1/27: A crash-course in Marx

The Subsistence Perspective is a critique of the globalized economy from the perspective the authors discovered through their work with women in the Global South. As a critique of capitalism, the authors presuppose a certain familiarity with the Marxist tradition (some features of which they accept, others of which they criticize). So yesterday I gave a brief rundown of some of the basic ideas that Marx put forward, and which have been influential in shaping anti-capitalist movements. 

I noted at the outset — and at a few points throughout the class — that we need to distinguish Marx’s thoughts and research from the Soviet Union and other states that supposedly were inspired by him. No such state existed in his time, and his ideas have many different possible consequences. I noted that the Cold War — the decades-long standoff between the capitalist West and the “socialist” East — has deeply colored the way Marx is discussed. 

First, we discussed the meaning of the word “capital.” I asked you to imagine a peasant farmer who produced enough for his family and community, but then would sometimes take a portion of his surplus to a market. Say he produced beans. The beans he produced for consumption — for eating — have their value in their use. They are for eating. But when he takes the beans to the market, they become “commodities,” products with a price that is set in relation to other products — they now have an exchange value. The farmer takes his commodity (C) and exchanges it for a sum of money (M). Having no use for money — he can’t eat or wear it or build with it — he then exchanges it for some other commodity (C), say, shoes. So we have here one “circuit of exchange”: C-M-C. One commodity that has a use value (beans) is transformed into money, which allows it to be transformed into another commodity with a different use value (shoes).

Now this is not “capitalism.” Capitalism gets off the ground when you have an entirely different kind of circuit of exchange. Rather than coming to the market with a use value, the capitalist comes with a quantity of exchange value, that is, a sum of money (M). The capitalist then looks for some commodity to purchase with the money, not in order to use it, but in order to exchange it for… more money (M’). The basic circuit of capitalist accumulation, then, is M-C-M’. Money is transformed into a commodity, so that it can be transformed into more money. What then happens? Well, the cycle starts over. This new sum of money becomes the starting point for the purchase of a new round of commodities, which then are exchanged for a greater sum of money. This ever growing pile of money, which is constantly seeking re-investment and expansion, is what is meant by the term “capital.” A “capitalist economy” is an economy that is set up to encourage this constant expansion in capital.

Now the first circuit, C-M-C, is based upon a model where people are producing for themselves and selling their surplus. But, as we discussed last week, the power of money has spread by separating large populations from this ability to produce their needs for themselves. So what happens when people no products to sell for money? Well, they have to sell themselves: i.e., their labor, their time, a chunk of their daily lives. They sell it in exchange for a wage. Those who have nothing to sell but themselves are called “proletarians.” Those who own property (land that needs to be worked, factories that need workers, etc.) and who purchase the labor of others are called the bourgeoisie, the property owners. For Marx, these two classes of people have fundamentally different interests in capitalist society. They are at odds.

But they are not at odds in the same way that, say, a slave and his or her master are at odds. The master owns the slave, and can beat or even kill him or her. The boss can only fire the worker — which might result in pain or suffering to the worker, but it is not the result of the boss directly. (If one were to be cynical, one could say that capitalist society splits the slave-owner into two groups who perform the function that one group used to do: the slave-owner used to both order the slave around and discipline the slave. In capitalism, the boss does the ordering around, while the police do the disciplining. Just a thought.)

One of Marx’s key points, however, is that the wage relationship itself conceals exploitation. The clue to this is that one class (the bourgeoisie) continually gets rich while the other class continually has to sell their labor — they generally only make enough to keep them coming back to work. Basically, Marx argues that over the course of the working day, the worker produces more value than they are paid. If you work making shirts, and are paid $50/day, you may be producing $1000 worth of shirts. The owner has to subtract rent, electricity, insurance and other costs (say, $300), but all of those things will still leave the owner with a hefty profit of $750. That is value that you, the worker, produced with your labor. But it goes not to you but to the company. You come in with yourself, which is the only commodity you have to sell, you exchange it for money, and you use it to pay your rent, buy your food, clothe your kids, or whatever… C-M-C. And now you have to come back the next day to repeat the cycle. The company owners come in with a sum of money (M), buy your 8 hours of your life (C) with it in which they can tell you exactly what you have to do, and then sell the product you have created for more money (M’). And so the economy “grows.” 

Now as we go on, this picture will grow more complicated. But it is a pretty powerful vision of how things work… and it is a vision that most people have never been exposed to because of the ravenous anti-Marxism of the Cold War.

But we went further. Now for Marx, the division of humanity into bourgeoisie and proletarians was harmful to both. It was a split within human society, which he thought was going to be overcome. Socialism was his vision of a construction of a classless society, one in which wealth was shared and production occurred not for the sake of constantly expanding money, but for human needs and desires.

Now. The book we are about to read starts with a critique of all this — and by “critique,” I don’t mean it simply argues against it. Rather, it puts this whole analysis in a broader context, which changes everything.

Mies and Bennholt-Thomsen argue that both the wage-laborers and the bourgeoisie are a part of an industrial society, which dominates both the natural world and, interestingly, women. The clearest way to put it is this: traditionally, it is women who have performed all the necessary tasks to keep the wage-worker (usually a man) coming back to work. Women have taken care of the kids, the home, the food. All of this has traditionally not been valued as “work,” because it has been outside of the wage relationship. The Subsistence Perspective contends that if we follow Marx’s analysis without adding the perspective of women and people who have been victims of enclosure around the globe, we will continue to destroy the environment and continue to oppress the non-waged labor that the industrial system relies upon.

We’ll talk more about that soon.


One thought on “1/27: A crash-course in Marx

  1. Kimyatta Blan

    My question is, if, the Maishahati women, have everything they need to live and that’s enough for them, are they still poor?


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