Marx's great work, according to this report, is about to be rendered into comic-book form:
More than 140 years after Marx's Das Kapital was released on an initially baffled world, its dense exploration of political economy and alienation is to be splashed across speech bubbles on the pages of a Japanese manga.
Set for release next month, the comic is expected to be a bestseller. A string of publications have found success capitalising on Japan's growing inequalities and economic insecurity.
I hope they make a good job of it. If they do, more people (at least in Japan) will be able to understand the basic outlines of Marx's analysis of capitalism. And more people, perhaps, would then be in a position to grapple with what has struck me as an oddity in recent media discussion of whether the latest economic crisis might have vindicated the old boy's understanding of the capitalist system.
In words of one syllable, so to speak, I now lay out that oddity as I see it, at the risk even of stepping out of my depth. One may think that Marx's work contains many insights about how capitalist economies function, or one may think that it contains a few insights, or one may think that it contains no insights at all. I am of the first of these three opinions. However, for Marx's overall analysis and understanding of capitalism to have been vindicated, what I will call its central apparatus must be shown to do the job that Marx intended it to do. Otherwise, his major work fails of its key objective.
In Capital Marx set out 'to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society'. To this end he offered a theory of (economic) value according to which the value of any commodity is determined by the amount of labour time on average socially necessary for its production. This is a controversial thesis, but never mind. For Marx's 'laying bare' claim to be made good, he needs to be able to establish that commodity exchange values are determined in the way he says. But not only does he not establish this; he knows it isn't true. In an initial simplified model of the capitalist economy, Marx writes as if it is true; but in terms of some of his own assumptions - to do with the average rate of profit, and the varying proportions of (roughly) machinery and labour-power in different branches of production - it can't be true. It can't be true in the real capitalist economy that commodity exchange-values - prices - are determined by the average socially necessary labour time embodied in the various commodities.
I say that Marx knows this. How do I know he knows? Because he says so. Once his model of the capitalist economy is de-simplified, Marx recognizes that prices must vary from the embodied-labour-content of the commodities, but he thinks that they will do so in a systematic way, such that it will still be true that exchange values or prices (I am now using the terms interchangeably) are based on labour values. But to show that this is true Marx has to resolve what has sometimes been called 'the transformation problem': he has to show how values in the sense above explained are transformed into prices.
Not only did Marx not show this, and not only was he aware of having failed to show it; it's worse than that. The transformation cannot coherently be done. This is where I step out of my depth. I cannot explain why it cannot be done; I don't have the necessary mathematical expertise. But Ian Steedman, to the best of my understanding, explained this many years ago. And I have never yet seen a clear and cogent counterargument showing how the central conceptual apparatus of Marx's Capital can be intellectually retrieved without a satisfactory resolution of the transformation problem.
To return to my starting point now - some or even much of what Marx wrote in Capital may still enlighten us about the nature of capitalism. But the suggestion of overall vindication cannot be squared with the fact of his economic theory containing so fundamental a flaw.