Thoughts on Marx’s Capital

~2400 words, ~10 min reading time

So, today, I finished a 9 year project – I read all three volumes of Marx’s Capital. (And no, I don’t want to hear about “Volume 4”. Using the most motivated of reasoning, I choose to believe that Marx’s “Theories of Surplus Value” in a separate work entirely.)

Below are my thoughts, presented not particularly systematically.

The Good

First, let’s be clear: I like free markets. I probably like capitalism, depending what you mean by the term. I’m also a professional economist trained in the Austrian and neoclassical (largely Chicago) approaches. So, much as Marx spent Capital critiquing capitalism, I will probably spend most of my entry here critiquing Marx’s Capital. But, there are some positives worth mentioning.

(1) Marx was very thorough. That’s why this work is 3 volumes long. In these volumes he incorporates a number of numerical examples, quotations from proceedings at Parliamentary sessions, some data, and naturally a great deal of his own theorizing.

(2) Given that he was writing slightly before the Marginalist Revolution really caught on (Marx wrote Capital from 1867-1883, while Menger’s Principles came out in 1871, so I can’t completely blame Marx for not fully incorporating marginalist insights), he has a surprising number of “almost marginalist” observations. The theory of ground-rent that he details – built largely on Ricardo, admittedly – has some nearly marginalist elements.

(3) Marx has an almost modern conception of “long run” v “short run” (though his terminology doesn’t match modern terminology), which I found interesting.

(4) In Capital, Marx is far more fair than I expected. He clearly is focused on taking a scientific approach.

(5) Marx observes that “surplus labor” (that is, doing work that goes beyond what is necessary for the worker to survive) is a feature common to all societies. The explanation: not everyone works, so workers have to work more to make up for the fact that infants and the elderly can’t. In addition, because of uncertainty, people plan to produce a bit more than necessary as a form of insurance against bad outcomes. I thought this was an interesting observation.

The Bad

(1) I originally set out to read Marx to find out where he went wrong, exactly. The answer: Volume 1, Page 4. It was at that point that Marx points out that if two things are exchanged for each other, they must be equal. While it’s weird to say that $5 is “equal to” a skein of woolen yarn, it must be true for both the buyer and seller to engage in the exchange. This leads to the question: what, exactly, is equal between them? Marx suggests that it’s the labor that is embodied in them. After all, it can’t be the wool – since wool isn’t in $5 (at least, I don’t think it is…). But, the common factor in each is that each requires some amount of labor to produce. So, the value must come from labor. More on this in the next bad point.

(2) Marx’s writing is very hard to follow. Some of it is that terminology has changed, so when Marx says “price of production” and means “cost of production” it’s just confusing. But, some of it is that Marx has a tendency to use somewhat mystical language (if memory serves, he inherits this from Hegel – though it has been over 20 years since I’ve read Hegel). Since the last two volumes were published posthumously, Engels had to put some notes in them, and included his own clarification on a couple points in the edition that I have. This made it clear: Engels was a much better writer than Marx. Consider for example, the argument for the labor theory of value. Marx leaves the explanation almost mystical, and uses weirdly metaphysical language around it. Engels makes the point much more concrete. To understand the labor theory of value, you have to go back to a primitive barter economy. Engels observes that in such an economy, most people produce things for themselves, but end up with certain imbalances – like I had a weirdly good radish harvest, but my cow hasn’t been producing very well – and these imbalances create opportunities for trade. But, because I produce both radishes and milk myself, I know how much work it takes to make them, so I’m not going to trade more than one hour’s work worth of radishes for an hour’s work worth of milk. Nor will the person providing me with milk accept less than one hour’s worth of work of radishes in exchange for milk that took them an hour to procure. When stated this way, the argument, while still incorrect, is at least CLEAR. But, we have Engels, not Marx, to thank for that explanation.

(3) So, let’s tackle the labor theory of value as explained by Engels. The primary problem here is that it ignores the variation in people’s abilities. Interestingly, I use EXACTLY this kind of argument to illustrate terms of trade when we’re discussing comparative advantage and exchange in Principles of Microeconomics. But, one of the fundamental premises is that what I can produce with an hour of work is NOT the same as what you can produce with an hour of work. Therefore, it well may be that I’m willing to trade an hour’s worth of radishes for less than an hour’s worth of milk – because what took you 45 minutes would have taken me more than an hour. (Or, maybe, I just don’t have a cow… Though Engels allows for that possibility). Fundamentally, exchange arises from differences in our preferences and differences in our ability to produce – which then means that there is no clear amount of labor that is embodied in any particular item. Marx acknowledges that not everyone is equally productive, and so suggests that the value comes from the amount of “socially necessary” labor to produce something, but I was never quite clear what the phrase “socially necessary” means.

(4) Now, let’s get to the idea of surplus value. One thing I’ll give Marx – Marx is very devoted to the idea of having a grand unifying principle that ties everything together. His price theory is a great example of this. Exchange indicates that two goods have the same amount of “socially necessary labor” embodied in them. If one of those goods is money, that doesn’t change a thing. Money’s exchange value is based on how much labor went into producing the gold. It also applies to wages. The value of wages is the amount of product that it takes to get that labor produced. It’s the classical “iron law of wages”. This means that a worker will be paid an amount that allows them to subsist, but nothing beyond that. However, in the capitalist system, the means of production – that is, tools and the like – are owned by the capitalist. So, capitalists hire workers and make them work for 12 hours a day, even though they can produce enough to feed themselves in just, say, 6 hours. They are paid for the first 6 hours, but not for the last 6. (Of course, the way this works, in practice, is that they are paid enough to survive DAILY, and that amount is divided by 12 to get the hourly wage.) The first 6 hours are the “necessary” labor. The last 6 hours are the “surplus labor”. And this surplus labor is claimed by the capitalist in exchange for allowing the laborer to use the capitalist’s tools and the like. On the surface, this feels like it’s actually kind of accurate, right? The problem, of course, is that it ignores competition between capitalists for labor. So, even if it is true in a capitalist system that the workers are denied ownership of the means of production, the fact is that the capitalist class will tend to fight over the laborers that produce value – especially if economies of scale are as significant as Marx suggests. (He seems to believe that economies of scale are basically pervasive.) This provides some bargaining power which would allow workers to claim some of the surplus value for themselves. Now, naturally, workers are also competing with each other for jobs – so it’s not so obvious how this all will play out – but it seems far more reasonable to say that the wage will be somewhere between a subsistence wage and the full product of labor, rather than to just claim that it must be at the bottom of this range.

(5) Marx’s view of capital markets is really cool, but ends up undermining his claims about the power of the capitalist class. Suppose that the means of production are all owned by a single capitalist. In this case, holding wages down to subsistence seems very possible. Unless, that is, there is some way for the laborers to acquire some of their own means of production. A lot of Marx’s work assumes this is impossible. After all, if you’re paid a subsistence wage, what are you going to use to acquire the means of production? You’re literally spending your entire income on just barely getting by. It turns out that Marx HIMSELF provides the answer. In his section on credit, he explains how people can join the capitalist class by using credit to acquire the monetary capital they need to start a business (that is, acquire the means of production and hire workers). Practically, then, this means that the capitalist at least has to pay workers enough that they wouldn’t be better off borrowing from creditors to acquire their own means of production to use. But, won’t high interest rates prevent this? Well, no, according to Marx’s framework. Marx uses a profit theory of interest, in which the rate of profit on ownership of capital provides the maximum rate of interest that could be charged. So, borrowing to buy means of production means you will at least break even as long as your productivity level isn’t horrifically bad. As a simple example, suppose that, when you work for a capitalist, they make you work 12 hours a day, during which time you produce $50 of product, and then they pay you $25 for the day. You’ve been exploited out of $25 of your product. Now, let’s say that you could acquire the means of production for $100, but that you’d have to pay $10 per day in interest. The question you face: can you produce at least $35 of product in 12 hours with those tools? If the answer is yes, then you can break free of the capitalist system, if you so choose. If the answer is no, it must be that the capitalist isn’t just providing the means of production – instead, they are providing an organizational framework that allows you to produce an additional $15 if you work for them vs if you worked on your own. Put another way: the capitalist is actually productive. Whether Marx acknowledges this is not clear to me – there are some parts where he acknowledges the productivity of the capitalist system. Yet, he still holds that profit is exploitation of labor, rather than compensation for productivity gains.

(6) Another element that Marx misses is time preference, despite the fact that it’s baked into his explanations at places. He describes how capitalists must first put out their capital to acquire the means of production and pay laborers, and only later sell the product. Yet, he seems to miss that part of the reason that workers don’t do what I said above and take out loans to acquire the means of production themselves is that workers want to be paid now rather than later. That is, by paying wages before the sale of the product, capitalists are providing a service to the worker, and profit is, in part, a compensation for that service. Now, I can’t blame him too much for this – time preference was not very well understood yet, but that is an important point for the modern reader to remember.

(7) Marx’s discussion of the crises of capitalism was very hand-wavy. I was probably most disappointed in this, as Marx is so famous for his explanation of how the capitalist system would undergo periodic crises. However, either I just didn’t understand his argument, or there wasn’t much of one there. He does describe how the process of accumulation leads to a decrease in the rate of profit. I don’t find this claim particularly objectionable, to be honest, though I’d explain it differently than Marx does. But, it’s not at all clear why the profit ever has to turn negative so that a crisis would result. Can’t it just approach zero asymptotically? I couldn’t find an answer.

(8) Marx makes the assumption that capitalism is built on the desire for continuous accumulation. I don’t think this is necessarily true (though maybe this is just part of Marx’s definition – I honestly don’t know if he ever bothered to actually define what capitalism means). While there certainly are some individuals that act this way, there are also heirs of billionaires that, like the prodigal son, just blow their inheritances on wild living. You see the same thing with some first generation millionaires as well (celebrities can be prone to this). In short: the idea that financial capital will first be used to reproduce itself, and only secondarily be used to maintain the lifestyle of the capitalist requires further proof.

Concluding Remarks

I’d say that I’m glad I finished reading it rather than giving up entirely. However, I don’t think I’d recommend it. As I’ve said elsewhere, a great deal of Capital is simply boring. Before his own explanatory notes at the end of Volume 3, Engels says that he saw it as his job to try to publish what Marx wrote without making himself a coauthor by aggressive editing. In the end, I’m a bit sad about that. There was so much chaff in the work, that I very much feel like I missed some major threads while I was bogged down in numerical examples that added little and reading basically mystical explanations about how capitalists are just “personified capital”.

I strongly suspect that a better way to get at Marx’s thought is probably to read a more modern Marxist – someone like Richard Wolff – where the language won’t be as archaic, or to find a well-abridged version. Of course, it all depends on what your goal is. Following the modern/abridged path probably provides fewer bragging rights, but also probably helps you understand modern devotees far better than reading the original.