo:
Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by a few, other developments take place on an ever-increasing scale, such as the growth of the co-operative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the planned exploitation of the soil, the transformation of the means of labour into forms in which they can only be used in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialized labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime. Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.
There it is. After 928 pages in which he leads readers to believe that capital or, more specifically, value is the Subject of a process in which it continually increases its value and that labour is but a subjectless element within its reproduction, Marx invites readers to recover the subject status and hence the agency of the working class. Has Marx lost his theoretical chops?
Two points, one brief and the other more involved. The first point is that much of the validity of Marx’s analysis would appear to rest not only on the decreasing number and aggregation of wealth at the top of the income hierarchy or the increasing number of those bunched at the bottom of the income hierarchy — both points recently verified by French economist Thomas Piketty — but on the training, solidarity, and organization of those at the bottom of the income hierarchy. Here we must truly wonder about whom Marx was writing; members of the Communist Party? If so, Marx must surely have been aware that, though growing, party membership was still quite small in 1867. So, too, he must have known that it would have been an embarrassingly small number of those party members who would have enjoyed the background and training needed to understand Marx’s Capital, much less to have gained that understanding directly from the “misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation” they would have experienced personally at its hands. Oppression does not come with a guidebook to explain where it comes from, how it works, or how to mitigate its effects. As Marx’s Capital itself makes clear, grasping how capitalism works is theoretically challenging even for the best-educated, most lucid reader.
My second point revolves around this hackneyed assertion that “the centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument,” an apparent reference to the traditional Marxist contradiction between the “socialized” and therefore forward leaning forces of production and the “privatized” and therefore retrograde “relations of production. First, what is this integument, this shell or covering? Let us suppose for a moment that this integument is the legal, institutional form regulating and enforcing social relations within capitalism. Second, let us suppose that means of production are, as it seems clear, the capital goods and factors that make value production possible. These goods and factors are now concentrated in specific locations, along specific networks and, therefore presumably not in other locations or along other networks. That is to say, from being widely dispersed and broadly distributed among a wide range of facilities, households, and networks, they have now become “centralized” or, if you like, institutionally and organizationally “rationalized.” Third, let us suppose that by the “socialization of labour” Marx understands that labour is now fully integrated into this centralized production process, its regulatory, institutional, and legal formation.
If this is reasonably close to how Marx wants us to read this passage, then we must wonder how this apparent adequacy or suitability of capital concentration to labour socialization gives rise to a lack of fitness, an incompatibility between this concentration and socialization and its legal, institutional, and regulatory shell.
Traditional readings invite us to imagine the formation of a militant, “trained” proletariat rising up and expropriating the expropriators. Yet, so out of step is this explanation with the previous 928 pages, there is good reason for us to hazard another explanation more consistent with those pages. Let us, therefore, propose something like the following. Capital, as conceptualized by Marx, is continuously seeking to cast off the material forms weighing it down, whether these be labour power, cast off through technological innovation, or physical footprint, cast off in the nineteenth century through colonization and, more recently, by digitalization. That is to say, physical concentration of capital and socialization of labour could be conceptualized as twin impedements to the production and reproduction of value. And, yet, insofar as liberating labour from its domination by value and therein casting off this impediment would eliminate its very foundation, there grows a tension between the systemic necessity of socialized labour for the production of value and its obsolescence. If the integument or shell holding the capitalist social formation be the entire regulatory, institutional, and legal framework that makes labour essential to the production of wealth, then bursting this integument asunder would entail some process through which laws, regulations, and institutions were made more adequate to a social formation that no longer required labour for the production of wealth.
Yes, but then what are we to make of those final two auspicious declarations: “The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Clearly they are more than mere cheerleading for our team. Again, however, we need to interpret these calls within the framework of Marx’s overall economic system. And to do so requires, first, that we understand what Marx means by private property. Let us suppose that the increasing obsolescence of labour and of the spatial, geographical concentration of capital reveals a growing tension within capital itself. Capital must leave a footprint. It must own fixed capital. It must rent labour power. And, yet, its very form pushes it to cast off these impediments. What is it then that capital owns? What is its “property”? Or, better, how are we to grasp the nature of “private property” at a point when capital appears eager to disavow its need for a footprint? However, let us now suppose that the tenuous character between wealth production and private ownership of property, including private rental of labour power, makes the regulatory, legal, and institutional integument the only barrier between wealth production independent of private property ownership and its system-dictated maintenance.
Is it significant here that Marx calls it “capitalist private property”? Isn’t all private property capitalist? The answer is “no,” and Marx has spent several chapters identifying social formations in which, though property is privately owned, it is not owned to produce abstract, homogeneous, undifferentiated value. The answer to our question appears, in fact, in the very next chapter, Chapter 33, the final chapter of Volume I, titled “The Modern Theory of Colonization”:
The only thing that interests us is the secret discovered in the New World by the political economy of the Old World, and loudly proclaimed by it: that the capitalist mode of production and accumulation, and therefore capitalist private property as well, have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of that private property which rests on the labour of the individual himself; in other words, the expropriation of the worker (940).
If this is the lens through which we need to read Marx’s sounding of the “knell of capitalist private property,” he is not calling here for the abolition of private property at all, but, to the contrary its restoration to those individuals from whom it was seized. And, with this, we also find a much more satisfying — because consistent with Marx’s economic system — reading of the expropriation of the expropriators. Who is it who stole this property, who turned all material into material for capitalist production and all human action into value-producing labour? And, what will happen with this property upon its restoration to its owners? Presumably it will be privately owned, but no longer for the production of abstract value.
What does this mean? It means that those who interpret this passage as a call for a socialization and centralization of the means of production in the hands of the industrial working class, the so-called “working class state,” have it wrong. Rather is Marx contemplating a contradiction within capitalism that yields changes in the legal, regulatory, and institutional form — the integument — whose effect is to decentralize and disperse private ownership among those whom capital had reduced to mere labour power.