Universal Translator

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reading Marx – Part III

(Routine Introduction:  For reasons explained here, I’m in the process of slogging through Marx’s Das Kapital.  The plan is to read it in conjunction with watching David Harvey’s free on-line lectures about the book.  I’ll be posting notes and initial impressions as I read.  This will be an extremely long-term project.)

Today:  Editor Frederick Engels’s prefaces to the First English Translation and the Fourth German Edition.

Editor’s Preface to the First English Translation – this is a relatively short preface, explaining the whys and wherefores of how the English Translation came to be.  Three things seem potentially relevant for what is to come:

(1)        A Warning About Terminology – Engels points out that prior to Marx, Political Economy had been content to borrow terms from commerce and industry and operate using them alone, which Engels asserts meant that standard Political Economy had “confined itself within the narrow circle of ideas expressed by those terms.” 

For example, Engels argues that “profits” and “rents” are but sub-divisions of “that unpaid part of the product which the laborer has to supply to his employer,” and that even though standard Political Economy knew this it still continued to conceptualize only “profits” and “rents” and not to examine as a whole this unpaid part of a product that the laborer provides (i.e., what profits and rents add up to).  This whole apparently is what Marx refers to as “surplus-product,” and Engels indicates that there is some deeper understanding to be gained by considering surplus-value as a intrinsic whole rather than by simply examining its constituent parts (i.e., “profits” and “rents”) separately.

(NOTE:  I think this is interesting because it indicates that even though surplus-value may only consist of rents and profit, yet Engels recognizes that something additional can be found when surplus-value is considered as a whole; that is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  This is one of the things that I naturally question Marx’s idea – as I understand it at this point – that any and all surplus-value in manufacturing can only arise out of workers not being fully paid for their labor.  What if additional value in the manufacture of a product arises out of the sheer agglomeration of different factors in a production facility?  What if the whole of a factory is greater than the sum of its parts – that is, than its individual input factors?  If “synergy” does in fact add value, then that might account for some or all of the surplus-value Marx describes and it doesn’t necessarily arise out of taking more from workers than the value for which they get paid.)

Engels also points out that the term “manufacture” includes all industry except for agriculture and “handicraft,” meaning it includes (i) manufacture based simply on the division of manual labor, and (ii) modern industry based on machinery.

(2)        Marx’s Use of Quotes – Engels asserts out that Marx uses quotes in two different ways.  The first is how they typically are used:  to serve as documentary evidence in support of Marx’s own assertions.  These might be called “authoritative quotes.”  (my terminology)

The second is to illustrate “conditions of social production and exchange prevalent at the time, and quite irrespective of Marx’s recognition, or otherwise, of its general validity.”  In other words, such quotes are not intended to be evidence of a truth about social production but simply descriptive of a past fact.  These might be called “illustrative quotes.”  (my terminology)

I can only hope the text provides some clear signal indicating which use Marx had in mind when these quotes come up.

(3)        Describing the Then Existing State of the British Economy – writing in 1886, Engels indicates that the British economy was suffering a “permanent and chronic depression.”  Well, it very evidently was not permanent (although it’s since come ‘round again), and perhaps Engels was a little too eager to see the end of the “decennial cycle of stagnation, prosperity, overproduction and crisis” that I understand Marx predicts in his critique. 

Engels writes that “[t]he working of the industrial system of [Britain], impossible without a constant and rapid extension of production, and therefore of markets, is coming to a dead stop. . . .  While productive power increases in a geometric, the extension of markets proceeds at best in an arithmetic ratio.”

I recognize this!  This is analogous to the square-cube law, which points out that when you double the size of an organism you increase its surface area by the square of two (four times) but you increase the volume of the organism by the cube of two (eight times).  This imposes a growth limit on terrestrial animals.  For example, if a man’s size were to double:

his muscle power would increase four times but he’ll weigh eight times as much.  Therefore, his strength will actually be cut in half.   Since the strength of his leg bones increases only by the square of his height, while the weight increases by the cube, his bones will buckle beneath the pressure.

                        --Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg
                        The Science of Superheroes

(I wonder how tightly reasoned is the argument that production grows geometrically and markets grow arithmetically.  If that is the case than the rate of economic growth – though not necessarily its ultimate size – is necessarily constrained; it’ll be interesting to see how Marx gets there.)

My limited understanding is that this is one of Marx’s fundamental critiques of capitalism:  the system’s inherent structure mandates that production increases routinely outstrip potential market growth (i.e., consumption increases).  It isn’t that people no longer want to consume but that they can’t consume.  The ideal solution would be to funnel increased profits derived from growing production back to the workers in the form of higher wages – thereby growing markets by increasing the number of people who can afford more stuff – but the tension between the capital owners (who want to keep as much profit as possible) and the workers tends not to recycle profit into higher wages as is necessary to prevent overproduction and then collapse.

(Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about British economic history to know how Britain got itself out of the stagnation Engels describes.  But I’m just cynical enough to think that if I do a little research I’ll find out that England’s solution to its 1886 slump ended up having something to do with the British Empire and its military.)

Editor’s Preface to the Fourth German  Edition – hhhmmmmmmm . . . Engels’s concern in explaining Marx’s use of quotes now comes into focus.  Apparently, an accusation was made that Marx added language to a speech made by Gladstone in order to misrepresent Gladstone’s meaning and that Marx had, in fact, “lied” about what Gladstone had said.  Engels presents evidence (Marx, being dead in1890, could not defend himself) that Marx had not done this, and the entire Preface consists of Engels’s refutation of the slur.  Which means it’s pretty much irrelevant to an understanding of what Marx’s actual ideas were about and can be completely disregarded.

Next Up:  I finally get into the actual goddamned book.  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Sections 1 and 2.  Same Bat-Time!  Same Bat-Channel!

UPDATE:  I did a (very) brief bit of research over on Wikipedia regarding the depression Britain was experiencing in 1886, and learned that Engels was describing the Long Depression, which was a global event including general deflation and low growth beginning in 1872 and ending around 1896.  The United Kingdom was hardest hit, losing some of its large industrial lead over Continental Europe. 

One response to the Long Depression was the embrace of New Colonialism by the western powers (including the US), symbolized in Europe by the scramble for Africa as those nations sought new markets for their goods: 

Britain’s relative adoption of New Imperialism in the 1890s followed by its quick emergence as the front-runner in the scramble for African territories may be seen as a quest for captive markets or fields for investment of surplus capital, or (somewhat more cynically) as a primarily strategic or preemptive attempt to protect existing trade links and to prevent the absorption of its overseas markets into the imperial trading blocs of rival powers.  (emphasis added).

Of course, the need to acquire new markets was the problem Engels identified in his preface to the First English Edition and locating uses for “surplus capital” is exactly how one climbs out of a depression.  So it seems my gut instinct about Britain in the late 1880s may have been correct.  Britain got itself out of the Long Depression by sending its military off to annex Africa.

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