Having read Volume I of Marx’s Capital guided by David Harvey‘s superb Companion last year (my – admittedly very short – review is on Goodreads) I have finally now returned to read Harvey’s second volume which discusses Volume II and sections of Volume III of Capital. Reading through the introduction brought me to one short segment that I wanted to record because it struck me as insightful for understanding both what Marx is trying to achieve and why so many misunderstand him.
“Marx sought a political economy that would be truly scientific. The law of value and surplus value operates… like a law of nature, albeit of capitalism’s historical nature. Several times he compares value to the force of gravity. A better analogy would be the laws of fluid dynamics… These laws cannot be mechanically applied to fields such as weather forecasting or climate change without all manner of modifications. Marx’s laws of motion of capital… cannot explain all aspects of the prevailing economic climate… This does not mean that Marx’s political economy is irrelevant. No one in the physical sciences would dismiss the laws of fluid dynamics just because they do not provide exact predictions of tomorrow’s weather.”
This is a point which I feel many commentators on Marx – including many Marxists – miss, particularly when thinking about how to make practical use of his thinking. Marx is outlining what he calls ‘laws of motion’ which analyse how capitalism operates largely within its own terms, as understood by classical political economy. Marx does not provide a mechanistic set of rules which can be applied to any situation. Rather it is a lens through which to analyse any given situation, and particularly a means by which to challenge some of the assumptions of trends towards benevolence or equilibrium often made by economists.
Food for thought.