The relevance of Karl Marx's thought



The German thinker makes us glimpse the urgency of the historical break with capitalism and its degrading essence of the forces of nature and work

The article that follows is also part of the celebrations resulting from the 205th anniversary of the author's birth The capital (1867). The question that guides us, in this brief text, is the question of the actuality of Marx for the understanding and transformation of this unbridled capitalism and without any control guide of this second decade of the XNUMXst century. In order to deal with this contemporaneity of the greatest anti-capitalist thinker in modern history, we will present an exposition in four sections.

We will first present our perception of the historical significance of Marx's main mature work: The capital, considering two axes of exposure: its role in understanding modernity, established from the capitalist dynamics and its historicity; and its significance as a work of establishing a standard of scientificity for the social sciences, “social astronomy”, in the terms of Desai (2003) or establishment of the “Continent-History”, in the terms of Althusser (2013).

In the second moment, we seek to present elements of the totality of the dynamics of accumulation exposed in The capital, considering the developed categories and their role in the social sciences and specifically in political economy. In the third section, we deal with the historical development of capitalism and how Marxism gave us clues for understanding its future. Finally, in the last section, an attempt is made to deal, very briefly, with the critical limits of this system: its cyclical crisis dynamics; its social and environmental limits.

The capital as a classic work

Italo Calvino (2004), Italian-Cuban writer and attentive reader of universal literature, established fourteen characterizations or explanatory definitions as motivating axes for reading classic works. For Calvino, a classic author or work is, above all, that work that excites permanent re-reading, and with each new reading the author is rediscovered and new light is shed on hitherto obscure questions and, more than that, always provides new insights. discoveries.

We consider that we can apply the fourteen motivations established by Calvin to Marx's main mature work. Let's see some of Calvino's additions: “The classics are those authors of whom, in general, one hears saying: “I'm rereading… and I'm never reading…”. Most of those who have already ventured into reading The capital almost obligatorily they feel the need to reread it, with each reading discovering new things, let it be said that this continuous rediscovery of new things constitutes another definition by Italo Calvino of what a classic work would be (fifth definition).

The capital appears to us as a work that “never finished saying what it had to say” (sixth definition). It should be said that at the end of the 2011th century, Eric Hobsbawm (XNUMX) was approached by the person least expected: an editor of a business magazine, whose main readers are Wall Street financial capitalists, to tell them about Marx's work. , obviously the old English historian was quite astonished. The different readings that we can make of The capital ranges from a historical perception of the development of capitalism, the nuances of logical and dialectical forms of work and the complex structure of the commodity form, to the essayistic perception of universal literature.[I]

Italo Calvino, still tells us, that “a classic is a work that incessantly provokes a cloud of critical discourses, but continually repels them away” and that a classic work “configures itself as the equivalent of the universe”, that is, it apprehends the totality . The capital, over the last two centuries has established its own universe of interpretations, whether from non-Marxist or anti-Marxist critics, or from enthusiastic interpreters and commentators. As Eric Hobsbawm (2011) reminds us again in a Google search, Marx appears alongside Einstein and Darwin as the “great intellectual presences” of modernity.

Modernity as a historical logic defined by the rise and development of capitalism had already been dealt with forcefully by Marx and Engels in the Communist Party Manifesto (1848), with the famous expression: “Everything that is solid melts into air”, to address the transforming, creating and destroying condition of the social force expressed by capital, as a social relationship. However, what is observed in the analytical treatment developed in his main work, is that capitalist modernity constitutes a destructive force that alienates not only part of humanity, but imposes a growing expansiveness that will monopolize and destroy the very metabolism of nature.

The relations between men in capitalism appear to be mediated by commodities, and “the relations between producers, in which those social determinations of their work are carried out, take the form of a social relation between the products of work”. Social relations thus present the form of relations between things, in such a way that the interaction that is established between individuals ends up being sanctioned by the purchasing power of each one and, in the current neoliberal regime, by the almost complete loss of of social regulation mechanisms.

David Harvey (1993), as a contemporary interlocutor of Marx, observes that human contingency in the face of commodities imposes that “working and living conditions, the joy, anger or frustration behind the production of commodities, the states of spirit of the producers, all of this is hidden from us when we exchange one object (money) for another (commodity)”, otherwise a totalitarian commodification is established in the current moment of world capitalist society.

At the core of modernity, as Marx treats it, is the generalization of the form of commodity production, and from this historical era onwards, the commodification of work is observed, historically establishing the commodity labor force, whose process of buying and selling itself and the exploitation of the worker become the center of the social dynamics inaugurated with the broad social, geographic and technological transformations since the XNUMXth century.

The discovery made by Marx, based on a careful reading of classical political economy and the application of the dialectical method to the concrete reality of English capitalism, answered the key question: how does profit originate? Likewise, he answered fundamental questions about capital accumulation and the way in which social wealth is distributed.

The labor force commodity presents the peculiar peculiarity of producing more value, in such a way that the worker, when exchanging his work capacity for an amount of money in the form of a salary, sells an amount of work time superior to that necessary for his own physical reproduction. and social. Thus, profit refers to the part of working time that exceeds that magnitude necessary for the reproduction of the worker himself, hence salary and profit are Siamese brothers, both children of labor effort, an intrinsic condition of the other, a normal reproductive effort, another condition of exploitation and permanence of capitalism.

The capitalist mode of production evolved by revolutionizing the techniques and organization of production, its desideratum imposes the permanent transformation of the work process and technological change.[ii] The highly organized social and technical division of labor in capitalism congeals and leverages a process of economic growth, accumulation and expanded reproduction of capital, whose systemic integrity is based on the existence of salaried work, inserted in the dynamics of the mercantile process.

The accelerated technological development emerges as a result of the capitalist competitive essence, whose most noticeable historical nuance is the continuous and perennial creation and avoidance of investments and work skills. At this level, the destructive-creative capacity is observed as a true force, whose relative autonomy in the face of micro and macro institutional arrangements, leads capitalism to periodic paroxysms of crises.

Technological transformations over the past two centuries have triggered an accelerated increase in labor productivity, “along with a series of events that have expanded the field of investment and the market for consumer goods, to an unprecedented degree” (Dobb, 1985 ). Marx (2013) anticipated part of these movements, and in particular his analysis of the development of “Grand Industry” established a fundamental source of understanding for recent changes in production processes, since, in general, the factors of concentration and centralization of capital were the main expansive forces and that from the multinational companies defined the global stage as being the arena of dispute of the capitalist forces.

The categories of The capital

The construction of Marxian thought took place from a perspective that we would now call multidisciplinary. How Rightly Treated Jacob Gorender (2013), The capital, is essentially a “work of interdisciplinary unification of human sciences”. At a time like ours, when disciplinary fragmentation takes a heavy toll, either because of the meanness in understanding the complex reality of capitalism, or because it turns social science researchers into mere data analysts, this dimension assumes strong relevance.

Thus, Marx's thought and his ability to integrate economics, history, geography, philosophy, sociology, demography and anthropology into an interactive whole, has to be revisited and established as a robust instrument for the analysis of capitalist society and of transforming action tool on it. Eric Hobsbawm (2011) highlighted that Marx's thought went beyond “an 'interdisciplinary' thought in the conventional sense, but integrated all disciplines” in a “universal scope”.

In the same way Louis Althusser (2013) illustrated the meaning of The capital from a comprehensive perception, the idea of ​​a “continent-history”, that is, a “system of concepts (therefore, of scientific theory)” that established the conditions for the development of the social sciences. The aforementioned “continent-history” assumed a high degree of complexity in the development of its categories, with neither linearity nor simple causal movements in the characterization of society or in the understanding of its dynamics.

For example, the Marxian interpretation of merchandise presents itself as an envelope of an inner essence, value, and only in modernity, in the current capitalist mode of production, is that all socially expended work has the sole objective of producing value, whose outer expression It's called exchange value. It should be noted that Marxism does not claim the scope or unanimous scientific form for the social sciences, quite the contrary, the proposed social astronomy is entangled with the set of contributions of other epistemologies, seeking to dialogue and enrich itself with categories that are radical in the interpretation of contemporaneity .

The construction of categories and the dynamics of accumulation

In capitalism, the capital relationship is that of appropriation of surplus value based on contractual relations between the capitalist (buyer of the commodity labor power) and the worker (seller of the commodity labor power). Between them, an exchange of equivalents takes place in the process of commodity circulation: labor power, a commodity which is the sole property of the worker, is bought by the capitalist, who offers in exchange the monetary form of wages, the price of the commodity labor force. work. This apparent equality in the form of legal treatment makes the wage relationship a central condition for both the economic reproduction of the system and its political configuration.

The monetary value of labor power (wages) is equivalent to the value of variable capital (the worker's means of reproduction). This exchange of equivalents establishes the principle of bourgeois legal equality. The appearance resides in the concealment of the production of surplus value that takes place in the productive process, therefore outside the sphere of circulation. The sphere of circulation, taken as a source of evidence, whether for bourgeois law or for bourgeois political economy, is, according to Marx (198), “the paradise of the innate rights of man, where only freedom, equality, property and Bentham.

By selling the labor force commodity, the worker does not alienate the property – which would configure slavery – but the provisional possession of its functioning or use in the work process. In this way, the capitalist starts to functionally dispose of the workforce, using it under average, normal and regulatory conditions. When functioning in the productive process, the workforce develops a triple movement: (i) it conserves value, guaranteeing the reproduction of constant capital; (ii) it expands value, enabling the reproduction of the worker, that is, it reproduces the advanced value in the form of variable capital; and (iii) it expands value, producing a surplus not paid by the capitalist to the worker. Surplus value, when appropriated by the capitalist, does not conform to any break in the rules of exchange of equivalents, that is, it is not extortion, insofar as it is a moment of the use of the labor power commodity and not a “moment” of the exchange process. An important feature of bourgeois ideological domination is that through the use of positive forms of property rights it conceals the exploitation and alienation of surplus value.

The development of capitalist production relations has called into question an unusual aspect in relation to previous economic and social forms: the complete alienation of nature and human work. The forces of creation and destruction developed under capitalism raised the possibility of all of nature becoming a potential object of human labor, even if, conjuncturally, only a portion of it actually becomes raw material and auxiliary material for the production process.

All social wealth in capitalism breaks down into three components: (i) constant capital, which covers the monetary magnitudes of the means of production, capital immobilized in machines and equipment, immobilized in infrastructure, raw materials and energy inputs and others in general; (ii) variable capital, referring to the sum of wages paid in the economy and; (iii) the net value created at each new reproductive cycle of capital and which, when carried out in the market, makes up the forms of income (entrepreneur's profit, bankers' and financial capitalists' interest, land rent and State taxes) and new capital to be reinvested in reproduction.

The intrinsic speculative and expansive nature of capital impels it to permanently accelerate the rotational speed of its production cycles, making production and circulation times ever shorter. For capitalists in general, it is essential that their capital value is fixed for the shortest possible time in each reproductive cycle, however inevitable this may be. Thus, through various expedients, such as the credit system, technological innovations, regulatory actions by the State, foreign trade, etc., the rotational acceleration of capital is observed, reducing production and circulation times, guaranteeing a growing expansion of value and an art that “is not a means to an end, but an end in itself”, something that the Greek philosopher Aristotle called “chrematistic”, an autonomizing form that expands and devours its own substrates, that is, nature and human work.

The limits of capitalism

The capitalist economy does not develop as a regular cycle of gradual and constant ascent, as attributed to it by conventional economic analyses. Movements of ascension, recession, stagnation, stability, etc., are not linear, having patterns that are more chaotic than properly regular. It is worth pointing out the conditionality between reproduction and system crisis, in such a way that the term crisis should be understood as “a set of failures in the economic and political relations of capitalist reproduction” (SHAIKH, 2006).

As much as Marx did not develop a general understanding of the crisis as an analytical phenomenon, however, it is observed in his mature texts that capitalism as a spatial and historical phenomenon would be subject to “partial crises” and “general crises”. Partial crises are characteristically cyclical, erupting in localized spaces or breaking the regular relations of capital accumulation by sector, thus “constitute a regular feature of the history of capitalism” (SHAIKH, 2006). General crises are less episodic and reflect a “generalized collapse” in capitalist reproduction relations, they are, therefore, critical phenomena, and can evolve from partial crises, only localized, to economic depressions of great social and political impact.

The depletion of nature constitutes the critical node of the logic of the capitalist model of development. Marx (2013) pondered that use value should never be considered the immediate capitalist objective, nor should profit be taken in isolation. The capitalist objective is the incessant process of obtaining profit, “there is no limit to its ultimate objective, which is absolute enrichment”. As discussed above, capitalist accumulation is therefore a chrematistic art.

Being an end in itself, its limit seems to be the complete domination of natural forces, absorbing and making value or alienated wealth the totality of nature. Ultimately, the complete exhaustion of nature and the planet itself seems to be the ultimate goal of the chrematistic art that is capitalism.

The actuality of Marx allows us to glimpse how much the historical break with capitalism and its degrading essence of the forces of nature and work is placed as an urgent need for human civilization.

*Jose Raimundo Trinidad He is a professor at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at UFPA. Author, among other books, of Critique of the political economy of public debt and the capitalist credit system: a Marxist approach (CRV).


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[I] Marx makes intense use of classic works of universal literature, which makes the reading of The capital a fantastic “tour” through the best that has been produced in literature, but the use of the great universal novelists constitutes an expository and dynamic tool for the plot developed in O Capital itself, thus modernity is seen as a historical plot in which the key characters are dialectically unfolded. It is worth denoting quotes from Shakespeare regarding human nature; references to Goethe and the spirit of modernity inscribed in “Faust”, Alighieri's allegories and the shattering of human existence, in addition to the fantastic use of Cervantes and the infernal struggles of Quixote. Check for an artistic appreciation of Marx and the interlocution of the expository construction of The capital and its relation to literature: Berman (1994); When (2005); Atali (2007).

[ii] Marx (198) defines work as a “process in which man and nature participate, a process in which the human being, with his own action, drives, regulates and controls his material exchange with nature”. The component elements of the work process are: (i) the activity suitable for an end, that is the work itself; (ii) the matter on which the work is applied, the object of work; and, (iii) the means of work, the working instruments.

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