Thursday, April 21, 2016

Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 32: A Critical Summary

Chapter 32 of volume 1 of Capital is called the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” and is essentially Marx’s conclusion to Capital, since Chapter 33 is more of an appendix and addendum to the volume (Brewer 1984: 83).

Chapter 32 is therefore Marx’s summing up of his vision of the past and future of capitalism, and contains a famous – and discredited – doomsday prediction of the collapse of capitalism.

The tendency of “primitive accumulation of capital” which Marx has described in Part 8 is fundamentally to destroy independent farmers and artisans who own their own means of production:
“The private property of the labourer in his means of production is the foundation of petty industry, whether agricultural, manufacturing or both; petty industry, again, is an essential condition for the development of social production and of the free individuality of the labourer himself. Of course, this petty mode of production exists also under slavery, serfdom, and other states of dependence. But it flourishes, it lets loose its whole energy, it attains its adequate classical form, only where the labourer is the private owner of his own means of labour set in action by himself: the peasant of the land which he cultivates, the artizan of the tool which he handles as a virtuoso. This mode of production pre-supposes parcelling of the soil, and scattering of the other means of production. As it excludes the concentration of these means of production, so also it excludes cooperation, division of labour within each separate process of production, the control over, and the productive application of the forces of Nature by society, and the free development of the social productive powers. It is compatible only with a system of production, and a society, moving within narrow and more or less primitive bounds.” (Marx 1906: 834–835).
But forces within this society destroy it:
“At a certain stage of development it brings forth the material agencies for its own dissolution. From that moment new forces and new passions spring up in the bosom of society; but the old social organization fetters them and keeps them down. It must be annihilated; it is annihilated. Its annihilation, the transformation of the individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated ones, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people forms the prelude to the history of capital. It comprises a series of forcible methods, of which we have passed in review only those that have been epoch-making as methods of the primitive accumulation of capital. The expropriation of the immediate producers was accomplished with merciless Vandalism, and under the stimulus of passions the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, the most meanly odious. Self-earned private property, that is based, so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent labouring-individual with the conditions of his labour, is supplanted by capitalistic private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labour of others, i.e., on wages-labour.” (Marx 1906: 835–836).
Marx now makes his famous doomsday prediction of the collapse of capitalism:
“As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever extending scale, the co-operative form of the labour-process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.

The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialised production, into socialised property. In the former case, we had the expropriation
of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.” (Marx 1906: 836–837).
In a final footnote, Marx quotes with approval this passage from Engels:
“The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet, the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore, produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable. … Of all the classes, that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie to-day, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes perish and disappear in the face of Modern Industry, the proletariat is its special and essential product. … The lower middle-classes, the small manufacturers, the shop keepers, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle-class … they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.” (Marx 1906: 837, n. 1).
So here and throughout Capital Marx envisages the historical tendency of capitalism as follows:
(1) capitalism tends to increase the (1) accumulation, (2) concentration (accumulation over time) and (3) centralisation of capital. Capitalism will therefore have a tremendous tendency towards monopoly.

(2) following from (1), capitalism will tend to destroy more and more capitalists and result in huge centralisation of capital (or monopoly) and reduce even capitalists to the proletarian class;

(3) capitalism will tend to use more and more machines and automation in production resulting in a huge body of unemployed people.

(4) following from (3), the industrial reserve army of labour (the unemployed) grows and grows, and helps to hold real wages in check (see Chapter 25). Even more, Marx thought that a large and growing industrial reserve army is a necessary condition of capitalism: it was a “condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production” (Marx 1906: 646).

(5) the tendency of capitalism is to keep the real wage at a subsistence level, which is the value of the maintenance and reproduction of labour-power (on this, see Chapter 25 and here). Wages rise and fall around this subsistence level as an equilibrium process;

(6) machines will only increase the intensity, speed and arduousness of work for the proletarians and their misery (see Chapter 15 of volume 1), and also increase the employment of women and children who are paid a lower wage than adult men (although government laws might counter this latter trend to some extent). The adult men are then increasing thrown out of work by machines and women and children replace them with lower wages;

(7) volume 3 of Capital adds to this the tendency of the profit rate to fall, but this mechanism is not invoked in volume 1 as one of the causes of the collapse, and some modern Marxists now dispute just how important the tendency of the falling rate of profit was for the final collapse of capitalism in Marx’s theory, as the emphasis given to this may be more the result of Engels’ tendentious editing of volume 3 of Capital.

(8) eventually almost the whole of society is reduced to the proletarian class with only a tiny handful of monopoly capitalists, who according to Marx “usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation” (Marx 1906: 836).

(9) the huge and constantly growing class of proletarians, who are kept in poverty with a subsistence wage, are subject to an increasing “mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, [and] exploitation” (Marx 1906: 836). As in the passage of Engels quoted by Marx, the “other classes perish and disappear in the face of Modern Industry” (Marx 1906: 837, n. 1).

(10) finally, the proletarians eventually organise and rebel against capitalism, overthrowing the system.
Now these predictions judged in their totality were not the long-run tendency of capitalism.

Even if a few elements are true (e.g., the increasing use of machines), nevertheless Marx’s vision is a delusional Marxist caricature of capitalism which has been falsified by history.

We can run through the failed predictions as follows:
(1) the tendency to monopoly has its limits even in capitalism, and the extreme and increasing degree of monopoly as predicted by Marx goes well beyond anything observed in real world capitalism;

(2) the size of the working class eventually stabilised and society was swelled by a growing and prosperous middle class and social mobility. Unemployment rates in capitalism are simply a cyclical result of the business cycle: even in the 19th century, unemployment rates did not grow and grow in the long run, as Marx’s theory predicts, but normally simply moved around a point somewhat above full employment, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out:
“our actual experience … [sc. is] that we oscillate, avoiding the gravest extremes of fluctuation in employment and in prices in both directions, round an intermediate position appreciably below full employment and appreciably above the minimum employment a decline below which would endanger life.”
Keynes, J. M. 1936. General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money , Chapter 18.
(3) Marx thought that the large industrial reserve army is a necessary consequence and necessary condition of capitalism, but this is incorrect. In the Keynesian era of full employment, where there was very low unemployment and indeed labour scarcity in the advanced capitalist world, capitalism continued and thrived – indeed we now call it the “Golden Age” of capitalism.

(4) the long-run tendency of capitalism, even in the 19th century, was to massively increase the real wage, which has soared above subsistence level, even for workers (see here and here).

(5) the growing real wage and rising disposable income even of workers in capitalism also allowed a massive capacity for production of new commodities and new opportunities for employment (e.g., especially in services and middle class employment), which in turn has helped to overcome technological unemployment.

(6) Marx’s claim that machines, generally speaking, are an unmitigated evil in capitalism whose primary effect to increase the intensity and speed of work by labourers is an outrageous falsehood – a perversion of history and reality. In reality, machines have, generally speaking, tended to decrease the intensity, difficulty and monotony of human labour and often reduced to human labour to lighter work of visual inspection and overseeing of machine work, not physical labour. On this, see here and here. Advanced capitalist nations have also virtually eliminated child labour as well, and in our time have tended to pay women the same hourly wage for the same type of work as men.

(7) highly developed and advanced Western capitalist states like Britain and the US proved the most resistant to communism and Marxism (contrary to Marx’s theory), and when communist revolutions broke out it was in backward Russia and China. Even the communist outbreaks in Germany and Italy at the end of the First World War were more the result of the collapse of those nations under the strain of war, and not in line with the vision Marx had predicted (as I noted here).
Brewer, Anthony. 1984. A Guide to Marx’s Capital. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Harvey, David. 2010. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. Verso, London and New York.

Marx, Karl. 1906. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 1; rev. trans. by Ernest Untermann from 4th German edn.). The Modern Library, New York.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One (trans. Ben Fowkes). Penguin Books, London.

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