Three years ago I wrote a post here—“Karl Marx and Intellectual History”—that used reviews of Jonathan Sperber’s 2013 biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life to ask questions about the relationship between biography and intellectual history. One of the reviews was by Terry Eagleton. Given my affinity for Eagleton I took his criticisms of Sperber at face value before reading the book itself. Eagleton made two charges that resonated with me. First, he disagreed with Sperber’s claim that Marx’s writings were a product of nineteenth-century concerns and thus don’t speak to twenty-first century problems. Second, Eagleton asserted that Sperber did not do justice to Marx’s ideas. These two criticisms were not mutually exclusive: Eagleton implied that someone who believed Marx relevant would have focused more on the ideas and less on the man.
I learned an important lesson from writing that blog post—better late than never! Do NOT criticize a book without first reading it. No, duh! Sperber left a reply in the comments section that exuded more patience than I deserved:
First, it’s a bit much to condemn, or at least criticize, a book, based on a review, without having read it yourself. Had you done so, you might have found that Eagleton’s contention I didn’t pay much attention to Marx’s ideas (I’ll leave aside the issue of whether my discussion of them is “clumsy,” as Eagleton states–not an impression of other reviewers) is problematic. The book contains a lengthy discussion of the Paris manuscripts, Marx’s theories of revolution, the influence of Hegel, the Young Hegelians, David Ricardo and Charles Darwin on Marx’s formulations. All that is without considering the chapter on Marx’s social theory (entitled “The Theorist”) and the one on Marx’s economic theories, esp. in Das Kapital (“The Economist”).
Now that I have read Sperber’s biography, I can say with certainty that Eagleton was dead wrong about Sperber not taking Marx’s ideas seriously. In fact, I learned tons about Marx’s ideas from Sperber’s beautiful and clear exposition of them. I found Sperber’s presentation of Marx’s ideas especially convincing in two ways. First, more than I ever realized, Marx’s writings were one long conversation with Hegel—and the Young Hegelians with whom Marx came of intellectual age. Second, Marx’s theories about historical change and revolution were deeply rooted in the French Revolution.
Insofar as Hegel and the French Revolution weighed heavily on the brains of nineteenth-century Europeans but barely register now, perhaps Sperber is correct to assert that Marx belongs to the ash heap of history.
But why, then, do so many of us continue to read Marx as our contemporary? Why do David Harvey’s online lectures on Capital continue to attract students in the thousands?Utopia? Nostalgia? Or perhaps we’re not so far removed from Marx’s world?
I don’t have ready-made answers to these perplexing questions. But perhaps returning to my discussion of the Harvey Capital lectures, with a focus on commodity fetishism, will help us ponder whether any of this is relevant to our times.
As Harvey says, Marx intended Capital to be 10 volumes, each focused on one major theme. (Sperber’s biography paints a vivid picture of how Marx’s personal and financial difficulties, many of which stemmed from his life in forced exile, contributed to Marx’s inability to bring many of his writing projects to completion.) Volume One is about the commodity, which is an auspicious choice since we all need them to live.
As I hoped to make clear in my first post about the Harvey lectures, Marx’s dialectical approach posits that capitalism is always in motion, always on the road. The commodity demonstrates this because its value cannot be understood in isolation. The commodity is the bearer of history, of social relations, and thus must be examined in motion.
One of the ways in which the commodity reveals the operations of capitalism beneath the surface is in the way in which the labor process is objectified in it. The Marxist theorist György Lukács later called this “reification” in his 1923 book, History and Class Consciousness, which has been said to have kick-started western Marxism of the type later practiced by Frankfurt School thinkers like Herbert Marcuse (see our recent roundtable on Marcuse). The labor process, social relations, the ways in which one class of human being exploits another, gets objectified as a “thing,” as a commodity.
Harvey explains this process of “thing-ification” by analogy: education is a process, like social relations or gravity, but we objectify it. We make education a quantifiable thing, with grades, degrees, and the like. We must have final products as signifiers.
Coming to terms with the commodity as a thing derived from the labor process helps us understand Marx’s labor theory of value, which is the key contribution Marx made to modern political economy—in Harvey’s words, “Ricardo beyond Ricardo.”
The value of a commodity is determined by the “socially necessary labor time” that went into its production. Value gets objectified in exchange, in the form of a money commodity (gold) that conceals social relations. Value is thus social relations concealed. Marx wanted to understand social relations as something “real”—immaterial, but objective.
Harvey uses another analogy to explain this: gravity, like social relations, is immaterial, but objective. That a table is subject to the forces of gravity is knowable in theory—indeed, it is an objective fact—but we cannot dissect the table to figure it out.
Perhaps the most famous section of Capital, the part where Marx theorizes about commodity fetish, is great for illustrating Marx’s labor theory of value. Harvey notes that to many people the commodity fetish section reads more like a curious aside that, depending on how one thinks of it, either detracts from the main theory or is the only section worth a close read. Harvey suggests that such readings owe to the fact that for this section Marx switched writing styles rather abruptly, transitioning from close economic analysis to wide-ranging literary poetics. But Harvey contends that reading the commodity fetish section as an outlier is a misreading. Commodity fetishism, for Marx, is not a matter of consciousness—it is not extraneous to Marx’s attempt at an objective reading of commodity, value, and social relations. Rather it is, as Harvey says, “deeply embedded in the way commodities are exchanged.” Harvey says Marx’s argument is “simple enough: people relate to each other not as human beings but through exchange of commodities in the market.”
Harvey says that when he teaches his students about this theory he asks them a straightforward question: Where does your breakfast come from? Modernity makes it such that there is no easy answer to this question. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people far-flung across the globe worked to put it on your table. The commodity (breakfast, which appears simply before you in the morning) is therefore designed to conceal the social relations that went into its production (the people who planted orange trees, picked the oranges, squeezed them, bottled the juice, made the bottles, shipped the bottles, made the ships, and so on and so forth into infinity).
Socially necessary labor is embodied in commodities and sets the value of commodities relative to other commodities which also embody socially necessary labor. In this way, exchange conceals social relations between humans—this is Marx’s labor theory of value, dependent on his notion of commodity fetishism. We are alienated from our lives yet we don’t see alienation or understand its consequences.
Now tell me: does this seem irrelevant?