NOTE: This is the second of two sections of Summary & Analysis discussing aspects of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. SparkNotes also offers a separate study guide for Das Kapital that contains Summary & Analysis discussions of six key chapters as well as other useful features.
Summary: Volume One: Parts II–V: Capital, Surplus Value, and Exploitation
Marx differentiates ordinary money from capital. In the simplest form of circulation of commodities, a commodity is transformed into money, which is then transformed back into a commodity as someone sells a commodity for money and then uses that money to buy a commodity they need. In this very basic market arrangement, people produce commodities so that they can obtain money to buy the commodities that they need. This dynamic naturally emerges in societies with a simple division of labor, in which different people specialize in the production of different commodities. Capitalism operates in accordance with different principles. Capitalists do not see money as a means of exchanging the commodities they produce for the commodities they need but as something to be sought after for its own sake. The capitalist starts with money, transforms it into commodities, then transforms those commodities into more money. Capital is money used to obtain more money. These two different arrangements are summed up respectively in the diagrams C-M-C and M-C-M (C = commodity; M = money). Capitalists are primarily interested in the accumulation of capital and not in the commodities themselves.
To increase their capital, capitalists rely on workers who put their labor power at the disposal of capitalists. Workers treat their labor power as a commodity and sell it to factory owners. The capitalist buys the workers’ labor power and puts the worker to use making products. The capitalist appropriates the product, since it does not belong to the worker, and sells it on the market. Capital accumulates through the creation of surplus-value. Since a commodity’s value equals the labor time congealed in it, this extra value can only come from the workers. In fact, says Marx, the capitalist forces the worker to work longer hours to generate this surplus value. The capitalist, to generate profits, must keep the working day at a certain length. Part of the day is spent generating value that keeps the workers fed and clothed, while the remainder is spent generating surplus value, which goes to the capitalist himself. This is the essence of exploitation.
The capitalist, who must submit his commodities to the exchange market at a competitive price, will buy as much labor power from the worker at the lowest price possible, which is no more than the cost of keeping the worker alive. Where neither laws exist to regulate this system nor any mechanism for collective bargaining, the capitalist is in a position to decide the terms of this relationship to the detriment of the worker. For example, in industrial England prior to legislation limiting the length of the working day, workers had no power and were forced to work long days in horrible conditions for wages that barely kept them fed. This struggle over the length of the working day is illustrative of the struggles in capitalist society generally. The exploitative relationship has capitalists trying to get as much from the worker as possible and the worker trying to limit the capitalist’s power to do so.
Analysis: Volume One: Parts II–V: Capital, Surplus Value, and Exploitation
Marx’s account of the exploitative relationship of capitalist to labor remains powerfully compelling and seems by many to be vindicated in history. Essentially, Marx argues that the mechanism of exploitation built into the capitalist economic system is the source of social antagonisms that will eventually lead to the dismantling of capitalism itself. In the early Hegelian writings, Marx looks to a notion of alienation, the estrangement of the worker from his humanity, to support the same prognosis. With the theory of exploitation and surplus value, he shifts away from philosophical language toward an economic frame of reference, though a common element, the idea that the capitalist social relations of production will lead to a destruction of the capitalist mode of production. The later formulation is more effective than the earlier, as it accompanies an analysis of actual historical events rather than purely speculative thought.
Writing in exile in England, Marx was able to view firsthand the workings of the world’s most advanced industrial economy. Scenes of textile laborers in industrial Manchester living in abject squalor and barely clinging to life, the poet William Blake’s evocative and disturbing images of “dark satanic mills,” all impressed on many the downside of growing production and prosperity that had become evident in England and throughout much of Europe. Marx tried to show that such poverty was a permanent feature of capitalism and in fact would grow worse as capitalism advanced. With no means of defense, the working class’s economic well-being is at the mercy of capitalists. But the capitalist, if he wishes to survive in a competitive market, cannot exercise mercy without endangering his enterprise. Classes grow out of this antagonistic relationship that exposes their bare economic interests. The bourgeoisie unite to defend their monopoly over workers using all the means at their disposal, including the state and even religion. While workers, through common association, gradually manage to unite to push back the capitalist. In England, the Parliament, through growing pressure of workers and their sympathetic advocates among the upper classes, finally decided to intervene in this exploitative relationship.