Monday, September 25, 2017

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

There are books that everybody knows, that everybody talks about, and that hardly nobody has read. Such a book is Capital by Karl Marx, or, as the full title is, Capital: Critique of Political Economy. This month it is 150 years ago that the book was published. To be exactly, it was on 24 September 1867 in Berlin. Since then it has been reprinted many times, till the day of today, Also two volumes have been added, which came out after Marx’s death and have been prepared by Friedrich Engels from notes left by Marx. Here, in my study, I have these three volumes in the original German version. I have bought the books on 22 November 1969, and, indeed, I haven’t read them. Or hardly, for I started to read volume 1, but about at page 250 I stopped. Why? I don’t remember, but maybe I found it too boring or the book was simply too thick. It didn’t have priority and as a student in sociology I had many other books to read, too. But I found Marx’s work as such interesting. That was not the problem and I have read many other works by him (and Engels) as well, which I read till the end, as I usually do when I buy a book.
Since I didn’t read most of the three volumes of Capital, I can’t write about it from first-hand knowledge, so I’ll keep silent about it. Anyway, for long it has been considered a revolutionary and also dangerous work that undermined the existing capitalist society. Much of Marx’s Capital relies on the work by the British capitalist economist David Ricardo (1772-1823), but Marx used Ricardo’s tools for a revolutionary interpretation of society. However, wasn’t it Marx himself who said “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”? (Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach) But Marx was more an interpreter than an organizer, although just his interpretations show how relevant theory can be for social change.
What was it that Marx wanted to have changed? Let’s look at the also famous Communist Manifesto, published by Marx and Engels in 1848 in London. I have read this little book several times. Somewhere halfway we find a list of ten measures for the advancement of the position of the “proletariat”. Maybe these measures were revolutionary in Marx’s time, but now most of them have been realized, although some are still not acceptable.
Here are some measures proposed in the Manifesto. Measure 2 wants to introduce a “heavy progressive or graduated income tax”. When Marx and Engels wrote this, no country had an income tax, but during the First World War (1914-1918) many European countries introduced such a tax and since then it is seen as just and correct. About 1980 in the Netherlands the highest tax bracket was as high as 72%! (now it is 52%, still a figure Marx wouldn’t have dreamed of) Measure 3 says “Abolition of all rights of inheritance”. In my country inheritance rights are undisputed, but inheritances in the second degree and further are heavily taxed. Measure 6 says “Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State” and nowadays we see a big influence of the state on both. A last example: Measure 10 wants “Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.”. Also this demand has already been realized to a great extent if not fully in Europe and most countries elsewhere in the world (the abolition of child labour already in 1874 in the Netherlands).
More such measures have been proposed in other works by Marx and on meetings inspired by Marx’s ideas and ideas prevailing in the socialist movement of his days. Then they were revolutionary, now most people think that it is a shame if they haven’t been realized.
Al this happened under the influence of one of the most important books ever written: Capital by Karl Marx. But times change and ideas become practice or simply fade away because better or other ideas pop up. And that’s also why we can now put Capital in the library of history. However, this doesn’t mean that the book isn’t worth being read any longer. Books that are no longer relevant in the current situation, still can be stimulating. Therefore I should yet have to read it, if it had enough priority for me (but, alas, it hasn’t). However, a book that has become history and has made history can have so much prestige that other authors decide to use its title. It’s what the French economist Thomas Piketty did. Almost 150 years after Marx’s critique on the capitalist society Piketty wrote another revolutionary though not dangerous book on the same theme and borrowed the title: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Will it be as influential?

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