General comments on Capital II

Two hypotheses:

  1. More and Faster. Whereas Capital I is about how capital finds ways of drawing more surplus-value from labour; Capital II is concerned with how capital finds ways of making this surplus-value move faster. The relevance of this to the speed of contemporary life – and there is now a social movement around slowing down life – might be a discussion point as we move through this volume.
  2. Use-value plays a significant role in Capital II. Marx has already mentioned in Chapters 7 and 23 of Capital I that capitalists must find definite sorts of use-values on the market to initiate the production of value and surplus-value. These are means of production and labour-power. This division into two sorts of use-values is developed through Part I and then becomes the object of a long demonstration in Part III. Capitalist production tends toward two departments of production: Department I, producing means of production, and Department II, producing means of subsistence. This suggests that the use-value appearance of capitalism is coloured by its tendency toward splitting into two classes: those that control means of production, and those that sell their labour-power to gain access to means of production and thus reproduce their lives. The whole of the product of Department I in its materiality is only of use to capitalists. So, perhaps counter-intuitively, use-value is a very significant concept for Capital II. And, further, this might contradict Friedrich Engels’ comments that there is very little for politics in Capital II. The materiality of class relations – and even ideology – might be a discussion point as we move through this volume; this might be another way of gaging the concept of real subsumption or the properly developed concept of capitalism.

Both of these points are drawn from Patrick Murray’s commentary on Capital II, in “Beyond the ‘Commerce and Industry’ Picture of Capital,” in Chris Arthur and Geert Reuten, The Circulation of Capital: Essays on Volume Two of Marx’s ‘Capital’ (London, 1998).

***

There is an interesting comment in Engels’ introduction (97-102) about what it is that Marx does in his critique of political economy. Engels compares Marx’s discovery of what value is with Lavoisier’s discovery of what oxygen is in chemistry.

He says that earlier chemists had isolated, or produced, oxygen, but didn’t know what they had: “Both Priestley and Scheele had produced oxygen, but they were unaware of what they had laid their hands on. They remained captives of the … categories they had inherited” (98). They believed they had a sort of air, rather than an element. Lavoisier discovered that what they had produced was in fact a new element: oxygen:

Even if Lavoisier did not himself produce oxygen at the same time as the others … he remained nonetheless the real discoverer of oxygen, as opposed to Scheele and Priestley who had merely produced it, without having the slightest idea of what they had produced (98).

If we read for Priestley and Scheele, Smith and Ricardo, we can see what Engels is getting at. Smith and Ricard, and others, had isolated the concept of value, but didn’t know what it was. Marx discovers that it is the social form of labour within capitalism: a particular social form and not simply labour.

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