Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

THINGS COME TOGETHER [WITH APOLOGIES TO W. B. YEATS]


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?

6 comments:

Jim Westrich said...

I thought you might be interested that Branko Milanovich has written quite clearly about why the phrase "human capital" is to be avoided in any honest discourse (I am linking to his blog because there is added comments and a follow-up there):

http://glineq.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-misleading-terminology-of-human.html

Not surprisingly there was a lot of chattering by economists who willfully "do not get it™" so there was this nice response:

http://glineq.blogspot.com/2015/02/on-human-capital-one-more-time.html

Robert Vienneau said...

I thought Professor Wolff's discussion of the literary nature of Marx's Capital very apposite for that discussion.

Under capitalism, as far as a share holder is concerned, there is no difference, at a certain level of abstraction, in a corporation's expenditure on equipment or training for the workforce. Both are capital investments, with expected payoffs and risks (of obsolescence resulting from inventions during the life of the investment, of breakdown of equipment, of worker's changing their employment). So the phrase "human capital" captures a real illusion thrown up by capitalism.

But the phrase obscures the fact that workers laborer under the direction of others who are always trying to extract more value out of the worker.

Jerry Fresia said...

Brilliantly sardonic. I particularly love the phrase "incapable of understanding Marx's argument." This says it all - a semester could be spent explicating "incapable."

classtruggle said...

Gone are the 'good old' days of reading books like Grapes of Wrath or Heart of Darkness. They've been replaced by books like Lord of the Flies now.

Magpie said...

"Under capitalism, as far as a share holder is concerned, there is no difference, at a certain level of abstraction, in a corporation's expenditure on equipment or training for the workforce. Both are capital investments, with expected payoffs and risks"

I can see the point and it's a clever one (which I would have liked to think of myself): Namely, because, from the capitalists' point of view, there is little difference between investing on providing skills to their workers and acquiring more advanced equipment, they (in consequence their economists) consider human capital a valid category.

However, even in this case, there are differences between human capital and capital, after all, they don't buy the worker (she does not enter in the capitalists' balance sheet, as a machine would), but only her labour power.

Besides, to judge whether human capital is a form of capital, shouldn't one adopt the worker's point of view? If so, the partial similarity breaks down completely: can the worker transfer her human capital, as she can her car?

formerly a wage slave said...

You wrote: "...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."

And when I read that, I laughed out loud.

And my pleasure did not stop there.