Cuckolding Marx: David Harvey’s ‘Unfaithful Companion’ to Capital

by Jehu

Part One

People often ask me what current books I recommend to help them understand Marx’s Capital. My answer to this is almost always the same. There is to my understanding no book out there written by anyone I know that accurately presents Marx’s argument except his own book, Capital.

How is it that almost 150 years after the publication of Capital is there not a simple and accurate popularization of his fundamental ideas that I can point to? This can’t be because of the complexity of his ideas. Einstein’s theory is no less complex than Marx’s, but you can find many good and accurate popularizations of his fundamental theories. I don’t know anyone who has ever read Darwin’s Origin of Species, yet there are many good and accurate popularizations of Darwin’s ideas. The same can be said of Freud.

Most of the great scientific discoveries of the 19th century are now widely understood by everyone in society. What is it about Marx’s ideas that make them so resistant to accurate and simple popularization? My answer to this is that I really do not know.

My hesitation in recommending books that might help folks understand Marx’s argument in Capital is probably best exemplified by a close reading of a section of one of the most popular books and lecture series in circulation today: David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital. As I will show, this “companion” is anything but faithful to Marx’s argument.

This is part one of a two part series. In this part, I will address Harvey’s overall characterization of Marx’s fundamental categories.

A priori and cryptic

Is section 1 of Capital a priori and cryptic? David Harvey seems to think so. In his examination of section 1 of chapter one of Capital, volume 1, Harvey uses the term “a priori” four times and cryptic three times. First, he tells us, “Marx here lays out fundamental categories in an a priori and somewhat cryptic, take-it-or-Leave-it fashion that could do with elaboration.” Then, he tells us “The commodity is Marx’s a priori beginning point.” After this he explains Marx “[makes] another of those a priori leaps by way of assertion—“that of [commodities] being products of labour”. Finally he argues that, “This a priori assertion [that commodities are products of labor] has huge implications.” He is equally forthcoming about the alleged cryptic character of Marx’s argument. Having already asserted Marx lays out his categories in “an a priori and somewhat cryptic, take-it-or-Leave-it fashion”, he says of the first four pages:

“It has, you will notice, taken a mere four pages of rather cryptic assertions to lay out the fundamental concepts and move the argument from use-value to exchange-value to human labor in the abstract, and ultimately to value as congealed quantities of homogeneous human labor.”

What ultimately saves Marx from his own cryptic style, says Harvey, is that readers of his own time were familiar with Ricardo:

“One reason Marx could get away with this cryptic presentation of use-value, exchange-value and value was because anybody who had read Ricardo would say, yes, this is Ricardo.”

That is a lot of references to Marx’s alleged a priori and cryptic assumptions in a section of Capital that is less than 20 paragraphs long. I am not sure what is meant by this term as Harvey employs it. A priori means, “in a way based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation.” Synonyms of the terms include, theoretical, deduced, deductive, inferred, postulated, suppositional. The last term, suppositional, includes terms like belief, suspicion, conjecture, speculation, hunch, presumption. Does Harvey really think Marx is speculatively choosing his fundamental categories?

Harvey’s use of the term, cryptic, is equally troubling. The term cryptic is defined as “having a meaning that is mysterious or obscure.” Synonyms for cryptic include, enigmatic, mysterious, confusing, mystifying, perplexing, puzzling, obscure, abstruse, arcane, oracular, Delphic, ambiguous, elliptical, oblique. In popular language, the term cryptic implies Marx’s discussion of value is “Clear as mud”. Does Harvey intend to argue that Marx’s definition of value is muddled or confusing?

This, mind you, is how the author of a book meant to introduce Capital to new readers characterizes his grasp of fundamental categories of that book, which reappear again and again in the succeeding pages.

It helps to remember that in one of his own recent books on the subject, Harvey describes the capitalist mode of production as an enigma. Perhaps in describing capital as an enigma, Harvey is attempting to capture the same meaning with which he characterizes Marx’s discussion of value as cryptic; namely that he neither understands the capitalist mode of production nor Marx’s Capital. It is not everyday people who know nothing of a subject turn to a book in which the author admits he knows nothing of the subject as well, but in Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, this, unfortunately, may just be the case. Just to be certain, let’s turn to the rest of his discussion of section one of chapter one.

Mapping the categories

Does Harvey mean Marx’s choice of categories or his methods of interrogating them is “arbitrary”? He definitely intends to call into question Marx’s approach or to convey either his disagreement with Marx’s approach or his lack of understanding why Marx chose this particular approach. We know Harvey in fact completely disagrees with Marx’s approach to the capitalist mode of production. This is not a problem — many people disagree with Marx’s approach to the capitalist mode of production. Marx isn’t special and deserves no sacred treatment.

However, it seems to me Harvey is editorializing when he should be providing an objective presentation of Capital. If he disagrees with Marx, Harvey had a fairly long introduction to the book to explain his own view. He could have warned his students, “I don’t agree with Marx’s approach to capital” and left it at that. He has also written numerous books explaining his own views on the subject as well as his disagreements with labor theory. Beyond this, critical readings of Marx are as common as raindrops in a hurricane these days. Harvey could he pointed to any of these authors to expand on his disagreements.

What is most bizarre in this case is that no one was in his class to hear Harvey’s personal opinions; they wanted to understand Marx’s theory. And they came to the class, or watched his lecture or bought his book because they thought Harvey would provide this.

Now, I will admit when I took my introduction to micro and introduction to macro classes, I was interested in the professor’s view of the material, but this is because I was skeptical. I wanted the professor to validate my skepticism, of course. However, the professor, a radical Keynesian, who wrote for Dollars and Sense magazine, made it clear that I had to master the material first — only later, after I mastered it, could I dispute it. She insisted people mastered the material first and then criticize it.

Here is the thing: Marx’s approach, which Harvey might consider “cryptic”, leads to certain conclusions Harvey disputes. To what extent is Harvey’s dispute with Marx the result of their differing approaches? I am pretty sure it plays a rather large role. According to Harvey, Marx begins “a priori” with the commodity; then he makes the “a priori” assertion that this object is a product of labor. Is Marx being arbitrary here in any way? Of course not.

Marx in fact fastidiously references contemporary writers in political economy in section one of chapter one — citing various writers no less than twelve times in about 20 paragraphs. He begins by citing his own earlier work as to the reason for beginning with the commodity. For the rest, he goes on to cite, Nicholas Barbon, John Locke, Guillaume-François Le Trosne, and one unnamed writer, of whom Marx says, this “remarkable anonymous work [was] written in the last century”. Since Capital is a critique of political economy, it is no surprise that Marx’s starting point are the writings of contemporary political economists and begins with the very same categories with which they began. There is in fact nothing the least bit “a priori and somewhat cryptic” about any of his fundamental categories.

What Marx is actually doing here is mapping existing categories of contemporary political economy to like categories of his own theory. He is doing this so that he can illuminate those categories in relation to his own theory. Harvey admits as much when he notes Marx’s concept of value is mapped to Ricardo’s value. There was nothing “cryptic” about this approach taken by Marx and Harvey should know this. To put this another way, Marx is decidedly not making a priori assumptions about his fundamental categories. He is importing those assumptions one by one into his theory from his contemporaries who wrote on political economy. Harvey might disagree with those categories, but he should not imply Marx just pulled them out of his ass.

Marx’s ‘a priori leap’ on value and labor

Perhaps it wasn’t his intention, but the impression Harvey has left us with is that Marx’s starting point in analyzing the capitalist mode of production was arbitrary. This is utter bullshit. In fact, just by looking at the foot notes to this section — twelve in all — we can see Marx was trying to map his own categories to the categories commonly employed in contemporary political economy. He does not invent the terms use value, value or exchange value in his discussion but draws them from other sources. What is “a priori” or “cryptic” about this? Indeed, as Harvey finally admits, at least in the case of Ricardo, readers of the time would have recognized his categories as commonplace.

Marx, says Harvey, “abstracts from the incredible diversity of human wants, needs and desires, as well as from the immense variety of commodities and their weights and measures, in order to focus on the unitary concept of a use-value.” Harvey asserts this is necessary because we cannot perform lab experiments on society. But is this why Marx abstracts from the particular useful qualities of the commodity? In fact, Marx abstracts from the particular useful qualities of the commodity in order to establish these qualities play no role in value. What makes any object useful to us, has nothing whatsoever to do with what makes it a value to us. This is a direct retort to economists both in his day and today who argue the value of a commodity is its usefulness.

Marx is saying:

“I am abstracting from all the possible useful qualities of commodities because value has nothing to do with what makes them useful to us.”

While Harvey is saying:

“Marx abstracts from all the useful qualities of commodities because we cannot perform experiments.

The class where Harvey delivered the lecture and the far wider audience of readers of his book and viewers of his video series are left thinking Marx abstracts from the useful qualities of commodities before he could subject these qualities to empirical experiment. This is a variant of the canard that Marx settled on labor as the substance of value without making an exhaustive search for other qualities commodities had in common — for instance, energy.

According to one writer, Chris Arthur, for instance, labor is not the source of value, because, as he puts it, “the actuality of value cannot be established through the analytical reduction of the extremes of a simple exchange relation to value”. Marx’s error, says Arthur, is that he was trying to deduce value (socially necessary labor time) from exchange value before money. This, of course, is why Harvey argues Marx made an unsupported (a priori) leap from exchange value to labor. And it is some really deep inside baseball shit among academics that never should have been included in an introduction to Capital.

Someone sitting through Harvey’s video lecture series or reading his book will have no idea he is making room for some deeply controversial readings of Marx. Arthur’s value-form reading of Marx in particular argues you cannot have value without the value-form, i.e., without money, and criticizes Marx for arguing value is appears prior to money. That is as fucked up and dishonest as you can get in an introduction to Capital.

This aspect of Harvey’s intro, by itself, is enough to qualify never including it on a recommendation list. Harvey could have fixed this by simply stating: “Marx believed value is prior to money, but Arthur argues money is prior to value.” But Harvey did not even do this: he just slipped it into his presentation dishonestly.

In the next part, I will address Harvey’s complete distortion of Marx’s argument on value, in which Harvey is trying to squeeze Marx’s argument into a value-form school interpretation.