In retrospect: Das Kapital

Gareth Stedman Jones:

KarlBy the mid-nineteenth century across Europe, the scientific and technological shifts behind the Industrial Revolution were extracting a heavy social and political price. Reports surfaced of the poverty and ill-health of town-dwellers, overcrowding, child labour and oppressive factory conditions. This 'social question' prompted widespread anxiety. Meanwhile, censorship, repression, the continued rule of aristocracies and the exclusion of the working classes from suffrage ignited mounting political discontent. Observing, analysing and synthesizing these changes was the Rhineland economist Karl Marx (1818–83). He codified concepts of labour, trade and the global market to explosive effect in Das Kapital, the first volume of which was published 150 years ago. The book's impact on economics, politics and current affairs has been formidable, and aspects of Marx's thinking have permeated areas of scientific research as disparate as robotics and evolutionary theory. Industrial revolutions, as Marx realized, relegate workers to the status of machine minders, and open the way to production that does not depend on human labour.

How to explain the infusion of Das Kapital's concepts into so many fields? Friedrich Engels, Marx's long-term collaborator and author of the groundbreaking 1845 The Condition of the Working Class in England, compared Das Kapital to the theory of evolution by natural selection, published eight years before. He wrote: “just as [Charles] Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history”. What is extraordinary about Das Kapital is that it offers a still-unrivalled picture of the dynamism of capitalism and its transformation of societies on a global scale. It firmly embedded concepts such as commodity and capital in the lexicon. And it highlights some of the vulnerabilities of capitalism, including its unsettling disruption of states and political systems. The election of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit and the rise of populism in Europe and elsewhere can all be understood as indirect effects of shifts in the global division of labour — the relocation of key aspects of modern production away from Europe and the United States. That has been brought about by changes in what Marx identified as the capitalist enterprise's incessant drive to expansion.

More here.