Das Kapital by Karl Marx was the result of nearly thirty years of work on the part of Karl Marx and his influences and protracted study of the nature of not only the capitalist economy, but also the social and historical forces that shape interactions among people both within and outside of trade. The first volume ofDas Kapital was published in 1867 at a time when the working conditions for industrial laborers were terrible and the division between the classes was growing increasingly more pronounced. It must not be forgotten that Das Kapital was a work born out of the industrial revolution and although eventually conditions would change for the better, this is an important treatise and critique of the system that created such squalor for some many of the working poor in Europe.
For the most part, according to the editor’s introduction essay to the translation of Das Kapital, much of Marx’s observations of the thirty-year period were in England, which were at once the center of the industrial revolution (with all of its glory) as well as the epicenter of the urban degradation caused by rapid and massive industrialization. While these theories about the nature of the worker, the work day, the capitalist, and economies in general were influential after their first publication, the same ideas still persist in general conversations about our modern economy—especially in terms of capitalism. In order to present the most succinct overview, analysis, and interpretation of Das Kapital ,it seems necessary to chronologically go through Das Kapital for this essay and examine some key points and themes, examine them within Marx’s context, and finally present them as templates for looking at modern capitalism society, industry, and economy.
Without any fanfare, Marx begins the first chapter of Das Kapital with a statement concerning commodities. He defines a commodity as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of sort or another” (125). It is interesting that Marx begins the text with a discussion and definition of a commodity and after several successive chapters, it is clear to see that the commodity is one of the main driving forces behind capitalism. The commodity itself, however, is only valued according to demand or other more ethereal conditions and thus it is a perfect item for the capitalist as it presents no fixed “price” in itself, but its value is rather determined by desire and the potential for profit. To backtrack for a moment, however, a more concise definition of commodity is contained within the idea of “use value.”
This refers to a commodity’s value in how it will be used and how it is desired but this value, according to Marx, has little to do with the actual labor that went into the production of the item. Again, while it is not immediately clear at this early point in the text, the use value versus the idea of labor are important issues because there is more distinction between the two than one might initially think. For instance, something might have a very high use-value and be greatly desired. This desire leads the capitalist to make it expensive and the laborer who made the desired commodity is not paid what the desired commodity is worth, but rather is paid living wages while the surplus profits go directly to the capitalist since he owns the means of production. While that was a very brief, concise, but altogether limited description of the process behind commodities and use value, it is useful background information to frame the discussion as this analysis continues.
After this introduction to commodities and use values in Das Kapital , the idea of exchange value becomes of equal importance. As Marx puts it in one of the important quotations from “Das Kapital”, “As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value” (127). In other words, it is the proportion by which use values of one kind exchange for use values of another kind. This is a vital and fluctuating relationship and has less to do with the commodity than it might initially seem. For example, to put this into a modern context, let us assume that an iPod and a particular brand of cell phone equal x. In this case let’s make “x” stand for an inexpensive computer. In short, both the iPod and the cell phone must come out to be equivalent to another item. While this may be a confusing analogy, it is important to remember that the common item cannot be part of the initial commodity but rather must be subtracted from its use-value.
Once those use values are taken care of, the only commodity left is the work that went into the production of the item. In short, the common element in a commodity’s exchange-value is simply the “value” of it. This means that it all comes down to labor. This is a common tactic Marx employs, at first there a number of daunting methods for scientifically extracting a conception of value but in the end, it all boils down to questions about work and laborer. What has not yet been mentioned, however, is that labor is not an issue when it comes to the natural resources that went into the final commodity since they did not require labor.
Marx makes a strange shift in tone at the beginning of Chapter 2 of Das Kapital that should be noted and analyzed. He states, “persons exist for one another merely as representatives of, and, therefore, as owners of, commodities. In the course of our investigation we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relationships that exist between them” (178). This is slightly disconcerting because this is one of the few moments in Das Kapital when Marx seems to be offering an explicit social as well as economic critique about the nature of capitalist interactions. What he is suggesting, in essence, is akin to saying that this system of capital and commodities has reduced everyone to acting based on economic decisions. There is not a hint of emotion, ethics, or other moral guidance at play here. Instead, human interactions are thus reduced to exchange and more importantly, capital itself. In the same section of Das Kapital he goes on to remark upon the commodity that, “the bodily form of this commodity becomes the form of the socially recognized universal equivalent.
To be the universal equivalent, becomes, by this social process, the specific function of the commodity thus excluded by the rest. Thus it becomes—money” (180). Although in this latter section essay from Das Kapital presented here it is less clear, this is an indeed a moral judgment Marx is passing along about the nature of capitalism. He does not suggest at any other point throughout the text where capitalism and the ideological basis for it comes from, nor does he explore the ethics or morals to an great degree (at least overtly) but this is one clear case in which he is examining the way society is changed as a result of capital and commodities. We are no longer simply working together to form a society, but we are all individuals with varying amounts of capital, thus we are reduced to having human interactions that are limited and impersonal as we are all “characters” and as such we appear only as the economic relationships that define us. While some might argue that this is an overly literal way of reading the beginning of Chapter 2 of Das Kapital , it is important because it lets the reader into the morality as well as the scientific deconstruction of capitalism.