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The Time of Capital: Brecht’s Threepenny Novel

Brecht’s The Threepenny Novel (1934) sets an elaborate system of economic transactions within the seemingly outmoded causal-genetic scheme of a literary narrative. Using the same dramatis personae as The Threepenny Opera (1928), his enormously successful homage to John Gay’s Beggars Opera (1728), The Threepenny Novel now transports the original characters into turn-of-the-century London at the time of the imperialist Boer War. Paradoxically, the novel is both a recapitulation of the events depicted in The Threepenny Opera and a continuation of the earlier work. At once simultaneous with and posterior to the Opera, the very conceit of the Novel raises questions about the serviceability of succession and lineage as analytic categories. As Walter Benjamin observed in a review of the book, multiple distinct historical moments seem to coexist simultaneously in the Novel.1

Unlike the traditional industrial novel or its Soviet variant, the production novel, both of which foreground scenes of factory labor, Brecht’s Threepenny Novel focuses exclusively on the maneuvers of finance capital, a level of commercial enterprise unadulterated by the material stuff of productive capital. It depicts abstract economic “development” in its purest metaphysical state.2 The plot of the novel is organized around three overlapping financial systems: Peachum’s consortium of street beggars, Coax’s ship venture, and Macheath’s commercial syndicate. Having left behind his life as a street cutthroat long before the action begins, the Macheath of the Novel is an aspiring businessman and founder of a chain of discount retail stores called the B-Shops. In search of investment capital to finance his enterprise, he begins, as in the Opera, to court young Polly, daughter of the wealthy Peachum. Through a complex series of machinations and plot turns, Macheath manages over the half-year depicted in the novel to restructure and expand his enterprise, absorbing the stores of his competitors and becoming, by the end of the novel, the esteemed director of a major bank.

Brecht borrowed Macheath’s business strategies for the B-Shops from the latest corporate practices, modeling this system in part after the one pioneered by the Karstadt and Epa concerns in the late 1920s; an even more important source were the tactics developed by shoe manufacturer Tomas Bat’a, the legendary “Henry Ford of Eastern Europe” who combined factory production methods with a chain of retail outlets to create one of the first vertically integrated industrial concerns.3 Thus, the setting for the novel may recall London at the turn of the twentieth century, but the capitalist strategies depicted in the 1934 book were entirely state-of-the-art. Brecht describes these economic networks and transactions in exquisite detail. He writes, as one reviewer suggested, “with the utterly grueling meticulousness of a specialist,” sparing the reader none of the technical minutiae of his protagonists’ financial activities (quoted in Werke, 16:424). A sheet of calculations made by Brecht while writing The Threepenny Novel attests to his meticulous attention to such details. Here he drew inspiration from the novels of British author Samuel Butler, whose “pedantry in matters of money” he found to be “extremely productive literarily” (Werke, 21:361).

As the consummate modern capitalist, Macheath is passionless, motivated only by a purely rational calculus. Just as he feels no carnal passion for Polly but views her merely as an opportunity to capitalize his B-Shops, Peachum similarly sees in his daughter’s marriage only a potential source of financial gain. None of the novel’s conflicts originate in the drama of human passion, and few of its reversals of fortune offer emotional gratification to the reader. Certainly one feat of The Threepenny Novel, then, is that Brecht manages to motivate narratively 400 pages of what are, in effect, financial transactions. Eschewing the “narrative desire” of the traditional dramatic novel, Brecht’s book compels its reader without any recourse to emotional intensity and catharsis, capturing the reader’s attention instead with the more phlegmatic and sublimated pleasures of logical analysis, riddle solving, remainderless bookkeeping, and, of course, utmost verbal wit.

The version of capitalism depicted in The Threepenny Novel was one that, by this historical moment, no longer corresponded to any properly human scale. As Henry Ford observation from 1923, “big business is really too big to be human.”4 The economist Joseph Schumpeter similarly explained in 1928 that “the enterprise of the ‘liberal’ era was usually the enterprise if one man, i.e. of one family,” while the contemporary corporation had exploded this anthropomorphism, substituting for it the abstract “entrepreneur function” (Unternehmerfunktion) that “is never purely embodied in concrete person; its essence [Wesen: thus also ‘its being’] must therefore always first be extrapolated analytically from a relatively complicated conglomerate.”5 As it incorporated ever more social functions into its integrated network of managed production and consumption, the corporation indeed began to merge with the state itself during the interwar years. Schumpeter thus explained that, from a sociological perspective, “the modern enterprise has outgrown the driving forces and human types of economic competition and, in its essence, structure and methods, has started to resemble a kind of public administrative body.”6 This was, of course, the decade in which the state began to assume control over the maintenance of human capital by introducing comprehensive social welfare systems, as Foucault observed in his late lectures on biopolitics; simultaneously, the state also began at this time to intervene in economic issues at the national level through policies of fiscal and monetary intervention that seem routine today but, as David Harvey points out, were unprecedented before the 1930s.7

Needless to say, capital’s evolution from the assembly line to the multinational corporation and, eventually, to a quasi-state did not make for a great dramatic plot. As Brecht observed, the atrophy of the human dimension under monopoly capitalism was accompanied by a certain disfiguration of the novel’s form. With a typically Brechtian reflexivity, the entrepreneur Macheath waxes nostalgic for the good old times as a street thug when everything was simpler, more straightforward, and more human:

All of this haggling disgusts me, a former street gangster! Here I sit and quibble about percentages. Why don’t I just take out my knife and stick it into them if they won’t give me what I want? What an undignified way of doing business, smoking cigars and signing agreements! So I’m supposed to smuggle in little propositions and make subtle intimations! Why not just say straight out: Your money or your life!…All of this hiding behind judges and bailiffs is undignified!…Clearly one can’t get anywhere today with the simple, straightforward and natural methods of street robbery. The latter have the same relationship to today’s business practices as sailing ships do to steam ships. But the old days were more human [die alten Zeiten waren menschlicher]. (Werke, 16:358)

Sentimentalizing the simplicity, even humanity of his former gangster life in The Threepenny Opera, Macheath reminisces about an era before the endlessly mediated legal machinations of finance capital, the good old days when conflict was still chiefly dramatic, not bureaucratic. His words recall Kracauer’s famous 1925 line about a celebrated Weimar murder case: “Only in a human world does a crime have a criminal.”8 Macheath, alas, is no longer a criminal because the world is no longer properly human.

But the distinction Macheath draws here between the old and the new is not solely one between two phases in the development of capitalism. The distinction also applies meta-textually to the two phases of his life and exploits as a character in two different works, first in The Threepenny Opera (which takes place in 1837) and then in The Threepenny Novel (which takes place in the early 1900s). In other words, when he observes that “the old days were more human,” the novel-character Macheath is speaking at once about an earlier historical moment of capitalism as well as his prior incarnation on the theatrical stage in The Threepenny Opera. Here Brecht provides a canny reflection on the status of figuration in the two Threepenny projects. Like the transition from “heroic” to monopoly capitalism, the transition from the 1928 play to the 1934 novel is accompanied by a loss in figural concretion and a dehumanization of the contents of the work. Indeed, because it always involves bodies on stage, theater is far more immediate and “human” than the written word. Some, such as the playwright-turned-novelist Eric Reger, argued that this ineluctable anthropomorphism disqualified theater from representing the modern corporate enterprise. The dramatic arts were simply too mimetic, sensuous, and concrete to depict the abstract metaphysics of contemporary finance capital. Writing about the modern “petroleum complex,” for example, Brecht once noted that “petroleum creates new relationships,” although these relationships eluded representation in contemporary art and literature: “Petroleum resists depiction in five acts; today’s catastrophes do not unfold in a linear fashion, but in cycles of crisis in which each fungible ‘hero’ changes with the individual phases, etc.” (Werke, 21:303).

In a statement written between the Opera and the Novel and published in Reger’s journal Der Scheinwerfer (The Spotlight) in 1930, Brecht’s collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann explained the difficulties that arose in attempting to depict modern economic processes on the stage. When Brecht recently attempted to write a play about the Chicago wheat futures market,

We collected a lot of technical literature for this piece. I myself interviewed a series of specialists; and towards the end Brecht began reading texts on economics, since he found the financial practices to be extremely opaque and so he had to see how things stood with theories of money. But even before he began making discoveries about this material that were extremely important for him, he already knew that the (great) form of the drama as it was known then was just as unsuitable for representing modern processes such as the distribution of the world’s wheat or the construction of railroads as it was for representing the lives of the individuals who control our era. The traditional form of the drama was not even suitable for depicting actions with consequences [Handlungen mit Folgen]. Such things, he said, are not dramatic in our sense, and if you “poeticize” them, then they are no longer true; furthermore, there is no such thing as drama any longer, and if you see that today’s world no longer fits into the drama, well, then the drama no longer fits into today’s world.9

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the project discussed here, Joe Fleischhacker, never made it to the stage, but instead shared the same fate as Sergei Eisenstein’s unrealized project in the late 1920s for a film of Marx’s Das Kapital. The resonances between the two projects are indeed noteworthy, as Eisenstein’s film came up against problems very similar to those faced by Brecht. As Eisenstein explained in his working notes for the unrealized film, depicting the modern capitalist enterprise presented a unique challenge, since it required the thorough “de-anecdotalization” of the source material: the “detachment from a specific place,” the division into “nonfigurative chapters,” the leap “from representation of ordinary life to abstract and generalized imagery,” and, thus, the “complete departure from the factual and anecdotal.”10 “Deanecdotalization” was effectively dedramatization. With the gradual movement away from “the factual and anecdotal,” the artwork sheds its empirical referentiality and documentary specificity.

For the same reasons as Eisenstein, Brecht developed an art form that was far more abstract and analytic than the traditional theater. His epic technique–“drama with footnotes,” as he called it–was already a step in this direction. More radical in its renunciation of the anecdotal and the mimetic, however, was The Threepenny Novel. For example, the book provides few vivid descriptions of the characters, giving the reader little idea of what Macheath or Coax looks like.11 Equally antitheatrical is the almost complete absence of dialogue. Instead, the characters hold forth in lengthy, quasi-philosophical monologues, and at those rare moments when they do converse, their words are seldom rendered directly, in quotation marks, but are instead recounted and summarized by the narrator. Indeed, there is so little dialogue in the text that one is hard pressed to imagine that the author of The Threepenny Novel was one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, for all his novel’s abstraction, Brecht insisted that sensuous perception could not be rejected entirely, that art must not be abandoned for the abstract analytic of science. What was needed, rather, was a strategy for depicting capital’s mechanisms without spurious anthropomorphizing. “Here there was much to see, much to make visible,” he wrote of his experiments in representing the capitalist system (Werke, 21:460). Ultimately what seemed to offer the ideal compromise between art and science was the detective novel, a genre that appealed to him because of its particularly close kinship to logical thought. In a 1938 essay “On the Popularity of the Crime Novel,” he likened the detective story to a crossword puzzle, praising the structural rigor of a genre whose riddle is resolved through the meticulous and diligent application of the scientific method (Werke, 22:504-510). As if conducting an experiment, the literary detective proceeds by gathering data, eliminating hypotheses that are revealed as false, and positing causal schemes where probabilities run high. This investigative method demanded a diffuse economy of attention, which Brecht praised as superior to the emotional intensity of dramatic catharsis. In contrast to classical dramatic forms such as the bourgeois tragedy, which hones the spectator’s attention on the red thread of the plot, detective genres require an open mode of perception that proceeds inductively. To remain vigilant for possible clues, the reader cannot allow herself to be misled by the human drama of the plot. Since every trivial piece of information must be read forensically, as a potential clue to the text’s riddle, the reader must pay equal attention to every bit of detail and seemingly meaningless incident.

Of course, crime novels require murders and trials, and Brecht obligingly outfits The Threepenny Novel with two of each. But, significantly, in neither case is the actual culprit ever found. This is because in both cases the culpable party is a disembodied system, or collective agent. So, for example, an owner of one of the B-Shops, Mary Swayer, is driven to suicide as a result of the wolfish business practices of Macheath, who ruins his shopowners in order to gain advantage over a competing retail concern. In her case the accused is acquitted, because, under the laws of capitalism, murder through material privation is, of course, completely licit. Coax, too, is murdered, and seemingly more directly: attacked first by a member of Macheath’s gang, he stumbles away only to be finished off minutes later by someone under the charge of Peachum. Yet like Swayer’s demise, the cause of Coax’s death is indeterminable precisely because it is overdetermined, the consequence of multiple batterings delivered by two parties working independently of each other. The agent responsible for delivering the death blow is not clear. Just as Swayer’s death is not directly attributable to Macheath, who is only following good capitalist strategy when he forces her to financial ruin, Coax’s death cannot be blamed entirely on any one of his assailants, nor on the two men who commissioned the murder independently of one another. And when Coax’s alleged killer is finally found, it is the wrong man who is tried and hanged. The book ends, then, with a third collective murder. In this last case, it is society itself that commits the crime, in an act of class justice.

The overdetermined deaths of Swayer and Coax raise complex questions about the attribution of guilt and agency in cases of collective crime. Such issues were of course highly relevant at the time that Brecht wrote The Threepenny Novel in 1933-1934, when the victories of European fascism prompted consideration of the relationship between collective violence and regressive social configurations. Novels about corporate crime, in particular, provide an important resource for thinking about the agency and behavior of such “aggregate persons” (Verbandspersonen), as Stefan Andriopoulos has demonstrated. Although on the surface The Threepenny Novel is a corporate crime story, the subtext of this narrative, with its focus on collective crime and guilt, is clearly that of European fascism. In strictly legal terms, corporate bodies, like the state, are not subject to the law because they lack the features of concrete personhood necessary to assume guilt for a crime.12 And so despite the panoply of crimes in the capitalist jungle of The Threepenny Novel, from murder and theft to rape and extortion, in the end no responsible parties can be found for these acts. In a functionally differentiated and bureaucratized corporation that disperses agency across a number of individuals, these forms of violence are not attributable to any one person, but are, rather, shared by all. The guilty party cannot be established in Brecht’s novel because the guilty party is the capitalist system itself. Thus, while The Threepenny Novel engages the conventions of the traditional detective novel, it simultaneously short-circuits the method of forensic inquiry that is intrinsic to this genre. Or to borrow Benjamin’s words from his review of the book, “Brecht’s procedure consists in retaining the highly developed technique of the crime novel but neutralizing its rules” (Schriften, 3:447-448; Writings, 3:8).

In addition to the two trials that seek (and fail) to resolve Swayer’s and Coax’s murders, a third, still more significant trial takes place in The Threepenny Novel, which Brecht saves for the final pages. This event is nothing less than Judgment Day itself. Presiding over the trial is one of the characters in Peachum’s outfit, an invalid veteran of the Boer War named Fewkoomby. The proceedings, which take place in a dream, promise to track down all those who have ever been responsible for economic exploitation and to repay all of those who have ever been expropriated. As the “greatest arraignment of all times,” the trial promises, in other words, to discover the historical source of social inequality itself, the very foundational injustice of capitalism (Werke, 16:380). Needless to say, the task is not an easy one. Fewkoomby’s conservative estimate is that the proceedings will last several hundred years. The investigation will be exhausting, but Fewkoomby reasons that the only way for capital to repay all its debts is to reconstruct the labors of all expropriated generations, both past and present.

So Fewkoomby begins by subpoenaing the dead. “Everyone who had ever set foot on this earth was allowed to voice his plaints” (Werke, 16:381). He questions not only physical laborers such as the suicide Mary Swayer but also those who performed the ideological work that perpetuated the injustices of capitalism. So, for example, the judge interrogates a priest who, earlier in the novel, promulgated religious parables that reinforce the political quiescence of the masses. As the inquiry proceeds, however, it becomes clear to the judge that he will never arrive at the definitive source of value. Each interrogation leads to still more interrogations. With mounting confusion, Fewkoomby begins to rave at the dead:

There is the wall of the house—where is the bricklayer? Is he ever really paid in full? And this paper! Someone had to make it! Was he sufficiently compensated for it? And this table here! Is there really nothing owed to the man who planed the wood for it? The washing on the line! The line itself! And even the tree, which didn’t plant itself here. This knife here! Is everything paid for? Fully? Of course not! We have to send around a circular asking everyone who isn’t paid in full to register! The history books and biographies won’t suffice! Where are the wage lists? (Werke, 16:391)

With the failure of this forensic inquiry, both the dream and the novel break off abruptly. Fewkoomby’s noble but misguided attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of the commodity is doomed, since each particular instantiation of dead labor is always built on more labor. In the end, the trial may not arrive at the source of inequality, but this very failure succeeds in exposing the absurdity of the physiocratic conceit that there could be a foundational or natural “origin” of value.

Althusser once observed that Brecht’s work displays two distinct “forms of temporality that do not achieve any mutual integration, which have no relation to one another, which coexist and interconnect, but never meet each other, so to speak.”13 Through this noncoincidence, Brecht’s industrial novel winds up demonstrating the incongruous temporalities of capital and the human. The Judgment Day episode questions the very adequacy of a genetic framework for describing the “development” of capital. As Lukács once noted, the novel’s historical emergence as an aesthetic form responded to capitalist society’s “need for genetic explanations” and, for a time at least, its genealogical narratives flourished from the structural resemblance between the evolution of the business enterprise and the generational sequence of the bourgeois family. But this homology was short lived. As Brecht’s Judgment Day demonstrates, the mechanisms of monopoly capital had grown too complex by the 1930s and could no longer be modeled using the traditional novel’s genealogical framework. When the subjective temporality of Bildung yields to the abstract scheme of Entwicklung, when “formation” gives way to “development,” the Industrieroman definitively parts ways with the Familienroman. The movement of capital, Fewkoomby discovers, does not observe the linear concatenations found in “history books” or the anthropomorphic time of “biographies.” As his demand for “wage lists” suggests, mathematical languages are more adequate for depicting modern capital than narrative ones.14 Fewkoomby’s attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of capitalist production, to parse the commodity out in linear time, ends up trapped in a tautological circle, since the human mind cannot comprehend the paradoxical fact that capital seems always to presuppose itself.

It is worth pointing out here that The Threepenny Novel is not just a book about capital. It is also a book about Kapital. Brecht’s commentators have amply documented The Threepenny Novel’s numerous borrowings from Marx’s opus, such as the passage describing the death of Mary Ann Walkley, which Brecht quotes virtually verbatim from Marx.15 But, beyond the content and imagery, correspondences between the two works can also be found at a deeper structural level. Indeed, far more intriguing for our inquiry are certain parallels in the construction that raise questions about the aesthetic strategies Brecht borrowed from Marx to represent capital. It was likely Karl Korsch who should be credited for leading Brecht to the insight that the textual design of Das Kapital was integral to understanding capital’s mechanisms. In his 1932 introduction to Das Kapital, Brecht’s initiator into Marxism wrote, for example, of the “aesthetic attraction” of “the Marxian mode of presentation.”16 Marx’s explication of capital’s properties and logic is not purely theoretical or scientific, Korsch insisted, but relies on certain strategies of textual exposition. Because the mechanisms of capital can be grasped only within an “artistic whole,” as Marx characterized his text, Das Kapital tries to develop a mode of presentation, or Darstellung, that is proper to its subject matter.17 The challenge of presenting the system of modern capital adequately had in fact precipitated Brecht’s turn to Marx in the late 1920s. As he confessed to a Moscow audience in May 1935, aesthetic concerns, not revolutionary sentiment or political conviction, led the playwright to Marx. While working on Joe Fleischhacker, the fragment discussed in the earlier quote by Hauptmann, Brecht ran aground on the problem of how to depict the mechanisms of the wheat futures market, which seemed to him to be “inexplicable” and “incomprehensible.”18 So he began to read Marx. He turned to Das Kapital because the structure of this “artistic whole” contained the solution to the aesthetic aporia that he had encountered in his attempt to bring the system of finance capital to the stage.

Nowhere is the structural rhyme between The Threepenny Novel and Das Kapital clearer than at the end of each book, where Fewkoomby’s dream of Judgment Day mirrors Das Kapital’s final section, “So-called Primitive Accumulation.” Both chapters wrestle with a contradiction that is fundamental to the (il)logic of capital and thus a seemingly insuperable obstacle to its depiction: the impossibility of retracing the steps of accumulation back to a foundational act of expropriation, back to an original crime. This task is impossible because capital has no historical genealogy, but instead operates outside of linear time. “What Marx proved,” Balibar noted, “is not the fact that capitalism has liberated the development of the productive forces once and for all, but the fact that capitalism has imposed on the productive forces a determinate type of development whose rhythm and pattern are peculiar to it, dictated by the form of the process of capitalist accumulation.”19 Confronted with these particular rhythms and patterns, Brecht decided to stage Fewkoomby’s investigation as the biblical Judgment Day, an event at the end of time that transcends the laws of historical sequence. Ultimately this investigation fails, breaking off abruptly, because Fewkoomby’s forensic mode of inquiry has no purchase on the laws of capital’s “development,” which elude these causal schemes.

In his introduction to Das Kapital, Korsch described the contradiction encountered by Marx, who, even after hundreds of pages of detailed economic analysis, still faced “an unsolved problem to be elucidated, which proves in the last analysis to be non-economic in character. This problematic residue may be expressed in the following question: what was the origin, before all capitalist production began, of the first capital, and of the first relationship between the exploiting capitalist and the exploited wage-laborer?”20 After explicating the structure and mechanisms of capital, Marx must still answer the impossible question of when and how the capitalist order first appeared in the world. This, of course, is precisely the question that motivates Fewkoomby’s investigation. As Marx explains, however, this moment can never be located historically since capital has no genealogy. In the absence of any historical beginning, capitalism grounds itself in the legend of “so-called primitive accumulation,” a mythical account that circulates as a justification for economic inequality. In authenticating the “naturalness” of capitalist governmentality, the myth of primitive accumulation “plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology….Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past. Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lay rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living….Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in the defence of property.”21 This fairy tale—which Brecht, incidentally, lifts directly from Das Kapital and places in the mouth of a priest in The Threepenny Novel22—envisages an origin to a set of productive relations where, in reality, no such origin exists. The cosmological myth of primitive accumulation is an ideological strategy to conceal capital’s tautological structure, Marx writes: “The whole movement, seems to turn around in a never-ending circle, which we can only get out of by assuming a primitive accumulation (the ‘previous accumulation’ of Adam Smith) which precedes capitalist accumulation; an accumulation which is not the result of the capitalist mode of production but its point of departure.”23 Fewkoomby’s inquiry attempts to return to this point of departure, but, as Brecht shows, he cannot reconstruct the different phases of commodity production from the table back to the wood back to the tree. Capital is an underivable figure. By setting this figure within the narrative framework of a novel, Brecht exposes the limitations of the latter’s intrinsically genealogical structure for an analysis of the modern capitalist enterprise.

In a letter sent to Brecht the same month that he wrote the conclusion to The Threepenny Novel, Korsch had in fact addressed this theological aspect of capital, noting the “profound consonance between [the] Bible and Capital.24 Staging Fewkoomby’s inquiry in a dream of Judgment Day, in a state of absolute synchrony, posits a vantage beyond historical time from which it become possible to solve the metaphysical riddle of capital. It offers a view of the world as seen by the divine eye, a view foreclosed to human perception. As Frank Kermode argues in his famous study of narrative and apocalypse, The Sense of an Ending, the setting of the Judgment Day provides “what [the psychologists] call ‘temporal integration’—our way of bundling together perception of the present, memory of the past and expectation of the future, in a common organization. Within this organization that which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future: what was chronos becomes kairos.”25 Because capital’s development eludes linear modeling, because its mechanisms observe laws that are, by their nature, generic rather than genetic, understanding capital demands an ahistorical approach. Thus, on Judgment Day, Fewkoomby throws out the narratives of the “history books” and “biographies,” calling instead for “wage lists,” a precise diagram of what Marx called “the relations of capital” (das Kapitalverhältnis).

The impossibility of portraying capital’s development through a series of successive moments, then, is the epistemological problem upon which Brecht’s industrial novel pivots. On the one hand, capital generates in its subjects a complex architecture of time: its psychology of credit and deferred gratification establishes a horizon of futurity not found in societies whose mode of production lacks private property and techniques for amassing resources. But at the same time capital exempts itself from the very temporal rule it has created, defying the basic laws of chronological sequence that are fundamental to the mechanisms of compound investment and accumulation. At least in the era of heroic capitalism, the development of the business enterprise could still be modeled on the generational sequence of human reproduction. By the time of the consolidation of the great industrial concerns at the turn of the twentieth century, however, capital had sloughed off this human face. Not surprisingly, interest in the concept of primitive accumulation has since increased to the point where, today, in the era of global vertical integration, it has become utterly central to the Marxist analysis of capital. Recent accounts of primitive accumulation focus on the paradoxical temporality of this phenomenon, characterizing it variously as “something of an infinite regress,” an “endlessly iterated event,” or a “basic ontology of alienation.”26 As structuralist Marxism demonstrated decades ago, this aporia is central to the capitalist mode of production. Étienne Balibar’s famous description of primitive accumulation as a case of “ahistorical historicism” captures the paradox succinctly: “Marx’s critical recognition (against political economy) of the historicity of capitalism—the fact that capitalist relations are neither natural nor eternal but rather the product of conditions with a determined genesis—is balanced by an incapacity to think about and analyze the very history of capitalism.”27 The emergence of das Kapitalverhältnis—the capitalist relations of production—is not a historical event, but rather a “conjunction” or an “encounter” (gegenübertreten) between owners of the means of production and the workers who sell their labor-power. Once established, this relationship “reproduces itself on a constantly extending scale.”28 Thus, primitive accumulation is less an event that took place somewhere in the remote historical past than an ongoing process of continuous expropriation.29

The parallax construction of The Threepenny Novel attempts to capture the insoluble contradiction between the historical account of capital, which unfolds genealogically in the narrative about Macheath’s enterprise, and the structural account, which is presented sub speciae aeternitatis in Fewkoomby’s dream. Ultimately these two perspectives cannot be mapped onto one another. In the body of the novel, time moves inexorably forward, and yet when the end of the story is finally reached, the steps that led to the conclusion of the narrative, paradoxically, cannot be retraced. For Fewkoomby, the crimes cannot be reconstructed. This is the case, it would seem, because the temporality of capitalism, the time of “development,” eludes mnemonic inscription. As Balibar observes, the “analysis of primitive accumulation thus brings us into the presence of the radical absence of memory which characterizes history (memory being only the reflection of history in certain predetermined sites—ideology or even law—and as such, anything but a faithful reflection).”30 If the architecture of time and memory in any given culture is articulated by its specific mode of production, The Threepenny Novel demonstrates, further, that capitalism’s violent expropriation of these means of production is also simultaneously an expropriation of time itself, the result of which is a generalized condition of amnesia in which history transpires without leaving a trace. Because human memory is inscribed and transmitted in symbolic languages and mechanical operational sequences that are exterior to the individual subject, every society, observes the paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, will inevitably cultivate “false” memories in its subjects, memories that are by nature collective and transindividual.31 But it seems that capitalist society alone generates the very incapacity to remember.


1. In his 1935 review of The Threepenny Novel, Benjamin notes the curious historical nonsynchronicities in Brecht’s text: “These Londoners have no telephones, but their police already have tanks.” Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, 7 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991), 3:440.
2. Lyotard defines “development” as a radically inhuman temporal framework: “The striking thing about this metaphysics of development is that it needs no finality. Development is not attached to an Idea, like that of the emancipation of reason and of human freedoms. It is reproduced by accelerating and extending itself according to its internal dynamic alone.” Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 7.
3. Bertolt Brecht, Werke: Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, ed. Werner Hecht et al., 30 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988), 16:414; hereafter referenced in text as Werke, followed by volume and page numbers. Karstadt and Epa were two of the first chains to introduce in 1926 a retail system for selling bulk merchandise at fixed unit prices. See Brecht, Werke, 24:445.
4. Henry Ford, My Life and Work (London: Heinemann, 1923), 263.
5. Joseph Schumpeter, “Art.: Unternehmer,” in Beiträge zur Sozialokonomik, ed. Stephan Böhm (Vienna: Böhlau, 1987), 150.
6. Ibid., 144.
7. David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 137.
8. Siegfried Kracauer, “Tat ohne Täter” (1925), in Schriften V. Aufsätze, ed. Karsten Witte and Inka Mülder-Bach (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1990), 318-319; 322.
9. Elisabeth Hauptmann, “Über Bertold Brecht,” Der Scheinweifer, no. 8-9 (1930): 17.
10. Sergei Eisenstein, “Notes for a Film of Capital,” trans. Maciej Sliwowski, Jay Leyda and Annette Michelson, October 2 (1976): 3, 5.
11. This antifigurative tendency continued in Brecht’s next book, the historical novel The Business Affairs of  Mr Julius Caesar. After giving his friends Walter Benjamin and Fritz Sternberg a draft of the book, Brecht was disappointed that they urged him to write a more traditional novel, one with more vivid and compelling characters: “BENJAMIN and STERNBERG, very highly qualified intellectuals, didn’t understand it and urgently suggested introducing more human interest, more of the old NOVEL!” Brecht’s journal, quoted in Klaus-Detlef Müller, Brecht-Kommentar zur erzählenden Prosa (Munich: Winkler, 1980), 237.
12. The German legal system “regarded a joint-stock company as a fictional person that, although capable of engaging in economic transactions, could not commit crimes.” Stefan Andriopoulos, Possessed: Hypnotic Crimes, Corporate Fiction, and the Invention of Cinema, trans. Peter Jansen and Stefan Andriopoulos (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 200S), 46.
13. Louis Althusser, “The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1969), 142.
14. Brecht began writing The Threepenny Novel at the peak of his fascination with logical positivism, which built heavily on the abstract symbolic languages of Frege and Leibniz. He subscribed to Erkenntnis, the house journal of the logical positivists, and the names of leading figures in this group (Carnap, Neurath, Russell) appear again and again in his writings during the early 1930s. This encounter with logical positivism formed the horizon for Brecht’s understanding of narrative, as indicated in a set of notes “On the Aristotelian Novel” (Werke, 21:538), which were written in response to Rudolf Carnap’s essay “The Old and the New Logic.” In these notes Brecht contrasted the narrative structure of the novel with the language of formal logic described by Carnap. The contentless (gehaltleer) propositions of mathematical languages, or Beziehungssätze, as Carnap called them, are diagrams of pure relationality. Such functionalist propositions are nonlinear, reversible schemas that exist independently of the specific contents that are inserted as variables. Unlike the novel, these rigorously nonmimetic logical propositions can provide an account of society’s laws at a time, Brecht famously wrote, when “reality as such has slipped away into the domain of the functional” (Werke, 21:469).
15. One section of Das Kapital from which Brecht borrowed directly is Chapter 10, “On the Working Day,” where Marx describes the antagonism between the temporality of labor power and that of capital. Out of this chapter The Threepenny Novel lifts virtually verbatim the account of Mary Anne Walkley, a milliner who was worked to death in 1863 and whose demise vividly illustrates the consequences of allowing capital to dominate the pattern of work rhythms without providing time for the reproduction of labor power, for the organic maintenance of life. The anecdote about Walkley shows in the plainest of terms how the time of human life does not correspond to the time of capital. Walkley’s story reappears in the third book of The Threepenny Novel. Werke, 16:332-333.
16. Karl Korsch, “Introduction to Capital,” trans. T. M. Holmes, in Three Essays on Marxism (New York: Pluto Press, 1971), 46-47, 55.
17. Marx, quoted in ibid., 46.
18. It was not “the great films of Eisenstein” or the “theatrical events of Piscator” that led him to Marxism, Brecht confessed to a Moscow audience in May 1935. “Immunized” against such “influence from an emotional point of view,” the playwright was prompted to read Marx, rather, as the result of a “work accident” (Betriebsunfall): while he was researching Joe Fleischhacker, the play mentioned by Elisabeth Haupmann above, no one could explain to Brecht “the mechanisms of the stock market for wheat,” which he concluded must be “inexplicable” and “incomprehensible.” “The drama that I had planned was never written,” he told his Soviet audience, “and instead I began reading Marx” (Werke, 22:138-139).
19. Étienne Balibar, “The Elements of the Structure and Their History,” in Louis Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 2009), 263.
20. Korsch, “Introduction to Capital,” 52.
21. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), 873-874.
22. Toward the end of The Threepenny Novel Brecht puts this exact legend in the mouth of a bishop, whom Fewkoomby then interrogates in the afterlife for perpetuating social inequality:
My friends, everywhere we go on earth we encounter inequality. Every man enters the world as a helpless tiny bundle, naked and unashamed. In this condition he differs in no way from any other suckling. But after a time, differences begin to show themselves. One man remains on a lower rung; another climbs upward. He is cleverer than his fellow man—more industrious, more thrifty, more energetic, he surpasses the other in everything he does. And he will become more prosperous, more powerful, more respected than the other. Inequality comes into being. (Werke, 16:370)
23. Marx, Capital, 873.
24. Letter of March 17, 1934, reprinted in Jahrbuch Arbeiterbewegung, vol. 2: Marxistische Revolutionstheorien, ed. Claudio Pozzoli (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1974), 123. When Gershom Scholem read the final chapter of Brecht’s novel, he likewise compared it to the theological parable “Before the Law” from Kafka’s The Trial. The resonances between Fewkoomby’s dream and “Before the Law” arise from a shared temporal paradox: in each case, access to conclusive knowledge (of capital, of the law) is foreclosed by the very dimension of time which circumscribes all human endeavor. [ft num= 25]Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 46, 52.
26. These quotes are taken respectively from Jason Read, “Primitive Accumulation: The Aleatory Foundation of Capitalism,” Rethinking Marxism 14, no. 2 (summer 2002): 26; Tony Brown, “The Time of Globalization: Rethinking Primitive Accumulation,” Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 4 (October 2009): 571; and Jim Glassman, “Primitive Accumulation, Accumulation by Dispossession, Accumulation by ‘Extra-Economic’ Means,” Progress in Human Geography 30, no. 5 (2006): 615. Michael Perelman presents a lucid overview of the theory of primitive accumulation in The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Accumulation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).
27. Balibar, “The Notion of Class Politics in Marx,” 49.
28. Marx, Capital, 874.
29. On primitive accumulation as a strategy of continuous expropriation, see David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
30. Étienne Balibar, “The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism,” in Reading Capital, 317.
31. “Individually constructed memory and the recording of personal behavioral programs are entirely channeled through knowledge, whose preservation and transmission in all ethnic communities is ensured by language. This creates a genuine paradox: The individual’s possibilities for comparison and liberation rest upon a potential memory whose entire contents belong to society.” André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, trans. Anna Bostock Berger (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), 228.