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Paused but unfinished thoughts on a bit of the second volume of Capital

Last month I started going through volume 2 of Capital again in preparation for a reading group some people I admire are doing. I’m enjoying it a lot so far though to be frank I’m not totally sure I have the time and energy to sustain it right now. Anyhow, I wrote up this little fragment sometime in June in response to starting that rereading. I don’t recall if I had any ideas about this doing or becoming anything else. It was as much an appreciation of the text as anything else, and really not even of the text over all so much as why I like the abbreviations Marx gives of what he calls capital's circuits. In my drafts folder this ends with a single note to self “mediation to employers of labor power?” and at the moment anyway I have no idea what that meant! Two step forwards, one step backward I guess (and that’s assuming net progress....)


Every capitalist enterprise attempts to practice what Marx calls a circuit, beginning with money and ending with more money. Advancing money makes possible exchanges in the market and production, and the point of those exchanges and production is to end up with more money than initially advanced. Marx abbreviates this circuit M-C(lp+mp)...P...C’-M’ in the second volume of Capital.

M is money, the dashes are exchanges, C is commodities, lp is labor power, mp is means of production, the ellipses are the passage of time outside of exchange, P is production, the apostrophes indicate an increase, so that C’ (pronounced “C prime”) means commodities worth more than the commodities initially bought and M’ (“M prime”) means more money than the initial outlay M.

In terms of C’, the commodities produced, generally speaking there are two types of capitalists, capitalists who produce means of production and capitalists who produce means of subsistence.

M-C(mp) is an exchange between capitalists and other capitalists.

M-C(lp) is an exchange between capitalists and workers: capitalists buy employees’ time, for which workers get money. Marx’s presentation of this circuit depicts this exchange from the perspective of a hypothetical capitalist, in that the exchange occurs as a moment of the larger circuit on the way toward M’. For workers, the exchange is C(lp)-M-C(ms), where ms is means of subsistence. Marx notes that for workers, then, their interaction with capitalists is what he calls simple circulation: selling a good to get money to get another good which is removed from circulation and used - as when we buy food to eat, housing to live in, etc. Simple circulation is selling in order to buy, as Marx puts it in the first volume of Capital, where the point of buying is to use whatever is bought. Basically, this means selling stuff to get money to spend on other stuff that a person wants or needs more than what they sold. This is different from buying in order to sell, which, Marx points out, is a key part of what capitalists do when they buy labor power: capitalists employ people, generally speaking, because it’s profitable to do so, because employees make goods and services that the employer sells at a profit.

Workers might buy in order to sell on occasion. As a teenager in the 90s some of my friends and I got swept up in some comic book industry marketing where a first issue might have multiple covers and my friends and I would buy all the editions and keep them in mylar bags on the theory they might someday be worth money. One of my neighbors has a side hustle buying used cars once in a while that he can get a deal on then reselling them at market rate. Working class home owners often hope to eventually sell their houses and make money on the sales. In a Marx class I taught at the University of Minnesota I once had a group of students say they were buying a college degree in order to increase their income by becoming qualified for better paying jobs. They saw themselves as buying qualifications in order to sell their labor power at a higher rate. In all of these kinds of cases, though, workers still have to sell their labor power in order to have enough money. Their periodic acts of buying to sell occur in the context of lives organized largely around having to sell their labor power in order to buy means of subsistence. Implied here is also a distinction between two kinds of buying, buying to sell, and buying to use. With simple circulation, the buyer does the second.

Capitalist also sell in order to buy: they sell the commodities that result from production, C’, in order to be able to return to market as buyers. Furthermore, some of what capitalist buy is bought for use, both their own personal consumption of means of subsistence and the means of production used up during the production process. The point of the distinction between these two “in order to” categories is to note two orientations toward market exchange - exchange as an activity of provisioning stuff vs. exchange as an activity that provides money. To put it another way, exchange can be interaction for the sake of getting stuff to use, or for the sake of getting money, and money can serve as a vehicle for getting stuff or, in the special but widespread (socially dominant!) case of capitalists, money can serve as a vehicle for getting even more money, via the circuit from M to M’.

That process of making money into even more money is socially compulsory in capitalist society, capitalists are required to do it and for the rest of us our access to means of subsistence is conditional on that continuing to take place. As I said above, in the circuit M-C...P...C’-M’, the first exchange, M-C has as one of its elements the exchange workers engage in, C(lp)-M, in order to then engage in M-C(ms). This means that if the circuit from M to M’ is interrupted in any capitalist enterprise(s), employees of the enterprise(s) in question tend to find their ability to continue to get means of subsistence threatened. This means that at some level workers need their capitalist employers to continue to profit (as long as capitalist society exists) because their employer ceasing to profit permanently will eventually mean unemployment and so loss of income.

This abbreviation of capital circuits implicitly shows the proliferation of conflicts, or at least friction, across capitalist society. As I said above we can distinguish capitalists for whom the result of production is means of subsistence and others for whom the result is means of production. Marx discusses this distinction in volume II of Capital in terms of two departments of production. The former kind of capitalists are divided between those who sell their commodities to workers and to capitalists. While capitalists consume disproportionately, they are fewer in society than the working class, so selling consumer goods to workers is a vital piece of the economy for many capitalists.

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