Unravelling Capitalism

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Joseph Choonara, Bookmarks Publications; £7.99

Last October the right wing Daily Mail reported that Karl Marx's Capital was a bestseller in Germany. Around the same time a Capital reading movement was initiated in over 30 different German universities by the student organisation associated with the left wing party Die Linke. More recently several groups of students at British universities including Birkbeck, King's College London and Oxford have begun similar projects (for example, see kclreadingcapital.blogspot.com). In this context, Unravelling Capitalism is a timely intervention into a lively and growing debate among students and others who are engaging afresh or for the first time with Marxist political economy.

Wealth under capitalism, says Marx, appears as a collection of commodities. These commodities are goods produced specifically for exchange, a process which takes place on the market. But this process, which appears on the surface as a relation between things, obscures a network of relationships between people involved in the production of these commodities. What is necessary is to delve beneath these appearances to discover the capitalist system's "laws of motion", and from these concepts reconstruct the complex appearance that confronts us.

Distilling Marx's pathbreaking critique of capitalism into about 150 pages is no mean feat, but in the current economic period it is a very necessary one. These days in any workplace you might be called upon to explain just why capitalism keeps going into crisis, or what is really going on with the banks and the stock markets. By analysing the tendency of the rate of profit to fall or the nature of credit and fictitious capital, Marx helps arm us with the means to do so. Joseph Choonara expounds these concepts clearly and places them in the context of the system's historical development.

Capitalism is driven by a competitive process of accumulation and it is this ceaseless dynamic that creates its political instability. The outcome of that instability, however, is not certain. It depends on the conscious intervention of revolutionaries. This is possible only with an understanding of the system they confront.

Anyone who has faltered during the "fatiguing climb" of the first chapters of the first volume of Capital will welcome Unravelling Capitalism. Introductions rarely come as succinct and to the point as this. This is not to say that Choonara has ducked any of the more involved debates or controversies that have raged around Capital in the past. He gives numerous useful pointers to further reading. But by putting these (often very scholastic) debates in their proper context, Choonara presents Marx's political economy as what it is: a formidable tool kit in the service of the movement.