Essays on Capital, First Series: Essay One

Essay 1: Capital and the historical moment

From commodities to citizens.

O garment not golden but gilded,
O garden where all men may dwell,
O tower not of ivory, but builded
By hands that reach heaven from hell;
O mystical rose of the mire,
O house not of gold but of gain,
O house of unquenchable fire,
Our Lady of Pain!

“Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)”, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1866)

The Civil War: Revolution in Labor Relations

The Civil War ended in 1865 bringing about the cessation of hostilities between the United States and the Confederacy.  After four years and more than half a million casualties, the South surrendered to Federal rule.  Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments giving citizenship and equal protection to the formerly enslaved black population.  Two years later, in 1867, with the afterglow of freedom and the ideals of a hard-fought war still in the air, Karl Marx published the first volume of Capital: a Critique of Political Economy.  Marx even mentions the American Civil War seven times in the text.

More than thirty years later, a monument was erected commemorating Union victory.  The monument depicted General William Tecumseh Sherman, flanked by Victory, and gilt in gold.  Placed near the 59th Street entrance of Central Park it stood outside the Plaza Hotel.  The current building is the second to have that name and was built in 1907.

While much has been written about the Civil War and about Capital, this essay seeks to explore the “historical moment” (or Zeitgeist) of the book’s publication.  The Sherman Monument will be used as a prism to analyze the interrelationships between the commodity, modern warfare, and economic relations.  These interrelationships will be investigated in Sherman’s March to the Sea and the 1973 Oil Embargo.

The Sherman Monument: Gold, Cotton, and Capital

The Sherman Monument stands as a testament to the victory of the Union over the Confederacy.  Its tone and materials make it unique among the many Civil War monuments dotting the landscape.  Sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a luminary in the American Renaissance (c. 1876 – 1914), it was erected in Central Park in 1903.[i] Belligerent, not conciliatory; gilt in expensive metal, it is simultaneously austere and opulent, similar to Swinburne’s poem “Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)” written in 1866, a year before Capital.  The gilt bronze monument is a nod to the wealthy elites who populated New York City during the Gilded Age, providing countless characters for Henry James novels.  The materials also signify the commodities the Union had its disposal.  The Union had one commodity in particular that helped its victory over the Confederacy: gold.  The Confederacy had cotton and an unpaid labor force.  The monument becomes less a solemn salute to a destructive war than a middle finger aimed directly to the rebellious South.  The Gold Rush ushered in a flood of capital to the industrial North, allowing it the ability to transform an agrarian economy into an industrial economy.  Taken as a whole, the United States in the post-Civil War years could be called an industrial economy, but a more precise picture reveals stark regional differences.  Beyond the industrialized North and the agrarian South, the West remained in a pre-capitalist economic state.  Only until the railroads reached the open spaces, connecting farmers with consumers in the cities, the frontier economy remained in a primitive state.  In the film adaptation of David Mamet’s play, Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin plays a verbally abusive sales strategist.  Confronting a salesman played by Ed Harris, Baldwin has him look at his gold watch.  Baldwin says to Harris, “See this watch?  This watch costs more than your car.”  The monument of General Sherman, gilt and belligerent, says the same thing to the defeated South.

“See this watch?  It costs more than your car.”

Gold is a commodity, but it possesses the rare attribute of being a commodity one uses to trade commodities for other commodities.  The North not only had a large industrial sector, but a monopoly on the means of exchange.  Meanwhile, the South had cotton in plentiful supply.  In Capital, Marx discusses the effects of the Civil War on the United Kingdom’s cotton supply.  The resulting “cotton drought” threw thousands into unemployment and destitution.

Emancipation: opposing viewpoints.

Besides regional and culture differences the North and South possessed entirely different economic structures.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, with slavery abolished, Marx asserts,

“every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic.  Labour in white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.  The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, which ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California, with the seven-league boots of the locomotive.”[ii]

One needs to remember that this is 1867, only two years after the Civil War has ended.  The next hundred years of American history would show that Marx’s enthusiasm and faith in the progressive nature of revolution could be easily dashed in the name of capital and political compromise.

The Civil War did represent a real revolutionary change in labor relations.  Those previous held as chattel property and considered less-than-human were given the status of citizenship equal to white Americans.  It only took a little while for white property owners to get wise to the new ordinances.  Even when status changes, resentment survives.  Blacks, now free, had to deal with the Ku Klux Klan’s domestic terrorism and their new status in the workplace as debtors.  Chattel slavery became replaced with the system of debt-slavery.  While the Constitutional amendments forbade chattel slavery, there was no mention of how much one had to pay former slaves.  Once again, the repercussions of this shortsighted economic revenging would have untold consequences.  The practice of debt-slavery initiated one of the many waves of internal migration.  Northern cities would once again absorb cohorts of migrating blacks.

Modern Warfare and Commodity Fetishism: Sherman’s March to the Sea and the 1973 Oil Embargo

V. To army corps commanders alone is intrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.

VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. Foraging parties may also take mules or horses to replace the jaded animals of their trains, or to serve as pack-mules for the regiments or bridges. In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.

William T. Sherman, Military Division of the Mississippi Special Field Order 120, November 9, 1864

[Emphasis mine.]

The American Civil War saw a revolution in waging warfare.  For most of the 19th century, nations waged war on a Napoleonic model.  Armies in bright uniforms lined up on an open field and then shot at each other until one side decided to surrender.  By the end of the Civil War, things had become desperate for both sides.  General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” became one of the more notorious engagements undertaken under the auspices of the Union.  Unlike a standard military engagement, General Sherman had his forces participate in destructive actions aimed at crippling the Confederacy.  This included burning cotton fields, tearing up railroads, and supporting runaway slaves.  In order to defeat the Confederacy, General Sherman undertook the task to destroy the economy.

War as commodity destruction.

The March to the Sea destroyed not only cotton, the basic commodity of the South, but the few railroads existing in the region, cutting off trade and communications.  In a macroeconomic sense, it involved the industrial North bringing the medieval agrarian South to heel.  General Sherman’s actions also predict the concept of “total war.”  What this means is that a nation’s commodities and manufacturing base would become legitimate military targets.  War, like commodity production, became subject to the same forces inherent in mass production.  President Roosevelt’s speech calling the United States the “arsenal of democracy” meant that victory not only lay in the military actions of troops and generals, but in nations that can produce enough war materiel to overcome the enemy.  Like trade, war meant out-producing the competitors and creating a corner on the market.

The forces of production and consumption played havoc with the global economic system during the Oil Embargo.  Following Israel’s victory in the Yom Kippur War, OPEC decided to enforce an oil embargo and cease production.  Oil prices skyrocketed to over 300% and created a flood of new wealth for Saudi Arabia and other oil producing countries.  In the 1950s, United States oil consumption was a domestic issue, controlled by the Texas Railroad Commission.  Similarly, oil companies owned majority control over the product.  Two things happened that hastened the end of cheap oil, exacerbated by the Yom Kippur War.  The first is that oil companies were slowly edged out of majority ownership by the producer countries.  The result meant that the producer countries owned a majority share of these companies, turning them into government entities.  The foreign company staff then ended up focusing on things like marketing and technology.  The second involved greater and greater oil consumption.  The margin for maneuverability rapidly diminished, leaving the oil consumer nations in a state of submission to the whims of the oil producers.

Compared to Sherman’s March, the Oil Embargo involved withholding commodities.  This created higher demand.  The interconnections between oil companies, financial institutions, political parties, and foreign policy has created a crisis that has not been adequately solved to this day.  The demand for oil, an infrastructure built around the automobile, and a money-based political system create a situation where no real reform is possible, at least not with the two parties willfully subservient to big corporate donors that feed their campaign chests.  Unfortunately, questioning the economic basis of this system is seen as heretical, free market capitalism having been turned into religious dogma.

Guess who bankrolls the campaign chests of both parties?

Marx began Capital by analyzing the smallest molecular element, the commodity, and then expanding to larger and larger systems, until he came to mass production.  Less than two centuries after the publication of Capital, the instability of the capitalist again reveals itself.  While capitalism remains the “last man standing” from the Manichean battles of the Cold War, many fail to understand that this is not synonymous with total victory.

At the beginning of the 21st century’s second decade, could the United States even afford to erect a gilt statue to its victorious generals?  Or would we have to borrow the credit from China?


[i] The sculpture was erected a couple years after the end of the Gilded Age (1865 – 1901).  To clarify, the American Renaissance is an art-historical term while the Gilded Age, named after the book by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner (published in 1873), and is a term used in sociology and social history.  Both terms will be useful in discussing the historical, political, and economic impact of Marx’s book.

[ii] Marx, Karl, Capital: a critique of political economy, Volume One (London: Penguin Books, 1976), translated by Ernest Mandel,  p. 415.

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