Friday, February 23, 2007


Constantine Levin did not like talking or hearing about the beauty of nature. Words seemed to detract from the beauty of what he was looking at.


Sergey Ivanovitch Koznishev wanted a rest from mental work, and instead of going abroad as he usually did, he came towards the end of May to stay in the country with his brother. In his judgment the best sort of life was a country life. He had come now to enjoy such a life at his brother's. Konstantin Levin was very glad to have him, especially as he did not expect his brother Nikolay that summer. But in spite of his affection and respect for Sergey Ivanovitch, Konstantin Levin was uncomfortable with his brother in the country. It made him uncomfortable, and it positively annoyed him to see his brother's attitude to the country. To Konstantin Levin the country was the background of life, that is of pleasures, endeavors, labor. To Sergey Ivanovitch the country meant on one hand rest from work, on the other a valuable antidote to the corrupt influences of town, which he took with satisfaction and a sense of its utility. To Konstantin Levin the country was good first because it afforded a field for labor, of the usefulness of which there could be no doubt. To Sergey Ivanovitch the country was particularly good, because there it was possible and fitting to do nothing. Moreover, Sergey Ivanovitch's attitude to the peasants rather piqued Konstantin. Sergey Ivanovitch used to say that he knew and liked the peasantry, and he often talked to the peasants, which he knew how to do without affectation or condescension, and from every such conversation he would deduce general conclusions in favor of the peasantry and in confirmation of his knowing them. Konstantin Levin did not like such an attitude to the peasants. To Konstantin the peasant was simply the chief partner in their common labor, and in spite of all the respect and the love, almost like that of kinship, he had for the peasant--sucked in probably, as he said himself, with the milk of his peasant nurse- -still as a fellow-worker with him, while sometimes enthusiastic over the vigor, gentleness, and justice of these men, he was very often, when their common labors called for other qualities, exasperated with the peasant for his carelessness, lack of method, drunkenness, and lying. If he had been asked whether he liked or didn't like the peasants, Konstantin Levin would have been absolutely at a loss what to reply. He liked and did not like the peasants, just as he liked and did not like men in general. Of course, being a good-hearted man, he liked men rather than he disliked them, and so too with the peasants. But like or dislike "the people" as something apart he could not, not only because he lived with "the people," and all his interests were bound up with theirs, but also because he regarded himself as a part of "the people," did not see any special qualities or failings distinguishing himself and "the people," and could not contrast himself with them. Moreover, although he had lived so long in the closest relations with the peasants, as farmer and arbitrator, and what was more, as adviser (the peasants trusted him, and for thirty miles round they would come to ask his advice), he had no definite views of "the people," and would have been as much at a loss to answer the question whether he knew "the people" as the question whether he liked them. For him to say he knew the peasantry would have been the same as to say he knew men. He was continually watching and getting to know people of all sorts, and among them peasants, whom he regarded as good and interesting people, and he was continually observing new points in them, altering his former views of them and forming new ones. With Sergey Ivanovitch it was quite the contrary. Just as he liked and praised a country life in comparison with the life he did not like, so too he liked the peasantry in contradistinction to the class of men he did not like, and so too he knew the peasantry as something distinct from and opposed to men generally. In his methodical brain there were distinctly formulated certain aspects of peasant life, deduced partly from that life itself, but chiefly from contrast with other modes of life. He never changed his opinion of the peasantry and his sympathetic attitude towards them.

In the discussions that arose between the brothers on their views of the peasantry, Sergey Ivanovitch always got the better of his brother, precisely because Sergey Ivanovitch had definite ideas about the peasant--his character, his qualities, and his tastes. Konstantin Levin had no definite and unalterable idea on the subject, and so in their arguments Konstantin was readily convicted of contradicting himself.

In Sergey Ivanovitch's eyes his younger brother was a capital fellow, with his heart in the right place (as he expressed it in French), but with a mind which, though fairly quick, was too much influenced by the impressions of the moment, and consequently filled with contradictions. With all the condescension of an elder brother he sometimes explained to him the true import of things, but he derived little satisfaction from arguing with him because he got the better of him too easily.

Konstantin Levin regarded his brother as a man of immense intellect and culture, as generous in the highest sense of the word, and possessed of a special faculty for working for the public good. But in the depths of his heart, the older he became, and the more intimately he knew his brother, the more and more frequently the thought struck him that this faculty of working for the public good, of which he felt himself utterly devoid, was possibly not so much a quality as a lack of something--not a lack of good, honest, noble desires and tastes, but a lack of vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse which drives a man to choose some one out of the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one. The better he knew his brother, the more he noticed that Sergey Ivanovitch and many other people who worked for the public welfare were not led by an impulse of the heart to care for the public good, but reasoned from intellectual considerations that it was a right thing to take interest in public-affairs, and consequently took interest in them. Levin was confirmed in this generalization by observing that his brother did not take questions affecting the public welfare or the question of the immortality of the soul a bit more to heart than he did chess problems, or the ingenious construction of a new machine.

Besides this, Konstantin Levin was not at his ease with his brother, because in summer in the country Levin was continually busy with work on the land, and the long summer day was not long enough for him to get through all he had to do, while Sergey Ivanovitch was taking a holiday. But though he was taking a holiday now, that is to say, he was doing no writing, he was so used to intellectual activity that he liked to put into concise and eloquent shape the ideas that occurred to him, and liked to have some one to listen to him. His most usual and natural 1istener was his brother. And so in spite of the friendliness and directness of their relations, Konstantin felt an awkwardness in leaving him alone. Sergey Ivanovitch liked to stretch himself on the grass in the sun, and to lie so, basking and chatting lazily.

"You wouldn't believe," he would say to his brother, "what a pleasure this rural laziness is to me. Not an idea in one's brain, as empty as a drum!"

But Konstantin Levin found it dull sitting and listening to him, especially when he knew that while he was away they would be carting dung onto the fields not ploughed ready for it, and heaping it all up anyhow; and would not screw the shares in the ploughs, but would let them come off and then say that the new ploughs were a silly invention, and there was nothing like the old Andreevna plough, and so on.

"Come, you've done enough trudging about in the heat," Sergey Ivanovitch would say to him.

"No, I must just run round to the counting-house for a minute," Levin would answer, and he would run off to the fields.

- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


A while ago, I linked to an article from about the methods of torture employed by the US government against a so-called terrorist, Jose Padilla. In today´s Guardian, Naomi Klein follows up the story :

Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an "enemy combatant" and taken to a navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a cell 9ft by 7ft, with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a "truth serum", a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Transport for London has just launched an online exhibition of photos by Rut Blees Luxemburg : modernist photographs of the most beautiful modernists buildings that exist in London : the stations of the Piccadilly Line.

The line is 100 years old this month, and while its zone 1 stations are nothing to shout about, being suppressed amidst the muddle of the inner-city, its station-buildings in the outer zones, and especially in the north, are almost gothic in their mystery.

I must admit a prejudice here : the area covered by the stations between Arnos Grove and Caledonian Road has been my stomping ground for the last five years. The northernmost stops of the Piccadilly Line represent a hinterland in London. Whenever there is a northbound delay on the Piccadilly Line, it is always because of "an incident at Arnos Grove." God knows what goes on up there, but it is as if we are not supposed to know : the activities of the residents of Enfield and north-Haringey exist in isolation. They are for them to know, and the rest of us to wonder about.

I don´t really know Cockfosters and Oakwood (they are just a bit too northern even for me), but reading the comments which accompany the photos of those stations further south (written by London Underground staff whose workplaces are their preserve) are illuminating. Of Arnos Grove, Juliet writes : "working here somehow feels like stepping back in time." Actually, the journey from Arnos Grove into the centre is my absolute favourite, far better than anything the Ballardian Jubilee Line, or the hideous DLR, has to offer. Arnos Grove is more than suburban - it is almost rustic. Waiting for your train in the open air (and the sun always seems to shine on Arnos Grove), you might as well be in Manningtree. I get the same feeling boarding the train at Arnos Grove as I used to get at Manningtree station when I was a kid : the pure thrill of the knowledge that you are only minutes away from the bright lights, the pavement cafes, the roar of the traffic, the bookshops on Charing Cross Road and Bloomsbury. And because the sun always shines on Arnos Grove, it is still shining when I get off at Leicester Square.

Wood Green and Turnpike Lane are hives of frenzied activity, far livelier and carnivalesque than Piccadilly Circus. Strangely enough, the sun never shines on Wood Green, but if I had to choose an area of London to be preserved forever, it would be Wood Green. Goddamnit, I would fight wars to defend Wood Green. Unlike other comparably gritty areas of London (Brixton, or Hackney, for example), I can´t believe Wood Green will ever be trendy. You won´t find many Observer readers quaffing their mochas here. But the ethnic mix of Wood Green (and Haringey, easily the most beautiful borough in London) is incredible - it feels to me like one of those 80s socialist experiments gone right. You couldn´t say that it is entirely integrated : Ghanaians have their area, Turks have theirs, Greeks have theirs (a little further north, in the (I find) surreal Palmers Green). But it is awash with excitement, a little like (don´t laugh) downtown Manhatten. Plus, while we´re going hogwild with the hyperbole, it also boasts the greatest park (Alexandra) and the greatest walk (Alexandra ward to Crouch End, and down to Seven Sisters Road), and the greatest view (that from the palace) in London.

Then there is the no-man´s land of Manor House, the spaghetti-junction of Finsbury Park, the match-day only Arsenal, the antedeluvian Holloway Road, and the calm-before-the-storm of Caledonian Road (with its randomly multi-lingual lifts) ... and then King´s Cross, whose renovations I currently think have ruined it, but which, come the end of the summer, I know I will love.

In fact, I´d go as far as to say that the only thing the northern Piccadilly Line doesn´t have is the only London Underground station not to contain any of the letters in the world "mackerel". Which, as we all know, is -- ----- ----.


In my last post about Capital, I asked, if the flow of capital nowadays is so ephemeral, can we even talk of a thing called capital?

Marx´s definition of capital is simple : "Capital is money ; Capital is commodities." Money can buy commodities ; commodities can buy money.

Let us imagine two scenarios :

(1) A farmer produces a certain amount of oats, and sells it to a merchant for 100 pounds. With this 100 pounds he buys clothes for himself.

(2) A merchant buys a certain amount of oats with 100 pounds. He then sells the oats for 110 pounds.

In both of these scenarios, commodities and money are being circulated ; and in both, we have buyers and sellers. The difference is this : "the simple circulation of commodities (in scenario (1)) begins with a sale and ends in a purchase, while the circulation of money as capital (in scenario (2)) begins with a purchase and ends in a sale." In (1) "the money is in the end converted into a commodity, that serves as a use-value ; it is spent once and for all." But in (2), the agent "lets the money go, but only with the sly intention of getting it back again. The money, therefore, is not spent, but merely advanced."

Here we see the difference between what Marx calls use-value, and exchange-value. In scenario (1), which we can formularise as C-M-C, the intention of the transaction is the use-value of the final commodity, i.e. the warmth which the clothes will afford the buyer. In (2), M-C-M, the intention is the maximisation of the exchange-value of the commodity. In (2), the capitalist will seek to perpetuate the profits gained by his exchange, ad infinitum.

The simple circulation of commodities - selling in order to buy - is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.

The capitalist has no interest in use-values, as such, and therefore scenario (1), C-M-C, is of no real value to him. C-M-C is a one-off, closed circuit ; the capitalist, on the other hand, seeks a circulation of capital that is perpetually open, and which therefore has the potential for endless profit.

So, if the maximisation of value depends on an active, moving process, its form can only be money, for money both opens and concludes the simple transaction M-C-M. But, as Marx states, "the money itself is only one of the two forms of value. Unless it takes the form of some commodity, it does not become capital." In the circulation C-M-C, money only serves to buy a commodity for its use-value, and thus terminates the exchange. But in M-C-M, money develops a momentum of its own, outside of its value.

It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value; as the father differentiates himself from himself qua the son, yet both are one and of one age: for only by the surplus-value of £10 does the £100 originally advanced become capital, and so soon as this takes place, so soon as the son, and by the son, the father, is begotten, so soon does their difference vanish, and they again become one, £110.


To recap, the formula for capital is : M-C-M. But to whom does this apply?

For the producer of the oats in scenario (2) - the seller in the transaction M-C - it would appear to make little difference whether the buyer decides to sell the oats for a profit, or to turn it into porridge for his family. Likewise, the buyer in the transaction C-M will not care much at what price the seller originally bought the oats. To the first, the capitalist is a buyer ; to the second, he is a seller ; that, it would seem, is all. Indeed, it is only for him that the sequence M-C-M exists at all. His identity as a capitalist, as someone who lives to perpetuate the exchange of capital, must, therefore, derive elsewhere.

A further difference between use-value transactions and exchange-value transactions is this : "(In exchange-value), the value of a commodity is expressed in its price before it goes into circulation, and is therefore a precedent condition of circulation, not its result."

So, Marx supposes, what if a seller decides to sell a commodity above its value : say, a quantity of corn worth 100 pounds (which, for Marx, means it incorporates 100 pounds of socially-necessary labour) for 110 pounds? The seller will obviously make a 10 pound, or 10%, profit. Now, in order to keep the perpetual M-C-M-C-M... circulation going, he must invest his money in a new commodity : perhaps candles. And the candle-seller must now also sell this product for 10% above its value, for if our corn-seller is the only profiteer in the land, he will attain a monopoly, and capitalism will go under. So he buys candles from the candle-seller at 10% above their value, and thus loses his original 10% profit. What goes around, comes around : which means we still have not explained where surplus-value comes from. As Marx explains,

the upholders of the delusion that surplus-value has its origin in a nominal rise of prices or in the privilege which the seller has of selling too dear, must assume the existence of a class that only buys and does not sell, i.e., only consumes and does not produce. The existence of such a class is inexplicable from the standpoint we have so far reached, viz., that of simple circulation. But let us anticipate. The money with which such a class is constantly making purchases, must constantly flow into their pockets, without any exchange, gratis, by might or right, from the pockets of the commodity-owners themselves.

To be sure, says Marx, something strange and contradictory is going on here. Surplus-value is created during the exchange of capital, yet it must arise outside the circulation itself. Anyone with a vague knowledge of Marx will know where all this is leading. "Our friend Moneybags," Marx concludes in Chapter 5, "who as yet is only an embryo capitalist, must buy his commodities at their value, must sell them at their value, and yet at the end of the process must withdraw more value from circulation than he threw into it at starting." Well, indeed...


And so we come to the heart of the matter :

In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in capacity for labour or labour-power.

To turn his money into capital, the capitalist must do a deal with someone who has (a) labour-power at his disposal that he is willing to sell and (b) no other commodity or money that he can put into circulation. The reason why such a deal might come about - the reason why the capitalist has the resources to make the purchase, and why the labourer must complete the sale in order to survive - is a complex question. It is, in fact, explained by the birth of capitalism.

Anyhow, to explain the origin of surplus-value, we must look beyond the simple transaction, to the place where labour, as a commodity, creates it own, and a further, value.

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man (...) On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.


PS : I am very aware that, thus far, I am merely summarising Capital. I am barely equipped to undertake much of an analysis at the moment, except from my own experiences. This is probably not very helpful ; anyone who has ever worked for a wage can relate their own experiences to what Marx says. Nevertheless, Marx is often criticised for the flimsiness of evidence which he gives for the labour theory of value, which we are fast approaching. I know of one essay - Joan Robinson´s "Essay of Marxian Economics" - which addresses this. If anyone knows of others, please let me know, and I shall add these counter-arguments to the heap.

PPS : There is one type of transaction which Marx neglects to mention. He deals with selling commodities to buy other commodities (C-M-C), and with buying commodities to sell on (M-C-M), but not with the transaction I am most familiar with : buying commodities, and then losing or breaking them (M-C-X). So far in Bolivia, my damned purchases include :

  • 1 ashtray made entirely of salt - lost in a hostel, recovered with a chunk missing from the rim (maybe someone was hungry?), lost again.
  • 1 pair of earrings for romantic-interest - accidentally sat on by purchaser.
  • 1 travel Scrabble set - left out in the rain for three days, recovered, but with only 17 letters, including only one e.
  • 1 pair of llama-wool gloves - burned beyond repair while being used as oven-mits.
  • 1 Grace Jones CD - accidentally sat on by purchaser´s romantic interest.
  • 1 pair of robust shoes - left on bus (though thankfully I did remember my bag of rotten fruit...)
  • 1 can of deodorant - last seen, inexplicably, in the refrigerator of hostel.

Now come on Karl - where is your chapter on M-C-X?!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Pablo Neruda, Every day you play

Every day you play with the light of the universe.
Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.
Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?
Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window.
The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.
Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.
The rain takes off her clothes.

The birds go by, fleeing.
The wind. The wind.
I can contend only against the power of men.
The storm whirls dark leaves
and turns loose all the boats that were moored last night to the sky.

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
You will answer me to the last cry.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.
Even so, at one time a strange shadow ran through your eyes.

Now, now too, little one, you bring me honeysuckle,
and even your breasts smell of it.
While the sad wind goes slaughtering butterflies
I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.
So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing our eyes,
and over our heads the gray light unwind in turning fans.

My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

I heard there was a secret chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord
but you don't really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this the fourth, the fifth,
the minor fall and the major lift,
the baffled king composing hallelujah


Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah


Baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah


Well there was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show that to me do you?
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was hallelujah


Well, maybe there's a god above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
It's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah


Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Via here.

Monday, February 12, 2007


This post is not about any particular part of Capital, or even about Capital itself. But it partly responds to a problem that will beset contemporary readers, even those with Marxist sensibilities. The problem is the stark disparity between 19th century capitalism, and its 21st century offspring ; and also the fact that, while Marx could describe a logic of capitalism, we would be hard-pressed today to assign any logic or science to it at all. Can we even talk of a thing called capital, when it is so dispersed, so invisible, so irreal?

My response shamelessly plunders from an essay by Gilles Deleuze, published in 1990, entitled "Society of Control." It describes the shift, as gradual and chimeral as you would expect, from a society of discipline to a society of control.

"Disciplinary" as a way of describing society is, of course, a Foucaultian term, from his Discipline and Punish. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the individual would pass through a limited number of close, controlled spaces : from family, to school, to the barracks, to the factory (and perhaps via the hospital and the prison). The project of these spaces was to concentrate production and create an order where production could be maximised.

After the Second World War, Deleuze notes that the institutions of the disciplinary society were becoming anachronistic. Partly, this was because of a variety of progressive movements which stated that, for example, the family was a space for the oppression of woman, or that mental institutions were spaces for the oppression of the mentally ill. But it was also because of a radical change taking place at the heart of capitalism. The change was in emphasis from concentrated production to dispersive marketing.

In the 19th century, capitalism was a concentration, "of property and of production." The capitalist can own the means of production (the factory, the labour of his workers). Markets are created by specialisation (I will concentrate on conquering the flip-flop market), or colonisation (commodities robbed by imperialists from the East Indies > goods are exported and the profits used to buy slaves for plantations in the Americas > plantations provide cheap sugar and cotton exploitation, the products of which are then traded by the Europeans to the East, etc), or by lowering the costs of production (the very subject of Capital).

But present-day capitalism does not get its own hands dirty with the business of production ; it can export this to the third world. Instead, it buys the finished product and markets it. It does not require a concentated centre for production ; in fact, the more dispersion and controlled disorganisation, the better. Hence the disappearance of the single owner, replaced by shareholders. Marketing is the new soul, says Deleuze, the new instrument of social control, and it brings with it two central problems.

The first is a chronic (literally chronic) instability at the heart of social life. The forces at the heart of the society of control operate far more fluidly than those of discipline : "the corporation has replaced the factory, and the corporation is a spirit, a gas." So, rather than the fixed equilibrium created from maximum productivity and minimum wages, we now have a "perpetual metastability that operates through challenges, contests, and highly comic group sessions." Employees are now set against each other ; pay is performance-related ; Employee of the Month certificates are awarded. In the factory, you had a job for life and a union to protect to ; your life, in spite of its hardships, had a certain narrative to it. Now, job security has vanished, and with it the protection and (let´s use the word) solidarity of a Union. The narrative has been postponed ad infinitum.

The effect of this on humanity must be profound. The reformist movements which won us so many rights and improvements in living standards (I refer to a comment left on my previous post about Capital) did so in exchange for a loss of tenderness. We have turned, says Deleuze, from moles to serpents, just as money has turned from being measured against a fixed, tangible standard (like gold) to being floated. Before, we were individuals, and also parts of masses (classes, clubs, guilds, unions). Now we are nebulous. We have swallowed the myth that business has a heart, which is why feel guilt at letting it down.


"Is it to seduce, or to be seduced, that is seductive? But to be seduced is the best way to seduce. It is an endless refrain. There is no active or passive mode in seduction, no subject or object, no interior or exterior : seduction plays on both sides."
- Jean Baudrillard, "Seduction"

Monday, February 05, 2007


As I was planning my trip to South America, I thought : how can I make this trip really fun? I could do the Inca Trail - that would be fun. And travelling through Bolivia would be fun too. But what would be really fun would be to dust off my copy of Capital and try and read it.

Capital, of course, has a daunting reputation. Even recent attempts to resuscitate it as a modernist classic, a gothic-style novel, do not make it anymore obviously accessible.

In his introduction to reading Capital, the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser stated that there are two overarching problems in facing up to this work. There is a political difficulty - to understand it, one must be working-class and thus have experienced first-hand the situation and the struggle of which Marx writes, or one must be aligned with the working-class cause. And there is a theoretical difficulty - Capital "deals with the theory of `the capitalist mode of production, the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode` and therefore deals with something 'abstract' (something that cannot be touched with one's hands) ; it is therefore not a book which deals with concrete history or empirical economics, as the 'historians' and 'economists' imagine it ought to do."


The first three chapters (on "Commodities and Money") are indeed difficult. Marx himself was worried about this : if Capital was to be serialised, would his readers have the patience to read through these abstract early posts in order to get to the more concrete, active later chapters?

Althusser suggests missing out this first chunk - lest we fail to understand it and give Capital up as a bad job, or worse to think we understand it and miss Marx`s most fundamental points. "It is not possible in my view," says Althusser, "to begin (and only to begin) to understand Part I without having read and re-read the whole of Volume I from Part II onwards."

Parts II through VI describe how capitalism will always strive to lengthen the working-day whilst simultaneously decreasing wages. As we will see, our concept of a "wage" - arrived at through a fair exchange between the worker and the capitalist - is a bourgeois myth. Labour power is in fact a commodity, just like anything else :

It appears that the capitalist buys their labour with money, and that for money they sell him their labour. But this is merely an illusion. What they actually sell to the capitalist for money is their labour-power. This labour-power the capitalist buys for a day, a week, a month, etc. And after he has bought it, he uses it up by letting the worker labour during the stipulated time. With the same amount of money with which the capitalist has bought their labour-power (for example, with two shillings) he could have bought a certain amount of sugar or of any other commodity. The two shillings with which he bought 20 pounds of sugar is the price of the 20 pounds of sugar. The two shillings with which he bought 12 hours' use of labour-power, is the price of 12 hours' labour. Labour-power, then, is a commodity, no more, no less so than is the sugar. The first is measured by the clock, the other by the scales.

- Karl Marx, "Wage Labour and Capital"

Just as the capitalist can exploit the sugar through any means he chooses, so he can also exploit the labour-power he has bought. Having bought it, the worker`s labour power is his property. According to the laws of capital, he may employ it as he chooses, within the boundaries set by law. But, as Marx says in "The Working Day", labour "differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own."


Before we look at Marx`s account of the 19th century working day (Chapter 10 of Capital, which serves as an excellent entry-point to the book), let us imagine a situation. A capitalist owns a factory which buys parts (glass, metal, rubber, plastics, motor-components) and turns them into cars. The capitalist employs 50 workers, who each has his particular role on the assembly-line. Each carries out his role (welding, joining, painting, wiring) for a salary which has been agreed by the capitalist and the worker.

The capitalist buys the parts and the machinery in the factory for a fixed, unnegotiable price. Likewise, the utilities which power his factory, be they water, gas or electricity, are also bought at a fixed price. These forms of capital are constant in their value ; in themselves they do not yield profit (we might question how these commodities accrued their value in the first place - the answer is quickly apparent, as we shall see).

The value of the final product - the completed car - must be more than the values of the individual components and utilities which make it up. Its sum value must exceed that of its parts - the pane of glass, the plastic of the dashboard etc - otherwise the capitalist will not make any profit and he will go bankrupt or be subsumed by a competitor. And of course profit cannot be made from constant, fixed capital, so its source must come from the labour which turned the parts into the final product.

This is the first key to understanding Capital : labour power is the only commodity which produces profit, or "surplus value." It is inevitable, therefore, that the capitalist will want to exploit the labour power which he has bought to make as much profit as possible. The worker, for his part, can only work for a certain period without collapsing in a heap. If s/he works for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, s/he will most likely die before his / her 40th birthday. (One would hope that the working week would allow time for leisure and self-fulfilment - a naive notion indeed...)

To explain how the struggle between capitalist and worker is acted out, Marx splits the working day into two distinct parts. The first part of the day "necessary labour time," defined as the amount of time you must work to reproduce a standard of living compatible with modern life. In other words, the time it takes for you to create value equal to the amount you must spend to sustain your standard of living. Capitalism in the 19th century did not much care if its labourers led happy or fulfilling lives, so long as they were able to (a) purchase enough commodities (food, shelter, medicine) to be able to turn up for work the next day and (b) raise a family, a new generation of workers.

But a worker will not get paid if s/he works his necessary labour time alone ; if he did, where would the capitalist get his profit from? The capitalist wage exchange means that s/he must work a full working day in order to get a wage. The rest of the working day Marx calls "surplus labour time." During this period, the worker will produce value solely for the capitalist ; he will receive no further wage for his efforts. The period of necessary labour time is governed largely by the economics and living standards of the time ; it is pretty much out of the capitalist`s hands. But he can work to extend the period of surplus labour time (and thus the working day as a whole) as much as possible.


"The Working Day" is a good entry point to Capital because it takes one straight to the heart of the matter ; its narrative is as stark and immediate as Henry Mayhew´s London Labour and the London Poor.

The capitalist, having bought the worker´s labour, has legal rights as a purchaser. But the worker also has legal rights, as the seller of a commodity. "There is here, therefore, an antimony," says Marx, "right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence it is that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working-class."

In 1850, the Factory Act was passed by Parliament under the Whig Government of Lord Russell. It set the working work at 60 hours, stated that for women and children the working week-day should not start before 6am and should not proceed after 6pm, and stipulated that on Saturdays, all work must finish by 6pm. Factory inspectors were employed to uphold the provisions of the Act, but their inspection reports quickly proved that the 10 hour day was a joke :

"`The fraudulent mill-owner begins work a quarter of an hour (sometimes more, sometimes less) before 6am, and leaves off a quarter of an hour (sometimes more, sometimes less) after 6pm. He takes 5 minutes from the beginning and from the end of the half hour nominally allowed for breakfast, and 10 minutes at the beginning and end of the hour nominally allowed for dinner. He works for a quarter of an hour (sometimes more, sometimes less) after 2pm on Saturday. Thus his gain is -

Before 6am - 15 minutes
After 6pm - 15 minutes
At breakfast time - 10 minutes
At dinner time - 20 minutes
Daily total - 60 minutes
Five days - 300 minutes
On Saturday before 6am - 15 minutes
At breakfast time - 10 minutes
After 2pm - 15 minutes
Weekly total - 340 minutes

`The profit to be gained by it (over-working in violation of the Act) appears to be, to many, a greater temptation than they can resist ; they calculate upon the chance of not being found out ; and when they see the small amount of penalty and costs, which those who have been convicted have had to pay, they find that if they should be detected there will still be a considerable balance of gain ...... In cases where the additional time is gained by a multiplication of small thefts in the course of the day, there are insuperable difficulties to the inspectors making out a case.´"

And so, by `nibbling and cribbling´, capitalists ensured that capital`s voracious appetite for profit remained uninhibited by the trivialities of law. Which meant that conditions in industries such as lace, ceramics, paper and millinary remained as tortuous as ever. Health is sacrificed to avarice, so that the life expectancy for workers in these industries, and others, was often as low as 20. With typical invective, Marx describes the death of a milliner, Mary Anne Walkley, aged 20, in London :

"This girl worked, on an average, 16.5 hours, during the season often 30 hours, without a break, whilst her failing labour-power was revived by occasional supplies of sherry, port or coffee. It was just now the height of the season. It was necessary to conjure up in the twinkling of an eye the gorgeous dresses for the noble ladies bidden to the ball in honour of the newly-imported Princess of Wales. Mary Anne Walkley had worked without intermission for 26.5 hours, with 60 other girls, 20 in one room, that only afforded one third of the cubic feet of air required for them. At night, they slept in pairs in one of the stifling holes into which the bedroom was divided by partitions of board. And this was one of the best millinary establishments in London. Mary Anne Walkley fell ill on the Friday, died on Sunday, without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having previously completed the work in hand."


For anyone who says, "Ah yes, but this is all a thing of the past, capitalism has suffered its birth-pangs, and is now an altogether more civilised business," I offer two contemporary examples, both of which I have witnessed first hand, which may disprove this notion.

Like most under-funded Departments in the public sector, the Social Services Department where I used to work was facing up last year to a substantial overspend. Managers were asked to come up with efficiency savings (a most despicable euphemism to describe laying people off), the most popular of which was to make home care and residential care workers work longer hours for the same money (I needn´t add that it wasn´t quite phrased like that). Care workers are atrociously paid anyway (the sector relies on the quasi-slavery potential of immigrant labour) and, since they are largely older, female and from minority ethnic communities, they represent the most easily exploitable section of the workforce.

It is also the case that most home carers do not drive. So, one day, I was given a wad of home carers´work schedules and a stopwatch and was asked to time how long it took to walk from one house to the next, and so on. Home carers were each allocated 15 minutes travelling time, and it was firmly suggested to me that I might write a report stating that this allowance was too generous and could be cut. Given that I am a good thirty years younger than many of the staff whose schedules I was analysing, and given that the 15 minutes allocation was only just sufficient for me to walk the distance between two houses, my conclusion was that home carers were being run ragged as it was, without cutting their times further. I think my report was swiftly dispatched to the wastepaper bin, and no doubt managers came up with other scams to screw their most liable and voiceless staff over further. Of course, any notions of the Director of Social Services having her 120k salary cut were met with short shrift.

The second example is a Bolivian one. At an altitude of four and a half thousand metres above sea level, there are few employment options for men and children in the city of Potosi. Most are forced to work in the mines, the conditions in which are truly 19th century. Most miners begin their careers aged 10, and most can expect to die before their 40th birthday. Each day they mine for tin, often using only a hammer and chisel : some days they will be lucky, but on the days when they find no tin, they do not get paid. They are subjected to asbestos, silicon and carbon monoxide fumes ; all day they eat nothing but coca leaves to quell their exhaustion ; and at 25 metres below ground-level, the oxygen in the tortuously narrow mines is minimal. Those smug liberals of a decidedly occidental bent who claim that there is no longer a working-class should occasionally look beyond their own four walls and see how uncivilised capitalism can really be.

But we still return to the theoretical problem that Althusser mentioned. If you are willing to recognise Marx´s account of the working day, you will see that it applies to you, whether you are a 19th century milliner, a Bolivian miner or a British local government employee. The hardships endured by the latter are somewhat different - I really experienced no hardships as such (though Social Services is not the best field to work in if you want fancy business trips to the Seychellles) - but I recognise that, as an employee, as a worker, I was nevertheless being exploited. So, I suppose, was my boss. Maybe even the 120k-a-year Director. What gets in the way of workers recognising that they are the victims of exploitation is a vague but ever-present feeling of guilt, the sense that the worker somehow owes the corporation for having been treated so, well, not-badly. This is created by the performative power of capitalism which I have written about before. I shall, no doubt, return to it again as I delve further into Capital.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


So is Berwick-upon-Tweed still at war with Russia? Let Wikipedia clear things up for you :

The story goes that since Berwick had changed hands several times, it was traditionally regarded as a special, separate entity, and some proclamations referred to "England, Scotland and the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed". One such was the declaration of the Crimean War against Russia in 1853, which Queen Victoria supposedly signed as "Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions". However, when the Treaty of Paris (1865) was signed to conclude the war, "Berwick-upon-Tweed" was left out. This meant that, supposedly, one of Britain's smallest towns was officially at war with one of the world's mightiest powers – and the conflict extended by the lack of a peace treaty for over a century.

The BBC programme Nationwide investigated this story in the 1970s, and found that while Berwick was not mentioned in the Treaty of Paris, it was not mentioned in the declaration of war either. The question remained of whether Berwick had ever been at war with Russia in the first place. The true situation is that since the Wales and Berwick Act 1746 had already made it clear that all references to England included Berwick, the town had no special status at either the start or end of the war.

Nevertheless, in 1966 a Soviet official waited upon the Mayor of Berwick, Councillor Robert Knox, and a peace treaty was formally signed. Mr Knox is reputed to have said "Please tell the Russian people that they can sleep peacefully in their beds." To complicate the issue, some have noted that Knox did not have any authority with regards to foreign relations, and thus may have exceeded as mayor in concluding a peace treaty.

The plot thickens...