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Karl Marx: A breakdown

Sales of Marx’s Das Kapital are reportedly soaring as the world realises that this was where he prophesied how capitalism will destroy itself. So it’s time for a Kapital primer, time to talk fetishism (yay!) of commodities (d’oh!).

  • Commodities. A chair is a commodity — not because you can sit on it, but because it was produced by humans to be traded. Each commodity has a use value, measured by its usefulness in satisfying needs and wants.
  • Exchange value. How, you’ll be asking, can one measure the difference in value between, say, a 80GB iPod and a new copy of Kapital? It’s the exchange value, stupid. This is measured by the amount of labour that goes into making each commodity — such is the Marxist labour theory of value and the source of what Marx called the fetishism of commodities.
  • Literary value. As Francis Wheen stresses in his biography of Marx, Das Kapital is partly a racy gothic novel, a Frankenstein-like tale of how we created a monster from which we are alienated and which, by means of class struggle, we will slay.
  • Capital. This is money used to buy more money. Like God, capital seems mystical and immutable, but is really only a function of social relationships. Capitalists think capital has magical significance. A socialist revolution will disabuse them of that.
  • Exploitation. Commodity sales increase the amount of exchange value owned by capitalists, yielding profit and thus helping them to accumulate capital. How? You accumulate capital by the creation of surplus value, which is unpaid labour appropriated by employers.
  • Crises. Capitalists aren’t especially interested in accumulating commodities (once you’ve got a hot tub for your Lear jet, it’s hard to decide what else to spend it on) and the incessant drive to amass capital causes crises. The over-expansion of credit by greedy capitalists recently resulted in more goods being sold than can be bought from income and savings. The result? Widespread debts, straitened circumstances (think coarse toilet paper) and happy days for repo men (boo!).
  • Profit. This falls when capitalism exhausts its capacity for growth. Also, as technology improves and productivity rises, more goods are produced, which are worthless.
  • The end. Whether such crises will destroy capitalism is uncertain. Marx thought they would, but he wasn’t convincing about when. It will, though, end. Some time. Maybe before Christmas. —

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Stuart Jeffries
Guest Author

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