As I noted a few days ago (in discussing the notion of human capital), the concept of capital has undergone an extraordinary redefinition and expansion in recent years. Now, in the work of mainstream economists, it has come to refer to, in addition to physical capital, human, social, intellectual, and many other forms of capital.

What’s going on?

My sense is that, whereas capital traditionally referred to the property of capitalists—and thus their claim on some portion of new value created in the form of profits—it now means something very different: any stock that can be accumulated over time to yield an income (or at least, as in the case of housing, a flow of benefits). One interpretation, then, is we’re being moved by this reimagining of capital further and further away from any notion of class (such as implied by the differences between capital and labor and the accumulation of capital by and for the benefit of a tiny minority in society). But there is, I think, a somewhat different interpretation: we’re still obsessed by class (perhaps even more than before) and, precisely because of that, the mainstream project is to turn all of us into capitalists, with the shared goal of accumulating and managing our individual portfolios of various forms of capital.

Income share by labor and corps to 2011

It is perhaps not a coincidence that capital is being redefined and expanded precisely when the “capital share”—that is, the share of national income going to corporate profits—has reached record highs (not coincidentally, just as the wage share is at a record low) and some (such as Thomas Piketty and sympathetic readers) are expressing a worry that current trends in the unequal distribution of wealth may, if they continue, represent a return to the réntier incomes and inherited wealth characteristic of “patrimonial capitalism.”

So, capital is still a problem that haunts economics.

The problem of capital can be traced back to the first texts of modern economics. While I don’t have the space here to present a full history of economic thought, it is important to note that, for Adam Smith, the stock of physical capital played an important role in creating the wealth of nations. But, at the same time, Smith worried that capitalists might not carry out their “historical mission” of accumulating capital—if, for example, they chose to divert some of their profits to other uses, such as luxury consumption. David Ricardo, too, worried about the capitalists’ mission—if, with continual growth, the declining fertility of land under cultivation meant that rent on the land cut into profits and thus slowed the process of accumulation. Marx, of course, challenged both the classicals’ definition of capital—preferring to see it as a social relationship, rather than a thing—and their worry that the accumulation of capital (in the form of c and v, constant and variable capital) would slow as a result of exogenous events—because, for Marx, the problems were endogenous, as capital itself created obstacles to smooth and continuous accumulation. Even in early neoclassical growth theory (for example, in the Solow model), capital carried the hint of class, as it still had to be accumulated by a small group of investors—with the caveat, of course, that labor also stood to benefit as a result of more jobs and a higher marginal productivity.

But that previous class dimension of capital seems to have radically changed with the proliferation of new, expanded notions of capital.

This issue of capital came up as I was reading the commentaries on Piketty’s book that were delivered in a session at the recent American Economic Association meetings. All of the respondents—mainstream economists of various hues and stripes—took issue with Piketty’s definition and measurement of wealth. However, let me for the sake of this post focus on one of them, by David Weil [pdf]. Weil’s view is that, in addition to productive capital (the K one finds, alongside labor, in the usual neoclassical production function), capital should also include two other forms of wealth: human capital and “transfer wealth.” In his hands, labor income is now transformed into another kind of return on capital, the result of which is that a portion of national income (his calculations indicate 38 percent) represents a payment for education above and beyond “brute” labor. Human capital has the additional advantage, for mainstream economists like Weil, that it is more equally distributed (“there is a limit to how much human capital even the richest parent can cram into the head of his or her child”) than physical or financial capital. And then there are the Social Security payments workers rely on as retirement income. Weil also wants to treat them as capital, as a “transfer wealth.” He does acknowledge potential objections (“Ownership of transfer wealth conveys no control rights, and it can’t be sold or borrowed against, although it is not clear that these characteristics would be very valuable to those who hold it. Because it is annuitized, transfer wealth does not pass on to heirs, and so it is certainly true it affects the dynamics of inequality differently than market wealth.”) but then, impressed with the “gross size of these transfer claims,” Weil proceeds to treat them as a form of individual wealth—instead of as a social claim by one group of former workers on the surplus being created by existing workers.

The proliferation of these notions moves capital further and further away from its previous associations, in one way or another, with class and the process of producing, capturing, and utilizing the surplus in the form of capitalist profits. That’s one of the effects of redefining capital and imagining that wages and Social Security represent different returns on capital.

At the same time, the new forms of capital continue to be haunted by the issue of class, precisely in the insistence that everyone—not just capitalists—owns some and that forms such as human capital and “transfer wealth” are more equitably distributed than traditional (physical and financial) capital. In other words, mainstream economists’ attempts to redefine and expand what we mean by capital still carry the whiff of a claim on net income that is something above and beyond what laborers receive by exchanging their ability to work for a wage.

The problem, of course, is that the more capital is detached from the traditional role of the capitalist—to serve as “a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital”—the more it calls into question the idea that the class of capitalists serves any particular role at all in today’s society. This is a problem that, of course, has reinforced by the onset and enduring legacy of the most severe crisis since the First Great Depression.

In this sense, the proliferation of new forms of capital—in the midst of the growing inequality that both caused and is now the consequence of the Second Great Depression—merely serves to remind us of the antithesis between the character of wealth as socially produced and privately captured. That is the real problem with capital that simply can’t be solved within the existing economic institutions.

*This illustration was produced by the Capital Drawing Group.

  1. Marnie Holborow says:

    Thanks very much for this useful discussion on the stretching of the word capital. I am interested in this process from a language and ideology point of view. I have just completed a book entitled Language and Neoliberalism which precisely looks at how specific keywords – such as human capital, entrepreneur etc – have become part of the neoliberal word set and whose purpose is to oust notions of social class.

  2. Buce says:

    A good discussion to have. Very briefly (my two cents): the ever more expansive notion of capital has the purpose of embedding an ever more expansive notion of the production of value. In contemporary mainstream accounting, every flow of income reflects some productive contribution that creates value (not merely captures it). Hence the net interest income of bankers reflects the productive contribution made by “financial services.” The concept of “transfer capital” seems to be the oxymoronic end-point of this logic: neoclassical thinking can’t abide the notion that “capital” incomes are a transfer of surplus-value created by labor, and so *every* income flow (even including explicit transfers like social security) must be reconceived as a return to some capitalized asset, utilization of which entails a productive creation of value. No “exploitation” is then possible.

  3. BRF says:

    It seems these new views on capital formation are simply a form of obfuscation as to the how this capital was produced and for who’s benefit.

  4. Magpie says:

    Off topic but hopefully of some interest:

    He’s Baaack! Karl Marx And The Transformation Problem

    Several news on Marx, including:

    “One piece of news coming from Moseley is that Karl Marx is about to have a fresh publication in the English language, his original manuscript for Volume III of Capital, which was only published in German in the 1990s.”

  5. […] growth in the foreseeable future because of a dearth of technical innovations. And, of course, Thomas Piketty has demonstrated the obscene and still-growing inequalities in the distribution of income and […]

  6. […] growth in the foreseeable future because of a dearth of technical innovations. And, of course, Thomas Piketty has demonstrated the obscene and still-growing inequalities in the distribution of income and […]

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