Thucydides and Marx: Capital in Conquest

I am using the Prometheus Books edition of Karl Marx’s The German Ideology and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides translated by Richard Crawley. I will refer to The German Ideology which includes the “Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy” and “Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Striner” as (Marx, GI) throughout this post. I will refer to Thucydides as such throughout. My edition of Marx in Chicago citation format is: Marx, Karl. The German Ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.  

The aim of this introductory essay is to connect two thinkers in time. They are consumed by the problems of their individual times but share a concern for the problems of civilization. Both come to understand themselves seated within the great material fabric of human behavior through their technologically textured lifeworlds, and both are concerned with the growth and function of Capital. Karl Marx, the author I asked you all to read this week, is a figurehead, if not the figurehead, of the scientific study of Capital and its effects writ large. Thucydides – a famed historian, trailblazer and general – I argue, is a voice in the history Capital within his seminal The History of the Peloponnesian War

We attempt to ground definitions with empirical facts in our class. This is a common practice within political theory as we try and work our way through the broader world of political phenomena and the human experience. Political theorists are not a lone voice in social science and are joined by a menagerie of other fields and disciplines. The empirical sciences, depending on one’s framework, can be mobilized to support an argument – or, in some cases, serve as a model for theorizing, but they are not the sole authority on the human experience or humans-in-the-world. The humanities, as they are known, include disciplines such as English literature, cinema, language studies, and, for our purposes in this essay, history. 

When discussing the social sciences we can separate domains of inquiry not only by discipline, such as political science vs. economics, but also speciate disciplines into fields. The field with which we concern ourselves is the nebulous field of political theory. Political theory, we shall see, often has difficulty staying put and policing its own borders. The fun of political theory, and of political science generally speaking, is its widespread theoretical and methodological applicability to the study of humans-in-the-world per se; or, more generally, what one might call “social phenomena.” I have difficulty with pigeonholing political science as concerned solely with “social” or “political” phenomena because the study of politics has widened in recent decades with the further formalization of subfields to include the study of how phenomena manifest in human lifeworlds that are distinctly nonhuman, and would more properly belong to the conceptual constellations concerned with the study of “nature.” I won’t be at length discussing the finer points of these conceptual divisions, but part of the political theorist’s job, as a person of scientific mind, is to investigate the emergence of phenomena and offer explanations for their emergence. This is not their sole duty, of course, but one can imagine that the emergence of phenomena – say COVID-19 – and its political effects might complicate neat conceptual divisions that position separations between something called “Nature” and something called “Society” or “Politics.” The political theorist can sit at the interstices of Nature and Society and recognize that an economic slowdown, or recession, may have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable populations who do not regularly benefit from the fruits of economic progress. These considerations can take the theorist from the realm of “Nature,” such as the emergence of a non-human actor, read COVID-19, to the “Social,” by studying how politics, or the acts of politicking are connected to the emergence of a novel virus that has disrupted global economies characterized by the flow of capital. In this way, the political theorist seeks a correct description of the phenomenon under consideration through a correct description of its conditions of emergence. 

Standards of correctness are often measured against the strength of one’s theoretical and methodological frameworks. The difference between the two, for our purposes, is that the former postulates the existence of specific entities deemed as having evaluative significance for the study of some phenomenon; and the latter is about preserving the logical and scientific validity of investigations concerning that phenomenon. In other words, both theory and methodology play important roles in the construction of facts, and, depending on your framework, one phenomenon may look one way to you and another to your partner. Methodologies are quietly considered in this course, but we are less concerned with how someone arrived at a theoretical postulate – as we will read many authors through a materialist lens – and more so at why they believe their theoretical postulate is a correct description of something-in-the-world. 

 Say you and your friend are looking at an object – a vase maybe with flowers in it. You are wearing blue colored glasses, and your friend is wearing rose colored glasses. I ask you both for detailed descriptions of the object in front of you. Both of you tell me about the vase, the flowers, ect.,. I ask you how both of you arrived at your description of the object and you both tell me that you simply looked at it (neither of you bothered to smell, taste, touch, or listen to the object in front of you, you simply carried on like occulocentric technoscientists). Methodologically speaking, then, you both executed similar investigations to the point that they should be comparable and we should be able to arrive at a consensus that the thing in front of you both is a vase with flowers in it. However, the key differences between your descriptions are the color of the flowers and of the vase and whatever else might be associated with it. In this circumstance, with no one to arbitrate and tell us “how things really are,” we find ourselves in an antimony – a case in which we have equally good and compelling descriptions of things that may be the case but share incompatible frameworks; one sees the world through rose colored glasses, the other through blue. 

At this point we might appeal to a theory or theoretical language to help us out of this disagreement. Your friend may have a theoretical framework in which all objects have a rose tint to them and so, they have surmised, all that exists that they know of, is rose colored. You, on the other hand, clever scientifically minded person that you are, know of the color spectrum and understand that what you perceive may be clouded by local conditions and that color as you perceive it, and color as you know it, are two separate things. You, upon hearing your friend’s report that all things have a rosy tint, judge that your local conditions and your friend’s local conditions are different and that what you’re observing, and what your friend is observing  share common features except for their tint. The differences lead you to believe that there are local effects obscuring your view of things but your simple friend has not arrived at that conclusion because their theoretical framework about that which exists cannot appropriately deal with disagreement over the tint of things. 

In the above, theory helps the scientist put their findings in perspective. It gives more context and bite where method fails and can provide breathing room in fundamental disagreements over reporting “the facts.” You may not be able to remove the glasses that give the world a blue tint, but you are aware that a tint exists and that it is not something necessarily “out there” all the time, but that you and your perceptions are colored in a way that may not always faithfully report “the facts.” Unfortunately, I must leave aside discussions concerning internal validity for another day and I cannot concern myself with the construction of “facts” and what “a fact” is as opposed to “truths” or “the Truth.” However, I want you keeping those words conceptually distinct and while philosophy might concern itself with a search for “the Truth,” we are instead concerned with the production of “facts,” within scientific endeavor. We should be careful in equating “Science,” with the search for “the Truth,” or even “truths,” as the scientific project, seen in historical context, has been about producing a seemingly less stable category of “fact” that get their power from our belief in “the scientific project” generally, and the internal validity of the particular sciences that include their theoretical frameworks and postulates (such as gravity and gravitation) and their methods for investigating it (scientific commitments to experimental repeatability, theoretical parsimony, standardized instruments, measurements and data collection methods and ethical frameworks). 

The above is a standard account of a small piece of scientific endeavor. We, scientists – “social” or otherwise, approach phenomena within our lifeworlds with theoretical lenses that include conceptual frameworks for understanding and interpreting them. Our interpretations must, on pain of being intellectually dishonest, stand the test against other interpretations and other frameworks that may be incommensurate with our own, and we must understand and interpret data against the slings and arrows of the phenomena we investigate. We will through this course see how this familiar story started in the Euro-American intellectual cannon, and by adopting the perspective of our theorists in this way – the way of approaching them as if they were theories to which we might subscribe but must satisfactorily explain “social,” or “political” phenomena – will elucidate their main objects of inquiry embedded in their description of things writ large

Karl Marx believes in something termed Capital. He believes that this thing plays a hand in human affairs and he is witnessing its transformation and growth in Victorian England and an industrial revolution taking the world stage. Capital and its social effects, among many things, are keeping Marx awake at night frequently as he theorizes its functions within social milieux (you may read “milieux,” or “milieu,” as “the environment” but I have chosen “milieux” to display the multidimensional character to human experience as if specific cuts could be made between different lifeworlds and lifeforms). Marx is not concerned with class warfare as prominently in The German Ideology as he is in his infamous Manifesto, but these concerns are never too far away as he theorizes capital. He is principally concerned with some philosophical turf-kicking against some of the Godheads of his day and their school of philosophical idealism. He’s interested in grounding idealism with remarks on how he thinks theorizing ought to be done and this is grounded in a sort of materialism that focuses on the (re)production of society and the actual lived and material contexts in which humans find themselves generally. 

It seems a simple trick, but all objects that can be properly said to be “society” or “societies” must have some means of persisting such that we can identify them over time. Marx, for our purposes, does not do theorizing from on high by handing down categories or moral pronouncements without checking them against his social conditions. He understands that societies change and decay, and is a student of history as well as one of philosophy, and he has studied the course of that thing we might call “Western Civilization” up to his day through an examination of the ancients, Pax Romana, the dark ages, the various stages of medieval social development, mercantilism and the liberal revolutions that shook the old order and we carry with us, to a degree, in our age. Marx is, and is examining, a field of study that emerged prior to what we may recognize as “scientific economics,” whatever that may be, called political economics that was an outgrowth of moral, or practical philosophy. 

As a student of the economics of his day, Marx is concerned with the circulation of things through his environment and the environments taking shape through industrialization. This is, in a rough and ready way, his principle concern as he critiques the economies emerging from the new organization of people, machines and politics. His opponents, we gather through his accusations and arguments, do not see the actual organization of things as their methodological starting point (Marx, GI, p.1), but favor the realm of ideals, the methods of a priori analysis inherited from Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s idealism, as their principal domain of theorizing. This method of theorizing purportedly starts from unshakable logical truths arrived at through pure reason, thought experiments, intuition pumps or analytic definitions and their theories seem full of weightless abstractions to Marx, and rely on mythologies that posit high concepts such as a “human nature,” or begin their economic theorizing and thus moral and political philosophizing from positions that can’t be tested except for conceptually. This means that they may be building theories wearing rose colored glasses that they’re not aware of, and Marx harries the new Hegelians, Feuerbach in particular, for believing they’re on unshakable ground as they theorize how humans, and how humans ought find themselves in the world.

This won’t do for Marx. You can’t have philosophers wandering around handing down pronouncements from on high! How can anyone expect them to have a sufficient view of things such that they can make meaningful and practical contributions to the questions of the day? It seems absurd to expect any sort of helpful advice, or sound moral pronouncement, or plan of action to come from someone who has closed off the realm of human experience – mediated through the fields of the humanities, arts and sciences, from their philosophical, political and economic thinking. Marx, instead, takes production or, as is en vogue, (re)production as his focal point (Marx, GI, 2) and subjects the abstract categories of political economics to how things seem to occur. In this sense, there is no isolated individual adrift in some lonely sea that can enter into mutual cooperation with other agents in similar predicaments. Individuals are already born into conditions of social interdependence so starting from some mythical story or “logical” place from on high is to miss the seemingly unshakable fact that humans persist in collectives. These collectives of humans must have some way of reproducing and for Marx, this is a matter of economy – a matter that concerns social reproduction through the circulation of things in space. 

People have real material needs. They have real material organization enabled throughout the ages by different technological regimes. The ability to hold any semblance of a class remotely in which I, teacher, sitting in Blacksburg, VA can reach a student sitting not only in another room, but possibly another state or country, is an ability granted through mass scale technological organization. Likewise, the material bases through which “Society,” this big thing with which politics concerns itself, is reproduced alludes to different ways, different potentials of human organization. Marx’s interests are partially in explaining social change, different phases of material development throughout civilizations, and how that change occurs, to whose benefit those changes may be, and if there is some prime mover of civilization. He has many avenues and concepts to explore and mobilize, but for us and our purposes, we can think of one of those theoretical postulates that helps explain social and political change over time as Capital

Capital is “among other things…an instrument of production, also past impersonal labor. Hense capital is a universal, eternal natural phenomenon; which is true if we disregard the specific properties which turn an ‘instrument of production’ and ‘stored-up labor’ into capital. (Marx, GI, 3).” This statement should give you pause. There are a few things to unpack from the above: (1) capital = instrument of production; (2) capital = past impersonal labor; (3) capital is an eternal and natural phenomenon; and the third is conditioned by the remark that there are things not counted as natural that make and remake capital into instruments of production and stored up labor. What allows Marx to make these pronouncements? This is capital; this is the subject of at least three books from Marx bearing the title Capital! I think this is best handled working backwards beginning with capital as natural and eternal. 

If capital is a natural and eternal phenomenon, then this implies that it persists regardless of human activity. That is, it is something which would exist whether there are humans around to observe it. When the Sun explodes and erases the evidence of human activity from this planet, capital will still exist. This is theoretically interesting because this means that a central theoretical postulate for Marx is something that, in principle, persists apart from humanity. This means that capital, as something “natural,” is, in principle, scientifically investigable as “the sciences” are concerned with correct descriptions of the state of things. In other words, the passage above solidifies Marx’s commitment to capital as something within production that is capable of being analyzed scientifically and has enough gravity (if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase), or weight such that it should be considered an evaluatively significant force in social organization. 

I can’t get into the specifics of how Marx may or may not be caught in a false dichotomy between the “natural,” and the “social,” nor can I go into the metaphysics of why that dichotomy might not matter within Marx’s framework, but methodologically he is committed to humans as occurring within communities and not as emanating from an abstract “state of nature.” He is committed, so far, only to the view that humans cannot help but be born into some social organization or another predicated upon and exhibited through their material conditions of existence with patterns of social (re)production. He goes further, however, and sees capital as both an agent of production and a source of income – that is, that thing that enables individuals to persist in monetarist societies (i.e. those who partially mediate social relations through symbolic economies of exchange-value based on weightless signs – more on that later) (Marx, GI, p.11). In this sense, capital is that thing allowing the reproduction of both societies and individuals within them mediated through economy. How capital is channeled, how it is treated, what it does, how it does it, and for whom creates a picture of the distributional patterns of a given economy (Marx, GI, p.11). 

The above gives a little more color to his remark concerning capital as a collection of impersonal past labor. Production connects humanity with the rest of “nature” for Marx, and pulls “the natural,” into “the historical” (Marx, GI, 13). Production is accomplished through the organization of labor and that organization not only displays social relationships to “the natural” but relationships of capital to living labor as it is incorporated in the reproduction of economies (Marx, GI, p.37). If capital allows individuals to live from it, and to incorporate the “natural,” into the “social,” then capital is more than merely money and money is a specific instantiation of capital. Think of it this way: if we bomb our dumb asses into oblivion such that all economic channels fail and lead to a social collapse (as in the Fallout videogame series) then paper money may become completely valueless and its only use might be for cleaning up after iguana-taco Tuesday. A working firearm, on the other hand, might be more desirable than any amount of worthless paper money and may help organize a collection of people, and machines into a functioning assemblage that helps you extract a critical resource – say water – and thus help you persist over time. That firearm, which you did not build for the purposes of this scenario, contains within its material being the accumulation of knowledge, skill, labor and technology necessary for it to persist over time. This labor, however, is impersonal in that what you hold in your hands is a commodity produced for a market and anyone who might find that firearm appealing, necessary or otherwise worth the exchange value for it. The commodity – another instantiation of capital – is not constructed with any personal view or reason in mind. It is simply there, impersonally appealing to some set of sensibilities. 

Impersonal should not be taken as impartial, nor objective. Each commodity is constructed to appeal to a set of settled uses and tates that are dependent on the material contexts and constraints of social organization at the time. However, commodities are a form of capital in that they can and do organize labor, display attitudes toward “nature,” and “society” and show distributional patterns through their production and circulation while showing the intercourse of definite and concrete individuals through the production and development of property (Marx, GI, p.41). As property is transferable among agents and adhere within their conditions of emergence, property is a kind of capital as well that shows structural features of the world in which individuals find themselves independent of their own making (Marx, GI, p.41). An example is the growth of land-as-private-property within a capitalist republic, such as our own, versus the growth of the commons under English monarchy. Each show a relationship to land-as-capital but have differing conditions of use, productivity and accessibility. 

Labor becomes speciated in its ability to reproduce through the ambit of capital due to the division of labor. Capital is dependent on labor for its growth as an agency that is a collection of impersonal past labor mixed with “natural” components derivative of production generally and specific material patterns of social reproduction. Marx sees the emergence of the State, as connected to capital’s development (Marx, GI, p. 52). The state, for Marx, is a site of contestation in which and through which the battles over social reproduction are fought between the competing class interests arising from the division of labor (Marx, GI, p. 52). He takes this a natural apotheosis in human social development, but it may only represent a backslide into one group harnessing capital at the expense of others. In some instances capital is the working body only, as he claims in the form of the slave and it is not difficult to find examples of the state solidifying the productive power of slavery for the interests of a slave-holding class Marx, GI, p. 14). However, his remarks concerning the state, for us, can be reduced to the state as claiming to work “in the common interest,” but in reality often fails to capture anything but the desires of those who hold and benefit from capital (Marx, GI, p. 52). This is because the “common interest” can never capture the particular interests of concrete individuals, and that each state is an expression of a class – that is, a collection of individuals bearing a similar relationship to the means of production and thus to capital – and thus can only hope to capture the general interests of that class (Marx, GI, p.52). The “common interest” therefore, is used as a regulative ideal in the organization of society and thus the intercourse, growth and exchange of capital (Marx, GI, p.53) and becomes a governing instrument for social activity. 

Thucydides, as I discuss later, provides evidence for some of the more counterintuitive notions within Marx. His material dialectic of accumulation and defense even mentions the growth of capital as implying a need for security: “With respect to their towns, later on, at an era of increased facilities of navigation and a greater supply of capital, we find the shores becoming the site of walled towns, and the isthmuses being occupied for the purposes of commerce and defence against a neighbour (Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1).” Capital, if it is to be an object properly considered “scientific” should be investigable in principle. Here we have Thucydides, a historian and general of ancient Greece writing in 431 B.C.E. concerned with the growth and protection of capital within Hellas. 

Further, we find that capital is used for the domination of other Greeks and Barbarians (anyone who isn’t Greek at this time) and is even obeying a grow-or-die imperative as Marx characterizes it when he wrote in 1845. As Thucydides wrote “For the love of gain would reconcile the weaker to the dominion of the stronger, and the possession of capital enabled the more powerful to reduce the smaller towns to subjection (Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1).” Perhaps it’s a trick in translation, maybe it’s the best word Richard Crawley could find, but Thucydides seems to make more mention of capital and its role in a war that shook his ancient world. The growth of naval powers – fleets of Galley ships and heavy infantry – captured his mind as he came to consider entangled alliances embodied within wealth and military might: “But as the power of Hellas grew, and the acquisition of wealth became more an object, the revenues of the states increasing, tyrannies were by their means established almost everywhere- the old form of government being hereditary monarchy with definite prerogatives- and Hellas began to fit out fleets and apply herself more closely to the sea.” It appears, simply on this examination, that capital is a properly scientific object in that concerns of it and on its behalf partially created the conditions for war and conquest in the ancient world. Capital can be an instrument of production (Marx, GI, p.71). It can organize navies to fight for its growth and capture. It is both an impetus for war, a condition for war’s emergence, the spoils of war, and when considered in its ability to organize labor, a foundational element in any war machine whether made of AWAKS, Abrams II, and aircraft carriers, or gallies and hoplites. It is instrumental power on a mass scale when organizing armies, a collection of machines and their attendant humans when organizing industrial society, and a seemingly “natural” element of social organization greasing the gearworks of society writ large. Perhaps this is the hardest part about Marx’s framework and his thoughts concerning capital – it is transformative and transforms depending on the broader context (Marx, GI, p. 74). We can watch it build and develop, organize and attract, destroy and rebuild all through human organization, and following Marx, this will occur with variations in geographic development (Marx, GI, p. 75). Or, perhaps, it as a concept needs theoretical refinement. In any case, we scientifically minded political theorists need to see the thoughts of our authors as we find them in history and to do our best to see their definitions, terms and philosophies as clearly as possible through the fog of the past.