Reading Capital 2 on a containership

8 February 2015

You begin to realise how much Marx actually crafted his writing when you compare Capital I to Capital II.  The former is beautifully edited, funny, extensively footnoted, erudite, and with a gorgeous narrative structure that inexorably push you forward as the book goes on.  Not so Capital II which was assembled from a series of notebooks by a reverent Engels who decided not to mess with scripture and left the lot unedited.  With the result that Capital II feels incredibly repetitive (at least in the first few chapters), and stilted, and rather devoid of the lush humour and beautiful sense of situatedness of the book in a vast corpus of reading which so characterise Volume I.

Nevertheless there are two passages of interest here, the first of which recalls the best stuff of Volume I: a global view which is historically grounded and which makes connections others do not.  It occurs, as with so much else that is great in Marx, in a footnote on hoarding:

The sudden increase in demand for cotton, jute, etc. as a result of the American Civil War led to a great limitation of rice cultivation in India, a rise in the price of rice, and the sale of old stocks of rice by the producers. On top of this, there was the unparalleled export of rice to Australia, Madagascar, etc. in 1864-6. Hence the acute character of the famine of 1866, which carried off a million people in Orissa alone.

The reference for this is House of Commons reports which Marx reads judiciously, and critically, connection and contextualising the famine within a broader context of war and trade.

His discussion of transport is not as interesting, as related as it is to the broader abstruse (“scientific” if using the language Engels used) discussion of value valorisation and different forms of capital.   For example:

But the use-value of things is realized only in their consumption, and their consumption may make a change of location necessary, and thus also the additional production process of the transport industry. The productive capital invested in this industry then adds value to the products transported, partly through the value carried over from the means of transport, partly through the value added by the work of transport.

So much so boring (for me anyway).  But then there is this glorious passage again where Marx’s humour and erudition rescues the dry text preceding it:

Transport requires, for example, greater or lesser measures of precaution, hence more of less expenditure of labour and means of labour, according to the relative fragility, perishability, and explosiveness of the article. The railway magnates have shown greater genius in inventing fantastic species than have botanists or zoologists. The classification of goods on the British railways, for example, fills volumes, and rests for its general principle on the tendency to transform the variegated natural properties of goods into an equal number of transportation ailments and pretexts for obligatory impositions.

‘Glass, which was formerly £11 per crate, is now worth only £2 since the improvements which have taken place in manufacture, and since the abolition of the duty; but the rate for carriage is the same as it was formerly, and higher than it was previously, when carried by canal. Formerly, manufacturers inform me that they had glass and glass ware for the plumbers’ trade carried at about 10s. per ton, within 50 miles of Birmingham. At the present time, the rate to cover risk of breakage, which we can very rarely get allowed, is three times that amount… The companies always resist any claim that is made for breakages.’ [Marx quoting the Royal Commission on Railways].

In all, his writing in Grundrisse, which I have quoted here before is more suggestive (and more beautifully crafted):

The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time. Only in so far as the direct product can be realized in distant markets in mass quantities in proportion to reductions in the transport costs, and only in so far as at the same time the means of communication and transport themselves can yield spheres of realization for labour, driven by capital; only in so far as commercial traffic takes place in massive volume — in which more than necessary labour is replaced — only to that extent is the production of cheap means of communication and transport a condition for production based on capital, and promoted by it for that reason.

As our long convoys of many millions of tonnes of goods snake through the militarised searoute that is Suez Canal I think of this “commercial traffic … in massive volume.”


A few hours later: I take back what I said.  The latter third of Volume II is full of all sorts of interesting things, including a reflection on time which although doesn’t directly answer my question about the management of time when “space is annihilated by time” – nevertheless it goes some ways towards laying out a thinking about it.  I still hold to my view that the volume is not as beautifully crafted as the first (and why should it be? It was a series of preliminary drafts) but….  I bow down to our Lord and Saviour Karl Marx who seems to have even foreseen the Keynesian solution to general economic crisis (where he talks about investment in infrastructure absorbing even the reserve army of unemployed; pp. 390-391 in the Penguin edition).