Last week, in an effort to introduce my students to the concept of ironic discourse, I began my lecture by quoting the famous opening sentence of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Yesterday, having obsessed as much as was humanly possible over today's lecture, I repaired to Netflix for some amusement and stumbled on the lavish BBC miniseries of P. D. James' 2011 sequel to Pride and Prejudice, called Death Comes to Pemberley. A murder is of course de rigueur in a murder mystery [if you will forgive the pun], so not very far into the first episode, we get a nice bloody murder, the unraveling of which will presumably occupy the remainder of the series. Since I have not yet watched so much as the entire first episode, I cannot tell you whodunnit, but the production perfectly illustrated for me a central theme of Capital, so I thought I would take this opportunity to expatiate on it a bit.
The story opens with Elizabeth and Darcy preparing for a grand ball at Pemberley, which in this production is a magnificent stately structure with endless galleries and vast expanses of perfectly cared for lawn. We see half a dozen young women in the kitchen preparing the goodies for the meal and liveried, bewigged servants serving a light repast to Darcy, Elizabeth, and the Bennetts, and various farmers -- what in the Old South of the United States would have been called "field negroes." Darcy and Elizabeth are presented to us as a courteous, caring master and mistress, inquiring after the health of the servants and thanking them for their service. The production manages to convey, quickly and convincingly, the absolute inviolability of the class structure of this world, made all the more manifest by the fact that Darcy, Elizabeth, and those of their class do not ever actually do anything in the way of productive labor, save, of course, to oversee their clouds of servants. It is just as Adam Smith represented it in The Wealth of Nations, except of course for the fact that these are, after all, Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, so clearly disapproving of them is out of the question.
Today, in my lecture, I come to the critical passage in Chapter IV at which Marx, for the very first time, introduces the phrase "surplus value." With that, the argument is launched that arrives many pages later at Marx's central thesis: capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working-class. Stripped of its sometimes puzzling formal elaboration, Marx's claim is that the workers, denied immediate access to the means of production with which they could support themselves and their families, labor for wages, receiving what Marx, with bitter irony, characterizes as the full economic value of their labor, but despite that fact are forced each day to perform many hours of unpaid labor, the monetization of which is the capitalist's profit.
This reality is plainly on view in the pre-capitalist world of Pemberley, but it is concealed today by the development of advanced corporate capitalism, and hence very smart professional economists, of whom I take Paul Krugman to be the exemplar, seem utterly incapable of understanding Marx's argument. Even an ostensibly clued-up economist like Thomas Piketty, who makes disparaging remarks about the fiction of marginal productivity and Gary Becker's Nobel Prize winning innovation, "human capital," seems unable to penetrate the mystifications of capitalism. Nor can I blame Piketty's failing on an unfamiliarity with Austen, inasmuch as he makes elegant use of her anatomization of the society of landed gentry in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
When I was a boy, novels like The Grapes of Wrath told the truth of capitalism. Where is John Steinbeck when we need him?