Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The 'Massiness' of Capital

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The 'Massiness' of Capital

Article excerpt

When I was a graduate, everyone said they were Marxist, but hardly anyone had read any Marx ... In a way, the stronger the cultural consensus about a figure, the less likely anyone will inquire. The great wheels of civilisation turn around terms that mean nothing, that have no core.

Marilynne Robinson, Spectator, 26 May 2012.

Because developing the tactics and strategy to promote the interests of the exploited, even for resistance, is chancier if we lack clarity on the intricacies of our enemy, the crisis in accumulation this time has cornered many of us into reposing the question 'what is capital?'. One path proceeds through the couplings of constant/variable, fixed/fluid, individual/social and competitive/monopolising. Penetrating those complexities lays a foundation for distinguishing 'fictitious' from 'finance' and 'financial' (McQueen, 2009, 2011a). This paper builds on those investigations to consider how the expansion of capital depends on the engagement of objects/things with processes through historically specific relations.

The analysis begins from Marx's acceptance that a dimension of thing-hood inhabits capital, before introducing four instances which do not meet the everyday sense of thing: human capacities, personal services, ephemeral commodities and money. The next segment approaches capital at the intersection of value-forms and social relations. Metamorphosis is then offered as a corrective to the sub-dialectical reasoning of casting thing against process. Although the commentary rarely strays beyond exegesis, such theoretical practice can rise above coquetting with concepts if our eye is on making sense of the latest blockage in accumulation. The origins and prognosis of the catastrophe are outside the province of this paper, though elements are traversed elsewhere (McQueen, 2010).

Our focus on these tasks is sharpened by an engagement with David Harvey's lifetime of investigation into contemporary capitalism. Across forty years, he has guided Left activists through Marx's critique of political economy. As part of a broader critique of his oeuvre, this essay circles his claims that capital is not a thing but rather a process. Interrogating this dichotomy becomes politically valuable if it cautions against either/or thinking since critiquing the trajectories of capital calls for a method in which 'contradiction is both realised and resolved' (Marx, 1976: 198).

'Down with the Object!' (Marx & Engels, 1956: 32)

In a habitual if common enough misstep (1), Harvey writes that '[c]apital, Marx insists, should be defined as a process rather than as a thing' (Harvey, 1982: 20). One exception reports that 'in Marx's definition, capital is constituted as both the process of circulation of value (a flow) and the stock of assets ('things' like commodities, money, production apparatus) implicated in those flows'. Within a dozen pages, however, this summation is displaced by the regular claim that, for Marx, '[c]apital is directly conceptualised, therefore, as a process or as a relation rather than as a "thing"' (Harvey, 1996: 49-50, 62-63).

Harvey emphasises process and circulation rather than the social relations of production, which is a more usual definition of capital among Marxists, as he once put it:

But capital is the social power of money used to make more money, most typically through a form of circulation in which money is used to buy commodities (labour power and means of production) which, when combined within a particular labour process, produce a fresh commodity to be sold at a profit (Harvey, 1985: 25).

To view capital as 'the social power of money ... through a form of circulation' is superior to focusing on 'a process of circulation' (Harvey, 2010c). Had Harvey stuck to this version there would be less need to unstitch his account. Strikingly though, he does not here name surplus-value as the source of profit--an oversight connected to his by-passing of the valorisation process in favour of the labour process as conjoint parts of the production process (McQueen, 2012b). …

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