8 min read ⌚
Critique of Political Economy
They don’t even bother translating the title to make it sound scarier, ha?
“Das Kapital” – you have to agree – sounds way more frightening than “Capital,” and “Karl Marx” is a more intimidating author than “Marx and Engels” (the latter sounds as if a corporation, doesn’t it?)
The question is: why should one be afraid of a book?
And, much more importantly, who?
Who Should Read “Das Kapital”? And Why?
Ever since its publication, “Das Kapital” has enjoyed an utterly paradoxical reputation.
On the one hand, there are millions of people who swear by it and consider it more important than “The Bible.” To this group of people, almost every word Marx wrote here is sacred, and his analysis of capitalism isn’t a philosophical, but a scientific one.
In other words, “Das Kapital” states something which is as true as Newton’s laws on gravity, and unless you want to fall down your window experimenting, it’s a good idea that you become familiar with them the easier way.
In this case, Marx’s predictions will inevitably come true, so reading “Das Kapital” is like reading Nostradamus’ “The Prophecies.”
On the other hand, there are probably just as many detractors, who (though usually haven’t read “Das Kapital” or anything Marx ever wrote) point to the fall of communism as real-life evidence that Marx’s philosophy doesn’t work and is inherently flawed.
To this group of people, Marx’s “Das Kapital” had a chance to change the world; and it did – only for the worse.
The much worse.
In this case, Marx’s predictions haven’t come true and never will, so reading him is like reading myths about the flat earth: they have no relation to reality whatsoever.
Belong to whichever group you like, but don’t skip this book if you are an economist or a political theorist.
Simply put, you are not an economist or a political theorist if you haven’t read this book.
It’s that essential.
About Karl Marx
Karl Marx was a German polymath: philosopher, historian, economist, sociologist, political theorist, revolutionary socialist, and journalist.
He was born in Trier exactly 200 years ago but had to leave Germany due to his political publications, so he settled in London.
It was there that he developed – in close collaboration with his lifelong friend Friedrich Engels – his socio-economic political philosophy, which left lasting impressions not only on the thinkers coming after him but on the world and mankind in general.
Together with Engels, in the revolutionary 1848, he published “The Communist Manifesto,” a brief pamphlet which is widely considered one of the most influential nonfiction works ever written.
The same holds true about the gargantuan – and much less comprehensible – “Das Kapital.”
“Das Kapital Summary”
“Das Kapital” – or “Capital: Critique of Political Economy” – is a foundational text in both politics and economics, the most elaborate critique of the classical political economic theories first developed by Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” and furthered by Say, Ricardo, Mill, etc.
Marx didn’t live to see his book published: during his life, he managed to finish only the first volume of “Das Kapital.”
The second and the third volumes were edited from his notes and published by his friend Friedrich Engels, resulting in a book which exceeds 1,000 pages and is as unreadable as the later Joyce.
Consequently, it’s both boring to read and difficult to summarize it.
So, if you want to learn more about “Das Kapital” even though you have an aversion to reading books filled with equations and tedious words, we highly recommend that you spent some time listening to David Harvey’s series of lectures on YouTube.
It’s long, but it’s intelligible and rather enjoyable.
And you’ll learn a lot.
However, if you want to get an idea of what Marx was babbling about on 1,000 pages and you don’t have time or interest to listen to academic lectures, this “School of Life” video may just do the trick for you:
Anyway, as you probably know by now, “Das Kapital” is an elaborate analysis of how capitalism works.
It’s not that there weren’t any of this sort before, but Marx’s was an original one, in that it was the first one to systematically examine how and why capitalism works through the lens of the sides involved – and not only through an abstract, theoretical prism.
So, what did Marx find out and why did the findings made him the arch-nemesis of the society we’re currently living?
Well, first of all, it’s important that you know what a commodity is, because, for Marx, that’s the smallest unit of capitalism.
It’s only a product or a service, but it’s everything that a human can at any point desire; practically, all the things which can be bought and sold.
Now, commodities in capitalism aren’t created to be equal – just like people – even when they are.
And to understand why this happens, you have to understand how the relation between use-value and exchange value functions.
Use-value is the inherent value of an object – it’s what makes an object useful. Exchange-value, on the other hand, is the value a commodity gets when compared to other commodities on the market, i.e., the price which people are willing to pay to buy it.
Naturally, the former is much more objective than the latter.
In practical terms:
A car produced by Rolls-Royce is much more expensive than a car produced, say, by Fiat, not because the first does more functions than the latter, but because the market has artificially created an exchange value which is not related to the use-value, but to things such as prestige and social status.
The very fact that things such as “luxury vehicle” exist is beyond Marx – for two reasons:
First of all, “what is a luxury car to some… may be ‘ordinary’ to others.”
And secondly, the very existence of luxury cars results in hunger for thousands of people, since it disrupts the relationship between the exchange-value and the use-value, from which only the wealthy profit.
Capitalists – or, the bourgeoisie, in Marx’s terms – exploit the exchange value.
In other words, whenever a capitalist sells a commodity, he sells it with the intention of maximizing the exchange value, which, of course, results in him maximizing his profit.
And he is the only one who gets anything out of this deal because his workers are still only paid for their use value.
And this is, basically, what surplus value means: by working to create a product, workers add an exchange value to the use value of an object. However, workers get paid only for their use value, and capitalists get paid for both the use and the exchange value of the commodity.
If you are a capitalist, it’s easy from here on: the more you lower the use value of a worker and the more you raise the exchange value of a commodity, the more money you earn.
And back in Marx’s days, this is exactly what happened on a daily basis.
Children – as young as eight years – worked for 14 hours a day. And many others worked for even more than that!
So, why didn’t they rebel?
For the very simple reason that they have no way how to do that.
Capitalists own the means of production and have all the power, while workers have none of it and have to willingly accept that their bosses dictate their day for them.
Otherwise, they won’t have any job whatsoever.
And this will go on, says Marx, until the day workers realize that they are much more powerful than it seems at first sight.
Key Lessons from “Das Kapital”
1. Capitalism Exploits Workers
2. Capitalism Creates Cattle: The Alienated Worker
3. Capitalism Is All About Accumulated Capital
Capitalism Exploits Workers
To many – we’re looking at you, Francis Fukuyama – capitalism is the be-all and end-all of political and economic theory.
It may not be the perfect system, but it’s the most perfect humanity will ever be able to create.
To Marx, this is utter nonsense.
Capitalism is far from good, let alone the most perfect system humanity can devise. On the contrary, it’s one of the worst.
Because, inherently, it cannot not exploit workers.
In other words, if capitalists don’t pay their workers less than they earn, the system will collapse.
And, unfortunately, they do the exact opposite – trying to maximize their profit by paying their workers as little as possible.
Capitalism Creates Cattle: The Alienated Worker
Even if you like capitalism, you’ll have to agree with Marx on this: capitalism alienates workers.
In other words, it doesn’t treat people as objects, but as a means to an end. And, according to Kant, that’s the biggest no-no there ever was, is, or will be in terms of human ethical behavior.
And alienation doesn’t stop there.
For millions of people worldwide, work means doing one repetitive task over and over again for eight years a day, thirty years straight!
That kills the humanity in human.
And it’s capitalism’s fault.
Capitalism Is All About Accumulated Capital
When we said above that capitalism treats people as a means to an end, we didn’t mention what that end is.
But, you may have already guessed it: it’s money.
Or, better yet (since Marx makes a distinction between the two): capital.
Capital is money which one uses to make more money.
And, unfortunately, that’s the only thing capitalists are interested in doing after some time spent as capitalists.
Simply put, they stop caring about obtaining certain commodities.
And they only start caring about accumulating capital vast enough to grant them an opportunity to buy any commodity they may like in the future.
So, it’s basically like a disease.
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app, for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“Das Kapital PDF Quotes”Education is free. Freedom of education shall be enjoyed under the condition fixed by law and under the supreme control of the state. Click To Tweet In reality, the laborer belongs to capital before he has sold himself to capital. His economic bondage is both brought about and concealed by the periodic sale of himself, by his change of masters, and by the oscillation in the market… Click To Tweet Perseus wore a magic cap down over his eyes and ears as a make-believe that there are no monsters. Click To Tweet As, in religion, man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalistic production, he is governed by the products of his own hand. Click To Tweet Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
When we tried clearing up for you above who should read “Das Kapital,” we mentioned two groups of people: the religious fanatics who consider “Das Kapital” a Bible, and the atheists who think that everything it says is about as true as Ancient Indian myths.
However, we failed to mention a third group: the agnostic scholars.
This group, in our opinion, sees “Das Kapital” as it is: one of the most important economic books in history which should be studied over and over again because it says some things which may make us rethink the society we’re living in.
This is the group which has made “Das Kapital” the most cited book in the social sciences published before 1950 and the 17th most cited ever.
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.