Saturday, April 18, 2015

Capital is a social relation, not a static thing

This is intended as an introduction to the philosophy of internal relations as developed by Bertell Ollman, 1935 -

Capital is not just a thing but a dynamic, living social relationship. My essay on Social Forms is deficient in this respect. It does identify Capital etc. as arising from social relations but it still, implicitly, treats Capital as a passive thing, not a dynamic living thing which depends on its ongoing social relationships for its existence and nature.

Ricardo made a similar mistake. He regarded Capital as “accumulated labour”, as something purely material, a mere element in the labour process. (Marx, Theory of Surplus Value). Ricardo was defining Capital in a narrow, clear cut sense and then linking it externally to other elements such as labour.

Marx, by contrast, describes Capital as an extensive network of internal relations. It is “that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except on condition of getting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation.”(The Communist Manifesto, Ch 2). The relation between capital and labour is treated as a function of capital itself, and part of the meaning of “capital”. Marx goes onto refer to the worker as “variable capital” (Capital vol 1). In other places Marx refers to money and commodities as capital. In Marx's view Capital is not a clearly defined thing but a dynamic, living, evolving, changing thing.

When social relations become subject matter then we have to think differently. What we normally regard as nouns (Capital, wage labour, Value) are transforming into verbs. But our ingrained habit is to think of nouns as static and verbs as active. This is one reason why Marx's Capital is hard to understand.

This relationship view of concepts, staying with Marx's examples of Capital, labour, Value, the commodity for now, views each of these concepts as an internally linked network.

Contrast this with our traditional conventional “scientific” or common sense view that each concept can be defined independently of the other concepts and then linked externally to the other concepts.

In the common sense view Capital is “accumulated labour” which can then be invested in a new project which requires wage labour to succeed. But in Marx's view if wage labour disappeared then there would no longer be any Capital (Communist Manifesto). Max Hirsch (Democracy versus Socialism, 1901) criticised Marx for the alleged imprecision of tying capital to exploitation of the labourer. This meant that a machine used by a farmer who owned it would not be capital, but it would be capital if he hired a man to operate it. The machine in itself is not Capital but when it is connected to wage labour it becomes Capital. However, rather than a valid criticism, this shifting sand arises from the view that Capital is not a clearly definable thing but a social relation in motion.

If we accept Ollman's interpretation of Marx, that social relations become subject matter, that things we regard as clearly defined nouns like Capital are in reality more like verbs, continually in motion, then this in turn impacts on our conception of causation. Once the extensive internal relations of a concept are used to identify it then change becomes more a matter of a shift in those internal relations rather than a traditional scientific cause and effect model.

eg. some have read Marx as an economic determinist because his major work has the words “political economy” in the subtitle. But since the concepts of Marx, such as Capital, have extensive internal relations to wage labour, work, commodity fetishism, estrangement etc. then his analysis is intended as an extensive social critique of the capitalist system as a whole, rather than a narrow economic only critique.

The social system of capitalism is conceived as a living, organic body with extensive, ever changing inner connections. In such a model causes and conditions tend to merge together, unlike a tradition scientific cause and effect model.

At some stage some particular inner connections may become more significant than others and so they might appear to be a major cause of change. But it is more helpful to see this as a principal contradiction (to use Mao's terminology in On Contradiction) determining change than some sort of linear cause and effect model.

Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971), pp. 14-17

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