What did Marx mean by the statement that 'Capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons'?

Essay by dlh37 March 2004

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The idea of capital as a social relation can be seen to symbolize the relationship between those who own capital, and between those who must work in order to secure the income stream of capital - it is a relation of both property and power. Ideas of class conflict, alienation and exploitation are thus central to this approach. The aim of this essay is to explain the social relations of capital, and how these fit into the pattern of Marx's thought. I will conclude with an assessment of the relevance of these ideas today.

Marx pointed out that 'capital is not a thing, but a social relation' in Capital (v1) and similarly argued in Labour and Capital that 'Capital is a social relation of production. It is a historical relation of production'. My interpretation of this is that capital can take many forms, but throughout it symbolizes economic relationships between people, whether individually or in groups; it is the result of social labour achieved in the creation of goods and services i.e.

it is the social relations surrounding commodities or money that make them capital. Nothing is intrinsically capital, not even gold - it has to be used in certain ways, under certain social conditions, and at a certain period of society's development to acquire this form.

Classical economists argued that part of capital consists of consumers' goods used to sustain the workers engaged in producing items for future consumption and part consists of producers' goods channeled into further production for the sake of expected future returns. But Marx regarded as capital only the productive goods that yield income independently of the exertions of the owner. An artisan's tools and a small farmer's land holding are not capital in this sense. In this respect, it seems that capital...