A few years ago I set myself the task of reading the three volumes of Marx’s Capital, which I achieved, not without struggle. I fully admit that I found it difficult, and I am probably not the first. The writing style, translated from the original German, is sometimes hard to comprehend, and at times the same ideas are repeated over and over in different ways. But it contains many memorable phrases and profound insights too, so one doesn’t need to be a socialist to find the effort worthwhile.
Only volume one was completed in his lifetime, while Engels assembled volumes two and three from Marx’s notes after his death. I was greatly helped along the way by two books summarizing and discussing the contents: Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad Filho’s Marx’s Capital and Anthony Brewer’s A Guide to Marx’s Capital, both of which I can highly recommend.
The following quote is taken from p.352-3 in Volume 3 (Penguin edition), a section in which Marx discusses his law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, to which he attached great importance. It touches on the contradiction between the production of surplus value (the source of profit) in the production process and the realization of surplus value which is achieved upon the sale of the produced goods or services. It mentions capital’s insatiable drive to expand production, a force which Marx sees as increasingly ‘uncontrollable’; it also alludes to the ‘law governing capitalist production’ as the drive for growth, productivity increase and technological progress in order to produce evermore surplus value or profit, merely in order for firms to survive the competitive process.
The conditions for immediate exploitation and for the realization of that exploitation are not identical. Not only are they separate in time and space, they are also separate in theory. The former is restricted only by the society’s productive forces, the latter by the proportionality between the different branches of production and by the society’s power of consumption. And this is determined neither by the absolute power of production nor by the absolute power of consumption but rather by the power of consumption within a given framework of antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the vast majority of society to a minimum level, only capable of varying within more or less narrow limits. It is further restricted by the drive for accumulation, the drive to expand capital and produce surplus-value on a larger scale. This is the law governing capitalist production, arising from the constant revolutions in methods of production themselves, from the devaluation of the existing capital which is always associated with this, and from the general competitive struggle and the need to improve production and extend its scale, merely as a means of self-preservation, and on pain of going under. The market, therefore, must be continually extended, so that its relationships and the conditions governing them assume ever more the form of a natural law independent of the producers and become ever more uncontrollable. The internal contradiction seeks resolution by extending the external field of production. But the more productivity develops, the more it comes into conflict with the narrow basis on which the relations of consumption rest. It is in no way a contradiction, on this contradictory basis, that excess capital coexists with a growing surplus population; for although the mass of surplus-value produced would rise if these were brought together, yet this would equally heighten the contradiction between the conditions in which this surplus-value was produced and the conditions in which it was realized.