Oppose Capitalism? Or Why the
Movement is Not the Tea Party
did Capitalism Come From?
Mainstream economists tell us that capitalism stems from a natural human
desire to "truck and barter" (Adam Smith), but this ignores
that capitalism has required coercion to realize its goals from the
outset. England was the birthplace of modern capitalism. There, large
landowners fenced off lands so as to engage in large-scale agrarian
production involving crops and animals, for profit. This "enclosure"
movement involved forcing people out of the lands that had previously
sustained them. The common people were then forced from the common land,
or the "commons." leaving them without land from which to
draw sustenance. This landless group was the majority, and with no land,
had no choice but to sell their labor to those in the owning class who
were consciously using their ownership of land and the means of production
(for example, factories) to maximize production and profit. The new
landless class became their workers, a "proletariat." A proletarian
is someone who must sell his or her labor power to a boss to live. If
you own enough wealth so that you do not need to do this, you are most
likely in the owning class, which is also the ruling class. This is
what the simple "99%" versus the "1%" of the Occupy
movement is referring to! Whether you knew it or not, this movement
is about a class struggle, or class war if you like.
It is important to realize that the owning class, which emerged on the
historical stage as the "bourgeoisie" (owners of the means
of production of society) has always been deeply connected to the state.
It was through acts of Parliament that the bourgeoisie was able to legally
push through escalating enclosure movements and entrench capitalism
as the system of production. When you hear "Libertarians"
say that we need to get rid of government manipulation of capitalism,
they are calling for a capitalism that has never existed. Capitalism
without the state could never be possible. Marx noted that "the
executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common
affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" [Communist Manifesto]. The bourgeoisie
will always need the standing army, police force, and government of
the state by which to enforce the mandates of and manage the affairs
As capitalism spread, the logic of producing for markets and realizing
profits on the market for the owning class became so wide spread, that
what was once an "option" (to engage in capitalist production)
became an "imperative" [See Ellen Meiksins Wood-- The Origin
of Capitalism: A Longer View.] In other words, both owners and workers
had no choice but to enter into market relations to gain the necessities
of life. When you hear someone say "capitalism is a social relation"
this refers to the fact that because we all must enter into market relations,
our lives are shaped by the logic of the market. Labor (workers) must
produce at maximum efficiency, wages must be kept low, and all things
must have not only a "use value" (to be something useful),
but also an "exchange value" (to be exchanged for a profit
on the market). Eventually, capitalists spread this system to all of
Britain, and because they gained global advantages by maximizing production
and profit, the capitalist system today has become global. Everyone
on the planet relies on market relations to survive to some degree.
How does capitalism work, and how does it shape our lives?
Capitalists own the means of production including factories, large businesses,
stock portfolios, transport, raw materials, and even our labor-power.
Capitalist enterprises hire workers and pay them a "wage."
This is waged labor. Waged labor is the source of most profit for capitalists.
A worker may work for a set amount of hours and create, say, 10 units
of value. The capitalist pays the worker for, say, 3 units. This allows
the worker to "reproduce" him or herself, meaning, to buy
shelter, clothing, food, entertainments, and possibly accrue some savings.
The unpaid portion of the labor is called "surplus value."
Once it is realized on the market, it becomes profit for the capitalist,
who can then use it to buy more capital, whether that is in the form
of more workers, or more machines, buildings, etc. The key is to recognize
labor as the true source of value. When capitalists tell us they create
wealth, or create jobs, we should always ask them the source of the
wealth (labor) or where the value by which to pay wages came from (from
the labor of other workers).
Workers experience alienation from their own labor in many ways. First,
because they must sell their labor power to a boss, they have no say
in what is produced, for whom, or why. Workers may be creating a small
part of a product and never see the complete product, and in many cases
they can't afford to buy what they produce. Products made for the market
are "commodities." The main purpose of commodity production
is not to fill a human need or desire, but to find a market to realize
a profit on. In other words, production serves the purpose of creating
more and more capital to create more and more profit. Over time, the
ruling class has been able to erode class-consciousness to the degree
that people forget that commodities are the product of human labor-power.
We see items on the shelf, but not the work behind them. We think the
store is a natural phenomenon, and that buying and selling commodities
for profits is a part of "human nature." This is what Marx
called "Commodity Fetishism" in which the commodity takes
on a mystical power similar to a religious relic, and is assumed to
have all manner of characteristics it does not really have.
Commodities, even something like food, will go to where there is money
to buy them, not to where there is human need. This explains why in
our current global capitalist system, this "best of all possible
systems" leaves 1 billion people daily who face food scarcity or
outright starvation [See Financial Times--"Number of hungry worldwide
tops 1bn," 2009].
If you don't like the capitalism system, why don't you just
go "off the grid"?
Because the "ownership of the means of production" is concentrated
into fewer and fewer hands under capitalism, it becomes impossible for
small-scale production to exist without either being co-opted or crushed
by capitalists. As mentioned before, it becomes impossible to attain
the necessities of life except through the market, which is dominated
by the ruling class. We all have to work for wages or salaries in a
capitalist society, and our work reproduces our chains, making profits
for the bosses, which they put right back into strengthening the system
that enslaves us [See Fredy Perlman-"The Reproduction of Daily
Life"]. Simply deciding to "live beyond capitalism" or
assuming that capitalism has developed to a point that we can all be
free in the existing system, does nothing to eliminate the root cause
of the kinds of crises that the Occupy movement is currently fighting
against, or to end our mandatory participation in this failed system.
want to remove "Big Government" so that capitalism can really
bring prosperity to all. What's wrong with that?
You may notice the proliferation of "Libertarian" arguments
in the Occupy movement, or the claim that the Tea Party and the Occupy
movement are one and the same. This is not true. Modern day Libertarians
believe in a mythical capitalism totally separate from the state, which
as we've seen has never existed. They like to make speeches about the
Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and how we are all in this together
against "government interference." Libertarians believe that
unfettered and unregulated capitalism would bring maximum wealth for
all but they have no rational critique of what capitalism actually is
or how it functions. Since capitalism has historically relied on coercion
(see for example the "enclosures" above) to function, and
the extraction of value from workers, which comes from actual unpaid
labor for profit, there is no correlation between capitalism and freedom,
or democracy for that matter. Capitalism relies on the existence of
a class hierarchy. In order for there to be a working class from which
to extract profit, that class must be subjugated to the ruling class,
and be kept from owning or controlling the means of production by which
we create society.
The largest employer globally, Walmart, is a perfect example of exploitative
practices and anti-democratic, anti-working class ideology. Walmart
busts unions, keeps wages low, and by exerting pressure over all points
of the production chain (from resource extraction, to goods production,
to retail sales), they force each segment of production to keep wages
as low as possible, at the expense of the quality of life of workers.
Workers globally (even the "privileged" workers of the U.S.
and Europe) have seen wages decline, sky rocketing foreclosure rates,
benefits and pensions slashed, and further the privatization of social
infrastructure, once considered a human right but now a commodity that
one can either afford or not (health care, higher education, healthy
foods, etc.) under capitalism in the last 4 decades. As worker production
increases, wages and benefits decline, even in the face of grotesquely
rising profits for the owning class.
Don't we need to protect American Jobs First?
Capitalists will play workers from one nation off of workers in another
to bring about a "race to the bottom" in which all workers
compete to provide their labor-power for the lowest wage and worst safety
conditions. The Industrial Workers of the World, realizing that capitalists
would try to use racism and xenophobia to divide workers had an answer.
If there are immigrants competing for jobs, the workers movement must
organize them as well. Solidarity has to cross national, racial/ethnic
lines to succeed.
should we do?
No one can provide a one-size-fits-all solution that will bring the
revolutionary change we wish to see. That is a matter for the direct
democracy of the General Assemblies. No party, politician, union bureaucrat,
vanguard, or educated elite is qualified to impart the consciousness
necessary for the working class to liberate themselves. This is a project
for the proletariat! Working class people should be assessing the present
situation based on a critique of capitalism (not "greed" or
"corporations" but capitalism) and finding ways to act in
our own interest via class struggle. We are learning in the fight.