Dispelling the Fog
The project in the “Outlines” is to dispel the fog of obfuscation, hypocritical self-interest, and moralizing displacement that underlies the theorizations of political economy. To do that Engels examines “the basic categories” — they are as “right” as they are “contradictory,” he says. Yet they are consequential for his readers, and, as he predicts, for humanity.
Pithily he rejects the previous framing terms for the science: national wealth (as in mercantilism), national economy (as with List’s liberal but still nationalist economics), even political or public economy. In a snappy summary he re-christens the whole study “private economy” because “its public connections exist only for the sake of private property.”
The “Outlines” then take the reader through this modern politico-economic study, category-by-category: trade, value, rent, capital, wages. Engels concludes, pro tem, that we have “two elements of production in operation.” These are “nature and man, with man again active physically and mentally.” Human activity, in turn, is “dissolved into labour and capital.” Private property fragments “each of these of these elements.”
In other words, he concludes, “because private property isolates everyone in his own crude solitariness,” and “because, nevertheless, everyone has the same interest as his neighbour, one landowner stands antagonistically confronted by another, one capitalist by another, one worker by another.” So in “this discord of identical interests” is “consummated the immorality of mankind’s condition hitherto.” And this consummation is competition. Competition presupposes its opposite, monopoly, which is constituted through private property, because only from that basis can it exist. “What a pitiful half-measure, therefore, to attack the small monopolies, and to leave untouched the basic monopoly!”
After that Engels takes up demand, supply, and prices. This descriptive account, and moralized critique, derive from his commercial experiences in Bremen and Manchester, and do not sound particularly strange today: “The speculator always counts on disasters . . . he utilizes everything,” even disasters and catastrophes. Thus “immorality’s culminating point is the speculation on the Stock Exchange” because that is where “mankind is demoted to a means of gratifying the avarice of the calculating or gambling speculator.” And let not the honest “respectable” merchant rise above the gambling on the Stock Exchange, Engels orates — ever the one to pounce on self-serving hypocrisies — he “is as bad as the speculators in stocks and shares.”
In common with the political economics of the day, Engels writes that the competitive system of commodity production will result in periodic crises of over-production and under-consumption. In that case some people will starve amidst unsold, stockpiled goods and underused productive capacity, while others will get richer or maintain their wealth by taking advantage of scarcity.
This inhuman situation, he writes, will not be resolved through policies designed to reduce the working and consuming populations, as Malthusians were recommending. Those ideas were then current as the nostrum for curing poverty, and so topically of interest to Engels’s readership. But there are also chords in Engels’s text with more contemporary appeal. He writes a litany:
No capital can stand the competition of another if it is not brought to the highest pitch of activity.
No piece of land can be profitably cultivated if it does not continuously increase its productivity.
No worker can hold his own against his competitors if he does not devote all his energy to labour.
No one at all who enters into the struggle of competition can weather it.
His conclusion is that survival in this realm of inhuman competition defeats “every truly human purpose.”
Engels then promises his readers a tour through the British factory system at present and a historical account of its development, obviously intended to forewarn his German readers of their fate. And — as is evident from his comments over the years — he aims to anticipate and prevent the social catastrophes that will arise within circumstances already present.