The Trinity Formula

Marx, Karl. 1967. Capital, Vol. III. New York: International Publishers. [Ch. 48]

The chapter is simply titled, “The Trinity Formula.” I was interested in this chapter from Volume III of Capital for two reasons. The first reason is its importance for Lefebvre, which is where I was initially turned onto it. Lefebvre deploys the trinity formula as the conceptual bedrock of some key insights toward the end of the Production of Space. Secondly, Marx in this chapter gives an overview of the capitalist mode production as a whole and brings land into relation with capital and labor. The chapter is also one of the most concise versions or overviews of Marx’s life-long work.

Clearly, the Trinitarian move—what he calls an “economic three-in-one”—complicates his more dualistic theorization of capitalism centered on the capital-labor relation. With the trinity formula, capitalism is expressed as land-ground rent, labor-wages, capital-interest/profits. (More on this last couplet below.) What surprised me about this chapter is how Marx uses the trinity formula to make an argument about a fetishism writ large under capitalism—that is, beyond the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Vol. I) of the commodity-form itself.

He explains how the vulgar economists make it appear—in a cause and effect relation—as if land, as a source, actually produces rent; labor actually produces wages; and capital interest: “In the formula capital-interest, earth-ground-rent, labour-wages, capital, earth and labour appear respectively as sources of interest (instead of profit), ground-rent and wages as their products or fruits – one the basis, the other the result; one the cause, the other the effect – and moreover in such a way that each individual source is related to its product as something extruded from it and produced by it” (955).

This means that what is in actuality a process of appropriating and distributing surplus value instead appears more simply as the isolated and autonomous production of value by disparate actors in the economic system (capitalist, landowners, workers). “Capital, landed property and labour appear to those agents of production as three separate and independent sources, and it appears that from these there arise three different components of the annually produced value (and hence of the product in which this exists)” (961).  The inner connections between these seemingly disparate activities remains concealed in the formulations of the classical political economists—at least in the case of Adam Smith.

Taking any single portion of the trinity formula (land, labor, capital and their respective counterparts) in isolation or as an abstracted, reified, autonomous entity from the others would only parallel the practical operation of the fetish. Like in his discussion of the commodity fetish from Volume I, Marx again invokes the ghostly language of the mystical in the following key passage, which deserves quoting in its entirety (with my emphasis added):

Capital-profit (or better still capital-interest), land-ground rent, labour-wages, this economic trinity as the connection between the components of value and wealth in general and its sources, completes the mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the reification of social relations, and the immediate coalescence of the material relations of production with their historical and social specificity: the bewitched, distorted and upside-down world haunted by Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre, who are at the same time social characters and mere things. It is the great merit of classical economics to have dissolved this false appearance and deception, this autonomization and ossification of the different social elements of wealth vis-à-vis one another, this personification of things and reification of the relations of production, this religion of everyday life, by reducing interest to a part of profit and rent to the surplus above the average profit, so that they both coincide in surplus-value; by presenting the circulation process as simply a metamorphosis of forms, and finally in the immediate process of production reducing the value and surplus-value of commodities to labour. (968-969)

For my purposes, the fact that Marx calls the generalization of the fetishism of things and concomitant reification of the relations of production the “religion of everyday life” is an added bonus (in terms of its relevance for linking Marx and Lefebvre). In explaining why he chooses “interest” over “profits” to accompany capital, Marx says that the capital fetish of value creating value is better coupled with interest because it’s the most estranged form, explaining, “Profit still retains a memory of its origin which in interest is not simply obliterated but actually placed in a form diametrically opposed to this origin” (968).


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