Talking about capitalism.
Where does one start? Capitalism is a system that one encounters no matter where one turns their gaze. It is a system that reproduces itself in all of our social relations. It is pervasive. The first thing one should make clear when talking about capitalism is that its practice and theory are different. The theory should only concern us in that it at times provides ideological cover.
Capitalism is in short the exploitation of surplus labour value (the robbing of the products of labour from the labourer) coupled with the alienation of labour from the labourer. (Reducing the labourer to just another machine). Profits from this labour are filtered upwards. Those profits are not consumed but reinvested to make more profit. This is what makes capitalism different from a simple barter system. It is an exchange system, using money as the universal commodity. Money’s existence is not to beget more commodities but to accrue profit from exchange (Thus the classic Commodities – Money – Commodities is replaced by M-C-M*[whereas M* > M])
This cursory definition should be situated within a historical analysis. Thus the birth of the modern state apparatus, starting in Britain and Germany in the late 18oos (birth of public schools, police, prisons, fire departments, public parks etc.) forms the background of the expanding system of capitalism in the 1800s. In the industrial era wage labour made up only a tiny fraction of labour in the world. Most was domestic, agricultural, subsistence and piece labour.
It wasn’t until the lat 1800s and early 1900s that wage labour came to even dominate the industrial scene. The rise of Taylorism allowed the owners and managers to finally control the knowledge of labour. The scientific control of production began a process of labour “standardization.” By this we should understand the factory line and so on. This standardization is today the basis for most waged labour in our society.
The rise of mass consumerism ( Non-existent in Marx’s time) followed the development of Taylorism. Goods produced cheaply were sold cheaply. The scale of economies was coupled with the rise of manufactured demand for consumer products. When the Great Depression began international trade was choked and the circulation of capital (surplus labour) came to a standstill. It was at this moment that the modern welfare state was in a state of becoming. Keynesianism can only be understood against the backdrop of mass production and consumerism. Governments’ took on a role of stimulating the economy through deficit spending. World War Two saw the largest government intervention in Western capitalist economies. This intervention saved the western capitalist states.
It is important to remember that this was happening within imperial and colonial systems which funneled the wealth from colonized regions towards the centres. As anti-colonial and nationalist movements challenged and reordered the world in 50s, 60s and 70s, the capitalist system began to adjust. Capitalism became globalized. The gains that labour and far-left groups had won in the wake of social struggles across the globe were outmaneuvered and crushed by capital’s ability to shift its resources geographically. This was something friendly state actors aided and abetted. Thus the birth of Reaganism, Thatcherism, Pinochet, the New Philosophers and Neo-Classical economics (supply side) should be seen as fulfilling a need of capital to enlarge its pool of labour and decrease the cost of doing business. We can refer this deregulation trend and globalized move of capital as neoliberalism.
This brings us to the present period. The welfare state (which did provide a relatively high standard of living) is being dismantled piece-by-piece. The political class is only as powerful as the business class will allow it to be. The ideological cover of capital is relatively undamaged by the economic crisis.
This simplistic synopsis of capitalism (any synopsis I suppose is simplistic) leaves us with many questions? How are we to fightback against capital and what are we fighting for? We must recognize what is generally missing from my brief layout of capitalist development. Where is the discussion about the nature of gendered labour? How should we understand this gendered labour dynamic within colonial systems that are still present and the legacy of colonial exploitation. How can we situate this understanding of capital within the racist imperial systems created by colonialism. Are forms of oppression simply the by-product of capitalism or must we look elsewhere? These are just somethings we must consider in our discussions of capitalism. The more we struggle against capitalism the more we can realize how it has adapted and colonized our social fabric.
The working class?
One of the terms that is often used when talking about capitalism is the working class. However this term is more nuanced than most people often realize. For instance who is working class and who isn’t? What are the criteria? Who decides? How many classes are there? Are domestic labourers working class? All of them? Are those who work in the NGO sector part of the working class? If not, what excludes them? Education? Money? To better understand this term let’s explore the mythical figure of the subkulak.
During the height of forced collectivization in the USSR, the government put peasants into three categories: the poor peasants with no land, who worked for others, the middle peasants who fluctuated between exploiters and exploited and the kulaks, the rich peasants who employed other peasants, the enemies of the state.
When this analysis was put into practice it became unworkable. The general poverty in the countryside and the general unpopularity of forced collectivization meant that in many cases all three classes of peasants conspired to resist. Therefore Stalinist bureaucrats introduced an additional category, the subkulak, a peasant who although too poor in terms of their economic situation to be a kulak , were deemed to share a counter-revolutionary attitude. Thus, identifying kulaks was no longer a matter of having the correct objective analysis, it became a matter of deciphering an individual’s true political leanings. The objective chain is broken, as the subkulak is merely the subjective political leanings which can exist in any social category. As Slavoj Zizek (from who I stole the example of the subkulak) points out that in Marx’s Capital volume 3 the text ends short at the very moment it will objectively undertake a complete class analysis of modern society. Zizek writes that “class struggle cannot be reduced to a conflict between particular social agents within a social reality : it is not a difference between agents (described using objective social analysis) but an antagonism, struggle, which constitute these agents.”
Here we must turn to Lukacs and realize that subjectivity plays a key role in our understanding of class. This does not mean we should simply dismiss an objective analysis, for Lukacs goes too far toward displacing material conditions with subjective consciousness in the creation of class. Zizek here notes that Lukacs takes the collectives subjectivity which mediates every objectivity as its starting point and horizon and thus unable to see the ‘Big Bang’ material conditions which gives rise to it.
As Terry Eagleton writes the key is not to think about an objective or subjective formation of class, “classes are certainly for Marxism historical agents; but they are structural, material formations as well as ‘intersubjective’ entities, and the problem is how to think these two aspects of them together.”
These are just somethings we must consider when we use terms like the working class. It is not that they are irrelevant rather they are just more nuanced, complex and full of meaning than we care to admit. An expanded discussion around this term and capitalism in general does not take away from the systematic exploitation at the core of capitalism rather it deepens and furthers an living analysis.
How to develop an analysis?
Let’s be frank for a moment. I hate capitalism. I don’t like the welfare state and I don’t believe that exploitation no matter how kind will ever result in justice. I believe that all goods produced should be for the common good and that free individuals should decide collectively their own future and present. However I find my views not so much a matter of controversy as the how do we make that happen question. It is easy, all too easy, to declare what we want, it is another thing altogether to go about trying to make that happen.
One question we can ask ourselves is do we develop a program or platform? What are the benefits and the drawbacks of this? And who is this “we” anyhow? It is not that platforms are bad per se, they are in fact quite useful to inspire change, create accountability and a sense of togetherness. They can also be quite alienating by pushing people out, not allowing people to feel ownership over the ideas and by creating a dogmatic political culture.
The question is how does one go about developing a platform, program or a collective project? The answer is not to have ready-made solutions. We must understand we do not have the language to fully understand our liberated future. If we do not change our dreams on the road to fulfilling them, we are doomed. A program should come from a collective process informed by struggle. We can not simply create a platform from ideas that we have not practiced or as Mao once wrote “we need books, but we must overcome book worship, which is divorced from the actual situation.” Analysis comes from “objective” and subjective learning. We can not simply repeat past vanguardist solutions of pretending to know the way forward (this didn’t work and isn’t working). This is a recipe for isolating oneself. There is nothing sadder than a lonely communist.
Thus there is nothing liberal about addressing various forms oppression within our struggles. In fact this is the key building block to meet people where they are at. Oppression and exploitation take on many different forms and we can’t begin to systematically root out capitalism from our daily practices and reverse the great transformation of capitalism if we are unable (or unwilling) to address those various practices in our own lives.
If we simply walk twenty paces ahead and call out to those behind who will listen? We need to walk and struggle with people. It is through this experience of solidarity that we can begin to develop a shared political analysis and put that analysis into practice. We can not put the cart before the horse. This doesn’t mean one should renounce their radical politics (communist/ anarchist etc.) rather it means that we develop ways in which we can practice them, in which we can test them.
We need less impatient preachers and more patient teachers. To dismiss mass collective struggle because it is difficult, as not where you are at is selfish. When you set about constructing a building, you start with the foundation, you start in the mud. No matter where you come from or how politicized or radical you are, if you aren’t willing to get dirty than don’t play with revolution.
We must learn patience, to listen and to hold our thoughts. All of us started with no political consciousness. Others helped us along the way, they were patient, insightful, provocative and willing to let us figure things out. In this period of reaction we are going to have to start from scratch over and over again. Or as Lenin put it, “one should begin at the beginning again.” What other choice do we have?
Before “we” address people’s material conditions, “we” must understand who “we” are and “we” must understand what needs addressing. That can’t be done by stating a platform, it has to be done through solidarity. Working with people where they are at. We can’t intervene in other people’s struggles, we must struggle with them, engage in a process of building and practicing analysis.
Mao once wrote: “We are opposed to ‘Left phrase-mongering. The thinking of Leftists’ outstrips a given stage of development of the objective process; some regard their fantasies as truth, while others strain to realize in the present an ideal which can only realized in the future. They alienate themselves from the current practice of the majority of the people and from the realities of the day, and show themselves adventurist in their actions.” Beyond the stiff scientific Marxist language of stages Mao is saying realize where you are at! If you isolate yourself who will listen to you?
Capitalism will not fail on its own accord. We can’t talk it to death nor can we wish it away. Solidarity, the practice of working and growing together, is the best way to start to figure out how we can destroy capitalism and build a collective future. The term anti-capitalism maybe watered down, but the process of filling it with meaning is just as important as the definition itself.