This course aims to introduce and explain volume one of Karl Marx’s Capital, adopting a thematic rather than linear approach in order to think of the text as not an outdated handbook or, alternatively, as a religious tome, nor yet as a work of ‘economics’, but instead as a massive attempt to account for an entirely new object of study: a mode of production. Seen this way, the frequently arcane debates about the interpretation of Marx’s work can be sidelined, and its immense theoretical achievement can be more easily explored.
This thematic approach will allow us to think, alongside Marx, about ‘capital’, or capitalism itself. It will argue that the disparate approaches indexed here – historical, theoretical, sociological, political, even literary – must remain at the centre of any attempt to grasp the contemporary world, and that it is this attempt to confront the vastness of capital with the immense bricolage of Capital that remains valuable today.
Given the limits of a five-lecture series on a book that runs to over a thousand pages, the lectures will focus on key chapters in the text that allow the book to be elucidated most thoroughly. Students are encouraged to read the full work, however, and the chapters not discussed in detail will be briefly summarised where necessary. A list of further reading will be supplied to all students. The course presupposes no particular knowledge of Karl Marx, political economy, philosophy, history, German or anything else.
Note: The translation used will be the one published by Penguin Classics, translated by Ben Fowkes. All page numbers (which are preserved in every edition) refer to this translation.
Lecture One: History
Reading: Karl Marx, Capital I, Chapters 26–33 (pp. 873–942)
This lecture will attempt to address a seemingly straightforward question: what is Capital about? It will begin by situating the work within the broader contours of Marx’s writing and life, and will outline the intellectual antecedents – philosophical, political, and economic – that inform the work. In the second half of the lecture, the focus will turn to the text of Capital itself, and will begin at the end, with Marx’s account of ‘So-Called’ Primitive or Original [ursprünglich] Accumulation. The lecture will explore how Marx came to understand his object of study, and the consequences of the account for our understanding of the genesis of capitalism and what that genesis consisted of.
Lecture Two: Value
Reading: Karl Marx, Capital I, Chapters 1–3 (pp. 125–247)
Louis Althusser famously advised against reading the opening chapters of Capital, fearing them irredeemably tainted with Hegel, and to be approached only after one has armed oneself with sufficient knowledge of the system as a whole. This warning negatively adverts to the centrality of these chapters to subsequent debate about Capital. This lecture will attempt to develop a clear exposition of Marx’s understanding of the value-form, and highlight some of the ways these chapters have been read. It will then explore the reasons why these chapters appear at the opening of the text, and what this tells us about Marx’s larger project.
If time is a factor, students should focus on Chapter 1 (pp. 125–178)
Lecture Three: Capital
Reading: Karl Marx Capital I, Chapters 4–9, 12-13 (pp. 247–339; 429–454)
This lecture will elucidate some of the central categories of Marx’s critique of political economy: Constant Capital and Variable Capital on the one hand, and Absolute and Relative surplus value on the other. This lecture will also explore in more detail the relationship between Capital and earlier works of political economy, and discuss the ways in which Marx’s critique has been seen as a work of ‘economics’.
Lecture Four: Machines
Reading: Karl Marx, Capital I, Chapters 15–16 (pp. 492–654)
This lecture will explore the consequences of Marx’s understanding of surplus value, focusing in particular on what Marx sees as the immense growth in productivity necessitated by the production of relative surplus value. This lecture will broach the material transformation wrought by this growth, above all in what we would now call automation, and will look at what Marx saw as the changing nature of labour under capitalism.
If time is a factor, students should focus on parts 1–5 of Chapter 15 (pp. 492–565) and Chapter 16 (pp. 643–654)
Lecture Five: Unemployment
Reading: Karl Marx, Capital I, Chapter 25 (pp. 762–872)
Fredric Jameson has recently argued that Capital is a book about ‘unemployment’. This lecture will focus on perhaps the central chapter of the book, ‘The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation’, which in many ways serves to unite the different strands or methods of argumentation into a broader theory. It will explore the reasons why a chapter summarising the argument of Capital would spend so much time discussing not the labourer, but those excluded from labour. This chapter, and lecture, will also return to history, elucidating the ways in which Marx’s account of capital accumulation is integrated within a broader understanding of historical development.