Thursday, August 14, 2008

Reading Capital Volume 1 with David Harvey

This summer a group of fellow graduate students decided to read Karl Marx's Capital Volume 1 together in a weekly reading group. This follows from last summer's illuminating reading of selections from Louis Althusser's works including Lenin & Philosophy, Reading Capital, (the late) Philosophy of the Encounter, and For Marx. We have been reading about a hundred pages a week (approximately 3-6 chapters depending on their length), with significant set-backs due to vacations.

An additional resource emerged with David Harvey, author of the famous The Condition of Postmodernity and most recently A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism internet videos lecturing for a class devoted to the volume here.

The first video does an excellent job introducing readers to the different and competing disciplines at work in Capital--philosophy, classical economic theory, utopian socialist traditions of the moment etc. Additionally, Harvey notes the importance through the videos of the different levels at which Marx is working with capital, e.g. the first chapter on the commodity is not historical (as it seems at first), but traces the logic of the commodity as if it's (and its eventual abstraction into money form) could be temporally separated into distinct historical moments. One of the more interesting aspects that Harvey acknowledges is that Marx's "dissertation" in philosophy was a work on Epicurus, one of the founders of atomist theory. Atomism posited the emergence of the universe as following from the accidental collision of the building blocks (atoms) of solid bodies. This is worth noting for those who see Althusser's later work considering the "encounter" as somehow a break with or tangential to the Marxist tradition. If we want to follow up on these physicalist accounts of history and the development of social groupings or political bodies, considering, what Patricia Clough, calls Marx's "thermodynamic" account of class struggle is paramount (for her this kind of means a move to Deleuze and Foucault).

The third video just on the third chapter of Capital, Harvey emphasizes the importance of money in Marx's system, as not only the height of the development of the commodity, but the logic of the commodity that divorces it from the value of its substance (e.g. gold). Harvey does an excellent job throughout these video's debunking, what I find, to be an excess of cultural studies with its overemphasis (partially due to the Frankfurt School) on the commodity fetish. For him this is something Marx sets up in order to be deconstructed. This line of reasoning would tend to support Althusser's suggestion (in a footnote of "Marxism & Humanism") that the discussion of commodity fetishism and reification so emphasized by Adorno, Horkheimer, etc. is actually a misunderstanding of Marx's purposes in discussing these topics. Although, Harvey works hard to deemphasize the allusive aspects of Marx's, at times, quite literary language, it works to support a general interrogation of certain social/cultural theorists' and practitioners' failure to read past chapter 1. I find his critique amusing, and useful if at times a little vulgar.

Besides being a lucid and analytic explicator of the significance of Capital, Harvey himself is interested in the continuing importance of political-economy in explicating deep social changes under the regime of what he calls "flexible accumulation."

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