Notes on Marx's Capital and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe

by Laura Mandell

In terms of traditional capitalist theory, Jennifer's presentation on Nicholas Thomas was about how the value of objects changes when objects are torn by colonizers from their original social context and brought into capitalist systems of exchange.

Here is a summary of Marx's description of exchange in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I, Trans. Ben Fowkes (NY: Vintage, 1977):

I. Overview

A. Value. In Marx's scheme of things, as I understand it, there are three kinds of value that objects can have in a system of exchange:

1) use-value (utility of the object, 126);

2) value (the "social substance" of an object, 128);

3) exchange-value ("the expression of the value" of the object through putting it into "an exchange relation with a second object," 152).

B. Commodities. Objects become "commodities" only through exchange (131): it is "the process of exchange, in which different products of labour are in fact equated with each other, [that they are] thus converted into commodities" (181). The process of exchange works two other transformations, A) the transformation of value and B) the transformation of use-value:

1) only in a system of exchange does "value" consist in "congealed quantities of homogenous human labor, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure" (128). Value is abstract or equal human labor. "In its fluid state, . . . human labour creates value but is not itself value. It becomes value in its coagulated state" (142).

2) "The product of labour is an object of utility in all states of society; but it is only a historically specific epoch of development which presents the labour expended in the production of a useful article as an `objective' property of that article, i.e., as its value. It is only then that labour becomes transformed into a commodity" (153-4)--i.e., "coagulated."

In these two transformations that turn objects into commodities, a crucial mystification takes place: "the labour expended in the production of the a useful article" appears (and this is illusory) to be "an `objective' property of that article."

C. Capitalism. It is the circulation of commodities that defines capitalism: "The circulation of commodities is the starting-point of capital. The production of commodities and their circulation in its developed form, namely trade, form the historic presuppositions under which capital arises. World trade and the world market date from the sixteenth century, and from then on the modern history of capital starts to unfold" (247).

D. Colonialism. Marx does connect capitalism to colonialism by insisting that commodity exchange--in the specific, capitalist sense of the term, which equates objects with each other by reducing people's work to human labor in the abstract, to quantifiable human labor--does not happen within any given society, only among them:

The first way in which an object of utility attains the possibility of becoming an exchange-value is to exist as a non-use-value, as a quantum of use-value superfluous to the immediate needs of its owner. Things are themselves external to [humans], and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation [Veräusserung] may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for [people] to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other. But this relationship of reciprocal isolation and foreignness does not exist for the members of a primitive community of natural origin, whether it takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian commune or an Inca state. The exchange of commodities begins where communities have their boundaries, at their points of contact with other communities, or with members of the latter. However, as soon as products have become commodities in the external relations of a community, they also, by reaction, become commodities in the internal life of the community. (182)

Notice the amazing causality delineated here: it is not that capitalist societies decide to trade with other societies; rather, trading with "foreigners" brings capitalism--defined as the circulation of commodities, as commodity exchange--into existence. There can of course be "trade" without colonies, but colonialism is linked to capitalism insofar as the "world trade and the world market" (see I.C above) have indeed come into existence through it. Furthermore, colonialism might be, in keeping with Marx's view, linked in a more necessary way to capitalism if we think about the way that colonialist policies and racism (such as are visible in Robinson Crusoe) orchestrate a "relationship of reciprocal isolation and foreignness."

II. Examples of the concepts delineated above:

Let's imagine three scenarios of valuing objects, two in which they are not valued through exchange, and one in which they are, to get a sense of the transformation in objects that Marx is talking about.

A. Feudal society: peasants work farming and growing wheat, half of which they give to their feudal Lord. The "value" of the wheat is not determined by exchange, and so also not determined by "labor-time": the peasant doesn't give as much wheat as he reaps in two-days' time to the Lord, he gives half. Or, as Marx puts it, the members of a peasant family collectively produces the wheat and their own means of subsistence by each by playing their socially-determined role, not by all putting in a number of hours that only count as hours. Tradition determines who does what work. What determines the social interaction between the Lord and the serf who gives him half the wheat he grows? Feudal hierarchy; relations of force. Under capitalism, hierarchical relations and relations of force still operate in the social interaction called "the exchange of commodities," but those relations are disguised by being attributed to qualities in the object (i.e., labor-time that it takes to produce an object looks like an "objective" determination of it, but we all know that some labor time is more valuable than others, a CEO's more valuable than a janitor's or a secretary's--and who gets to be the CEO is as much a matter of power relations and relations of force as is who gets to be a feudal lord.

B. Another culture: among a group of Eskimos, a person proclaims himself leader of the tribe by amassing through superior hunting techniques myriad skins, and then throwing them all onto a pyre and burning them (this is known as potlatch, described by Marcel Mauss in The Gift). The "value" of the skins is not seen to inhere in them themselves (they are discareded, burnt, as value is produced), but in the ability of the chief to burn them: he has so much (power? prestige? hunting ability?) that he can afford to destroy objects. One can see here how value is really a social substance that only under capitalism has been made to appear to inhere in the object itself.

C. In the previous two examples, who gets what products is determined by social and political considerations. Under capitalism, "the way [the] division [of the means of subsistence] is made" (172) is through the allegedly more "rational" process of determining "labor-time." But again, whose time counts as being worth how much is not so "rational" after all--or rationality serves somebody's interests. Now, a poor man who works for Butternut bread and doesn't make enough money to feed his family is allegedly just poor by his own, individual fault: he hasn't worked hard enough to increase his earning power; no one is oppressing him, he is simply receiving an hourly wage fairly based upon what the object of his labor, the bread, is objectively "worth." Here is the difference between attributing value 1) to objects rather than 2) to social organization, #1 being the crucial mystification discussed in I.B.2 above:

1) That denizen of the ghetto doesn't put in enough labor-time as a producer of baked goods to earn enough money to feed his family. (The baked goods = objects whose value is determined by human labor in the abstract; the labor that goes into making the baked goods is seen as an objective quality of them.)

2) Everyone who buys Butternut loaves of bread at $.30 a loaf (a price the Butternut company was able to maintain by paying low wages and firing all unionized, striking workers), in conjunction with the predominantly Republican Congress of the U.S. in 1996, has determined that certain groups of people will receive less food than they need.

Notice in my account in #1 that, as Marx says, "the money-form [the commodity functioning as "the universal equivalent" of all other commodities, 181] . . . [is] the form of appearance of human relations hidden behind it" (185).

III. Use Value and Robinson Crusoe

Use value is a concept that makes "exchange value" look like objective rather than social reality. I want now to think about how Robinson Crusoe helps make "use value" imaginable to Defoe's contemporaries (and us):

To define "use value," Marx quotes John Locke's "Some Considerations on the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest," 1691:

"`The natural worth of anything consists in its fitness to supply the necessities, or serve the conveniences of human life'" (qtd. n. 4, p. 126).

So economic theorists are thinking about "use value" at the time that Defoe is writing Robinson Crusoe. But Locke is imagining that these "necessities" exist independently of socio-cultural determinations of desire, that objects have objective qualities that make them useful. Robinson Crusoe also imagines that qualities which make objects "necessary" inhere in the objects themselves:

But all I could make use of, [Robinson realizes when alone on his island,] was all that was valuable. I had enough to eat and to supply my wants, and what was all the rest to me? . . . The trees that I cut down were lying to rot on the ground. I could make no more use of them than for fewel; and that I had no occasion for, but to dress my food.

In a word, nature and experience of things dictated to me upon just reflection, that all the good things of this world are no farther good to us than they are for our use . . . . I possessed infinitely more than I knew what to do with. I had no room for desire, except it was of things which I had not, and they were but trifles, though indeed of great use to me. I had, as I hinted before, a parcel of money . . . Alas! there the nasty sorry useless stuff lay; I had no manner of business for it; and I often thought with my self that I would have . . . given it all for sixpennyworth of turnip and carrot seed out of England, or for a handful of pease and beans, and a bottle of ink. As it was, i had not the least advantage buy it, or benefit from it; . . . and if I had had the drawer full of diamonds, it had been the same case; and they had been no matter of value to me, because of no use. (140)

This passage protests a little too much about the difference between use value and exchange value. The concept of "use" begins to have trouble, however, when Robinson says that "trifles" he "desires" would have been "of great use to me": are these imagined wants, based on Robinson's memory of what he had in England, "trifles" or necessities? That is, he is living without turnips, carrots, peas, and beans as well as without money--they are staples in English society which do indeed keep people alive, but are not necessary to survival in the strict sense. And someone from another culture might imagine that wood is "necessary" for something other than what Robinson imagines it to be necessary for, especially in thinking about what "needs" to be cooked (see Lèvi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked).

In contrast to the strict demarcation that Defoe wants--and perhaps fails--to make in this passage between what is, on the one hand, physically necessary for survival and, on the other, needed only for cultural exchange, Marx notices that even what is necessary for subsistence is socio-culturally determined:

[T]he number and extent of [a person's] so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend therefore on the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been formed. (275)

At one point, in discussing another subject, Marx points out that properties of a thing are "activated" by its relations to other things (149), which is to say, by the social relations in which it is embedded. Can we think of objects as ever "objective"? Aren't they always socially interpreted? Only the fantasy of one person living alone on an island enables one to think about objects as objectively existing artifacts, as having noticeable, useful properties independently of any social meaning.

To define "use value" in relation to "value," showing that the latter is the social incarnation of the former, Marx brings up Robinson Crusoe:

Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single labour force. All the characteristics of Robinson's labour are repeated here, but with the difference that they are social rather than individual. All Robinson's products were exclusively the result of his own personal labour and they were therefore directly objects of utility for him personally. The total product of our imagined association is a social product. One part of this product serves as fresh means of production and remains social [i.e., shared among members of the association]. But another part is consumed by the members of the association as a means of subsistence. This part must therefore be divided amongst them. The way this division is made will vary with tthe particular kind of social organization of production . . . . (171-2).

One thing that comes to my mind as I read this passage is the question as to whether there ever could be any non-social behavior, anything truly "individual"? Does use-value indeed exist if one has to imagine it in terms of a completely isolated individual, which individuals never are--never, unless lost to society, in which case, why would theorizing based on their case apply to social relations, economic relations?

It has been argued by Gayatri Spivak and Fredric Jameson that Marx actually deconstructs his concept of use-value in the first few pages of Capital. I don't understand that claim, exactly, but it makes sense: the theoretical concept of "use value" does what money does; it gives us a sense that a system of human relations resides in an object as an objective quality.

In imagining for us "use value," Robinson Crusoe actually serves to transfer agency to the object, to rationalize and objectify forms of oppression that are indeed social. Robsinson Crusoe imagines a man living on an island by himself as a way of grounding what happens in society, when actually a person living in society is never isolated in that way ("no human being is an island"); what applies to Robinson cannot possibly apply to social human beings.

Question: why is the concept of use-value, and the fantasy of isolation that underwrites it, necessary to the functioning of capital? Why is individualism a necessary correlate of capitalist societies?

Terms / Dates

The discussion arising from Dave Edmundson's superb presentation of Richard Tawney led Brenda and Tim to ask that we be more careful in making statements that begin, "Puritanism . . ." or "Capitalism . . . ." I strongly agree that extreme care is necessary in making historical pronouncements. I have trouble with some of Tawney's analyses as to when X or Y came into existence, as I do with Hill's and Macpherson's, because of viewing their work from the perspective of the eighteenth century. Eighteenth-century scholars frequently iterate the same question: if everything necessary for industrial capitalism was in place in England at the end of the 17th century (and much of the technology, such as the smelting of iron, was already available), then why didn't England begin industrializing until the end of the 18th? What prevented--or slowed down--the blossoming of agrarian into industrial capitalism? The answer might be: ideology. That is, the cultural work necessary for making capitalist practices widely acceptable had not yet been performed, and eighteenth-century novels must do much of that work.

We won't be able to think about the crucial ideological work that the novel performs if we take historical pronouncements too literally. Thus, Tawney proclaims "The Triumph of Economic Virtues" through doctrines formulated by John Calvin (1509-64), but in the chapter of this title, the examples of texts in which Tawney finds this "triumph" are produced during the eighteenth century (he quotes Richard Steele and Daniel Defoe). Moreover, another text that Dave Edmundson is presenting will locate the struggle over envisioning economic "vices" as moral "virtues" in the early eighteenth century. Definitive dating is not good if we understand by it that some ideology has been put inalterably in place.

Ideological struggle--the attempt on the part of the bourgeoisie, for instance, to make individualism look morally superior to aristocratic civic humanism--doesn't "finish"; it takes centuries, and still in our society there are remnants of the various ideologies against which individualism asserts its claim. Thus, we cannot see "individualism" as becoming socially acceptable when Puritanism became a political force (211), i.e. 1640-1660, as Tawney does, nor when Hobbes writes Leviathan (1651), as Macpherson does, nor as when the Levellers have their greatest social influence, as Hill does: individualism doesn't just "become" the reigning ideology in 1640. There are counter-attacks waged, some as explicit as the civic humanism propounded by James Harrington or the patriarchalism propounded by Sir Robert Filmer (whose texts were written early in the seventeenth century but not published nor discussed until the exclusion crisis during the 1680s), some much less explicit. An ideology, in other words, isn't de facto established by some event: it must continually make and remake itself (see Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, on relations among "residual", "dominant," and "emergent" ideologies.) We need to see individualism as an "emergent" ideology, as emerging throughout the eighteenth century, in order to think about what kinds of ideological work the novel performs. Seeing "individualism" as an emergent ideology is a heuristic device: I am asking you to keep open minds throughout the semester about when ideological struggles are "finished"--if ever.

But "open" need not mean sloppy!!! Let's use Dave's work as a basis for putting together terms and ideas that we can work with. The following is a start--please revise and add to this as you read things

14th to 17th centuries: a shift from "pariah usury" to benign usury.
Jews were moneylenders--relied upon but also maligned for their business, anti-semitism feeding into prejudices against lending and vice versa--in the great capitalist centers until attitudes toward usury changed, largely as Tawney argues, through the work of Protestantism and Calvin.
Beginning of 16th through the end of the 18th centuries:
Agrarian Capitalism (as vs. plain farming) = capital intensive farming; when a Lord farms in order to make a profit rather than to feed dependents. A process that goes along with intensifying agricultural profits: the enclosure of common lands. See Raymond Williams, The Country and the City.
Early capitalism is distinct from later capitalism insofar as the latter commodifies property. As Marx puts it in Capital, "[People] have often made [the human being itself] into the primitive material of money, in the shape of the slave, but they have never done this wtih the land and soil. Such an idea could only arise in a bourgeois society, and one which was already well developed. It dates from the last third of the seventeenth century, and the first attempt to implement the idea on a national scale was made a century later, during the French bourgeois revolution" (183)--again, we can ask, "What took so long??"
bourgeois vs. middle class:
Technically, a "bourgeois" is "a human capitalist." In the above quotation, Marx says that there is already a capitalist--"bourgeois"--society by the late 1600s. However, most writers on political economy (including Marx elsewhere) say "that before the mid-nineteenth-century England never had" a bourgeois, because by "a bourgeois" they mean "the big (millionaire) industrial bourgeois" (R. S. Neale 85-6). The bourgeoisie that Marx refers to in the above quotation when he says that "bourgeois soceity was already well developed" by 1680 is comprised of very wealthy entrepreneurs ("projectors") and merchants, their wealth equaling and often exceeding that of the landed aristocrats. Sometimes this extreme wealth "bought" them, in effect, titles, either through a royal grant or through marriage. Many writers avoid using the term "bourgeoisie," substituting for it "wealthy merchants" or "the mercantile class" in order to avoid confusing these late-seventeenth-century traders with the millionaire industrialists who came into existence around 1850. The important thing to remember is that the bourgeoisie is not synonymous with "the middle class": the bourgeoisie may expound middle-class virtues for the sake of assuring their own domination over aristocratic society, but they are the leaders of middle-class society rather than members of it: the bourgeoisie exploits members of the middle class as much as anyone else for the sake of accruing capital, and such exploitation for the sake of dominating society has been called bourgeois hegemony.
Uneven Developments (a term used by political scientists that applies to the emergence of capitalism as well):
What needed to happen for capitalism to emerge is that "customary markets" needed to be transformed into capitalist ones. In "customary markets," the notion of just price predominated (see E. P. Thompson, "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd"). In fact, when Defoe published The Complete English Tradesman in 1725, price determination (fixed price), competition (trying to undersell), and wholesaling ("sale by sample") were still illegal (see Frederick L. Nussbaum, A History of the Economic Institutions of Modern Europe, pp. 166, 154, 192; also, look up "sample" and "retail" in the O.E.D.)
The change, according to Nussbaum, from a "subsistence economy and the handicraft system" (Feudal/medieval economic practices, 153) to capitalist practices thus happens in fits and starts: "In the development of the system of markets and exchange, we have noted the rapid emergence of new forms of activity--specialization, increase in range, new devices of transportation and organization--along with the persistence to a marked degree of the old personal spirit of the craftsman. In the study of production, we have to note a longer persistence not only of the old spirit, but of the old technique, the old organization, the old forms. It is as though industrial custom, the custom of the man working with his hands, were somehow tougher, less susceptible to change than the customs of the merchant" (204).
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