The second volume of Karl Marx’s planned six-volume critique of industrial capitalism, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 2 concerns itself with the specifics of the business cycle. In Volume 1, Marx concentrated his critique on the basic cell of capitalism, the commodity, building brick by brick towards a devastating attack on the injustices of the 19th century factory system. Volume 2 focuses on an important, albeit nebulous, factor in the capitalist economy: time. In understanding the invisible forces at work, it helps to imagine different kinds of commodities, their manufacture, and their arrival in the hands of consumers.
Not all commodities take the same time to produce. Producing a bushel of wheat is different than producing a locomotive. The former takes a growing season, while the latter can take several years. Added to this is the adage, “It takes money to make money.” One can’t just start producing commodities once one in inspired. In order to create commodities, one requires capital investment. With capital investment comes risk. Even something as straightforward as agricultural production involves numerous other x-factors (weather, labor costs, ancillary machinery for planting and harvesting, and market demand). Marx narrows his area of analysis to the business cycle, leaving our market forces for Volume 3. In the business cycle there are two opposing metamorphoses: the means of production and the means of consumption. Capitalists spend money investing in machinery, a labor pool, and distribution. Consumers spend money buying commodities produced by the capitalists.
While Marx goes into greater detail with the various facets of the business cycle, this is a challenging text to read. Part of the blame belongs to Friedrich Engels, who edited the volume following Marx’s death, cobbled together from various notebooks. Unlike Volume 1’s bombast and numerous footnotes, Volume 2 has few footnotes and is devoid of passages showcasing Marx’s trademark polemic style. Instead, the reader is treated to several hundred pages of prose notable for its arid, abstract, and dense tone. Once one finishes with the epic grandeur of Volume 1, this volume represents a massive let-down. Unless one is a diehard unreconstructed Marxist, a student of political economy, or a completist, there is little reason to read Capital, Volume 2. That being said, Volume 2 acts as a theoretical bridge between the foundation of Volume 1 and the revolutionary rhetoric of Volume 3. Besides savoring the meat of Marxist rhetoric, one must also eat their vegetables.
After slogging through pages of tedious theory and formulas, Marx finally picks up speed again when he begins discussing the notion of “hoard formation.” (This should at least interest those bewailing the lower tax rates of the 1% and the idealistic, albeit inept, strategists of the Occupy movement.) As Marx asserts:
Reduction in wages and long working hours, this is the kernel of the ‘rational and healthful process’ that is to raise the workers to the dignity of rational consumers, so that they ‘make a market’ for the ‘things showered on them’ by civilization and the progress of invention.
Capitalism is at odds with itself, simultaneously seeking to move its inventory to the consumers and get back capital invested in labor-power and means of production, at the same time the capitalists seek to accumulate capital, either in re-invest in their company or to spend on themselves. But how are workers with reduced wages and increased working hours going to spend any money? How can commodities be sold if no one has the personal capital to buy? A Walmart-esque economic paradox. If one has little money to spend, then one will buy cheap. And when one spends every waking hour in a coal mine or some other Victorian-era purgatory, then one has neither the time nor the energy to actually become a rational consumer. Then bad things happen: Inert inventory in warehouses eventually lead to downsizing and wage reduction, along with the constant threat of job loss to those few who still have jobs.
Despite Marx’s prescient critique of industrial capitalism, there should be the usual caveats, including the mentality of Marx when he wrote this. Marx envisioned a utopian society without private property and where workers controlled the means of production, producing only what was needed and avoiding the inherent instabilities of capitalist economy. Unfortunately, Marx’s solution never really worked, but we also need to consider, living in the shadow of the 2009 global economic meltdown, that capitalism still has numerous in-built instabilities and is far from an ideal political economy. Marx’s critiques still stand the test of time, his solutions, less so. But do solutions to the age-old conundrum of how we live our lives need to be conceived in a totalizing positivist fashion?