Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Capital

Karl Marx’s three-volume treatise Das Kapital guaranteed that the term capital would have an enduring role in generations of cultural discourse. Recent changes in usage of capital include a sharp rise in frequency of the word with specific modifiers (social capital, intellectual capital, political capital, and human capital) as well as the introduction of new terms (including diversity capital, emotional capital, knowledge capital and citizenship as capital). That capital can attach so many other keywords to itself is indicative of the web-like interactions between keywords in use. Such ever-increasing interactions indicate a new and unprecedented linguistic productivity for capital, and also reflect capital’s significant place in the changing discourse of the last decade. A number of traditions of usage have developed around capital: one, for example, which views the term positively as a resource with human(ist) benefits; and another which views capital negatively, as an exploitative force that benefits only a few at the expense of the many.

Capital entered Middle English from French as an adjective with the general meaning ‘relating to the head or top’, and soon thereafter, ‘that which is principal’.  Capital develops as a noun or adjective related to commerce in late 16c, originally as an initial or principal investment, and eventually referring generally to assets with monetary value This latter sense displaces the Old English-derived stock.

In early 19c, capital is gradually extended to include any source of advantage or power.  The extended sense seems to have emerged from capital as economic assets and therefore as economic advantage or power.  Following this extension of capital to mean any source of advantage or power, the collocations social capital and intellectual capital also begin to appear in early 19c.  Political capital appears in late 19c. 

Issues in relation to capital arise both as the word relates to commerce, and also as it relates to advantage more generally, with particular attention to social capital.

The existence of money is, naturally, a precondition for capital meaning assets with monetary value.  That is, this sense can only arise given the existence of a system of capitalism.  The term capitalism appears much later than capital as monetary assets, also in early 19c (roughly synchronous with socialism).  Capitalist also predates capitalism by a generation, possibly indicating that discourse surrounding people with assets (at least in English) became codified earlier than discourse surrounding the systems that allow for those assets.

In classical economics, capital is a factor of production along with land and labour, and as such, capital is emphatically an element that remains unchanged during the productive process. In this context, then, money as capital is defined as a fixed sum which remains unchanged in the process of production.   Marx differed from his forebears in classical economics by understanding capital not as a fixed asset of goods or money but rather as a relation with labour which allows for the extraction of surplus value. It is capital which facilitates this extraction. For Marx, capital is the leverage or power derived from the circulation of commodities, i.e. from commerce, often but not always embodied as money. In this way, Marx’s reading of the term capital re-synthesizes, in a novel way, the early 19c notion of capital as general advantage or power and the earlier notion of capital as financial assets.  In addition, Marx argued that capital by nature seeks and succeeds in attaining continuous profit; it is not just advantage, but self-perpetuating advantage.  To attain such advantage, capital is endlessly committed to a program of overproduction for increasing profit.  As in the preceding sentences here, Marx’s capital can be the subject of an active verb. To what degree such constructions are metonymic extensions of capital onto ‘the possessors of capital’, and to what degree Marx believed that capital as such could be an actor, has been a significant debate in Marxist discourse. 

According to the Corpus of Historical American English and the 155 billion-word Brigham Young University (BYU) advanced corpus of Google Books, use of social capital has risen dramatically in usage very recently, but the term first appeared in early 19c.  In its first appearances, social capital tended to refer to an ignoble exploitation of deed or position for personal gain, as in the following quotation:

…a well-drawn character, who makes a sort of social capital out of the pity inspired by a prolonged despondency for the loss of his wife…

(The Literary churchman: a critical record of religious publications. 1859.)

Throughout 19c, a positive connotation for social capital existed as well, signifying the creative resources of a shared human community.  This usage is codified by Francis Brewster in The Philosophy of Human Nature (1851) and by John Bouvier in the Institutes of American Law (1854); it was popularized much later by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).  A third sense, meaning assets shared by a social group, appeared during 19c as well, and continues, if infrequently, to the present.  After Marx, in late 19c social capital also began to refer to social groups, such as labourers, meaning a resource exploited by the powerful for profit.

In The Forms of Capital (1983), Pierre Bourdieu re-interprets Brewster’s (1851) social capital (as a group’s shared intangible resources) with a strictly negative implication, and in specifically Marxist terms.  Bourdieu identified power, economic or otherwise, as a self-perpetuating social phenomenon. He applied Marx’s framework for economic capital to both cultural and social capital.  These forms of capital include the institutionalized social and cultural networks and resources available to some but not to others, resources which perpetuate human power relations.  For Bourdieu social and cultural capital, like economic capital, are leverage used for ultimately self-perpetuating advantage, and thus lead to entrenched inequality and injustice.

In the BYU advanced Google Books corpus, instances of social capital increased nearly tenfold from the 1990s to the 2000s.  Today social capital continues to be used in various senses.  It occasionally indicates monetary assets shared by a society or group.  Or it may indicate workers, or a whole society, seen as a resource to be exploited by the powerful.  Or it can mean a set of non-financial, intangible resources shared by a group, as a group; this sense often refers to an empowering resource for groups that lack financial capital, and hence carries predominantly positive connotations, contrary to Bourdieu.  Finally, social capital today can indicate an individual’s wealth of intangible resources derived from her or his network of human relationships.  Recent writers developing and exploring these last two senses include Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama, while the last sense is found largely in relation to popular social networking resources such as Facebook. 

Like social capital, human capital also originated during 19c, with senses that reflect similar contradictions to those within social capitalHuman capital can refer to positive, mutually beneficial resources born of shared human interaction. But it can also refer to human beings as a resource to be exploited.  In Singapore English, a unique sense seems to have developed for human capital as a synonym for the fixed, professional term human resources.  Numerous private, registered staffing corporations in Singapore include the term human capital in their official company names, for example.  This new usage triggers the question whether an employee might prefer to be considered a piece of capital or a resource, and the thought-provoking answer that such preferences can be expected to vary not only among English speakers but across varieties of English.  Other uses of human capital continue to exist in Singapore. One Singapore-based firm with human capital in its name provides workshops and events for family members looking to connect meaningfully with each other, a clear reference to human capital as mutually beneficial resources born of shared human interaction.

Does increased usage of capital in a range of non-economic contexts imply an accepted commodification of those contexts (as with market)?  Or, to connect with another keyword as well, such commodification might signal a triumph for neo-liberalism.. On the other hand, positive implications associated with contemporary use of social capital may indicate a semantic shift among speakers, in which capital now evokes ‘value’ in a broader, even humanist sense.  Marxist publications have denied such a shift, by asserting that a contemporary positive reading of social capital cannot refer to capital at all, since capital is exploitative rather than humanist.  This underlying dichotomy, between two uses of capital with different valuations, makes the word likely to continue as a keyword in social debate for the foreseeable future.