"Das Kapital." Karl Marx is long overdue for a revival, and who better to champion it than the leaders of the free world? Too long monopolized by dictators, it's high time the great German thinker inhaled the thrilling air of Downing Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Commending Marx's Capital to the attention of new readers is something I would in general support and warmly, but with a couple of cautions, neither of them minor.
I would support it for a lot of reasons. Volume one of Capital, the only volume completed and published during Marx's lifetime, is a great work and a great work of social theory. It is a great work just as a piece of literature, its architecture carefully designed and the writing vivid and dramatic. It is a great work of theory in the same way as, say, Hobbes's Leviathan or John Rawls's A Theory of Justice; which is to say, not that everything in it is true or right, but that it engages its readers in a profound and sustained attempt to think about a certain subject matter - here, capitalism - and leaves them with a greater understanding of it than that with which they began.
Beyond these two general strengths, Capital contains: many particular insights, concerning, for example, the production and reproduction of unemployment (the reserve army of labour) in capitalist economies, the tendency towards the concentration of capital into larger and larger units, and the production and satisfaction of new consumer needs; striking chapters of empirical material, such as on the working day or on primitive capitalist accumulation; and an implicit - though sharp and definite for all that - normative picture of the basic relations of capitalism as being pervasively unjust.
For these reasons among others, the view sometimes given of Capital that it is a dry and tedious work is not accurate and is often motivated by animus against its content. Sections of Volume two are dry and tedious. But Volume one is a literary masterpiece and it will endure.
Now for my two cautions, and about these let it be noted that they aren't influenced at all by the fact of Edward St Aubyn's recommendation being tailored specifically for Barack Obama and David Cameron. I don't imagine either of these figures is in need of a warning against the danger of uncritical enthusiasm for Marx's Capital. But other, and especially younger, readers may benefit from precisely that. For these cautions both concern ways in which Capital is, despite what I've said about it above, deeply flawed. It is flawed from both an explanatory and a normative point of view.
Explanatory. Capital purports to illuminate the 'laws of motion' of capitalist societies and Marx's explanation of them centres on the hypothesis that equilibrium prices in a capitalist economy are determined by the labour embodied in commodities (strictly: the labour on average socially necessary to reproduce them in given circumstances). But Marx himself never established this determination satisfactorily, and it cannot be established. Here, I am not just referring to the well-known transformation problem. There are many other anomalies and shortcomings in his labour theory of value, of which I will confine myself here to mentioning just one.
Marx is perfectly well aware that consumer demand plays some role in the explanation of commodity values and prices. We know he is aware of this, because he makes plain his understanding that a commodity for which there is no demand will have no value; the labour expended on its production is as good as wasted. But it is never explained by him why, if demand can thus affect whether commodities have value at all, it cannot also enter into determining the level of value that they have. This is an intellectual mystery: a determinant operating only at the threshold of the relevant explanatory field, but not, for some unarticulated reason, also within it.
Normative. Marx's theory of capitalist exploitation depends upon the moral assumption that people have an overriding claim to appropriate for themselves what they create. When I say his theory of capitalist exploitation depends upon this assumption, I don't just mean that he first gives an account of exploitation and then throws in that moral judgement as an add-on. I mean that the account itself only makes sense if workers are the due and proper owners of the value they create. I have argued for this conclusion here (£). But not only is the notion of a compelling prior claim to everything one creates problematic, the idea that one has even a prima facie claim is not transparently obvious (see my series on the fruits of labour); nor is it clear that the claim isn't parasitic on other notions (like desert).
In sum, though Capital presents - and rightly so - a broad picture of social and economic injustice as being at the heart of the capitalism of Marx's day, it doesn't command the moral theory necessary to supporting that picture, a necessity indeed of which Marx too often expressed himself contemptuous.
Nearly a century and a half after the publication of Volume one of Capital, no one should be urged back to it on the premise that it is an unblemished source of social and economic understanding.