Marx Versus The Cultural Turn and Understanding Capital (Part 3)

[Read Part 2 Here.]

V. Understanding Capital Contra Marx

While much of the Cultural Turn have clearly been a long march away from Marx, even among those who claim to be Marxists and adherents of so-called Marxist economics there are those who nevertheless seek to twist and distort his fundamental teachings on value, profit, and economic crisis. Let us look into one book as case study.

Understanding Capital: Marx’s Economic Theory is a book by Duncan Foley on Marx’s Capital. It was published in 1986 by the Harvard University Press. The book tackles the three volumes of Capital in little more than 181 pages. Forty-nine (49) pages were allotted to Volume I, twenty-eight (28) pages for Volume II and sixty-seven (67) for Volume III.

The book is divided as follows: (1) On Reading Marx: Method; (2) The Commodity: Labor, Value, Money; (3) The Theory of Capital and Surplus Value; (4) Production under Capitalism; (5) The Reproduction of Capital; (6) The Equalization of the Rate of Profit; (7) The Division of Surplus Value; (8) The Falling Rate of Profit; (9) The Theory of capitalist Crisis; and (10) Socialism.

To quote Foley, the aim of Understanding Capital “is to provide a general introduction to Marx’s economic theory rather than to argue for a particular interpretation” (viii). This is not convincing. And in Foley’s case the maxim that writing is already an act interpreting holds more truth than ever.

While Foley proclaims that he is not presenting any particular interpretation of Marx’s theory in this book, he is the same person who suggests revisions to Marx’s theory of money in his earlier works, particularly pushing “the idea that money is a form of value” (1983, 13). Indeed, as literary critic Fredric Jameson said, “there is nothing that is not social and historical-indeed, that everything is in the last analysis political” (1981, 5).

It is important to note is that Foley’s engagement with Marx was engineered by his pursuit of answers to the problem of “convergence to the general equilibria from non-equilibrium states” (Rosser, 2011). >The pursuit of these issues would lead him to the problem of microfoundations of macroeconomics, which he saw as involving money and studied with the late Miguel Sidrauski. Considering the problem of money would lead him to pursue the study of Marxian economics as possibly resolving this problem” (2011).

It is thus safe to assume that the publication of Understanding Capital is part-and-parcel, if not a by-product, of this intellectual pursuit. The book as a later publication is not free of Foley’s earlier interpretations of Marx that led him to attempt corrections to Marxist theory. This analysis, of course, does not aim to prove Marx right and Foley wrong. But in relation to the study of Marx’s theory, this analysis simply investigates if Marx’s ideas are genuinely represented in Foley’s book, therefore avoiding grave misrepresentations of Marx.

The more we study, the brighter our hearts will become, 1964

The more we study, the brighter our hearts will become, 1964

Foley Presents Marx to the Academe

The fundamentally academic motivations for studying Marx shapes the manner Foley presents Marx’s ideas in this book. While this is not always the case with other scholarly works dealing with Marx, What Foley’s attempt at presenting Marx to the academe mainly succeeds in is the deduction of Marx’s revolutionary kernel from Capital. This operation is accomplished in Understanding Capital firstly through the dry and, frankly, boring language Foley uses. In chapter I, the reader will notice Foley’s (1986) preference for the use of scholarly jargon as evidenced in the following passages:

The basic element of this structure are what Marx calls abstraction or determinations, ways of talking about aspects of reality that are separated from and purified of their relations to the whole complex of factors that make up the concrete instance (3).

These abstractions are developed and stated in a particular order and combined to reproduce important features of the real phenomenon in thought (4).

The recreation of a concrete phenomenon by invoking the layered determinations of theory in Marx’s thought creates two potentially confusing effects (5).

It is impossible to understand one of these abstractions outside the system comprising all of them (6).

The same formulations, all written in a script devoid of all life, will greet the reader until the last page. As for the reader tired of dealing with this kind of academic writing, it would be more prudent to read Marx’s Capital directly, a fascinatingly rich assemblage of writing styles meant to give life to the subject it seeks to explain: “Shakespeare, the Greeks, Faust, Balzac, Shelley, fairy tales, werewolves, vampires and poetry all turn up in its pages alongside innumerable political economists, philosophers, anthropologists, journalists and political theorists” (Harvey, 2010, 2).

Secondly, Foley strips Capital of its connection to the entire intellectual edifice upon which rests Marx’s reconfiguration of political economy simply by omitting it in his discussion. Foley disregards Marx’s building on the “three main ideological currents of the nineteenth century, belonging to the three most advanced countries of mankind: classical German philosophy, classical English political economy, and French socialism together with French revolutionary doctrines in general” (Lenin, Karl Marx, 7).

Instead, Foley goes on a detour into a rather laborious discussion in his first chapter. “On Reading Marx: Method” starts fair enough with a compact review of Marx’s philosophical foundations telling us that Marx understands social reality as a process that develops through its internal contradictions and so on which is so far so good. But thing go to the twilight zone when Foley begins his sermons in sections with titles like “The Structure of Knowledge,” “The Layering of Determinations,” “Modification of Fundamental Determinations by Later Ones,” Explanation through the Ordering of Determinations,” etc.

A contextualization of the intellectual tradition on which Marx stands on is important because only thus can the reader understand the entire point of his project as given form in Capital. This gives us a glimpse of the radical position Marx takes – he is not simply analyzing capitalist system as a distinct mode of production but he is making a breakthrough on how this system should be studied and transformed. Failure to explicitly mention this opens the door for forgetting the fact that Marx’s aim is not mere scholarly quibbling but the transformation of radical politics…

…from what he considered a rather shallow utopian socialism to a scientific communism. But in order to do that, he can’t just contrast the utopians with the political economists. he has to re-create and reconfigure what social-scientific method is all about. crudely put, this new scientific method is predicated on the interrogation of the primarily British tradition of classical political economy, using the tools of the mainly German tradition of critical philosophy, all applied to illuminate the mainly French utopian impulse in order to answer the following questions: what is communism, and how how communists think? How can we both understand and critique capitalism scientifically in order to chart the path to communist revolution more effectively? (Harvey, 2010, 6).

Long live great Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought!

Long live great Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought!

The Eclipse of Marx’s Dialectics

This leads us to the manner in which Foley treats dialectics. Foley ends the first chapter with the discussion of dialectics – but only after discussing the production of knowledge and the structure of knowledge. However, is it not that this discussion on understanding of knowledge is supposedly part of dialectics as a central and overarching theme? Should it not supposedly then be the starting point and not the tail-end of a discussion of Marx’s idea of knowledge?

Things only get worse upon reaching the second chapter of Understanding Capital, wherein Foley covers the first three chapters of the Volume I of Marx’s Capital, with the absence of the dialectics in the way Marx’s concepts are presented and discussed. In a word, this absence is stunning as “the conceptual apparatus Marx here [in Chapters 1 to 3] constructs is meant to deal not just with the first Volume of Capital but with his analysis as a whole” (Harvey, 2010, 9).

Foley begins his second chapter with the commodity – commodity has value; this value comes from socially necessary labor-time; value is represented by money through social convention; price is the amount of money for which a commodity can be bought or sold; the value of money-commodity like gold becomes the standard price; then, comes circulation of commodities and international monetary system; this kind of system, commodity production system, breeds fetishism of commodities.

However, never in this discussion will you encounter the dialectical relationship, or to be more specific, the contradiction that lies between the use-value and value, between concrete labour and abstract labour. Nor does he ask if the price which is the representation of value in monetary form truly reflects the value of the commodity. What Foley is simply going on and on defining one concept after another like he was writing a dissertation glossary.

Strengthen the study of Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought!

Strengthen the study of Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought!

But as Harvey explains, Marx in Capital does not “simply talk about labor; he talks about the labor process. Capital is not a thing, but rather a process that exists only in motion” (Harvey, 12). In Capital, therefore, Marx more than defining labour, is more concerned is on how concrete labour, for example, is transformed into another form which is abstract labour. All these dialectical interrelations are simply loss in Understanding Capital.

The eclipse of dialectics in Foley may lead a reader to depict Marx, quoting Harvey, “as some sort of fixed and immovable structuralist thinker,” (12). As Kliman said, this serves to justify “the suppression and ‘correction’ of Marx’s theory of value, profit and economic crisis [and] facilitates the splintering of what was, originally, a political-economic-philosophical totality into a variety of mutually indifferent Marxian projects” (2007 xiii).

Distinguishing Value and Exchange-Value

Also worrisome in Foley’s treatment of Capital is what Kliman calls “the reduction of the concept of value to exchange-value” (2007, 91). In the section on the “Dual Nature of Commodity,” Foley said that the commodity has two aspects: “it is a use-value; and it can also be exchanged for other commodities. This is characteristic of exchangeability Marx calls value” (1986, 13). To make things short, Foley fails to see the distinction between value and exchange value, therefore mixing up the two as one and the same.

But as Marx himself explained in Capital, exchange value is simply “’form of appearance,’ of a content distinguishable from it.” To exchange commodities you must have a clear basis to compare them with each other. This basis is the common feature of all commodities – that they are all products of human labor. Thus this “third thing” that exchange-value expresses is actually value, the “labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society” (1979).

Also criticizing Foley, Andrew Kliman adds that “what Marx calls value is not the characteristic of exchangeability, but the common property all commodities possess. Things which have no value and are thus not commodities, such as land and securities, are also exchangeable” (2000). Given this failure of distinction, it is then not surprising for Foley to claim that value “is socially determined because it arises from the fact that the commodity is a product of a system of production organized through exchange” (Foley, 1986, 13).

Here Foley again misses the point that it is not exchange that makes value a social substance but the production process itself because the production of commodities is a socialized act. Commodities acquire their values not during the process of exchange but prior to that – during production itself. “The value of a commodity is expressed in its price before it enters into circulation, and is therefore a precondition of circulation, not its result” (Kliman quoting Marx, 2000, 94).

Foley went even further when referring to the process of unequal exchange in which the price of the commodity may not reflect, either above or below, the value of the commodity. He now claims that unequal exchange abides with the principle of the conservation of value in exchange: “What one party gains in value is exactly equal to what the other party loses. The total amount of value is unaffected by the fact that the unequal exchange transfers some of it from one agent to another” (Foley, 22).

Because he mixes up the exchange value and value, Foley cannot see that the sum of value is not affected by the fluctuations of prices simply because value, which is intrinsic to commodities, remains unchanged. Only prices as expression of exchange value of the commodity fluctuate. As Kliman writes, “exchange cannot alter the total value in existence, then, even though the inputs exchange at prices that differ from their values, the capital advanced for these inputs remains, to use Marx’s ubiquitous expression, a sum of value” (2000, 92).

 Red Rebels unite!

Red Rebels unite!

What is the importance of establishing the distinction between value and exchange-value? Let us reconsider these concepts. What he have in exchange value is the social relations between things. By equating value with exchange value we will miss out the way “commodities relate to one another as products of labour, not as mere things.” ‘Behind’ the relationship of the products to one another is the relationship of the individual product to its producer” (110).

The significance in distinguishing value as an intrinsic quality of product that occurs prior to exchange is not just the exchangeability of products,. It is the fact that “Marx employed it to transform value from a category referring to relations between things to one referring to relations between humans (workers) and things, and that the concept thus helped him unify his value theory, his analysis of capitalist production, and his theory of fetishism” (89).

Failing to recognize this basic distinction between terms will therefore surely only lead to glaring misreadings of Marx’s Capital. We begin to forget the idea that the critique of the capitalist system of production is an integral and not a separate aspect of Capital.

Confusing Fetishism of Commodities

Now let’s look at how Foley explained Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. This is what he says:

The commodity form of production imposes a paradoxical consciousness on the human beings who live through it. On the one hand, the commodity form of production is a social form of production because in practice the exchange of products establishes an extensive social division of labor and makes every person highly dependent on a multitude of other people for means of subsistence and means of production. The commodity form creates a vast web of cooperation and interdependence of people. On the other hand, the exchange process creates an illusion of privacy and individual self-reliance; it allows and forces people to construe their existence subjectively as matter of relations between themselves and things rather than as a matter of relations between themselves and other people (Foley, 29).

The second premise thrown by Foley seems vague to ponder. How does the exchange process create an “illusion of privacy and individual self-reliance”? The possibility of fetishism is not hinted upon by just following the linear way of presentation made by Foley. What is missing, given Foley’s mistaking of value for exchange-value, is the fact that during the process of production there is actually a transformation of the concrete labor of the worker into abstract labor.

This transformation of labor into the form of value is the foundation of alienation. This commodification of labor intrinsic in the value formation in the capitalist system is the very core phenomenon criticized by Marx in Capital.

Thus, saying that “for Marx the ultimate aim of revolutionary socialism is the creation of new and workable social relations of production that do not depend on the commodity-form and money to mediate people’s relation to social production” (Foley, 30) is reflective of a superficial treatment in the study of fetishism and capitalist system as a whole.

Under capitalism, value is created only through the exploitation of the worker by the capitalist. The process of value formation is in fact simply the process of producing a surplus value for the benefit of the ruling classes. Thus a truly revolutionary transformation of society is not simply about getting rid of commodities or money.

As Harvey clearly points out, “this means the overthrow of the capitalist value-form, the construction of an alternative value-structure, an alternative value-system that does not have the specific character of that achieved under capitalism” (2010, 46).

Dong Zhengyi, The commune's fishpond, 1973

Dong Zhengyi, The commune’s fishpond, 1973

VI. Reclaiming Marx

I began by reaffirming Marx’s revolutionary core and its indispensability to understanding Capital. Marx not only revolutionized the study of knowledge and society but more importantly put this theoretical contribution to the service of an unwavering commitment towards radical transformation of an unjust society. I asserted, following revolutionary intellectuals like Engels and Lenin as well as academics such as Harvey, Kliman, and Siraj, that Marx’s Capital is not just about economics but also its relation to the social totality. Failure read Marx along these terms only leads to the dead end of fatal misconception of his ideas.

Not all, however, appreciate this reading. Various traditions have aimed to “improve,” “reformulate,” or “adapt” or even go beyond Marxism. These emerging schools of thought belong to either cultural studies or political economy traditions. Their failure to understand Marxism is unsurprisingly prevalent in the academe because of non-involvement in movements that engage in struggles that directly confront the existing social order.

Universities in the cosmopolitan capitalist centers in Europe and North America and even in the so-called countries Third World countries like Philippines are flooded with all sorts of neo-Marxist, post-Marxist, and postmodern works that have become more popular among students than the original works of Marx. The continued proliferation of these ideas in the academe without the same focus given to the study of Marx’s original writings will simply lead to continued misrepresentation of his ideas.

The discourse that these scholars produced cannot be treated as neutral exercise of intellect. Rather, their ideas primarily attempt to negate the validity of radical transformation of society through class struggle. Postmodernism criticizes present conditions yet do not offer real mechanisms to confront these problems and thus generate an environment of pessimism. In effect, they connive with the State in discouraging the people from taking action against the system.

All these come on top of the long-standing demonization campaign orchestrated by capitalist states and their ideological apparatuses from the mass media, the educational system, to religious orders. Many still receive their first introduction to Marx and his ideas through the lens of the detractors of his communist vision. The attempt to discredit Marxism intensified with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism in China.

The way the ruling classes of finance oligarchs and monopoly capitalists dismisses Marx the world over is summed up in Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of capitalism as the “End of History. But the currently unfolding global depression that exploded with the Wall Street financial meltdown of 2008 and rapidly spread across the world facilitates this reclaiming project. This financial catastrophe demands for re-evaluation of the capitalist system.

The resurgence of interest on Marx has once again proved the authority of Marxism not just in explaining the crises but in providing concrete alternative to capitalism. It was certainly during these times of crises that the theories advanced by these so-called scholars are tested. Unfortunately, many of them proved irrelevant in providing answers to the questions of the masses. As Anderson declares, “all that can be said is that when the masses themselves speak, theoreticians-of the sort the West has produced for fifty years-will necessarily be silent” (p.106).

It is now up to those individuals and organizations that remain truthful to the revolutionary idea of Marx to reclaim him from this devaluation. To use the words of Siraj, “one has to rescue Marxism from the grip of revisionists, dogmatists, empiricists and all those who vulgarize its scientific, class and revolutionary essence” (112) in order for Marxism to fulfill its tasks of illuminating the road for the liberation of all oppressed masses. [End.]

 The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution must be waged to the end!

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution must be waged to the end!


Engels, F. (1969). “Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.” In Marx, K. & Engels, F., Selected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Foley, D. (1983). On Marx’s Theory of Money: The Theory of Money and the Theory of Value. Social Concept.

Foley, D. (1986). Understanding Capital: Marx’s Economic Theory. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Harvey, D. (2010). A Companion to Marx’s Capital. London: Verso.

Kliman, A. (2000). “Marx’s Concept of Intrinsic Value.” Historical Materialism 6.

Kliman, A. (2007). Reclaiming Capital: Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

Lenin, V.I. (1970). Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism. Peking: Foreign Language Press.

Marx, K. (1979). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I. New York: International Publishers.

Rosser, J. B. (2011). “The Complex Evolution of Duncan K. Foley As A Complexity Economists.”

Siraj. (2003). Postmodernism Today: A Brief Introduction. Delhi, India: New Vistas Publications.

4 thoughts on “Marx Versus The Cultural Turn and Understanding Capital (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: The Gravediggers | FelixOrtiz

  2. If, as Marx initially assumes, the numerator s/v remains constant while the denominator (c/v) 1 grows, because c/v grows, then it is clear that the value of the entire fraction falls. However, the numerator does not remain constant. The value composition of capital increases because of the production of relative surplus-value, that is to say in the case of an increase in the rate of surplus-value. Contrary to a widespread notion, the increase in the rate of surplus-value as a result of an increase in productivity is not one of the “counteracting factors,” but is rather one of the conditions under which the law as such is supposed to be derived, the increase in c occurring precisely in the course of the production of relative surplus-value, which leads to an increasing rate of surplus-value. 28 For that reason, shortly after the introductory example Marx emphasizes that the rate of profit also falls in the case of a rising rate of surplus-value. The question, however, is whether this can be conclusively argued.

  3. In this first volume of Capital, Marx outlined his conception of surplus value and exploitation , which he argued would ultimately lead to a falling rate of profit and the collapse of industrial capitalism.

  4. Labor – Most generally, work. The term “labor” indicates work that is socially organized. In capitalism , labor is work performed for a wage and creates surplus value . Labor thus stands in relation to capital in that both capital and labor are necessary to engage in production , but it is labor that creates the surplus value (i.e. profit) that capital appropriates. Compare, means of production ; see also social reproduction , exchange value .

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