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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The corner stone of the wealth of nations


Marx congratulated Malthus (whose work he otherwise disparaged) for understanding that Smith’s more sophisticated division between productive and unproductive labour was the foundation stone of The Wealth of Nations. The metaphor of the foundation stone is important, here – Say, as Marx knew, had claimed that it was the stone that the builders could reject – although Say did not frame it in that biblical way. Marx, who had a great pool of references whirling in his unconscious, probably fixed on this – he did like troping the biblical Zitat.
But why was it so essential, in Marx’s view? I think it is because the distinction allows one to see that capitalism generates, internally, a socially defined class structure that cannot be separated from its economically defined activity. It is a class structure that is different in kind from the status structures before it, even as the forms of distinction characterizing those status structures heralded the new system, one where the great binary, the spheres of production and circulation, allowed something that seemed impossible in the Malthusian world: untrammeled growth. And thus the great wheel of fortune would be broken. Like Prospero’s gear:
I'le breake my staffe,
Bury it certaine fadomes in the earth,
And deeper then did euer Plummet sound
Ile drowne my booke –
So too would the ancien regime bury itself.
But if the class system of capitalism has done with the former unproductive class, the aristocracy, and industrializes agriculture, thus chasing away the peasant and his moeurs, the dualism of class does not necessarily seem like a dualism. This is largely due to the fact that the sphere of circulation in which the circulation worker moves does not form a homogeneous opposition to production: the workers within it are not capitalists per se. 
In fact, the capitalist remove from nature and from production is accomplished under the cover of the circulation worker, who becomes, increasingly, the ideal character type of modernity.

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