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Thursday, April 1, 2021



My interpretation of the thought of Karl Marx


Part Four: The Church and the Supermarket


As we begin to read Volume 1 of Capital, we must recall that half a century has passed since the publication of Ricardo’s Principles. If I may adopt a lovely trope used to such great effect by Thomas Piketty, the England of David Ricardo was Jane Austen’s England, whereas the England of Karl Marx was Charles Dickens’ England. In the intervening 50 years, factories had sprouted up not only in the north of England but in London as well and a large working class of low-paid factory workers had absorbed some but by no means all of the population that had flooded into the cities as a consequence of the enclosure of agricultural land to make way for herds of sheep.


The subtitle of the entire three volume work, Capital, is A Critique of Political Economy. It is not merely capitalism itself but the ruling theories of capitalism that are the object of Marx’s devastating criticism. Marx, who had steeped himself for almost 20 years in the economic literature written in German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish, was well aware of the theoretical problem about differing capital and labor intensities that Ricardo had failed to solve. Marx believed that he had found the solution of that problem, but nevertheless he wrote the entire text of volume 1 of Capital as though Ricardo’s theory of embodied labor was correct as stated. A puzzling decision. It was not until volume 3 that Marx would explain his solution of Ricardo’s problem. Why make so odd a choice?


The reason is twofold: first, Marx saw a problem lying at the very heart of political economy so fundamental that it had to be confronted and analyzed and solved before he could address the relatively less important problem that had stumped Ricardo; and second, Marx believed that he could successfully analyze capitalism only if he challenged the foundational assumption on which all of Political Economy rested, namely, to put it as simply as I can, that capitalism was what it seemed to be. Capitalism, Marx was convinced, was deeply mystified and in the process of its demystification the problem would emerge that neither Ricardo nor Smith or any of their lesser fellow economists had ever conceived or understood.


To begin our confrontation with the puzzling language and profoundly original doctrines of volume one, let us make two visits, first to a Catholic cathedral in 19th century Germany or France or England, and then to a modern American supermarket. Since the closest supermarket to my home here in North Carolina is a Food Lion, let that be where we make our visit.


Before we even enter the Cathedral we must be sure to put on our best clothes for one ought not to enter a church as if one were going to the beach. The Cathedral is the tallest building in the city. It is quiet inside and dimly lit by light filtering through stained-glass windows high above and by banks of candles. In alcoves to the side parishioners kneel in silent prayer. The Cathedral is attended by men wearing robes tricked out in iconic symbols. They speak softly in a language that the common people do not understand. Far down the aisle opposite the entrance is a brightly lit altar. It is here that a priest presides at a miraculous event. When the priest utters incomprehensible incantations and raises high above his head first a dish containing wafers and then a goblet containing wine, God Almighty performs a miraculous transformation, turning the wafers into the body of Jesus Christ and the wine into the blood of Christ. This transformation is doubly miraculous, for although the substance of the wafer is transformed into the body of Christ and the substance of the wine is transformed into the blood of Christ, the accidents of the wafers and wine are not altered. They smell the same, they feel the same, they look the same, they taste the same, but by the intervention of Almighty God they have become the body and the blood of Christ. This Is the Miracle of Transubstantiation, a miracle performed by God in every Catholic Church in the world during every mass that is celebrated.


Everything about the church and what happens there is designed to create awe and wonder in the common folk who come to attend service. From childhood they are taught to revere the priests, to stand in awe of them, to submit to them, to obey them.


These are the mysteries that the Enlightenment worked so hard to expose as false and meretricious.


Now let us visit my local Food Lion, which will stand in for any market in the modern world. There is no need to wear special clothing when visiting the Food Lion.  Shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops will suffice. The store is as large as a cathedral but in every other way differs completely. It has a flat ceiling and is brightly lit without a shadow-darkened apse anywhere. Rows of shelves are piled high with groceries. The people working in the store look just like me and they speak English in the local accent. They are friendly, accommodating, and welcoming. As Marx says at the end of chapter 6, “There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.”


There are puzzles in the Food Lion, to be sure – where are the fresh fruits and vegetables, which aisle has the soups? But there are no mysteries, nothing to inspire fear or awe or humility. Everything is just exactly as it seems.


And yet. AND YET. Marx is convinced that there is more mystery in a grocery store than in a cathedral! He is convinced that nothing is as it seems, nothing is simple, everything is clothed in mystery. Indeed, in a brilliant philosophical tour de force that would have made Hegel proud, Marx actually suggests that the simple process of exchanging one commodity for another is nothing less than the inversion of the Catholic miracle of transubstantiation. In the miracle of transubstantiation the substance of the wafer and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ while the accidents of the wafer and wine, their taste and feel and look and smell, remain unaltered. In the exchange in the market of a package of wafers for a carafe of wine, the quantum of embodied labor contained in each, their substance as commodities, remains unchanged – for their labor value is their substance to the capitalists and you will recall that in volume 1 equals are exchanged for equals –while the accidents of the wafers are completely altered into those of the wine.


And now we can see the problem Marx confronted in writing the opening chapters of Capital. When Voltaire undertook to demystify the church, he did not first have to persuade its communicants of its mystery. That was immediately obvious to them. But before Marx can demystify commodity exchange and with it capitalism, he must persuade the political economists and his lay readers that there is more mystery in the marketplace than at the altar, more mystification in the writings of the Political Economists than in the sacred texts of the Old and New Testaments.




Howie said...

Dear Professor Wolff:

To say capitalism is nothing but an exploitative ruse pulled on the workers seems like a bunch of bunk. There are people smarter than me and as smart as you who have critiqued your orthodoxy and they are as ethical as are you.
But granted your analysis is true for the sake of argument: a church, physical actual church is an actual building, not just a Disney Land Potemkin village; whereas I don't see anybody who likes living in the house that Marx built.
I mean as Biggie says you cursed it but rehearsed it, but repeating your catechism over and over again, even if clothed in clever analogy and ironclad logic doesn't make it so.
Capitalism is a house that people actually can live in (just ask Biden, who I think would agree with me) and not just the straw man you make it out to be- whereas I don't see anyone who wants to live in the house that Marx built

Anonymous said...

Maybe, Howie, Marx isn't building a house? Maybe--or so I gather from this series of commentaries on Marx--he was saying something like "Here's the house you imagine you live in and here are the fundamentally dangerous structural flaws in your actual house that you should be aware of?"

s. wallerstein said...

Maybe the people you know don't want to live in the house Marx aims for, but here in Chile one of the leading candidate for November's presidential election is Daniel Jadue, Communist mayor of Recolecta ( the Santiago metropolitan region is divided into different municipalities, one of them being Recolecta) and an avowed Marxist. I wouldn't bet on him being elected nor would I bet on him not being elected: still he has as much support in the polls as any other candidate on the right, center or left. And in a month more Iraci Hassler, another Communist and Marxist, is likely to be elected mayor of Santiago, the old downtown in the large metropolitan and where I myself live.

Do Jadue and Hassler plan to nationalize the corner grocery store and do away with capitalism in a year? No, but they are to the left of Bernie Sanders and their final goal is socialism, seen as a longterm project.

LFC said...

If one lived in Britain in, say, the 1840s or '50s, only a decade or two before Marx published Capital vol.1, all one would have had to do to see the flaws of capitalism was go to Manchester or Liverpool or London and note the horrific, almost indescribable conditions of the urban slums. (Engels wrote a whole book about Manchester, of course.) Unless one believed, as some did (or professed to do), that these conditions were an inevitable accompaniment to "progress," it would have been obvious that something was awry.

Conditions were at least as bad as -- and in certain respects almost certainly worse than -- conditions in urban slums in the 'developing world' today. Whole families crammed into a single room with little light or ventilation, no sanitation, and, most likely, no source of clean water. Unprocessed waste flowed through the streets, "creating monstrous enlargements of the disease-breeding conditions which had prevailed in towns since the Middle Ages." (R.D. Altick, Victorian People and Ideas, p.44) In the mid 19th cent., "half of its drinking water from a reach of the Thames into which two hundred sewers flowed." (Ibid.) Cholera killed some 16,000 people in England and Wales in 1832, and roughly the same number in London alone in 1849. "One out of every two babies born in the towns died before the age of five." (ibid., p.45) Then there were the working conditions in the factories and mines, only rather slowly addressed by legislation. It wouldn't have been necessary to read a single word of Marx's analysis of capitalism to realize that something was wrong (which is not to say that one would have grasped the underlying causes).

Jerry Brown said...

LFC, the conditions you describe are horrific. Perhaps they were rationalized as the only expected outcome possible per that other 18th century economist Malthus. I don't know. Sure seems like the theories of many economists have been used to explain away injustices for many years though. Dismal science indeed.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I seriously doubt that conditions that obtain in the third world urban slums are any better than the slums in Birmingham, Eng., or NYC during the 1850’s. Capital has historically moved to where labor costs are the cheapest and countries will not tax them too much, and prevent unionization. The movement of capital in the U.S. is evident in how (70 or so years ago) industries centered in the Northeast began to move to the South, which had right to work laws. Shoemaking, furniture, and leather industries are the examples that spring to mind. Auto production moves to Mexico, bringing economic collapse to major cities like Cleveland, Akron, etc. The textile industry, after moving to the south, moved overseas and did not bring enlightened labor practices with them. Recall that there was a major fire in 2013 at a textile plant in Bangladesh that killed 112 workers, and 5 months later a building housing 5 garment making enterprises collapsed leaving 1,1,34 dead.. To put the textile fire in context, the famous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in NYC killed 146, and is one of the most deadly industrial accidents in our history. I would suggest that the working conditions today in the developing world as as bad or worse than 1850’s London or Birmingham.

Slums are recreated wherever capital goes, it seems. I saw a report on Nairobi recently which has enormous slums where there is no electricity, sanitation, potable water, little to no health care, etc. And since we are still in pandemic mode, the primary concern of epidemiologists is that these types of slum conditions, which apply in virtually all developing countries, will be the source of the mutation of one or more viruses that produces the next pandemic.

LFC said...

@ Christopher Mulvaney

I don't really disagree substantially. In terms of access to water, for ex., things may be a bit better in the slums of Nairobi or Mumbai than in the Manchester of the 1840s, but I'm not an expert on this and won't push the point.

LFC said...

P.s. Globally, levels of infant and child mortality have fallen significantly in the last quarter century or so, though they are still too high.

As for Bangladesh, according to a recent NYT column by N. Kristof, who admittedly tends to look at the glass half full side, the country now has an average life expectancy of 72, almost all children complete elem. school, there are more girls than boys in high school, and number of children stunted by malnutrition has dropped by half since 1991. Still lots of problems, including in the textile industry.

I've read a little bit about the Kibera slum in (or outside of) Nairobi. I certainly wouldn't want to live there, but if I were forced to a choice between the slums of Manchester or Liverpool in the 1840s and Kibera today, I'd probably take the latter.

s. wallerstein said...

Judging from Chile, I'd say that neoliberal capitalism creates inequalities more than poverty.

Fewer Chileans live in extreme poverty, in conditions like those of a Manchester slum as described above, than before Pinochet's neoliberal counter-revolution, which basically is still in effect today. While there are still shanty-towns where there is no electricity or running water, there are far fewer than there were when I arrived here in 1979.

On the other hand, there are more billionaires and more multi-millionaires. There is a whole class or caste of people who live a first world life style: I don't know what percentage exactly, but 7% of children go to private school, which, given the sums charged by those schools, indicates that the parents belong to the economic, social and cultural elite.

Enzo Rossi said...

Professor Wolff, thank you for this brilliant series of essays.

Would you agree that Marx's critique of capitalism employs a form of epistemic normativity (rather than moral or prudential or aesthetic normativity)? To clarify: it seems to me that on your account what is wrong with capitalism is that it obfuscates how things really work, and so the wrong is not that capitalism exploits or oppresses people, but that it does so while making it look as though everyone is a free and equal participant in the marketplace.

Maybe I'm putting words in your mouth, but anyway that's a thumbnail sketch of the sort of vaguely Marxist type of non-moralistic ideology critique I've been trying to develop of late. Were it to chime with your own views, I'd be quite encouraged.

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