Levy tells us, for instance, “under capitalism, Marx argued, one single commodity, ‘labor power,’ was the source of all economic value—including surplus value.” But Marx does not argue all economic value comes from labor power, exactly. He is well aware that means of production, like machines, tools, and factories, transfer value to products. He also argues that land and fictitious and speculative capital can claim shares of overall value in the economy. Labor power is, for Marx, of course, the source of surplus value. But that doesn’t mean all prices or “economic values” generally speaking are simply the result of labor power. The high prices of diamonds and gold, for instance, are determined by forces besides labor power in itself.
The author then repeats an old, discredited perspective (often called Marx’s immiseration thesis) which states that, “assuming a competitive labor market, capitalists paid labor only the cost of its reproduction, or workers’ minimum subsistence needs.” This is a very typical liberal and conservative misinterpretation, which misses the fact that Marx viewed people’s “needs” as, in many regards, historically changing and contingent. It also overlooks the extent he viewed wage rates and work hours as determined by class struggle and workers’ organizing against capital.
A bit later he also tells us that, in contrast to Adam Smith, “the dynamics of Marx’s economic system were of time alone.” This is also a strange claim, especially given Marx was highly concerned with space. From his discussion in the Communist Manifesto of the way capital is a globalizing force, to his discussions of the “annihilation of space by time” in the Grundrisse, to the chapters about colonization in Capital itself, Marx does not privilege time over space, but focused on the interactions between the two: from the tendency of capitalists to speed up production to squeeze more value out of workers and battles over the working day to colonialism and globalization.
After this, Levy claims that, while there were exceptions in his writing, such as The Eighteenth Brumaire, the Marx of Capital was a “philosophical determinist.” Unfortunately, he never tells us what he means by this (or, for that matter, provides citations or evidence for this).
Another major problem arises when he then says, “by contrast, capital’s contingent dynamics—the repeating credit cycle, the eventful histories of money, liquidity, speculation, panic, and hoarding—were not a subject of Capital, although Marx treated them, at times insignificantly, at times not, in writings posthumously published.” Here, we see that the author acknowledges the existence of Marx’s writings on money, finance, etc. yet doesn’t feel a need to significantly engage with them. This is odd, given that Capital Volume One, as Marx was explicit about, presents a picture of the capitalist mode of production at a specific level of abstraction dealing with production, while volumes 2 and 3 address issues of circulation and the system on a large scale: including hundreds of pages in Volume 3 on money, credit, and finance.
While these may seem like technical quibbles, the implications of failing to understand Marx’s work—and, for that matter, understand critical and Marxist approaches to history that draw from Marx’s insights—have larger implications for interpreting the history of capitalism. This comes out in his emphasis on capitalism as an investment driven system and his definitional statement, “capitalism is an economy—an instrumental means of producing things for consumption—geared toward the achievement of capital’s end, which is pecuniary gain.” This perspective, in many regards, raises a chicken-or-the-egg problem which the author’s framework is unable to solve. To put it simply: if capitalism is an investment driven system, what created this? How was a form of society, or mode of production, built in which an investment driven system was made possible? Where did the profit driven capitalist class come from?
Take, for instance, Levy’s analysis of the Age of Commerce. Through a limited engagement with the decades long debate over the rise of capitalism in the American north, the author is well-aware that many farmers practiced “safety first” or “composite” farming in which production to reproduce patriarchal family subsistence often was more important than production for the market. And he cites economic historian William Parker who argued the northern farmer was split between “peasant” and “gambler” desires. He imposes this on northern agrarian history without questioning if the northern patriarchal farm family can really be considered “peasants,” given there were no lords ruling over them as in feudal Europe.
In the closest he gets to discussing the transition to capitalism in the American North, he says, “there was no one-off transition to capitalism but a cascading series of ‘market revolutions,’ and counterrevolutions, specific to geographical place.” But, limited by a perspective in which investment comes before social development in the history of capitalism, and, for that matter, a limited framework for understanding transformations in modes of production, the author is never able to tell us how capitalism arose in the American North, or locate the uneven history of capitalist and non-capitalist (or less capitalist and more capitalist) relations of production, how these have intersected over time, and how capital came to dominate social relations. At risk of my overstating, it becomes a history of capital’s conquest over people without explaining how capitalism came to control and dominate social life.
With regard to southern slavery, the author does a good job of bringing together arguments within the “new” history of capitalism which show that plantation slavery was a form of capitalism. But as an analysis of the Southern social order as a whole, this account remains limited. He does note, at one point, “the plantation economy, for instance, failed to commercially integrate the large group of white, upcountry yeoman farm households, many of them subsistence oriented.” But otherwise, the account remains focused on the plantation capitalist “variety of capitalism.” Thus, by the time the author gets to the Civil War, he tells us it was in some regards rooted in two different (northern and southern) varieties of capitalism, but very contingent on the particular politics of the era. Yet he doesn’t raise the question which historians of the social history of capitalism have raised: to what extent, even in the 1860s, was the United States not completely a capitalist society?
Similar issues arise in his analysis of the Age of Chaos—a term which he prefers over the more commonly used “neoliberalism,” as he seems to find the concept of neoliberalism problematic. For the author, “what most distinguishes the Age of Chaos is a shift in what has always been capitalism’s core dynamic: the logic of investment, as it works through production, exchange, and consumption.”