You Should Read Capital

Every socialist should read Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. It’s not the easiest or breeziest book, but at the same time it’s not nearly as intimidating, obtuse or academic as its reputation would suggest.

Capital remains an essential text for DSA members because Marx takes no shortcuts. His thorough dissection of the capitalist mode of production starts at the root and gradually zooms out to reveal its mechanisms and contradictions. He explains how capitalism is unique and born of specific historical circumstances, and in doing so he takes to task the political economists of his day who defended this system of mass immiseration.   

I don’t want to sugarcoat my experience reading Capital — it takes patience to get through, and I’d recommend keeping an online dictionary and Wikipedia handy. That said, Capital is full of revelations that have sparked the socialist imagination and inspired generations of leftist thinkers and organizers.  

In keeping with Marx’s approach, I’d like to share some observations about what it was actually like to read Capital. It may appear to be a daunting and impenetrable behemoth, but I hope I can do my part to help demystify it. 

Capital is Cumulative

Capital begins with an exploration of how people assign value to commodities, and from there each subsequent chapter builds on the previous one by addressing an outstanding question or contradiction. You could compare its escalating form to the classic children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie — if a commodity can be exchanged for another commodity of equal value, then it needs a human owner (its “guardian”) to facilitate the exchange.      

While there’s a learning curve in the first few chapters as readers acclimate to Marx’s style and terminology, Capital gets easier to digest as the subject matter becomes increasingly concrete. Marx moves from commodities to money to capital to labor in the opening stretch, and by the end of Volume 1 he’s discussing large-scale historical developments like enclosure and colonization in order to theorize the origins of capitalist production.

Strangely enough, as I reflected on my time reading Capital I was reminded of an essay about Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s confounding and virtuosic 2017 TV series. Writing in Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz described the slow-burning storytelling of Twin Peaks in a way that rings equally true for Capital

“Imagine the totality of [Capital] as an enormous mosaic painting consisting of [33] individual panels; each panel is hidden by a strip of black construction paper, and the artist removes them one at a time, giving you ten minutes to study one panel before revealing the next. That sounds like an infuriating way to look at a painting. But if somebody showed you a painting that way, and you committed to their way of showing it to you, the result would be an experience you would never forget. You might get confused, bored, or angry sometimes, or wonder if the exercise was unnecessarily silly or pretentious. You might even come away thinking the experience was not worth the time you invested. But for the rest of your life, there would be moments when you’d flash back to the time that that painter invited you into the studio and unveiled a work one square at a time, then stood back while you looked at it.”

Capital is Methodical

Marx refers to Capital as an “investigation” in the book’s first paragraph, and this framing device imbues his “critique of political economy” with a literary bent. 

Although he pays special attention to the industrial factories and villages of the English countryside, he flits between several countries and landscapes as settings for his analysis of global capital. His cast of characters includes workers, capitalists, factory inspectors, politicians, judges and a host of naive political economists.  

And like any compelling investigation, his narrative is propelled by mysteries. In particular, he’s fascinated by capitalism’s “appearances” and how they’re contradicted by material reality — it turns out that ostensibly “free” and “equal” labor arrangements actually produce surplus value for capitalists and a lifetime of precarious, miserable subsistence for workers. 

It’s tempting to fixate on the finer points of Marx’s theories and things he may have gotten wrong about capitalism’s evolution, but I think one of the biggest takeaways from Capital, especially for DSA members, is the explanatory power of his method. It’s a framework that leftists can still use to investigate exploitation, value creation and the social tensions that lurk beneath appearances. 

For example, I recently started Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, and now that I know what to look for, I can clearly see how Harris takes cues from Marx.

In Kids These Days, Harris uses Capital’s core concepts to examine the historical conditions that produced the unique generational cohort we call Millennials. He argues that excessive homework is a form of surplus value creation that makes Millennials more productive future employees, and his analysis of the student debt crisis lays bare how lenders are positioned to get a favorable return on their investments while students aren’t always afforded the same luxury.  

Kids These Days is a great case study of Capital’s lasting influence and utility. By shaping how we think about capitalism, Marx’s magnum opus continues to underpin creative leftist scholarship today. 

Capital is Journalistic

I initially expected Capital to read like a textbook of abstract economic theory and philosophical musings. As a result, I was surprised to see Marx dedicate significant portions of the book to straightforward journalistic storytelling and analysis

Operating with more rigor than many of today’s best-known columnists, he draws from government records, factory inspector reports, interviews, monographs and more to illustrate his broader assertions about capitalist development. He weaves in lengthy quotes and data tables that allow his characters — including the targets of his critique — to speak for themselves.  

Marx’s journalistic turns in Capital are also notable for his depictions of the abysmal, inhumane conditions that members of the industrial working class experienced inside and outside of the factory. By discussing topics like child labor and food adulteration in depth, he builds toward one of his key theses: as capitalist wealth accumulates, so does working-class misery. 

Capital’s heterogenous content makes it a more fascinating and readable book. Marx teaches us some disconcerting history lessons along the way, but, more importantly, he demonstrates how diverse sources and perspectives can help us better understand capitalism in its totality.   

Capital is Relatable

While it’s safe to say the world has changed considerably since Capital was first published in 1867, it wasn’t difficult for me to identify themes and throughlines in the book that still resonate.

Marx is particularly prescient when he describes how capitalists use certain levers to wield power over workers, keeping them precarious and dependent. In Marx’s time and ours, capitalists have fiddled with the length, schedule and intensity of the workday in order to wring as much surplus value as possible from the workforce. Additionally, his chapters on wages and the reserve army of labor are extremely relevant to the recent discourse around unemployment benefits and getting people “back to work.”           

As I made my way through Capital, I learned that capitalists and their intellectual apologists have always had nonsensical, bullshit talking points at the ready so they can claim that the existing social order is actually liberatory and morally virtuous. It’s funny to see how their rhetoric has hardly changed over the past 150 years, but it’s also a reminder that contesting capitalist “common sense” is as challenging as it is necessary.    

Present-day readers may be a little confused by Marx’s myriad references to the cost of linen, but Capital contains plenty of concepts and formulations that we can think about in the context of our own lives. After all, the new boss still has a lot in common with the old one.

Capital is Social

Ultimately, Capital is a book about people and how they relate to each other. 

Marx’s investigation hinges on the concept of commodity fetishism, the notion that nonhuman objects appear to relate to each other in human ways, especially during processes of production and exchange. But, once again, this is merely an appearance, and over the course of Capital, Marx explains how people socially construct and enforce the relations between objects. 

This is why he doesn’t define capitalism by the greedy individuals, free markets or technologies that may operate within it. Rather, capitalism is a historically specific social relation in which the working and capitalist classes are dependent on each other for survival. It’s not a natural arrangement, but capitalists, who disproportionately benefit at the expense of workers, will do everything in their power to ensure its preservation.    

Marx argues that capitalism is prone to crises of production that heighten tensions between workers and capitalists, setting the stage for class conflict and struggles that could birth new social relations. If the advent of capitalism negated the forms of sociality and property ownership that came before it, then somewhere beyond the horizon, Marx says, lies “the negation of the negation”: another world, and a better one.  

As a book about people, Capital is best read alongside them. I spent many Saturday afternoons on Zoom discussing it with one of Metro DC DSA’s “Capital in the Capital” reading groups, and I learned a lot from my comrades as they interpreted the text through their own unique perspectives. They motivated me to stick with it week after week, so we could investigate the mysteries of capitalism together. 

If my sales pitch has made you even the slightest bit curious, you should join a “Capital in the Capital” reading group, meet some new people and start your own investigation. It’s hard work, but the experience is invaluable.

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