The Value, Health and Radical Needs Reading Group spent 15 months slowly and carefully reading Karl Marx’s Grundrisse. The task was certainly daunting, but also intellectually rewarding in equal measure. Since in these notebooks Marx is clearly developing a logical method of presentation that he has yet to fully master, we found it particularly difficult to keep sight of the central theme of each of its sections. Some long paragraphs where Marx works up calculations, describes historical events or recounts the ideas of selected political economy authors were also admittedly challenging. As a result of our efforts at a reflective reading, we feel that we possess a deeper understanding of the inner workings of capitalist society. We now bring our new knowledge, in its collective character, to written form.
In addition to the authors cited below, we have been greatly helped by David Harvey’s video series Reading Marx’s Grundrisse, Hiroshi Uchida’s Marx’s “Grundrisse” and Hegel’s “Logic”, and the edited volume of Historical Materialism In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse.
- Grundrisse, Postone and the Past & Present Reading Group, Janet Burstall
Marx’s starting point in the Grundrisse is a critique not of capital, or capitalist society, but of political economy’s understanding of capital, money, exchange, value. Moishe Postone’s Time, Labour and Social Domination was my introduction to the Grundrisse. Postone tightly pinpoints the structural basis of capital’s development and dynamism in the categories of analysis Marx advanced in the Grundrisse, and the contradiction at its heart, the accumulation of value based on ever-decreasing socially necessary labour time. The nature of value, not class conflict, is the driver of capital.
Reading the Grundrisse, I understood Marx as delving into the agency of capital, what it calculates, drives for, in order to continue as capital. Whilst Marx makes ironic and scathing asides, his analytical aim is not moral condemnation of capital, or “bourgeois society”. It is to reveal what makes capital capital, value in motion.
Marx’s forensic methodology in the Grundrisse is striking. For example, he examines very precisely the contradictions between the three functions of money: unit of account which is an imagined measure of equivalence; medium of exchange, and; material representative of wealth, a function specific to capitalist relations. By discriminating between the hidden social functions of money, Marx identifies its fetishisation, and historical specificities of capital.
The exploration of the interconnection of social processes of production, circulation and realisation of value, of the difference between surplus value and profit, and the necessity of accumulation of abstract value, all offer the prospect of understanding how capital continues to dominate both within and beyond direct relations of production and employment.
Marx worked through the ideas of other political economists, to identify precise social relations in differentiating between use value, exchange value, abstract value, and capital’s indifference or concern for them. Use value, and its collective form as social good, both stand in opposition to, and are subordinated by abstract value. Conflation of various forms of value obscures the structural dynamic of social relations, and tends to substitute sociology for political economy. The consistent methodology of close analysis and categorial discrimination in the Grundrisse is frustratingly lacking in many of the texts that we have read in the Past & Present Reading Group.
- On wheat as a commodity, Elna Tulus
As someone who is new to Marxism, reading Marx’s personal notes directly from the Grundrisse has helped me understand issues of capitalism with better clarity, in particular the value forms. Marx’s scientific approach was demonstrated in his systematic calculations, as a foundation to comprehend the commodity as both use value and exchange value. While it was written around 170 years ago, the Grundrisse offers an insight into how capital’s contradictions lead to crises through the domination of value. This formed the foundation of the conceptual framework for my research on the global food system with wheat as one of the commodities in focus. The circuit of value-adding takes place across geographies in the commodity chain from wheat to instant noodles. Reading the Grundrisse has enriched my understanding of how capital deliberately creates opportunities to profit through cheaper means of meeting the basic needs of labour, such as food, to keep wages down. To survive, workers need cheap, fast convenient food such as instant noodles which are made from wheat, just as bread had been the fuel for labour supply in the Industrial Revolution. In the case of Indonesia, the reliance on imported wheat for cheap instant noodles has weakened their agriculture and displaced domestic farmers, as locally-produced food cannot compete with the price of imports. The transformation of mass consumption behaviour over time has led to public health issues. While the state and international trade rules have played a role in facilitating this change, the Grundrisse was less helpful in understanding this, as Marx’s focus of analysis is on capital’s calculations rather than on the role of the state in managing conditions for the accumulation of surplus value.
- On money and the “inalienable”, Christian Caiconte
A simple but central insight that one gets from reading the Grundrisse cover to cover is that, in it, Marx is consistent in his treatment of the immoderate relevance of money, the general equivalent, in capitalism. Serving as the universal expression of value for all other commodities, money “becomes the realised and always realisable form of capital; the form of capital’s appearance which is always valid” (p. 146), Marx says. Although in the Grundrisse Marx is still not sufficiently clear regarding the position of the category of money within his presentation and critique of bourgeois economics (crucially, with respect to the categories of commodity and capital), he is nevertheless adamant in pointing out money’s absolutising character in everyday capitalist socialisation. Let us consider the following passage:
Because money is the general equivalent, the general power of purchasing, everything can be bought, everything may be transformed into money. But it can be transformed into money only by being alienated, by its owner divesting himself of it. Everything is therefore alienable, or indifferent for the individual, external to him. Thus the so-called inalienable, eternal possessions, and the immovable, solid property relations corresponding to them, break down in the face of money” (p. 838, emphasis in the original).
If a given analysis of social reality wishes to be in accordance with Marx’s monetary theory of value as outlined in the Grundrisse, then it must necessarily acknowledge this impersonal, indifferent power of money reproduced by people and over people and things. Marx will later reflect on the full implications of this capacity of money to reach even those “inalienable” corners of individual and social life, for example, through his idea of the real subsumption of labour under capital.
- On the moments of capital, Alex Haigh
The numerous illustrations of the forms of capital and its processes show Marx’s emphasis on the necessary effort required to attempt a grasp of the dynamism of capital. Additionally, the thoroughness of this engagement elucidates Marx’s dialectical method of analysis in action. As Michael Heinrich puts it, the mass of examples Marx mobilises in his categorial critique reflects a thorough engagement not only with the theoretical field of political economy, its abstractions and presuppositions, but also with the lived everyday experience of capital.
Examining its forms, Marx distinguishes between circulating and fixed capital, embodied by an accumulation of profit and surplus value or interest respectively. But so too is consumption taken as an integral form of capital, with wages paid to labour necessarily returning to capital through the consumption of produced commodities. This conceptualisation clarifies how capital never leaves the circuit of value. On capital’s being, Marx writes how ‘the collective power of capital’ is the power of labour. Capital is constituted by what is profitable, but simultaneously, is also constituted by what it has deemed not profitable. This exclusion, the ‘outside’ of profit, remains just as necessarily present in its dependence on unpaid labour or non-commodified labour. This ‘outside’ also provides the avenue for capital to reinvent itself, always ‘providing’ apparently new sites that could be made profitable.
Further, Marx interprets how circulation, transportation, and consumption constitute the realisation of capital, so that capital’s forms can be witnessed through both physical and temporal movement. Capital is the movement between concreteness and abstraction, between use and value. For Marx, the composition of labour is imbued with capital just as much as the constituting nature of capital is imbued with labour. The content of capital appears dialectically constituted by things considered external, but it is these very relations that Marx aims to emphasise as part of the very being of capital. The work of this conceptual illustration intended to uncover the many multifaceted elements imbued within the concept of capital Marx examined throughout the Grundrisse. The complexity of Marx’s engagement seemingly necessitated the intensity of examples provided for one to attempt to grasp the many vectors of capital’s moments.