Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey

I’ve recently started reading Capital, Volume 1, the first part of Karl Marx’s analysis and explanation of capitalism. I’m reading it at the same time as David Harvey’s accompaniment book, A Companion To Marx’s Capital.

David Harvey has a list of places you can get a copy of Capital. I bought the e-book of A Companion To Marx’s Capital from Verso. You can also watch videos of the lectures that evolved into the book on his website.

Capital was a bit intimidating to start: it’s about a thousand e-book pages and has a reputation as a difficult read. As Harvey recommends, I read a chapter of Capital, then the companion section. I’m reading them on an old iPad mini, which saves me carrying around two big books. It’s a first generation iPad mini, which I’d recommend as an ebook reader. Keep it on airplane mode and the battery does really well.

Despite the reputation, Capital is very readable. The first few chapters are a bit full-on: they’re full of foundational concepts and are repetitive because of Marx’s style of logical argument—Marx admits that these initial chapters are difficult and Harvey writes that most people don’t get past Chapter 3—but, with David Harvey’s encouraging explanations and discussion of how the ideas connect to our contemporary world, I’ve found it really engaging. I expected the language to be archaic, but it’s much clearer and sharper than most contemporary writing I’ve come across.

So far, Capital is an explanation of how capitalism works, rather than an argument against it or a description of some alternative. The core idea I’ve taken is that we should not be convinced that the way capitalist production and exchange shapes our lives is a natural evolution of some instinctive human behaviour. Marx thought we should look more closely at what’s going on to see some key contradictions and think about their consequences.

I’m only up to the end of Part 1 (about 100 pages in), where Marx systematically unpacks the concepts of commodity, value, exchange, money, and how the contradictions within them lead to the endless drive for accumulation. I find it really wonderful to dig into these processes which are so familiar and banal that they’re often invisible. I really recommend reading at least this first part.

I started reading Capital because I feel like I don’t have a deep enough understanding of how capitalism actually works. What aspects of it should we disrupt, and what should we repurpose? What do we actually when we say ‘capitalism’?

In The Sociological Imagination C. Wright Mills discusses why we should define and unpack terms:

the purpose of definition is to focus argument upon fact, and ... the proper result of good definition is to transform argument over terms into disagreements about fact, and thus open arguments to further inquiry.

...

Around such terms as 'capitalism' or 'middle class' or 'bureaucracy' or 'power elite' or 'totalitarian democracy,' there are often somewhat tangled and obscured connotations, and in using these terms, such connotations must be carefully watched and controlled. Around such terms, there are often 'compounded' sets of facts and relations as well as merely guessed-at factors and observations. These too must be carefully sorted out and made clear in our definition and in our use.

Only once you’ve actually defined what you’re talking about can you get past a discussion of terms to a discussion of facts, e.g. what’s actually going on and what action should be taken.

It’s a familiar tactic of politicians in Australia to avoid defining key terms like ‘housing affordability’, ‘growth’, ‘the economy’, ‘security’, and ‘freedom’.

In my experience, at events or in projects that invoke the idea of ‘open democracy’ there is rarely any attempt to define ‘democracy’, who it will be ‘open’ to, and in what sense. I’ve found this particularly the case when the concept is invoked by governments. The vagueness allows them to avoid describing the real changes and who is meant to benefit concretely. Often the change is superficial and the people who benefit are already empowered by the status-quo. Excuse the side-rant about the term ‘democracy’.

For ‘Capitalism’ then, Marx breaks down this cloudy, monolithic term into segments and stages, helping us see where we might target changes or hacks.

I’ve already found this useful in understanding a project I’ve recently learnt about: LETS, a 40 year running, global movement of functioning alternative economy/trading groups. I like the idea of LETS, but I’ve been a bit puzzled by the role on money in it—which I’m not going to go into here. After reading the explanation of money in the first few chapters of Captial, I understand a little better how the design of money in local LETS groups counteracts the tendency to endlessly accumulate wealth that arises from the design of money in capitalist systems.

Even the idea that money is designed, and can be/has been alternatively designed, is an important lesson.

Here’s a few readings/watching related to Capital that I’ve come across researching these ideas and writer along the way: