[OPE] Francis Wheen, "Kapital crimes"

From: glevy@pratt.edu
Date: Sun Mar 02 2008 - 09:30:25 EST

globeandmail.com Kapital crimes 

Kapital crimes 


>From Saturday's Globe and Mail 

March 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST 

course," the French theorist Louis Althusser wrote, "we have all
read, and all do read Das Kapital." 

Of course, we
haven't and we don't. 

Even Althusser himself, who
produced a book on the subject, eventually confessed in his memoirs that
he was a "trickster and deceiver" who had read no more than
"a few passages of Marx." 

Yet, in a broader
sense, he was right: Ever since the publication of Das Kapital's first
volume in 1867 - the only one completed in Marx's lifetime - we have read
it in the world about us, in the dramas and conflicts of contemporary

Like Moliere's bourgeois
gentilhomme, who discovered to his amazement that for more than 40 years
he had been speaking prose without knowing it, many have absorbed Marx's
ideas without ever noticing. 

Think of the famous slogan
that Bill Clinton's campaign staff stuck on their wall during the 1992
presidential election: "It's the economy, stupid" - a perfect
précis of Marx's argument that we are creatures of our material
circumstances, and that changes in the methods of production profoundly
affect all our social relations far beyond the workplace. 

Though many who haven't read it assume that his unfinished masterpiece
is an economic treatise, Marx himself regarded it as a work of art,
breaking through the narrow conventions of political economy with a
radical literary collage that juxtaposes voices and quotations from
literature and mythology, from factory inspectors' reports and fairy

Das Kapital probably has as many allusions to
Shakespeare as to Adam Smith. It mixes satire, melodrama, Gothic horror
and reportage to do justice to the irresistible, yet mysterious, force
that governs our material motives and interests. 

is probably why some readers find it such a struggle to get beyond the
first few pages. Nothing has prepared us for a work like this: It's rather
as if a mid-Victorian gent in a London gallery suddenly came upon a
Jackson Pollock drip-painting. 

Marx made the task harder
by placing one of the most abstract and head-spinning sections - the essay
on commodities - as the opening chapter. "I assume, of course, a
reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for
himself," he replied testily when his friend Frederick Friedrich
Engels begged him to shove it further back. 

But there
was a purpose in his perversity. Look at his choice of verbs in the very
first sentence: "The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode
of production prevails appears as an 'immense collection of commodities';
the individual commodity appears as its elementary form." (My

We are entering a world of apparitions, of
delusion and hallucinatory topsy-turvydom, in which inanimate objects -
commodities, whether an iPod or a fashionable handbag - acquire tremendous
life and vigour, while the toiling humans who produce them are reduced to
the status of inanimate machines. They are menaced by their own creation,
like Frankenstein and his monster, as Marx reminds us. 

In his chapter on The Working Day, peopled by weeping women and
exhausted child labourers, he presents the human cost of the apparently
impersonal formulas brandished by classical economists, giving us scenes
reminiscent of Dante's Inferno. 

Das Kapital is not holy
writ, despite the strivings of some Marxists to present it as such. There
are silences and omissions, errors and misconceptions. The fact that he
brilliantly discovered a new continent - the terra incognita of industrial
capitalism - doesn't mean that he mapped it all correctly. 

Even so, by penetrating the veils of illusion, he exposed for the first
time the exploitation, alienation and creative destruction by which
capitalism lives. 

After the end of the Cold War, some
critics suggested that Das Kapital was now obsolete, irrelevant, exploded
- but not for long. 

At the time of the 1998 market
panics in Asia and elsewhere, the Financial Times wondered aloud if we had
moved "from the triumph of global capitalism to its crisis in barely
a decade." 

The article was headlined: Das Kapital
Revisited. As long as capital endures, Das Kapital will never lose its
resonance or its power to bring the world into a new and sharper focus.

Francis Wheen is the author of "Karl Marx: A
Life" and "Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography." 

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