What Did Marx Mean By The Statement That 'capital Is Not A Thing, But A Social Relation Between Persons'?

2416 words - 10 pages

The idea of capital as a social relation can be seen to symbolize the relationship between those who own capital, and between those who must work in order to secure the income stream of capital - it is a relation of both property and power. Ideas of class conflict, alienation and exploitation are thus central to this approach. The aim of this essay is to explain the social relations of capital, and how these fit into the pattern of Marx's thought. I will conclude with an assessment of the relevance of these ideas today.Marx pointed out that 'capital is not a thing, but a social relation' in Capital (v1) and similarly argued in Labour and Capital that 'Capital is a social relation of production. It is a historical relation of production'. My interpretation of this is that capital can take many forms, but throughout it symbolizes economic relationships between people, whether individually or in groups; it is the result of social labour achieved in the creation of goods and services i.e. it is the social relations surrounding commodities or money that make them capital. Nothing is intrinsically capital, not even gold - it has to be used in certain ways, under certain social conditions, and at a certain period of society's development to acquire this form.Classical economists argued that part of capital consists of consumers' goods used to sustain the workers engaged in producing items for future consumption and part consists of producers' goods channeled into further production for the sake of expected future returns. But Marx regarded as capital only the productive goods that yield income independently of the exertions of the owner. An artisan's tools and a small farmer's land holding are not capital in this sense. In this respect, it seems that capital only comes into being as a determining force in society when a small body of people, the capitalists, owns most of the means of production and a much larger body, the workers, receives no more than bare subsistence as reward for operating the means of production for the benefit of the owners. As Marx points out, 'the means of production and subsistence, while they remain the property of the immediate producer, are not capital. They become capital only under circumstances in which they serve at the same time as means of exploitation and subjection of the laborer' (Capital V1).Thus we can see that the ownership of private property, and hence control of the means of production, that marks the nodal points in the series of relationships, which manifest the social relations of capital. The first condition of life for people who do not own capital is that they must sell their labour power in order to live. They must labour for the needs of the purchaser of their labour in order to secure the income stream for capital. Employers and workers are thus in one important sense dependent upon one another. The former need a labour force that will engage in economic production; the latter, since they are propyertyless, need the wages that employers pay them. But this dependence is strongly imbalanced in that workers have little or no formal control over type work they do while employers are able to generate profits which they appropriate for their own purposes.According to Marx, capitalism is intrinsically a class society; and the class relations upon which it is founded are intrinsically ones of conflict or struggle. Marx was not clear on what he meant by the term class, but it can be seen as a group of people who stand in a common relationship to the means of production. According to Marx 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' (The Communist Manifesto 1848). Just as primitive agrarian society had yielded centuries before to feudal society, and in Europe feudalism given way to industrial capitalism, so too would capitalism be overthrown. In each of these kinds of societies, a minority of people own or control the means of production, such as land, raw materials, tools and machines, labour, and money. This minority constitutes the ruling class. The vast majority of people own and control very little. They mainly own their own capacity to work.Marx believed that class relations were becoming ever more simplified and held that 'Society as a whole is more and more splitting in to two great hostile caps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat' (The Communist Manifesto 1848). The 'bourgeoisie' or capitalists thus controlled the means of production and is attached to private ownership of the means of production, and the 'proletariat', the working class, which arose from industrialization. Marx predicted that eventually the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish a classless society.The social relations can thus be seen to represent the struggle between the classes. The idea of class struggle was based on Hegel's dialectics. The term 'dialectics' often represents the view that conflict, antagonism or contradiction is a necessary condition for achieving certain results. The philosophical approach by Marx was that of dialectical materialism. Marx was very much influenced by the dialectic of Hegel, but rejected Hegel's idealism. Instead Marx emphasized material conditions, that is economic factors, as the basic causal forces determining both individual motivation and the history of man. The idea of historical materialism suggests that social, cultural and political phenomena were determined by the mode of production of material things. He analyzed the relationship between the economy (base) and other social forms (superstructure). The relations of production in the base are taken to be relations between social classes between workers and capitalist, for instance. The base then determines the superstructure in that its character is largely determined by the economic interests of the dominant social class. Classes form he main linkage between the relations of production and the rest of society.The ruling class is seen to use its economic power to 'exploit' workers by appropriating their surplus labour. In other words, workers are compelled to labour not merely to meet their own needs but also those of the exploiting ruling class. Marx made use of the idea of surplus value which is the amount that the worker produces which is over and above the proportion of the working day needed to produce the worker's own value. The capitalist pays the labourer the cost of his production but receives the market price of the product, pays rent and other non-labour costs, and keeps the rest (surplus value) as profit. A person is thus exploited, in Marx's sense, if he performs more labour than is necessary to produce the goods that he consumes. For Marx, the exploitative quality of the social relations of production in capitalist economies meant that capitalism was based on coercion and a perpetual antagonism between the interests of capital and labour. As a result of exploitation workers become alienated from the fruits of their labour.Alienation is thus a result of the social relations that exist in capitalism. Marx's concept of alienation, although of Hegelian origin, does not mean quite the same thing as Hegel's. Alienation for Hegel is the state of consciousness as it acquaints itself with the external, objective, phenomenal world. As such, it is a feature of Man, not of individual men. Marx located the phenomenon of alienation in a similar historical stage but at the level of individuals. The idea was a central theme in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and generally denotes the estrangement of individuals from themselves and others; it is a feeling of noninvolvement in and estrangement from one's society and culture. Marx saw human estrangement as rooted in social structures, which denied people their essential human nature. The process of production is one of 'objectification', whereby men makes material objects, which embody human creativity, yet stand as entities separate from their creators. Alienation occurs when, once objectified, man no longer recognizes himself in his product, which has become alien to him.There are several dimensions of Marx's discussion of alienation. One idea is that the worker lacks control over the disposal of his products, since what he produces is appropriated by others, 'what is embodied in the product of his labour is no longer his own'. The wage contract ensures that the products of labour are surrendered to the capitalist, who then sells them on the market, and pays the worker a wage. Marx points out that the alienation of the product is double - not only is the worker separate from his own product, but that product, as increasing the power of capital, actually weakens the worker's position. The worker is further alienated in the work task itself. The work task does not offer intrinsic satisfactions, which make it possible for the worker 'to develop freely his mental and physical energies' (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). The work is forced on the worker by external constraints, and work itself becomes a commodity that is sold and its only value to the worker is its salability.Marx also sees capitalism as alienating man from his 'species-being'. A species-being is what defines a man, in other words, his humanity. Alienation deprives his productive activity of those specifically human qualities, which distinguish it from the activity of animals and thus define human nature. Marx points out that 'he is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home'(Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). This shows again the alienation of labour, but also illustrates the fact that work is unpleasant for man. He is an 'appendage of the machine'(Capital vol1 p604), and that 'when the compulsion to work is gone, he avoids work like the plague'. The alienation of a man's life-activity leaves a man with only 'animal pursuits', such as eating, drinking and procreating, to fulfill his humanity. Man has become animal in his work, and so the only area where he can be human, is in those pursuits common with animals.The worker is further alienated from other people, since capitalism transforms social relations into market relations, and people are judged by their position in the market rather than by their human qualities. People come to regard each other as reifications - as worker or as capitals - rather than as individuals.In my opinion then, the social relations of capital that arise are between those who own the means of production, and those who must work. This entails a relation not only of property, but also of power. The relations are characterized in class struggles which leads to exploitation, by extracting surplus labour, and hence to alienation of the worker. But in judging whether these ideas are still relevant, we have to consider that developments have not followed the lines Marx anticipated. Despite this, many of his ideas are indeed relevant in many aspects today, but their relevance has changed somewhat.Dahrendorf argues that the changes since Marx's time are profound and have dissolved the class character of capitalism. He argues that megacorporations today often follow managerial behavior i.e. that of 'satisficing' rather than profit maximizing and also points out there is a much greater separation of ownership and control and hence the ownership of capital no longer confers control over the authority system of the enterprise. Since managers are not 'capitalists' (they do not own the corporations they control), they are more interested in the internal administrative stability of the firm than in the level of profit it achieves. He contends that capital 'owners' are also a fragmented category, since share holding has become fairly widespread among the population. I would agree with some of Dahrendorfs ideas to an extent, but it does seem that accumulation of capital remains the motive force of the system, and the generation of profit still drives individual firms.Is Marx's ideas of alienation still relevant today? Marx holds that in capitalist society, worker's are likely to become relatively poorer as their productive capacity increases. However, this does not seem to be the case in that productivity increases do lead to increases in absolute, if not relative wages. Thus workers do get (some of) the economic benefits of working with the capital owned by capitalists .Marx's labour theory of value is thus not adhered to today. But I would argue that the ideas of alienation are still relevant in society, particularly with the advent of deskilling. This has arose where the skill which the jobs used to require from human workers have become obsolete as machinery as been introduced to take over some of their functionsImportantly, I would argue that people are much better off materially than were comparable groups in Marx's day. Furthermore, government polices often help the lowest paid workers such as the minimum wage and welfare. These ideas are related to the embourgeoisement thesis, which maintains that since workers have become better off during post war boom they have begun to adopt the life style and social values of middle class. Some further speak today of an 'institutionalization of class conflict', whereby the working class have become incorporated within the capitalist system, rather than posing a revolutionary alternative to it. The development of accepted or regularized modes of industrial arbitration serves to blunt the edge of class conflict, transforming it into 'industrial conflict'. Access to rights of industrial bargaining have been complemented by the acquisition of political rights in the state. These ideas would suggest less relevance for class struggles, but the idea is still widely debated. It seems that the influence of class may be less than Marx supposed, but there are few spheres of social life left untouched by class differences.References/BibliographyGiddens, Anthony 1994 'Capitalism and Modern Social Theory'. Cambridge University PressAron, Raymond 1991 'Main Currents in Sociological Thought 1'. PenguinDahrendorf 1967 'Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society'


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