Week 1

Capital: Chapter 1

Pages 125-131

Before we begin with the notes, I would like to make sure that everyone can follow along. The page numbers will correspond to the Penguin Classics edition of Capital, Volume 1, which is the same version that the Marx Library released some decades ago, with the same page numbers.

I would also like to note that some chapters took/are going to take multiple weeks for us to cover in our reading group, and notes will appear as they were presented on a weekly basis. I will notate what chapter we are in at the top of the notes.

For those that want to follow along we are going to be following a pathway through the text that follows along the lines of a course I was fortunate enough to be able to take during my PhD studies called Actually Existing Communism, which occurred during the fall of 2009 (the same semester as the wide-scale rioting in Pittsburgh during the G-20 Summit, which was definitely an interesting context to be studying this material). This reading includes chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 13, 14, and 15, and will focus on the ontological elements of the discussion.

If you would like a more economics-centric reading I can definitely recommend David Harvey's A Companion to Marx's Capital or the online lecture series he gives, which can be found here:


Also, note, that I am using the American English versions of terms like labor, even though Marx uses the more traditionally British terminology, like labour, for example. This is mostly due to muscle memory and wanting to ease the process of transcribing and expanding slightly on these notes.

Without further delay, here are the notes from the first week of reading, which covered Chapter 1, pages 125-131.

This repositioning is critical, as it decenters the question of capitalism away from “bad outcomes” (ecological destruction, wealth stratification, resource scarcity, etc) and firmly into a space in which the discussion of capitalism focuses on the ontological outcomes of the operationality of capital. Most of leftist analysis of capitalism, and most simplistic anti-capitalism, is grounded in an attempt to eliminate bad outcomes, to create economics around concepts of fairness, justice, whatever abstract moralistic concept one chooses to insert here. The problem with that analysis, and we see this in concepts like social capitalism, none of the elimination of these bad outcomes actually necessitates a challenge to capitalism, but, instead, only implies a sort of liberal reformism in which the economy continues to exist as a mass form, but in a more “equitable” form. This analysis completely misses the point, and it is this framing of capital around the commodity form that this becomes clear.

In other words, for items to be directly exchangeable with one another as quantities (100 coats for 1000 yards of fabric) we have to assume that there is some commonality between the objects, some element of value which escapes the objects as material entities, which are always changing from moment to moment. This element of value must be abstract and defined by some element of the object that we assert both defines the object and which is outside of the object at th same time. This element must be immaterial, and exist outside of any concept of material existence.

“Such properties come into consideration only to the extent that they make the commodities useful, ie, turn them into use-values. But clearly, the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from use-values” (127).

Say we are sitting in a conference room and are observing the chairs in the room. On a material level all of those objects are different on a fundamental level. They are all different materially, have degraded at different levels, have had different collisions with other material objects. Not only are they different from one another, they are different from their own existence in a past moment. All objects are particular and constantly in a process of change and becoming. At the same time we create the concept of chairs to make sense of these objects, to organize their existence into a conceptual category. Though this process is critical for our ability to make sense of things, we are still dealing with a fundamental separation, an unbridgable chasm as Blanchot would say, between the concept and the object or the moment.

The object, at this point, is just this simple material object typified by its locatability within historical particularity and contingency. When exchange emerges, as an attempt to trade objects as values, this third element of equivalence must be created, regardless of the form this abstraction takes. This element exists outside of the qualities and use of an object, and reduces the object to an expression of the magnitude of equivalent quantitative value. As such, the possibility of the object begins to be premised on an ahistorical form of abstract value, even though the object and this abstract value exist at a fundamental ontological separation. “As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can only differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain use-value” (128).

This is a core concept in Capital, and one that is missed completely by Leninists, who have a politics entirely grounded in abstraction, concepts of universal truth that exceed the material and a historical determinism that precludes intention or material effect. What Marx refers to as history is these very same material moments that are abstracted away in the fundamentally ahistorical (in the sense that objects and moments are removed from history) reliance on abstract concepts and notions of universality. The entirety of Leninism relies on the ability to claim that these imprecise, highly speculative forms of conceptual sense are, within their narrative, expressions of universal truth, which attempts to argue that the concept and the world are exactly the same thing; this is the theory of technicians that is expressed in State and Revolution.

There is a lot in these opening pages of Capital, which present a series of arguments which, when read carefully, completely realign the reading of Capital away from this simplistic economics reading you see in traditional forms of anti-capitalism. Rather than a text about the outcomes of capitalism, as it is often portrayed, Capital is engaging on a different plane, the plane of the ontological conditions of possibility for capitalism, and how that comes to function as a material force within everyday life. The next section, which goes from pages 131 to the middle of 152 will continue to set the stage for the discussions to come surrounding money, the formation of markets and the inherent relation of capitalism to the state.

Enjoy, and if you have any comments get in touch over Mastadon (tom_nomad@kolektiva.social)