Janus and My Ode to Capital

Against the Current, No. 196, September/October 2018

Juliet Ucelli

FORTY YEARS OF studying and teaching Marx’s Capital Volume I (through the New York Marxist School/Brecht Forum and its successors) have left me with an ever-renewed appreciation for the book’s many facets, and tracings of how the lives and needs of the activists who study it have changed.

Current events evoke for me new applications of Marx’s concepts. For example, the Supreme Court Janus decision re-inspires my ode to Capital. When Janus came down, with its blather about workers whose rights were infringed by having to pay fees to labor unions, I thought of the sentence that concludes Chapter 10 on “The Working Day,” one of the most concise and pointed summaries of the dynamics and dilemmas of the fight for legislative reforms:

“For ‘protection’ against the serpent of their agonies, the workers have to put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital. In the place of the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man’ there steps the modest Magna Carta of the limited working day.” (Karl Marx, Capital Volume I. London: Penguin classics, 2004: 416.)

Marx never lost his youthful distrust of “pompous” bourgeois talk about “inalienable rights of man” in the abstract — a discourse that usually disguises the dominance of a certain class, gender and race of “man.”

He acknowledges the contradiction between the bourgeois conception (in some aspects a historic step forward) of individual rights, and the demands of the collective struggle of the working class — a contradiction that we forget at the peril of being unprepared for the arguments thrown at us.

He states, without sugar-coating, that workers’ organizations under capitalism sometimes need to use compulsion against other workers. We hate the capitalists and their state, but we sometimes need to use the bourgeois state apparatus to regulate conditions of production, working hours, environmental safety.

He reminds us that when bosses and rich people and reactionaries talk about universal rights, we’d better look beneath the surface at what’s really going on and whose “rights” are really being upheld.

Dynamics of Capitalist Production

I’ve studied all three volumes of Capital but feel that I know only Volume I well enough to teach it. Also, it’s the only volume for which Marx was able to do a full edit himself, and even make revisions for a second edition, so it has a literary beauty and composed quality that the other volumes lack. (Engels supervised the 3rd and 4th editions of Volume I, and put together Volume II and III from Marx’s notes.)

Besides laying out the basic dynamics of capitalist production and reproduction, Capital Volume I is a political history of the struggle for legislation to limit working hours, and a unrivaled compendium of data on working conditions and occupational safety and health.

It unmasks the most basic alienation of the human life-process under capitalism. We have no categories to acknowledge that I am in an interdependent social relationship with all the people who make the things I need and use.

Those things have a common status and relationship with each other, all being commodities that are commensurable and have prices. But we who make and use them have no words for our relationship with each other. This is the fetishism of commodities.  We carry our bond with society in our wallets. (“The Fetishism of Commodities and its Secret.” Capital, 163-177)

The volume is also a poetic cry of agony at the distortion of human capacities in the capitalist labor process. It draws on the best of the German Romantic tradition and prefigures, in its imaginings of human beings exercising their many capacities and talents, a 1960sish sense of human potential.

“As others have mentioned, there are ahead-of-their-time ecological insights scattered throughout the volume, with an impassioned jeremiad at the end of Chapter 15 on “Large Scale Industry:”

“All progress in capitalist agriculture is progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-term sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction.” (638)

Besides foreshadowing U.S. eco-disasters like the 1930s Dust Bowl (and the invention and propagation of fast food throughout the world), Marx notes the need to “return to the soil its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing.” Only just recently has the destructive impact of “fast fashion” as waste come to mainstream awareness.

Teaching Capital

In the late 1970s, activists could spend eight or nine months of weekly sessions to read Capital Volume I cover to cover. Lately, I’ve been teaching highlights of Volume I in 10 sessions. For reasons that Marx explains well — like the rise of urban rents and the de facto lengthening of the working day as many young people must work several jobs to survive — activists today don’t have as much free time.

At the Marxist Education Project, we get young activists of many nationalities, colors and backgrounds, as well as experienced organizers who finally have some time for study, or retirees eager for a refresher.

A number are also graduate students who say that they read Capital for a class but they didn’t get it, and they didn’t think the professor understood it either!

Recently I led a class only for those who identify as women, acknowledging that historically many women have been turned off or silenced by the way the theory is often taught and discussed. It was the largest and most vibrant Capital class we’ve had in years.

Where we once delved into the experience of factory work that many students had, to concretize the concepts of value and surplus value, today I’m thrilled to get a petty commodity producer who can apply the concepts of use-value and value to the pottery they make and sell on etsy and at crafts fairs.

So I find there are two keys to making Capital accessible and showing new readers that it’s relevant and useful in their lives and struggles. The first is to relate it to their work, whether it’s in the gig economy or as an adjunct professor (like the former serfs under the corvee system that Marx examines in Chapter 10, one nominal hour of adjunct work entails at least three hours of prep and grading) or bartender or computer programmer.

And the second key I got from my mentor Arthur Felberbaum, who was the primary initiator of the Marxist School/Brecht Forum and originated the pedagogy for Capital that I still use. He said that the teacher’s main role is as a cultural bridge to the book, because the dialectical method is so alien to our Anglo-North American ways of thinking.

What the #$*% is an Imaginary Concrete?

Capital embodies the dialectical method of analysis and is the best source for learning it, but only if the teacher consciously uses the book’s prefaces to elucidate Marx’s path of inquiry and presentation, and the way he structured the three volumes, moving from production to circulation to production and circulation considered as a whole. This is also crucial to help temper the reader’s natural impatience and desire to have all economic phenomena explained at once.

The inquiry starts with what Marx calls, in the Grundrisse (the notebooks for Capital), the “imaginary concrete.” These are the everyday phenomena we see around us: companies being started and going out of business, stock market fluctuations, adjustments of the prime rate, protests for a $15/hour minimum wage, migrations and population shifts.

These phenomena are concrete in that they’re really happening, but imaginary in the sense that if you stay on the surface, and consider them only on their own terms, you can never understand or explain what’s going on, how things are changing.

“Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations.” (Grundrisse, London: McMillan, 1980:34)

Marx’s analysis moved to the commodity as the simplest concept or “abstract concrete,” and that’s where Capital begins. He couldn’t start his presentation with the concept of labor because that’s too general, covering all of human history. He couldn’t begin with the concept of capital because that’s too advanced and specific.

The commodity, however, exists in pre-capitalist societies but it’s only under capitalism that every product of labor (plus some things that aren’t) becomes a commodity.

“From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations.” (Grundrisse, 34)

Containing within itself the generative contradiction between use-value and value, the commodity is the historical and logical cell form of capitalism. By tracing its forms of development and tracking their internal connections, the concepts of money, capital, labor power, surplus value, profit, etc. can all be derived.

There’s no proof of Marx’s law of value in the mainly logical expositions of Chapter 1. The proof is the whole three volumes, in what Marx calls “the reproduction of the concrete in thought.”

But in studying the main concepts of Volume I, one can begin to see ”the life of the subject matter…reflected back in the ideas.” (Capital, 102) The manifold realities we see around us begin to fit together like pieces of a puzzle in the compelling picture that Marx is painting.

While we delve deeply into the contradiction between use-value and value, we don’t spend too long on Chapter 1 because there’s a certain diminishing return and frustration in mining every sentence.

We’ve made our own charts, and many students consult David Harvey’s online lectures or companion book. We critically interrogate and sometimes expand on the remarks about gender and race. We delight in the Marx’s passion and poetry. We recognize the limits of our knowledge, and what it will take to really deepen it:

“The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control.” (Capital, 173)

September-October 2018, ATC 196