Joseph Choonara explains how NOT to read Capital
So here is a very interesting lecture by Joseph Choonara: “How to read Capital”
From what I can tell, Choonara is an egghead from the Socialist Workers Party of the UK, for whatever that is worth. The lecture is a standard boilerplate presentation very similar to many you have probably watched or attended in the past. As a lecture, it is neither more interesting or more boring than the typical attempt to summarize Capital in 2000 words or less. In his favor, Choonara, unlike Harvey or some other lecturers, sticks pretty close to the text without adding his personal opinion.
On the other hand, Choonara recommends you should read the repugnant David Harvey — and thus earns my eternal scorn.
Thankfully, you won’t for instance, see Choonara redefine “value” the way Harvey does in his own lectures to fit his particular agenda. Choonara’s presentation of the subject is, in other words, boringly faithful to the text, and a useful summary of it.
But this is the problem with Choonara’s lecture: he wasn’t supposed to summarize Capital; he was supposed to be telling us how to read it.
It may seem these two approaches are the same, but I believe they are not. Do I read Marx as literature? Poetry? Comedy? Each of these is a different approach and valid ways to study the material. None of them requires a summary or synopsis of Marx’s argument, just typical examples.
The approach that I think may be most helpful to people is as a piece of scientific literature that makes a definite prediction. Marx predicts the collapse of capitalist private property and the eventual replacement of capitalist private property by the state or an association of proletarians. This explicit prediction is to be found in chapter 32 of Capital v1.
What do I mean Capital should be read as a piece of scientific literature? To give an analogy, Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts light is affected by gravity. No one could test this prediction for more than a decade after he made it and thus the validity of his prediction went unproven for a long time. During that time, almost no one taught Einstein’s theory in physics courses and he was widely dismissed. But when an eclipse allowed researchers to validate Einstein’s prediction, however, he went from a widely dismissed crank to rock star. His theory became the cutting edge of scientific thought, where it remains even today.
Now Marx also made a prediction that was also widely dismissed and ignored by his peers: production based on exchange would collapse and capitalist property would be expropriated. The difference is that even when Marx’s prediction was borne out by events of the Great Depression, he went from being dismissed to actively suppressed by the state. In fact, his theory has been so actively suppressed that not one Marxist today out of one hundred even realizes his prediction was correct and it is even denied by most Marxists.
But you can read his prediction in black and white in chapter 32 of Capital, v1.
If you took the time to watch Choonara’s lecture, you will notice he never mentions Marx’s prediction. The man talks for almost 35 minutes and never mentions Marx’s prediction or explains to his audience Marx’s prediction even once — just staggering! It is as though Marx never made his prediction, as if chapter 32 never entered Marx’s final draft.
Choonara is not alone: Even Marxists with large following, like Harvey or Heinrich assert Marx made no such prediction. But here is the problem with their argument: If Marx never made his prediction or if that prediction never happened, there is no reason for Marx’s theory. The prediction is in chapter 32 for everyone to see, so Harvey and Heinrich are obviously full of shit. But what about Choonara, who talks about Capital for 30 minutes and never mentions the prediction? Instead he gives us a summary of the key ideas in Capital with no context.
This means we left with no idea why critical categories of Marx’s theory are important:
- Why does value matter?
- Why does surplus value matter?
- Why does the struggle over hours of labor matter?
- Why does technological change matter?
Without the context of Marx’s prediction, we have no way to know why they matter or even why we need them to understand capitalism and economic events.
Without context, there is no more reason to read Capital than there is to read an economics textbook. The sole distinction between Capital and a bourgeois economics textbook is that Capital makes a definite prediction about the trajectory of the capitalist mode of production and the other assumes capitalism goes on indefinitely, perhaps changing at the margins, but basically eternal.
In Capital, the capitalist mode of production, barring the paralyzing effects of its counteracting influences — like expansion of the world market and the forcible reduction of wages below the value of labor power — has a life span of about 36 years. The context for reading Capital is to understand why Marx thought, contrary to economics, that capitalism has a limited shelf-life; what possible reason did he have for making this outrageous assertion?
It is only once we realize Marx predicted the abolition of capitalist private property that chapters 1-4 make any sense to the reader. Chapter 1 of Capital discusses value, chapter 4 discusses surplus value; in the first people sell the products of their labor; in the second people sell their capacity to labor. Once you realize that the premises of chapter 1 and the premises of chapter 4 are incompatible, and why they are incompatible, can you understand why this contradiction leads to the collapse of capitalism.
The condition for the production of surplus value violates the conditions for the production of value; nothing else is needed to predict capitalism must collapse.
Once you understand that the contradiction between value and surplus value leads to capitalist collapse, you realize why you have to understand the conditions for production of value in chapter 1) and how they differ from the conditions of production of surplus value in chapter 4. So, as you read Capital, you want to keep in mind the value and surplus value are incompatible with one another.
As incompatible as are the interests of the wage worker and the capitalist. Value is to the wage worker as surplus value is to the capitalist; their conflict is just the political expression of the fundamental incompatibility of value and surplus value.
I have never once heard a lecturer on Capital make this connection.
People have a hard time grasping chapter 1 because they don’t understand the point of Marx’s discussion of value. They impatient to get to the part where he begins talking about profit and exploitation. Thus, for the most part, they never realize Marx is setting up the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production — value versus surplus value — that leads directly to his prediction in chapter 32. If you do not understand why the premises of these two forms of value are incompatible, you will never understand why Marx makes his prediction.
By and large, Marxist lecturers ignore Marx’s prediction and thus ignore the point Marx is making about value and surplus value. Some even suggest the discussion of value can be dropped altogether. But what happens when you drop the discussion of value? You can’t explain Marx’s prediction! Instead, the prediction gets reduced to a political conflict: the working class seizes power, and puts an end to capitalist property.
There is only one problem with this argument: in chapter 32,when Marx is speaking of his prediction, he never even mentions the proletariat or a class struggle! Marx’s prediction that the capitalists would be expropriated only discusses capital: first, capital abolishes the individual producers and then the capitalists turn on each other.
That’s right. In chapter 32 there are no proletarians; no vanguard party; no class struggle. There is only capital. Capital literally consumes itself. If you don’t believe me, read it for yourself.
If Marx thought the class struggle was so damn important, why didn’t he mention it in chapter 32? He did not mention it because he was discussing the end result of an autonomous process that takes place even if the proletarians vote for Clinton or Trump. The process has nothing at all to do with working class consciousness or its political action. As long as the proletarians show up for work, and produce surplus value capital dies. All the working class has to do is punch a clock. Their surplus labor kills capitalism. Their social conditions of labor first drive the individual producers to extinction, and then forces capitals to turn on and destroy each other.
Now go back and watch Choonara’s lecture again and ask yourself if he does Marx’s Capital justice.