CAPITAL - Thing, Process of circulation, & Social relation

 Some limits to Harvey

Capital: thing, process of circulation and social relation.

Capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character.

            Karl Marx (1966a: 814; 1981: 953)

Across forty years, David Harvey has guided Left activists through Marx’s critique of political economy, most recently with his video lectures and Companion to volume one of Capital. This essay dissects Harvey’s claim that capital is ‘a process of circulation’, not a ‘thing’? The analysis begins from Marx’s definition of capital as ‘self-expanding value’ before approaching his understanding of capital’s thing-hood from three angles:

1.         textual;

2.         semantic;

3.         substantive.

These comments are followed by four examples of capital which do not meet the everyday sense of ‘thing’:

4.         human capacities;

5.         personal services;

6.         the ephemeral;

7.         money.

The next segment presents Harvey’s

8.         down-playing of capital as a social relationship and

9.         his one-sided treatment of the production process,

10.       specifically his neglect of the valorisation,

11.       as further instances of sub-dialectical reasoning. 

12.       Metamorphosis is introduced as a corrective.

By way of not concluding, we ponder the fetishisation of ‘The Fetishism of Commodities’.

The commentary ranges from high theory to particulars of the current crisis in capital accumulation. Our need to prepare for its unfolding makes an interrogation of the weak spots in Harvey’s writings politically valuable. Theoretical practice can move beyond coquetting with concepts if we strive to make sense of the crisis, its origins and prognosis. Engaging with Harvey’s lifetime of investigation into contemporary capitalism sharpens our focus on that task. Effective resistance is chancier if we lack clarity on the intricacies of our enemy.


 Self-expanding’ is not self-explanatory


Marx defines capital as ‘self-expanding value’, a short-hand which is helpful only if you already know what he means. He puts it better as ‘value-generating value’, and better still as ‘value which produces surplus-value’. (Marx, 1968: 81; 1971: 131, 469 and 475) Even that rendition requires knowing what he means by ‘value’, which is as tough a nut as any in Capital. Many a wet towel must dry around one’s forehead before one can crack the shell of this cluster of concepts:

The relative form of value and the equivalent form are two inseparable moments, which belong to and mutually condition each other; but, at the same time, they are mutually exclusive or opposed extremes, i.e. poles of the expression of value. (Marx, 1958: 48; 1976: 139-40)

To define value as socially necessary labour-time is equally unhelpful to those not in the know. (Marx, 1958: 39; 1976: 129; 1968: 34)

Making matters worse, the notion of capital as self-expanding sounds like Mr Toad puffing himself up. To represent capital as ‘self-expanding’ implies that its drivers are immanent instead of the outcome of conflicting practices, not all of them internal. Marx ridicules writers who ‘regarded capital … as a mere number that increases itself, just as Malthus did with respect to population in his geometrical progression.’(Marx, 1966a: 395-6; 1981: 520)

 Process or thing?

 In a habitual misstep, Harvey argues that Marx insists that ‘capital … is a process of circulation and not a thing.’ (Harvey, 1990: 343) Before identifying the inadequacies of this statement, it needs to be said that Harvey is right to challenge the accountants’ identification of capital with machines to depreciate. He is also right to acknowledge process and circulation. Notwithstanding these truths, the defects stem from severing processes from things, and from limiting process to circulation. Even more misleading is his retreat from capital as a social relationship. Capital expansion is the engagement of things with processes through an historically conditioned struggle over surplus value.

 1. Textual

Marx notes that J.S. Mill recognises that capital is a ‘production relation’ but nonetheless ‘confuses capital with the material elements of which it is constituted.’ (Marx, 1971: 236) In making this criticism, Marx does not suppose that the ‘production relation’ could be severed from its physical forms. Rather, it must not be reduced to them:

Capital itself however consists of commodities or, in so far as it consists of money, it must be reconverted into commodities of one kind or another, in order to be able to function as capital. (Marx, 1968: 533)

Almost all of those commodities are also things, from bibles and brandy to rifled cannon so that Marx never forgets ‘how important is the analysis of use-value for the determination of economic phenomena.’ (Marx, 1968: 489)

Of course, capital is far more than the use-values in which it is embodied since its expansion pivots on exchange-values. Despite the gulf between them, Marx pictures use-values as the ‘material substratum of exchange-value.’ (Marx, 1958: 36, 186; 1976: 126, 293; 1956: 159; 1966a: 266; 1981: 375) As many differences exist between capital and value in terms of their thing-ness as there are between the forms of value.  The crux is that although use-values are the containers of exchange-values, ‘exchange-values … do not contain an atom of use-value.’ (Marx, 1958: 38; 1976: 128) Exchange-value ‘can have no more natural content than has, for example, the rate of exchange’ and, like ‘weight’, is a quality which no chemist can extract. (Marx, 1958: 82, 56: 1976: 176, 148)

  1. Semantics

Counterpoising ‘process’ and ‘thing’ becomes risible if we replace ‘capital’ with ‘a process of circulation’. For instance, ‘the free circulation of capital’ (Harvey, 2110c) becomes ‘the free circulation of a process of circulation.’ To represent capital as ‘a process of circulation’ is to go around in circles without adding anything of intellectual or political worth. The phrase remains empty until we know what is in circulation – money, commodities or – dare one say it – things?

In The Limits to Capital, Harvey applied his mantra to ‘fixed capital’ by which Marx understands to be that segment of the means of production (the bulk of plant and machinery) that does not circulate in vendible commodities. (Marx, 1857: 202; 1978: 276) Harvey comes up with a tautology wed to a category error:

Fixed capital is not a thing but a process of circulation of capital through the use of material objects, such as machines. (Harvey, 1982: 205)

This muddle at least recognises that capital expands through ‘material objects’. The bracketed insertions bring Harvey’s sentence more into line with Marx’s treatment:

Fixed capital is not [just] a [single] thing but [one element in] a process of circulation of [money and circulating] capitals [for their expansion] through [the application of labour and] the use of other material objects, such as machines.

This extended definition is still not adequate since it omits social relationship, as is examined in sub-section 8.

 3. Substantive

 No amount of wordplay will let us decide whether Harvey is right. To approach an answer, we need to enter upon matters of substance, venturing beyond exegesis to the behavior of capital. Only in the realms of its expanded reproduction can we clarify the connections and disjunctures between things, processes and relations.

Harvey is right to say that capital is not a thing in the sense that it is not just an inert lump, whether of gold or steel, worked up as coins or girders. Within the capitalist mode of production, capital is capital only when it is in the business of expanding. That aspect is clear if we throw the processes into reverse so that the values previously materialised as means for self-expansion begin to shrink:

Machinery which is not used is not capital. Labour which is not exploited is equivalent to lost capital. Raw material which lies unused is no capital. Buildings (also newly built machinery) which are either unused or remain unfinished, commodities which rot in warehouses – all this is destruction of capital. (Marx, 1968: 495; 1958: 310, 1976: 425)

In these cases, capital is lost because the ‘non-use’ of the things in which it was embedded has depleted their value. Accumulation can also be short-circuited by transforming values into gold so that they are ‘crystallised’ outside the cycles of expansion. As a result, commodities ‘not only lose their use-value, but do not alter the magnitude of their value.’ (Marx, 1956; 295) They cease to be capital. Hence, a miser’s hoard is not capital. Marx’s portrayal of these negations of capital in terms of machines, gold etc. suggests that he is not as keen as Harvey to strip it of physical forms.

 Four hard cases

 We now turn to a quartet of the forms taken by capital for which thing-hood appears improbable:  4. human capacities; 5. human services; 6. the ephemeral, and 7. money.

 4. Living tools

 The character of one ‘thing’ employed in processes for the expansion of value is amazing when the exchange of labour-power for wages alienates human capacities into capital:

What is in fact brought to market is not labour, but the labourer. What he sells to the capitalist is not his labour but the temporary use of himself as a working power. (Marx, 1971: 113)

This sale of labour-power installs reification, which means thing-ification:

Man himself, viewed merely as the physical existence of labour-power, is a natural object, a thing, although a living, conscious thing, and labour is the physical manifestation of that power. (Marx, 1958: 202; 1976: 310)

Throughout the production process, the wage-slave is the embodiment of labour-time while the capitalist personifies capital, whom Marx dramatises as Mr Glass Capital or Mr Moneybags. Members of neither class lose their human-ness when they encounter the other as ‘things’. Such duality is typical of every element in each value-form.

 5. Personal services

Related to the reification of human capacities is whether personal services can expand capital. Marx well knew that not all commodities are storable objects:

Are there not at every moment of time in the market, alongside wheat and meat, etc., also prostitutes, lawyers, sermons, concerts, theatres, soldiers, politicians, etc? These lads or wenches do not get the corn and other necessaries or pleasures for nothing. In return, they give or pester us with their services, which as such services have a use-value and because of their production costs also an exchange-value. Reckoned as consumable articles, there is at every moment of time, alongside the consumable articles existing in the form of goods, a quantity of consumable articles in the form of services. (Marx, 1956: 164, 392)

Although these services/commodities are not storable, they are not aethereal but supplied and received through bodily organs, which is one link to thing-hood.

Adam Smith rightly distinguishes personal services according to whether they enlarge resources for accumulation. In short, do they produce surplus value? That was not the situation with the services supplied to Smith at home by his valet. However, when Smith booked into an inn, which provided him with servants, his relationship with those flunkies moved from personal service paid for out of his revenue to one of wage-slavery producing surplus value for the inn-keeper. (Marx, 1956: 154, 160-1, 168)

             6. the ephemeral

 The grounds for dispelling doubts about whether personal services can contribute to the expansion of capital are not directly applicable to ephemeral commodities. Human services are often drawn out whereas amusements are frequently fleeting and hence do not exist ‘in a more or less durable, and therefore again saleable, use-value.’ (Marx, 1956: 294) Marx accepts that exchange-value

depends on the degree to which the use-value is durable, that is, on how slowly consumption deprives it of the possibility of being a commodity or bearer of exchange-value. (Marx, 1956: 294)

Wants from the imagination (Marx, 1958: 35; 1976: 125) raise doubts over whether exchange-value can reside in a use-value which is not in the least durable. By contrasting extreme examples, Marx proposes that it could:

Diamonds and song are both congealed labour and can – like all

 commodities – be converted into money and as money into capital. (Marx, 1968: 137; cf. 1956: 389 and 392)

However, for as long as song bore the liability of needing to be ‘consumed while it is being performed’, (quoted Marx, 1956: 162) an impresario could profit only from ticket sales for its recital. That circumstance led Marx to suppose that

… capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, for example, art and poetry. (Marx, 1956: 277)

Nonetheless, he saw that the printed book had already removed this impediment to accumulation:

A writer is a productive labourer not in so far as he produces ideas, but in so far as he enriches the publisher who publishes his works, or if he is a wage-labourer for a capitalist.[1] (Marx, 1956: 153-4)

Marx’s stricture against the bourgeois Philistine shed its aptness as agents of capital found more ways to commodify the arts, turning ineffectual angels into productive labourers - productive, that is, of surplus value. Technologies have allowed capitalists to incorporate ever more performances into vendible-commodities: screen acting helps television networks to package audiences for sale to marketers (Smythe, 1977); sexual services and spiritual guidance are bought through phone-sex and televangelism; Pavarotti’s singing became a durable commodity as CDs and DVDs. (Klumpenhouwer, 2002) i-Tunes relieved the threat from Napster to the realisation of surplus-value.

 7. The money-commodity

 Marx applies the interplays of process, thing and relationship to that most multi-faceted manifestation of capital - money. The key to his analysis is that money is itself a commodity, albeit one with unique properties. (de Brunhoff, 1976) Within capitalism, money serves several purposes, including as a

1.    measure of value;

2.    medium of circulation;

3.    store of value.

In carrying out these purposes, money takes a variety of physical forms, from precious metals to plastic tokens. A gold bar is among the most durable of commodities, yet even in its alloyed form, sovereigns were worn away by being exchanged. One of Marx’s rollicking paradoxes (McQueen, 2005) reveals how the intimacy between gold and money persists even after gold ceases to be the monetary standard:

But the gold coin gave rise first to metallic and then to paper substitutes only because it continued to function as a coin despite the loss of metal it incurred. It circulated not because it was worn, but it was worn to a symbol because it continued to circulate. Only in so far as in the process of circulation gold currency becomes a mere token of its own value can mere tokens of value be substituted for it. (Marx, 1970: 114)

These tokens or symbols retain their link back to gold because they too stand as universal equivalents of socially necessary labour-time. (Marx, 1958: 38; 1976: 127)

Once capital is the product of its own reproduction, money becomes the most mysterious of the system’s operations, epitomising fetishism yet necessarily detached from the object of worship – gold. The capitalist system floats on credit, an intangible promise, one which underwrites fictitious capital. (McQueen, 2011). By then, money seems to be independent of coins and of the commodities that it represents in the exchange of values:

The social existence of wealth therefore assumes the aspect of a world beyond, of a thing, matter, commodity, alongside of and external to the real elements of social wealth. So long as production is in a state of flux [expansion] this is forgotten. Credit, likewise a social form of wealth, crowds out money and usurps its place. It is faith in the social character of production which allows the money-form of products to assume the aspect of something that is only evanescent and ideal, something merely imaginative. (Marx, 1970: 146)

This dream world, crowded by capital and money as phantoms, is shattered

as soon as credit is shaken … all the real wealth is to be actually and suddenly transformed into money, into gold and silver – a mad demand, which, however, grows necessarily out of the system itself. (Marx, 1966a: 573-4; 1981: 707-8)

The opening phase of a crisis precipitates a rush to that ‘barbarous relic’. (Cochrane, 1980-81)

Worse is in store for conjurors with credit. Gold proves not to be hard enough. As the depression deepens, they flee towards hard cash, as Marx had witnessed in 1858 during the first global crisis:

This particular phase of world market crises is known as monetary crisis. The summum bonum, the sole form of wealth for which people clamour at such times, is money, hard cash, and compared with it all other commodities – just because they are use-values – appear to be useless, mere baubles and toys … (Marx, 1970: 146)

Today, this ‘mad demand’ is at work in the flight to gold in China, the chatter around the World Bank of reverting to some kind of gold standard but, above all, in the craving for cash. The crisis means that investors cannot be confident about into which fluctuating currency and which under-capitalised bank to entrust their billions.

 8. social relationship of power

Our questioning of Harvey began from his juxtaposition of capital as a ‘process of circulation’ or ‘thing’. The complete story requires integrating those two characteristics with a third aspect, namely, relations of class power. Tellingly, he opposes ‘thing’ to ‘process of circulation’ and not to ‘social relation of production’, which is the more usual definition of capital among Marxists, as he himself once endorsed:

But capital is the social power of money used to make more money, most typically through a form of circulation in which money is used to buy commodities (labour power and means or production) which, when combined within a particular labour process, produce a fresh commodity to be sold at a profit. (Harvey, 1985: 25)

This exposition of capital as ‘the social power of money … through a form of circulation’ is superior to his equating it with ‘a process of circulation.’ Had he struck to this version there would be less need to unstitch his account. Strikingly though, even at his best he did not mention surplus value as the primary source of profit – a lacunae connected to his by-passing the valorisation phase within the production process, as shown in the next section.

In analysing Ricardo’s labour theory of value, Marx accuses one of its critics of accepting the fetishistic appearance of things as their social reality, turning their value into a natural property to be determined by chemical experiment:

Thus he, the wiseacre, transforms value into something absolute, ‘a property of things’, instead of seeing it only something relative, the relation of things to social labour … in which things are not defined as independent entities, but as mere expressions of social production.  (Marx, 1971: 129-30)

The social relationship that gives value its meanings is more than social labour or social class. It is the unsociable ‘world of commodities’. (Marx, 1958; 67; 1976: 160)

However, let us remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour, that their objective character as values is therefore purely social. From this it follows self-evidently that it can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity. (Marx, 1958: 47; 1976: 138-9)   

Exchange value does not exist in an isolated product but manifests itself only in comparison with others, and ultimately with money as the universal equivalent. (Marx, 1958: 60; 1976: 152)

We have seen how Marx’s view of process alters the significance of things without annihilating their palpable presence. Similarly, his treatment of the social relations of things neither equates them nor disconnects them utterly. In writing about the average rate of profit as ‘ossified’, he inspects capital simultaneously as a relationship and a thing:

In this quite alienated form … capital more and more acquires a material form, is transformed more and more from a relationship into a thing, but a thing which embodies, which has absorbed, the social relationship, a thing which has acquired a fictitious life and independent existence in relation to itself …. (Marx, 1971: 483)   

In volume three, Marx reminds us of how capital is and is not married to things:

Capital is not a thing but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character. (Marx, 1966a: 814-5; 1981: 953) 

The distinction that Marx draws here is not Harvey’s counterpoising of ‘thing’ to a ‘process of circulation’ but binds both to definitive social relations of production.

Granting significance to social relations is no royal road to science. Bourgeois economists connect ‘capital, land and labour’, which, Marx observes, have as little relation to each other as ‘lawyer’s fees, red beets and music.’ (Marx, 1959: 814; 1981: 953) He breaks up the trinity of ‘profit, rent and wages’ because those sources of income are not fungible:

First, we have the use-value land, which has no value, and the exchange value rent: so that a social relation conceived as a thing is made proportional to Nature, i.e., two incommensurable magnitudes are supposed to stand in a given ratio to one another. (Marx, 1966a: 817; 1981: 956)

The vulgar economist links capital to interest rather than to profit to evade mentioning exploitation. That escape hatch is not open to a materialist dialectician who cannot isolate a thing from a social relation but has to specify how they operate together for the expansion of capital.

In asserting that capital is a social relation, Marx does not expel or decompose things but locates them within social labour:

The exchange-value of things is a mere expression, a specific social form, of the productive activity of men, something entirely different from things and their use as things …

Thus commodities, things in general, have value only because they represent human labour, not insofar as they are things in themselves, but insofar as they are incarnations of social labour. (Marx, 1971: 181-2)

Marx sustains this need to make the process flesh by pointing out that wind can contribute to production only if the capitalist possesses ‘things’, namely, windmills to harness that beneficence. (Marx, 1966a: 644; 1981: 784) It seems Quixotic to suppose that capital can be comprehended by tilting at things.

 9. circuits of capital, or ‘process of circulation’?

 Harvey’s stress on capital as ‘a process of circulation’ falls far short of Marx’s account of the circuits of capital. In Volume Two, he specifies how money, production and commodities take part in the expansion of each. For instance, capital steps forth as money, usually credit, to buy several things, namely, raw materials, semi-finished goods and ancillaries but above all, labour power. The first pair of those production-commodities remain things during their remaking in the production process to emerge from the circuits as parts of the new things to be sold.

Thus, in the initial circuit, money-capital (M) buys the production-commodities (PC) that go into a production process (PP) to provide vendible-commodities (VC) which offer the prospect of garnering profits out of which to accumulate larger sums of money-capital (M+) to re-invest. The production-commodities (PC) are fourfold: raw materials (RM); semi-finished goods (S-FG); and ancillaries (A), such as power and water; and labour-power (L). The circuit can be abridged non-algebraically:


Too often, Marxists never get beyond the formula of Money-Commodities-More Money (M>C>M+) from Volume One and thereby glide over the production process that is essential for the creation of surplus-value. Their oversight is reinforced by relying on Harvey’s predilection for volume one. (Harvey, 2010b: 12)

In contrast to Harvey’s romance with a ‘process of circulation’, Marx pursues the substance of capital through the dual nature of the production process. Far from saying that capital is ‘a process of circulation, he shows that the latter

is a phase of the total process of reproduction. But no value is produced in the process of circulation, and, therefore, no surplus-value. Only changes of form of the same mass of value take place. In fact, nothing occurs there outside the metamorphosis of commodities, and this has nothing to do as such with the creation or exchange of values. (Marx, 1966a: 279; 1981: 392)

Value cannot be generated and hence capital grow inside a ‘process of circulation’. Accumulation requires both a labour process and a valorisation process, one more duality for Harvey to bypass.

10. Valorisation

 Harvey acknowledges that capitalist production is ‘fundamentally about putting money into circulation to make more money.’ (Harvey, 2010c) Moreover, he accepts that

the primary form of capital circulation in Marx’s view was that of production capital. This capital begins with money which is used to buy labour power and means of production which are then brought together in a labour process … that results in a new commodity to be sold on the market for the initial money plus a profit. (Harvey, 2010c)

This summary is close to Marx’s version. However, its focus on the labour process leaves out the valorisation through which the wage-slaves add the surplus value that makes expansion possible. Without that step, profits must be won by swindling.

Hence, Harvey compounds the flaws in his definition of capital by misrepresenting the ‘production process’. For Marx, the production process consists of a ‘labour process’ and a ‘valorisation process’. Harvey disables Marx’s analysis by neglecting the latter, and with it the incorporation of surplus value into the new commodity. To submerge the valorisation-process into the labour-process was, Marx writes, one of the ‘gross errors’ of Ricardo. (Marx, 1956: 102)

Harvey’s notion that value is added in the labour-process lags far behind Marx’s penetration of reality. The equivalent of the existing means of production are reproduced in that strand:

The value advanced has not been valorised, no surplus-value has been created, and consequently, money has not been transformed into capital. (Marx, 1958: 190; 1976: 297-8)

Marx draws a second sharp yet subtle distinction between production and circulation:

This whole course of events, the transformation of money into capital, both takes place and does not take place in the sphere of circulation. It takes places through the mediation of circulation because it is conditioned by the purchase of the labour-power in the market; it does not take place in circulation because what happens there is only an introduction to the valorisation-process, which is entirely confined to the sphere of production. (emphasis added) (Marx, 1958: 194, cf. 165-6; 1976: 302, cf. 267)

To imply that profit originates in the labour process is to leap over two elements in the expansion of capital, elements which Marx took pains to delineate while keeping each as a part of the other:

The process of production, considered on the one hand as the unity of the labour-process and the process of creating value, is production of commodities; considered on the other hand as the unity of the labour-process and the process of producing surplus-value, it is the capitalist process of production, or capitalist production of commodities.  (Marx, 1958: 197; 1976: 304)

The expansion of capital depends on both a valorisation-process and a labour-process. Out of their totality as a production process, commodities emerge ‘pregnant’ with the surplus value from which profit and accumulation derive. (Marx, 1957: 36; 1978: 121)

11. Dialectical reasoning

In penetrating the conundrum of capital as a clutch of relationships, processes and things we have been steeping ourselves in dialectical reasoning -albeit like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman, M. Jourdain, who had spoken prose all his life without knowing it. Too often the appearance of ‘dialectical’ in a text is scholar’s abracadabra, evidence that the topic has been too complicated for the professor to unravel. Such prestidigitation is no reason to abandon Marx’s method.

Harvey’s ‘Introduction’ to his recent Companion to Marx’s ‘Capital’ reminds us of the difficulty of reasoning dialectically. Indeed, he demonstrates how hard he finds it to be a dialectician by shrinking dialectics to motion: ‘Dialectics has to, in short, be able to understand and represent process, change and transformation’, (Harvey, 2010b: 11) a formulation which repeats his one-sidedness.[2] Materialist dialecticians go beyond the ubiquity of ‘process, change and transformation’ to ponder what kinds are operative. Is the movement ‘cyclical’ or ‘spiral’? (Marx, 1958:  581, 627; 1976: 727, 780; 1968: 524) Since most change is quantitative, not qualitative, movement need not always be dialectical, but can be mechanical within a dialectical totality. Above all, the quantitative to qualitative transformations involve the rate of change.[3] (McQueen, 2003)

Marx did not privilege the transformative impact of capital expansion by pretending that it was not subject to blockages, i.e. crises, bringing the complexity of the active and the inert to the fore in passages about money: 

So that money as coin may flow continuously, coin must continuously congeal into money. The continual movement of coin implies its perpetual stagnation in larger or smaller amounts in reserve funds of coin which arise everywhere within the framework of circulation and which are at the same time a condition of circulation. (Marx, 1970: 126)

Every business must maintain latent capital as money if it is to minimise interruptions in its production process. Capital as money can be withdrawn entirely, as in a miser’s hoard, or merely suspended, waiting for the apt moment to be cast again into the circuits for accumulation.

Harvey averts his eyes from the intimacies of motion and inertia within the ‘process of circulation,’ whereas Marx notes that ‘labour’ - the critical component in expansion - ‘constantly undergoes a transformation, from the form of unrest into that of being, from the form of motion into that of objectivity; (Marx, 1958: 189; 1976: 296) indeed, he recognises ‘that this inactivity is the prerequisite of its movement.’ (Marx, 1970: 126n) During every production process, variable-capital (labour-power) is alternatively in ‘unrest’ and ‘at rest’, shifting from a value-adding activity to a ‘static thing’. Although values are added only during ‘unrest’, the ‘at-rest’ stage is part of the social metabolism that makes expansion possible. For Marx, capital, 

is a movement, a circuit-describing process going through different stages, which itself comprises three different forms of the circuit-describing process. Therefore, it can be understood only as motion, not as thing at rest. (Marx, 1957: 105; 1978: 185)

The gap between Marx’s views and Harvey’s revision resides in those two little words ‘at rest’.[4] Their inclusion reminds us that it is things which have been in motion.

12 Metamorphosis

Although Harvey is wrong to detach capital from its thing-hood, he is correct to see that capital is not any single thing since it cannot be embodied in several different kinds of things, and often simultaneously so. It expands by transforming one kind of thing into another - their ‘metamorphosis’, to invoke a phrase favoured by Marx:

Commodities come into the world in the form of use-values, or material goods, such as iron, linen, corn, etc. This is their plain, homely, natural form. However, they are only commodities, because they have a dual nature, because they are at the same time objects of utility and bearers of value. Therefore they only appear as commodities, or have the form of commodities, in so far as they possess a double form, i.e. natural form and value form. (Marx, 1958: 47; 1976: 138)

The commodity in capitalism ‘becomes something more than, and also different from, a commodity.’ (Marx, 1968: 499) Wonder of wonders, capital, which,

in one of its aspects, can be called value in process – and since value only exists independently in money, it can accordingly be called money in process, as it goes through a series of processes in which it preserves itself, departs from itself, and returns to itself increased in value. (Marx, 1971: 137)

Even at its most mundane as raw material, capital becomes two kinds of thing at each instant during the production process where it is not what it had been on entering but is still not the vendible-commodity it will become. Steel rods are moulded into car parts; seeds germinate to yield a sorghum crop. As Marx outlines:

… in the labour process these conditions – materials of labour, instruments of labour and labour – begin to ferment, act on one another, combine with one another, undergo a chemical process and form the commodity like a crystal as a result … (Marx, 1971: 490)

For example, cement, admixtures and sand become concrete slabs, bearers of a new use-value and of more value. As production commodities acquire new uses to serve as different vendible-commodities they ‘lose value in the shape of their old use-value.’ (Marx, 1958: 202; 1976: 310)

The twin character of the commodity as use and exchange is exposed in its need to be some form of thing without caring which:

… however important it may be to value that it should have some object of utility to embody itself in, yet it is a matter of complete indifference what particular object serves this purpose. (Marx, 1968: 202-3; 1976: 310-11)

Steel might enter a chair or a bridge. What is needed for the expansion of capital is that the exchange-value of the steel in every commodity can be realised at the average rate of profit, or better.

            This shape-changing is at its most spectacular for the universal equivalent of commodities – money:

All commodities can be converted into money and as money into capital, because in the form of money their use-value and their particular natural form become extinct. (Marx, 1968: 137)

That metempsychosis transcends the qualities specific to their thingness without vaporising their ‘natural form’.[5]

 Against concluding

The first line of objection to re-inserting ‘thing’ into the definitions of capital will be from those whose acquaintance with Capital is confined to a couple of pages on ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret’ but who remain oblivious to the twelve pages on ‘The Metamorphosis of Commodities’. (Marx, 1958: 103-14; 1976: 198-210) It is time to unravel the secret behind the fetishisation by sociologists and cultural theorists of a phrase that allows them to skirt around the critique of political economy with the ‘fatiguing climb of its steep paths’, (Marx, 1958: 21; 1976: 104) just as they embrace ‘estrangement’ from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to evade the ‘massiness’ of alienation as the sale of labour-power. (Walton and Gamble).

One test of the validity of keeping ‘things’ in sight when accounting for the crisis in the accumulation of capital is to see what follows if they are told to vanish. De-materialising hollows out Marx’s explication of systemic crises. Since capital is itself only when expanding, its survival depends on increasing the means of production, that is, more machines, more raw materials, more semi-finished goods, more ancillaries – more of every kind of thing save one. That exception is living labour as it is replaced by dead labour, the machine-thing. This rebalancing is central to crisis theory because the organic composition of capital underpins the tendential law of the rate of profit to fall. Crises result from the over-production of things as the bearers of surplus value that cannot be realised as profit for further expansion.

In this ‘world of commodities’, nothing is ‘more damnable, more profane’ than the ‘massiness’ of ‘objects’, which continues to lay claim to our most intellectualised endeavours. (Marx & Engels, 1956: 32) There are no things without processes, no processes without things, and neither outside relationships. Were capital no more than an accumulation of things, there could never have been a capitalist mode of production. The same goes for processes and for circulation. All three – and more – are required to understand the ‘self-expansion of values’. (McQueen, 2010) The work of materialist dialecticians is to trace their contributions and to track down trip-points to rebalance class forces in favour of those who no have value to sell except our labour-power.



 de Brunhoff, Suzanne (1976), Marx and money, Urizen Books, New York.

 Cochrane, Peter (1980-81), ‘Gold: The Durability of a Barbarous Relic’, Science and Society, 44 (4).

 Harvey, David (1982), The Limits to Capital, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Harvey, David (1985), ‘Money, Time, Space and the City’, Consciousness and the Urban Experience, studies in the history and theory of capitalist urbanisation, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

Harvey, David (1990), The Condition of Post-Modernity, Blackwell, Cambridge, Mass.

Harvey, David (2010a), The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile, London.

Harvey, David (2010b), Companion to Marx’s Capital, Verso, London.

Harvey, David (2010c),

 Hattab, Helen (2009), Descartes on Forms and Mechanisms, CUP, Cambridge.

Kliman, Andrew J. (2000), ‘Marx’s Concept of Intrinsic Value’, Historical Materialism, 6, pp. 89-113.

 Klumpenhouwer, Henry (2002), ‘Commodity-form, Disavowal, and Practices of Music Theory’, Regula Burckhardt Qureshi (ed.), Music and Marx, Ideas, Practice, Politics, Routledge, London.

 McQueen, Humphrey (2003), ‘Making Capitals Tick’, Overland, 170, pp. 82-101

McQueen, Humphrey (2004), ‘The “Unreadable” Marx’,

McQueen, Humphrey (200 ), ‘What happened in Globalisation’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, ??>

McQueen, Humphrey (2010), ‘Refining capital’,

McQueen, Humphrey (2011a)  ‘Fictitious capital’,

McQueen, Humphrey (2011b), ‘Who’s afraid of volume Two?’,

 Marx, Karl (1956ed.), Theories of Surplus Value I, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow.

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Marx, Karl (1958), Capital I, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 195??.

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[1] ‘For example Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost for five pounds, was an unproductive labourer. On the other hand, the writer who turns out stuff for his publisher in factory style, is a productive labourer.’ (Marx, 1956: 389)

[2] Harvey defends his emphasis on mutability as a blow against the structuralists (Harvey, 2010b: 12) who were the enemy when he wrote Limits to Capital (1982). He needs to catch up with himself as the author of The Condition of Post-Modernity (1990).

[3] Marx appreciated that differential calculus had overcome Zeno’s denial of motion. (Smith, 1983)

[4] The Penguin edition reads ‘static thing’; the German ruhendes Ding’ is close to ‘dormant thing’. (Marx, 1966b: 109)

[5] Alongside the notice given to Marx’s flirting with Hegelian language, more attention needs to be paid to his juggling with forms of value redolent with Aristotle’s substantive forms. (Marx, 1958:  51-2; 56, 59; 1976: 143, 148 and 151) In establishing his scientific method, Descartes demolished all these forms, except for the ‘rational soul.’ (Hattab 2009; Marx and Engels, 1956: 169) Did Marx kept one substantive form in reserve, intrinsic value?. (Kliman, 2000)


See also Economics     See also Political Economy