Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Rapitalism II


In my first post on rapitalism I indicated that rappers rep capital because of their drive to earn money and spend it on commodities [bling, swag, etc]. However, as I have continued to read Capital, Marx hit me in the face with why this is wrong. Indulge me a dive into Capital to explain why, and then we will return to rap . . .

In part 7 of Capital Vol 1, Marx turns from the trope of the individual capitalist and the individual worker, to examining class relations. In doing so, he summarizes some key features of the individual capitalist, especially in his section on the theory of abstinence (a classical theory holding that the capitalist earned surplus value by abstaining from spending).

Here are the lines that showed me the error of the simple “make and spend money = capitalist drive” formula:

But, in so far as he [the capitalist] is capital personified, his motivating force is not the acquisition and enjoyment of use-values, but the acquisition and augmentation of exchange-values. He is fanatically intent on the valorization of value; consequently he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake (739).

In other words, the capitalist wants to accumulate more wealth, to increase surplus value. Spending money on personal enjoyment is antithetical to this impulse. Yet, as we would expect from any Hegelian bastard, antithesis is the name of the game. So, Marx goes a step further. . .

But original sin is at work everywhere. With the development of the capitalist mode of production, with the grown of accumulation and wealth, the capitalist ceases to be merely the incarnation of capital. He begins to feel a human warmth towards his own Adam, and his education gradually enables him to smile at his former enthusiasm for asceticism, as an old-fashioned miser’s prejudice (740).

So one of the contradictions of capital exists as an internalization of two conflicting drives within the individual capitalist. “At the same time, however, there develops in the breast of the capitalist a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation and the desire for enjoyment” (741).

Back to rap. The above clarification does not mean that rap doesn’t often promote capitalist lyrics. Rather, it gives us a more complete picture of the capitalist-drive-made-rhyme. What we would be looking for then is the expression of both the drive to amass more wealth and the drive to enjoy that wealth, and both of these within the context of a capitalist mode of production, where the capitalist gains surplus value on the backs of the working class.

In rap this constellation of themes most often appears in the context of drug dealing, sex trafficking, and/or the music industry. Examples . . .

  • “Who the f*** you think you f****** with, I’m the f****** boss/Seven forty-five, white on white that’s f****** Ross/I’m in the distribution, I’m like Atlantic/I got them mother******s flyin’ ‘cross the Atlantic/I know Pablo, Noriega, the real Noriega/He owe me a hundred favors” (Rick Ross, Hustlin’). Rick Ross rapping about his rare car and his drug trafficking prowess.
  • Here’s Lil Wayne spitting about his own jewelry and how he makes money as a pimp (totally gross and misogynistic) “And my chain Toucan Sam, that/Tropical Colors, you can’t match that/Gotta be abstract/You catch my girl, legs open/Better smash that/Don’t be surprised if she ask where the cash at” (Lil Wayne, Fireman).
  • I got stock in your flow and crops to sharehold/Crops with the prose where cops won’t dare go/Got top centerfolds too hot to wear clothes” (Inspectah Deck, Back in the Game). A little braggadocio about business acumen and popularity with females (suggesting sensual enjoyment).

One thing I want to point out is that in all three of these examples it is implied that the rapper’s surplus capital is derived from labor, whether the labor of drug dealers, prostitutes, or other rappers. This element is key for making these lyrics uniquely capitalist.

Now, just because certain rap lyrics illustrate capitalist drives, does not mean that all rappers are part of the capitalist class, or that the capitalist class is monolithic. My point here is only to highlight a cultural phenomenon that creates a conflict within me. I love a lot of rap music. I loathe a lot of its themes. Thank goodness there is some rap out there that promotes positive and revolutionary content. Though, even here we find contradictions . . .

“We be reading Marx where I’m from/The kids be rocking Clarks, where I’m from” (Digable Planets, Where I’m From).


  1. Do you guys have a facebook fan web page? I looked for for one on facebook or myspace but couldn’t locate one, I would love to become a fan!

  2. Kudos to you! I hadn’t touhght of that!