Reading 'Capital' Today

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The editors of this collection describe reading Marx’s Capital as a political process and certainly Marx intended that his work would become a weapon in the hands of the working class. Reading ‘Capital’ Today does not obviously emerge from any political practice, but rather from readings by authors mostly better known for their academic contributions than their activism.

The book presents perspectives on Capital that examine how Capital has informed class struggle; the readings given it after the October Revolution; its influence on organised labour; and how it might inform struggles for the environment and women’s liberation. There are also contributions to long-standing debates about the labour theory of value and Marx’s method.

Silvia Federici is a founding influence on autonomist feminism whose work has received renewed interest from academics and activists in recent years. Her chapter on Capital and gender restates her critique of Marx developed during the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s.

Federici rightly highlights Marx’s omission in Capital of discussions of gender. She argues that women’s unpaid reproductive labour is central to capitalist production and value creation, leading her to claim that women’s struggle must be “waged first against the men in our own families, since through the male wage, marriage and the ideology of love, capitalism has empowered men to command our unpaid labour and discipline our time and space”.

While Federici references Heather Brown’s 2012 book, Marx On Gender and the Family — a close reading of all Marx’s published and unpublished writings on women — it is disappointing she has not engaged directly with it. Brown presents serious challenges to some of Federici’s long-held claims. Where Federici argues that Marx systematically omits gender because he naturalised and devalued the gendered labour of reproduction, Brown gathers extensive evidence that Marx had a far more nuanced understanding of gender relations as historically and socially determined than Federici’s reading allows and how, under capitalism, those relations appear natural and eternal.

Thompson and Smith are scholars who have been key to defining labour process theory (LPT), a largely academic analysis of the dynamics of the capitalist labour process inspired by the work of Amercican Trotskyist Harry Braverman.

While neither identify as Marxists, they use Marxist concepts, as developed through LPT, in their chapter to poke some fairly large holes in what they term “cognitive capitalist theory”. This concerns the transformation of capitalist regimes of accumulation and value production as a result of post-Fordism and knowledge work — ideas adopted by commentators such as Paul Mason.

It is highly unlikely this book will transform our readings of Capital, not because the essays here do not develop and challenge aspects of Marx’s writings, but because most of the arguments exist in extended forms elsewhere.
And, while all the authors recognise the valuable contribution Capital has made to struggles for liberation, they demonstrate how contested interpretations have the potential to both support and sustain but also distort those struggles.