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.