eBook - ePub


A Companion to Marx's Economy Critique

Johan Fornäs

Share book
  1. 346 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub


A Companion to Marx's Economy Critique

Johan Fornäs

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents

About This Book

In the most complete, accurate and accessible presentation of Karl Marx's theory of capitalism to date, Johan Fornäs presents a guide for anyone who wants to understand how today's crisis-ridden society has emerged and is able to sustain and intensify its own deep inner contradictions. Capitalism clearly explains these contradictions, which are so relevant again today in the wake of the financial crisis.

This clear and engaging guide explains capitalism for absolute beginners. Fornäs situates Marx's ideas in context, remaining faithful to the concepts and structure of his work. This complete introduction to Marx's economy critique covers all three volumes of Capital. It explores all the main aspects of Marx's work – including his economic theory, his philosophical sophistication and his political critique – introducing the reader to Marx's typical blend of sharp arguments, ruthless social reportage and utopian visions.

This book will be of interest to students throughout the social sciences and humanities, including those studying sociology, social theory, economics, business studies, history, cultural studies, and politics.

Frequently asked questions

How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is Capitalism an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access Capitalism by Johan Fornäs in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Ciencias sociales & Sociología. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.



1 Introduction

What is capitalism? How can a form of society be so confusingly contradictory? It combines the most rational calculation of organised masses with the most unruly forms of anarchic individualism, creating unprecedented progress, expansion and enormous wealth together with deepening economic and ecological crises as well as frightful poverty and misery around the globe. Which are the basic elements of this Janus-faced society? How can profits be made on the basis of markets where commodities are exchanged for just and equal values, and where wage-labourers seem to get fair pay for their work? From where does money get its almost magical powers? How can owners of money or natural resources earn fortunes without working while the rest of us must work so hard and still never get rich? Over and over again, workers are hired to work and get corresponding wages for which they buy necessities of subsistence: do they work in order to live or live in order to work? Why are those banks needed that cause such devastating financial crises? Who rules the economy, or is everybody just a pawn in the game of a self-perpetual capitalist system?
The modern world is deceptive. Things constantly turn out to be different from their first appearance. Scientists and scholars of various kinds have through scrupulous analyses been able to show what actual mechanisms lie behind the misleading impressions of everyday experience. It was easy to believe that the sun spins around the earth, until Copernicus, Kepler and Galilei found a better way to describe their relations. Natural science has given a more plausible explanation of something hard to understand just from everyday experience, by disclosing a rule-bound mechanism behind the appearances, and that this mechanism is also the reason why these appearances have for such a long time been misinterpreted.
Appearances deceive in many ways and in many areas of life, and this calls for critical reflection and theoretical explanations. It is the same with human societies, including in particular the one that dominates the world of today. Capitalism is an extraordinarily deceptive form of society, which is on all levels built upon misleading mechanisms of contradiction and reversal. Under capitalism things are not what they appear to be. Everyday impressions are not sufficient to understand how it works. Some kind of systematic study is needed for dissolving various illusions created by the way capitalist economies function.
Unlike the laws of nature, the social laws of society have been created by the ways in which people interact socially: ‘a scientific analysis of competition is possible only if we can grasp the inner nature of capital, just as the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies are intelligible only to someone who is acquainted with their real motions, which are not perceptible to the senses’.1
Marx conceived his inquiry as a method for exploring the ‘inner nature’ of things, their ‘real motions’, not halting by their ‘apparent motions’ experienced by our sense perceptions. It seeks to understand the real relations that are hidden by their appearances. Understanding a social phenomenon means grasping its real essence. Descriptions alone do not suffice. All the ‘facts’ encountered in the news do not really sink in before they are in some way comprehended. Interpretations are necessary and they need to take the detour through some kind of theoretical explanations in order to grasp the fundamental patterns and dynamics behind the incoherent mess of daily impressions. In order to understand the phenomena, one needs to analyse their inner constitution and functions in society.
Those who do not understand the capitalist world are powerless against its rules, and it is really good at producing such ignorant passivity. With its core in the critique of political economy, Marxism is a method designed for investigating the inner complexities of capitalism and offering tools to comprehend and criticise the social reality we live in. For Marx, there was a strong link between theoretical understanding and political action: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’.2 On the other hand, in order to change this world for the better, it must be comprehended.

Why Marx today?

Karl Marx (1818–1883) published the first volume of his main work Capital in 1867; the second was published posthumously by his friend Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) in 1885 and the unfinished third in 1894. Together with his many other related texts, this is a uniquely rich and influential source of insights into what capitalism is all about. One may perhaps believe that history has shown that capitalism is completely different today, that workers now have so much better living conditions and that systematic exploitation passed away with the nineteenth century. And wasn't Marx completely mistaken in predicting that capitalism would collapse by its own economic crises and be surpassed by some kind of socialism or communism?
Some of Marx's predictions must certainly have failed; else the world would be different. Yet, the essence of capitalism remains in place, even though its appearances have shifted radically. Wage-labour is still the rule for a majority of the world's citizens, and even though workers may have conquered a level of welfare in many Western countries, there is a vast inequality and even poverty on a global scale. Also, Marx repeatedly stressed that it is not the absolute level of impoverishment that counts, but the relative levels. The riches of the world are certainly no less unevenly distributed today than in his time and, even more importantly, the promises of welfare, freedom, autonomy and solidarity given by capitalist ideology to the world's citizens are constantly broken. In some respects, Marx's analysis is even more valid today than in his lifetime, as capitalism has by now fully developed its mechanisms that were then only found in germinal form.
Capitalism is at base an economic system, but it affects all levels and aspects of human life and culture as well. Literary author Franz Kafka once expressed this well:
Capitalism is a system of relationships, which go from inside to out, from outside to in, from above to below, and from below to above. Everything is relative, everything is in chains. Capitalism is a condition both of the world and of the soul.3
One therefore need not be a narrow-minded economist to take interest in Marxist theory. And in 1937, Max Horkheimer, who was with Theodor W. Adorno and others a leading proponent of so-called ‘critical theory’ of the ‘Frankfurt School’, said that ‘the problem of what is called economism does not consist in taking the economic as too important but comprehending it in a too narrow sense’.4
Political economy is two things. On the one hand, it denotes the whole system of capitalist society – the basic way in which it organises social life in production, distribution, daily life, politics and culture. On the other hand, it is the self-understanding of this society according to leading capitalist ideologies. Bourgeois economists and other experts tend to deliver explanations based on the misunderstandings that capitalism itself gives rise to in everyday life. Non-reflected everyday consciousness is filled with half-truths that conceal crucial connections and thereby reinforce powerlessness.
Marx's critique of political economy criticises capitalist theories of capitalism as well as capitalism itself. Its aim is to develop consciousness: to discern the inner contradictory logics of this society and thereby offer tools for critical action and solidary struggle for emancipation. With Capital and its side texts, Marx has written the best guide there is to understand the fundamentals of capitalism, combining strong political commitment with brilliant pedagogic and stylistic skills, all based on a unique method of research and presentation that manages to go behind appearances and reach down to the systematic roots that explain them and indicate how the world can be made changed.
Even though capitalist society creates illusions that block critical knowledge, all human beings have capacities to look through some smoke screens and reach true insights. Even without academic training, everybody can learn something important of how capitalism works, and Marx's work is an eminent tool for that. It pays off to work with his concepts, since they turn out to offer a spinal framework that lends structure and direction to one's own efforts to find an orientation in personal, social and political life. It gives a wonderful sense of satisfaction to be able to analyse some urgent issue, without always having to rely on what is written in papers or blogs, or what friends and colleagues happen to think. It is exciting to develop well-founded knowledge.
Marx's critique of capitalism sets up a set of basic concepts and models that underpin or at least inspire all subsequent radical democratic social theories. Marx began this work more than 150 years ago, and though his analysis certainly is unfinished and at certain points deserves revision, it is far from outdated even today in the twenty-first century. Capitalism has been transformed but is still a form of capitalism, and contemporary changes can still to a large extent be explained on the basis of the key Marxist concepts.
This does not imply that Marx's theories suffice. Marxism needs continuously to be developed in relation to new areas and problems, emerging through experiences of practical action. Theory and practice are inseparable. Theory should inspire transformative practice, which in turn is a source for new theoretisation. One reason why there is in practice often a lack of such interaction is that theory has remained inaccessible to most people. For too long, Marxist theory has been a concern only for the selected few, and even fewer have mastered its tools so well as to be able to make productive use of them.
Marxism itself has a complicated history filled with internal divisions. Different traditions have focused on different aspects of Marx's theory, and much has been revised or forgotten. Various interpretations of Marxism have later legitimated disastrous forms of authoritarian rule in the name of proletarian revolution. No theory can ever be immune from such misuse, but even sceptics should listen to Marx's own voice, try to understand why it became so influential and get a sense of its main arguments, which are so often in many respects contrary to what has later been disseminated under the label of Marxism. Marxism needs to be liberated from its imprisonment in political sects, academic specialisms and solitary reading and to gain new vitality by being circulated among people who are able to link theoretical concepts to their own everyday life experiences.

This book

From the 1960s, growing efforts have been made to reconstitute the inner complexity of Marxist theory. Not least in Central Europe, a series of rediscoveries fed into a critical intellectual movement from which this book has emanated. It presents Marx's basic theories in an accessible manner, but remains true to its key concepts. It gives non-academic and academic readers alike a systematic understanding of the main Marxist ideas, helping to use these theories as tools rather than as rules.
This is no academic treatise but an introductory guide to capitalism for anyone who wants to understand Marx's critique and explore what it means today. It invites the general reader to a summary of Marx's critical analysis of capitalism. Footnotes point to selected other works, but with no ambition to cover the wide fields of Marxist research.
Instead of offering a smorgasbord of various ingredients, this book strives to guide the reader through Marx's original ideas in Capital as faithfully and coherently as possible. At certain points, it links these to ideas from Marx's other works and sometimes also to later Marxist texts that clarify interpretive options in Marx's own text. It is sometimes tempting to revise and update his analyses, but this is not the task here. Instead of adding new and fashionable concepts, the book builds a conceptual basis from which it is possible to make such new theoretical interventions for those who wish to do so. The guiding principle has been to understand what Marx actually wrote and leave the elaboration of that meaning in relation to later theories maximally open. The book can be read by itself or as a companion to the three volumes of Capital. For a more systematic study, a postscript suggests questions for reflection and discussion for each chapter.
Capitalists and workers are generally male gendered here, as in Marx's own text, so as not to create unnecessary conflicts between the Marx quotes and the main text.
Chapter 2 presents Marx's method, clarifying the main structure of how Marx approached his subject, thus preparing for reading Marx. After that, the book closely follows the structure of Capital, from the famous opening of its first volume, with the detailed analysis of the most central mechanisms of capitalism in commodity production and exchange, then adding more and more aspects of empirical reality until reaching the unfinished end of the third volume of Capital. It follows faithfully in Marx's footsteps into the mysteries of the commodity form, money and capital. It shows how commodity fetishism, exploitation and wage-labour work, how industries and technologies function, how capitalism once emerged, how values are distributed among a wide range of economic actors, what are the key mechanisms in recurrent economic crises, which are the basic modes of capitalist ideology and how capitalism prepares its own dissolution.
The beginning may seem awkward, focusing on linen and coats and paying attention to tiny details, while a whole range of burning issues and objections are postponed. Some chapters later, it should become much clearer why this initial detour was needed. ‘Beginnings are always difficult in all sciences. The understanding of the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will therefore present the greatest difficulty’.5 This difficulty derives from the effort to present the basic concepts in a systematic manner, starting with the innermost and most basic relations of capitalist society, momentarily leaving other aspects aside to be explained later, on a level where the necessary explanatory concepts have been developed. Concepts are thus not presented in any arbitrary order, but evolve from each other in an order corresponding to how they interrelate in capitalist society.
Therefore, the systematic investigation starts in Chapter 3 with a close analysis of the commodity, with its use-value and exchange-value. The relation between these two aspects is then developed into the necessity of money. Commodities and money belong together, since they can be exchanged for on...

Table of contents