on 13 June 2015
The second volume of Karl Marx's Capital is a notoriously difficult text. Compiled by Friedrich Engels after Marx's death, and first published in 1885, the book has a reputation for being a dull and uninspiring economic treatise. Even David Fernbach, in his 'Translator's Preface', admits that it is 'renowned' for 'the arid deserts between its oases' (p.80). Yet he is also quick to point out that Volume II, unlike Volume I, was not prepared for the printer's press by Marx himself. And this is important to remember, because these are only Marx's notes, all of which Engels had the Sisyphean task of collating into an integrated whole. So while we may not be able to enjoy the rhetorical fireworks that made Volume I a 'work of world literature' (ibid), we do have the joy of digesting Marx's thought without its eloquent trimmings, which is an interesting exercise in itself.
Engels states in his 'Preface' that 'Marx's theory of surplus-value burst like a bolt from the blue...in all civilized countries' (p.97). Now this may be a touch exaggerated, given the poor sales of Volume I, but there can be no doubt that its influence steadily grew. But Marx's exposition of the capitalist mode of production would have been severely lopsided if it had only covered the generation of surplus-value in 'the hidden abode of production'. So Marx now takes the products made by the workers in Volume I out into the marketplace, because if a commodity doesn't realise its value then everyone ends up skint. In undertaking such a daunting task, Marx ingeniously establishes the routes the various commodities and capitals take. And while this panorama shows who pays for what and what money goes where, it always returns to the same old question: is it possible to affect equilibrium in a laissez-faire economy?
In 'Part One: The Metamorphoses of Capital and their Circuit', Marx dismantles the tripartite structure of 'industrial capital', because this is the capital that 'encompasses every branch of production...pursued on a capitalist basis' (p.133). In order, then, we have money capital (M-C...P...C'-M'), productive capital (P...C'-M'-C...P), and commodity capital (C'-M'-C...P...C'). Money capital and commodity capital are confined to the circulation stages of a capital's metamorphoses, while productive capital is confined to the production of commodities. As a process, the industrial capital 'assumes [all] these forms in the course of its total circuit' (ibid), and it's this intertwined nature Marx intricately describes. As he observes, 'each individual industrial capital is involved in all three [circuits] at the same time' and they are 'continuously executed alongside one another' (p.181); as such, the endless generation of capital 'can only be grasped as a movement' (p.185) and as a 'unity of the three circuits' (p.184). Intriguingly, Marx also begins to break the C'-M' movement down into its constituent components, i.e. C' = C + c and M' = M + m (C and M denoting the original capital advanced and c and m marking the surplus-value created in the commodities and realised through a sale). By doing so, Marx splits the money in two and shows how a capitalist may either reinvest his entire surplus (m) in expanding his operations or splash the cash on his 'esteemed self and family' (p.146). The capitalists, then, like the workers with their C-M-C buys, make a number of purchases that are incredibly important for economic stability, because both classes now operate as essential players in propping up world economies, i.e. as consumers. (If, however, the capitalist is cagey about his prospects, he can channel his dosh into an accumulation fund, where it can be used to 'cope with disturbances in the circuit' (p.165) or await future investment as 'latent money capital' (ibid).)
Marx finishes Part One with a couple of chapters on 'Circulation Time' and 'The Costs of Circulation'. He shows that 'Circulation time and production time are mutually exclusive' (p.203) and that if the circulation time drags on this has an effect on the productive capital's (interrupted) ability to self-valorise in the sphere of production. He also looks into the costs incurred by the circulation of commodities and the outlays needed for bookkeeping, storage, stock formations, and transport costs. Although he doesn't go into them in great depth, this is all fertile ground, as modern capitalism has been defined by revolutions in the movement of commodities and by an incessant drive to conquer space and time in the interests of realising surplus-value (profit). And Marx knew just how important such innovations were for the capitalists. Without them, they would be left with redundant and worthless goods, for the 'product is ready for consumption only when it has completed this [crucial] movement' (p.227).
Marx introduces 'Part Two: The Turnover of Capital' with a short chapter on 'Turnover Time and Number of Turnovers'. Put simply, a circuit of capital, when viewed as 'a periodic process, is called its turnover' (p.235), its duration 'the sum of its production time and its circulation time' (ibid). For Marx, this is important, because it measures 'the time required for the renewal and repetition of the valorization and production process of the same capital value' (p.236). He then goes on to discuss fixed capital and circulating capital. In brief, fixed capital is that which is invested in things like buildings and machines, and that which will carry on functioning productively after a single turnover period. It remains distinct from the products it produces, although the increments of value it transfers to the product through wear and tear return to the capitalist (ready for reinvestment or to cover repairs) once the product has been sold. However, the value of the circulating capital (i.e. labour-power, raw materials, energy, etc) 'enters in its entirety into the product' (p.246), lasts for one turnover period, and must be constantly 'replaced and renewed by new purchases' (ibid). Be aware, though, that 'it is only productive capital that can be divided up into fixed and fluid capital' (p.246-7), because commodity capital and money capital belong to the circulation sphere. And, as you'd expect, the circulating capital will turn over quicker than the fixed.
Once Marx has had his fun demolishing the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, he moves on to distinguish working time from production time - the former being only part of the latter - and to reiterate the importance of shortening circulation time (the C'-M' part of the business). Marx then laboriously unpicks the effects of circulation time on the capital advanced. For example, if a turnover lasts twelve weeks, with a production time of nine weeks and a circulation time of three weeks, then a quarter of the turnover period is spent with the means of production standing idle, which is clearly dead capital. How to keep this process going during the circulation period is now the focus of Marx's investigations. In short, a second capital must be brought in to cover the downtime, and Marx works out all the various turnover times of the variously sized capitals needed to continue the valorisation process in the world of production. In doing so, he not only upsets his readers, but also Engels, the poor sod tasked with wading through his master's minutiae. For Engels, Marx 'was never at ease in reckoning with figures' (p.359) and ascribed 'an underserved significance' (ibid) to 'this tiresome calculation business' (ibid). Anyhow, Marx finishes Part Two with a look at the annual rate of surplus-value and the circulation of surplus-value. In each of these discussions, however, Marx gives in to his 'mathematical proclivities' (to quote Fredric Jameson), and this is probably the point when most people switch off, or simply give up.
Yet it is worth soldiering on. 'Part Three: The Reproduction and Circulation of the Total Social Capital' is a difficult yet absorbing finale to the book. In it, Marx starts to draw a line between productive consumption and individual consumption, as it is only now that 'the working class appears as a buyer of commodities, and the capitalists as sellers of commodities to the workers' (p.428). What Marx does is split social production into two great departments: Department I = means of production, and Department II = means of consumption (he then goes on to break means of consumption into two distinct units, II(a) = necessary means of consumption (subsistence), and II(b) = luxury means of consumption (only for capitalists)). To further his investigation, he shows that 'Just as with the value of any individual commodity...the total annual product of each department also breaks down into c + v + s' (p.472). (The c, however, is calculated on the constant capital consumed and not the total mass applied.)
Marx sets out his examples (such as this one on simple reproduction) thus:
Department I = 4,000 (c) + 1,000 (v) + 1,000 (s) = 6,000 means of production.
Department II = 2,000 (c) + 500 (v) + 500 (s) = 3,000 means of consumption.
He investigates what ideal circumstances would have to exist for equilibrium to be sustained. In short, there aren't any. But if there were, then the demand for means of production in Dept II would be equal to the demand for means of consumption in Dept I. So, in the above example, the v + s in Dept I (£1,000 in wages (v) and £1,000 in revenue (s)) must be exchanged for the £2,000 (c) means of consumption created in Dept II (as both classes in Dept I have to live and eat). With the £2,000 the capitalists in Dept II receive, they can now replace the £2,000 means of production they've consumed in the labour process, thereby returning the £2,000 (I (v + s)) back to the capitalists in Dept I. But there is a crucial difference. The £2,000 returned to the capitalists in Dept I is now in money form, rather than the commodity form (i.e. means of production) it had existed in previously. So now the capitalists in Dept I have the variable capital (i.e. £1,000 in cash) to go out and buy the labour power needed to restart the valorisation process (M-C-M'). And the v + s in Dept II is spent in the same way, i.e. by the workers and the capitalists spending their wages and their revenues on means of consumption to the tune of £1,000, so the capitalists in Dept II now have the money needed to restart the valorisation process (having bought anew the means of production from Dept I). The £4,000 (c) created in Dept I, meanwhile, is reinvested in making means of production to be sold among the producers of the means of production themselves. (Nevertheless, in all these many purchases, there are 'certain reserves of money - whether for capital advance, or for expenditure of revenue - [that] must always be taken as present in the hands of the capitalists alongside their productive capital' (p.476), and it's these reserves that help facilitate the wheeling and dealing between the departments.) So, to establish equilibrium, Marx posits the following formula: I (v + s) = II (c).
(Disclaimer: I may have all of the above totally wrong.)
But what happens when this circular process is broken and the monetary ping-pong comes to an end? Well, there are systemic possibilities of crises (the creation and alleviation of which Marx doesn't really go into, as he's too lost in his endless calculations). For instance, if the capitalist in Dept I sells his surplus means of production to Dept II but doesn't buy any means of consumption in return, the capitalist in Dept II hasn't realised the value congealed in his products and thus cannot re-employ the labour needed to work his newly acquired means of production: the process therefore stops (leading to an overproduction of worthless goods, or a commodity stock, depending on the demand for the product). To be sure, Marx covers the all various outcomes. He will show the exchanges between the two departments, the exchanges within Department II, the mediation of the exchanges by money, how the constant capital is divvied up in Department I, the effects on variable capital and surplus-value, capital and revenue, etc, etc. In fact, he seems to have every angle covered. And then he pulls the rug out from under your feet. Just when you think you have it down, and just when the calculations have begun to make a kind of sense, he announces that 'The precondition for simple reproduction, that I (v + s) = II (c), is incompatible with capitalist production from the start' (p.596) and that 'Accumulation of capital, i.e. genuine capitalist production, would be impossible in this way' (ibid). So why, the reader screams, lobbing the book in absolute disgust, bother explaining it all? Well, to show that economic balance is impossible. Capitalism is driven by excess, and when the accumulation of money is the governing principle, no handbrake (such as a sensible relation between supply and demand) can be applied to such an out-of-control system. And so we're left with a monetary organism periodically beset by huge crises, which are viewed as structurally inevitable.
To conclude, then, Volume II may not have the literary brio of Volume I, but it is still an incredibly interesting and important book, and one which must be placed beside its predecessor, if only to gain an overall picture of Marx's economic system. And with this argument in mind, I must admit to finding Fernbach's comments a little unfair, although I haven't had the arduous task of trying to translate it (so he can be forgiven). The points I have picked up on barely scratch the surface of what is a very dense and concentrated book. And I cannot make any claims to a total understanding of the book myself (that will take multiple readings). Yes, it is uneven and contradictory in places. (At one point Marx says that a fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production is how it produces tons of commodities the working class can't afford, as they are 'always poor and must always remain poor' (p.391). Fair enough. So you'd think he would be in favour of a wage rise? Well, no, not exactly, because 'crises are always prepared by a period in which wages generally rise' (p.486-7), for when wages rise, that means less profit ((because higher wages = less exploitation)), which can lead to inflation ((as employers look to regain their profit margins)), which can lead to more wage rises, which can still lead to faltering profits, which can lead to crises and stagnation, etc, etc.) And yes, Marx doesn't give a full account of the credit system, which plays such a vital role in everyday existence. But he does expose the underlying workings of the world we live in. He may not have added all the shading and nuance we'd like, but his outline is there and still holding strong. Can anyone explain capitalism as a totality, given the fact that it is constantly morphing and adapting itself to each new situation? No, it is impossible, but Marx made a good start, and it is only by reading Volume II that his worldview starts to form and effervesce, despite its laboured presentation. But the presentation isn't important, for it's the thought and the diagnostic acumen that continues to impress and beguile his many readers.