Das Kapital Summary

Karl Marx

Das Kapital

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Das Kapital Summary

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Famed economist and philosopher Karl Marx published the first volume of Capital: Critique of Political Economy (Das Kapital: Kritik der politischenÖkonomiein the original German) in 1867. The second and third volumes were published in Germany in 1885 and 1894, years after Marx’s death in 1883. Altogether, Capital exceeds 800 pages.Marx only fully finished the first volume, and his collaborator throughout the project, philosopher and mill owner Friedrich Engels, used incomplete manuscripts to complete and publish Volumes Two and Three.

Capital is a seminal work in economics, political theory, history, philosophy, and several other social sciences. It has inspired communist and socialist movements around the world, as well as workers’ rights legislature in capitalist countries such as the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. Its themes include the power of money to conceal everyday exploitation, the arbitrary nature of working conditions, and the modern-day alienation brought on by unjust working conditions. It gave rise to many well-known concepts. These include historical materialism, a system of historical analysis that asks how the economy elucidates power dynamics at any given time, and commodity fetishism, the drive that leads members of a capitalist society to think constantly of money and to strive for it, often to the detriment of their wellbeing.

In Part I, “Commodities and Money,” Marx defines a commodity as anything that meets a human desire. Commodities are the smallest unit of capitalism. In Marx’s view, capitalism is the individual (or corporate) attempt to accumulate more and more wealth, often by owning the means of productions. That is, if someone can own a printing press, then they have the means to produce a book, and they can use the resultant commodities to make and sell even more commodities.

In Marx’s labor theory of value, not all commodities are created equal. A commodity’s value can be understood by its “use value” and its “exchange value.” The use value is the utility of the object and is naturally possessed by the object; for example, a hammer is good at driving in a nail through a hard surface. The exchange value, in contrast, is entirely artificial and depends on the value of the commodity compared to other commodities. Exchange value explains why, in today’s terms, Prada can sell a shirt for significantly more money than GAP can: though both companies sell a shirt that serves the same function, there is an ineffable social advantage that Prada’s shirt offers that GAP’s does not.

Though every commodity has a use value and an exchange value, there is only one symbol that visibly conveys the value of an object: money. Marx writes that what accounts for the wildly different prices for an object depends on how much labor goes into making it. In fact, the amount of labor that goes into making an object is the only criteria by which commodities are comparable.

By basing all products on an exchange product, the arbitrary social division of labor and economic profit is obscured. Exchange value allows for large groups of people to be exploited while others profit to an unfair degree, and the upper echelons of society may only profit when lower classes suffer.

Marx writes that capitalists try to exploit exchange value: they sell commodities always with the goal of increasing their own profit. They have no obligation to workers, and while appearing just and fair, they do not have to acknowledge the exchange value – the full magnitude of labor – that goes into making a product.Under capitalism, workers are only paid for their use value, but capitalist business owners are paid for their use value and their exchange value. Thus, capitalists severely exploit workers.

Workers are not in a position to fight for their rights. Because capitalists own the stores, machines, factories, and other means of production, capitalists have all the power and get to dictate how people are to spend their workdays.

In describing the alienation of the worker, Marx also notes that lower class people, ever since the Industrial Revolution, have been increasingly treated no better than cattle. People of all ages, who had to work fourteen hours a day in dirty factories doing one repetitive task, were, in his theory, being treated like machines (or like “automatons”). Through their labor, workers create “surplus value” – that is, they add an exchange value to the use value of any object. This surplus value is sold on the market, but the only party to truly benefit from this surplus value is the capitalist owner.

Marx draws a sharp distinction between money and capital. Capital is money used to make more money. Money is simply a symbol for commodities of various sizes. That is, money signals that an individual can obtain, at any time, a certain commodity. Capitalism is unique in comparison with other economies because in this system, the accumulation of capital itself is the goal. According to Marx, capitalists aren’t searching for commodities per se, but for the power to own an unlimited and ever-increasing number of commodities.

Marx reviews in detail several revolutions, including the French Revolution, and hypothesizes that capitalism is an unstable system because workers will always, one day, realize just how exploited they are. While Capital provides an in-depth, scholarly account of this process, he wrote about the same theories in The Communist Manifesto (1847) which, being intended for a wider audience, is easier to read.