keeps capitalism going?
Michael A. Lebowitz
(Notes for talk to RTL on 25 Sept 2003)
1. What I want to talk about today is a very simple question---
what keeps capitalism going (or, in the somewhat more technical
language of Marxists--- how does capitalism as a system reproduce
2. Of course, the first point that we need to establish is what
I mean by capitalism. People mean a lot of different things when
they use the term. E.g., they may have in mind a market economy
or an economy with wage-labourers--- or maybe only an economy in
which corporations dominate. (Naturally, then, what they mean by
anti-capitalism will also differ--- it may mean, eg., anti-markets,
anti-wage-labour, and it may simply mean anti-large corporations.)
3. My definition is the one that Marx developed: capitalism is
a relationship in which the separation of working people from the
means of work and the organisation of the economy by those who own
those means of work has as its result that, in order to survive,
people must engage in a transaction --- they must sell their ability
to work to those owners. But, the characteristic of capitalism is
not simply that the mass of people must be wage-labourers. It also
that those who are purchasing that capacity to perform labour have
one thing and only one thing that interests them--- profits (and
more profits); i.e., that the purchasers of labour-power are capitalists,
and their goal is to make their capital grow.
4. What the capitalist gets as the result of purchasing that ability
of workers is the right to direct workers in production and the
right to all they produce. (It is a set of production relations
quite different from the case, for example, of the cooperative or
collective where workers direct themselves in production and have
the property rights in what they produce themselves.) Within capitalist
relations, the capitalist has purchased the right to exploit workers
in production. He pays them, on average, enough to meet their customary
needs, but he has purchased the right to push them to produce more
than it costs him for the use of them. As a result, the worker produces
additional value, more money, profits, for the capitalist--- i.e.,
the worker produces more capital for the capitalists. And that capital,
the result of the exploitation of workers, goes into the accumulation
of more means of production. What you see when you look at capital
is the result of past exploitation.
5. This was the central message that Marx was attempting to communicate
to workers. What is capital? It is the result of exploitation. It
is the workers’ own product which has been turned against
them, a product in the form of tools, machinery--- indeed, all the
products of human activity (mental and manual).
6. But, turned against them how? Before talking about how this
system keeps going, how it reproduces itself, we need to understand
why this question is even important to ask. Think about the drive
of capitalists to expand their capital, the drive to increase the
exploitation of workers. How can they do this? One way is by getting
workers to work more for capitalists--- e.g., to extend the workday
or to intensify the workday (‘speedup’). Another is
to drive down the wages of workers. And, still another is to prevent
workers from the being the beneficiaries of advances in social knowledge
and social productivity. Capital is constantly on the search for
ways to drive up the workday in length and intensity--- which, of
course, is contrary to the needs of human beings to have time for
themselves, for rest and for their own self-development. Capital
is also constantly searching for ways to keep down and drive down
wages, which of course means to deny workers the ability to satisfy
their existing needs and to share in the results of fruits of social
labour. How does capital achieve this? In particular, it does so
by separating workers, by turning them against each other.
7. The logic of capital has nothing to do with the needs of human
beings. So, the use of racism and patriarchy to divide workers,
the use of the state to outlaw or crush trade unions, the destruction
of peoples’ lives by shutting down operations and moving to
parts of the world where people are poor, unions banned and environmental
regulations non-existent, the destruction of the natural environment---
none of this is accidental in a society in which human beings are
simply means for capital. We could go on about the character of
capitalism, but I think the point is clear.
8. So, back to the topic--- how is it that this continues? What
keeps capitalism going? How is such a system reproduced? Let me
suggest a few answers.
(1) First, the exploitation of workers is not obvious. It doesn’t
look like the worker sells her ability to work and that the capitalist
then proceeds to get all the benefits of her labour. The contract
doesn’t say—this is the part of the day you are working
for yourself (i.e., reproducing your requirements), and this is
the part that you are working for the capitalist and adding to
his capital. Rather, it looks like the worker sells a certain
amount of her time (a day’s work) to the capitalist and
that she gets its equivalent in money. So, clearly the worker
must get what she deserves--- if her income is low, it must mean
that she didn’t have anything very valuable to sell, nothing
much to contribute to society (certainly; very little compared
to the capitalist); in fact, she should be happy she got anything.
On the face of it, in short, there is no exploitation. Marx was
very clear on this point—the very way that wages are expressed
as a wage for a given number of hours extinguishes every trace
of exploitation--- ‘all labour appears as paid labour’.
This disappearance of exploitation on the surface, he noted, underlies
‘all the notions of justice held by both the worker and
the capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalist mode
of production….’ (BK, 173). Note that it is not only
the capitalist who will tend to think there is no exploitation;
it is also the worker. If that’s the case, when workers
struggle, they are struggling not against exploitation but against
an unjust wage or working conditions--- i.e., struggling for a
better wage or shorter day, for what they see as fairness--- a
‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’.
In short, they do not see themselves as challenging the system,
only some of its unfair results.
(2) Secondly (and closely related), if it doesn’t appear
as if there is exploitation of workers in the process of production,
then capital cannot appear as the result of exploitation, i.e.
cannot be recognised as the workers’ own product. So, where
does all that wealth come from, then? What is the source of machinery,
science, everything that increases productivity? It must be the
contribution of the capitalist. Having sold their ability to work
(and thus the property rights to all they produce to the capitalist),
the social productivity of workers necessarily takes the form
of the social productivity of capital. Fixed capital, machinery,
technology, science--- all necessarily appear only as capital.
Marx commented, ‘The accumulation of knowledge and of skill,
of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus
absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears
as an attribute of capital.’ (BK, 156). What I am describing
here is the mystification of capital. The more the system develops,
the more that production relies upon fixed capital, on the results
of past labour which take the form of capital--- the more that
capital (and the capitalist) appear to be necessary to workers.
It is no accident, in short, that workers would see themselves
as dependent upon capital. Marx made a very significant comment
in this respect:
a. ‘The advance of capitalist production develops a working
class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the
requirements of this mode of production as self-evident natural
laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production,
once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance.’
b. Given the hidden nature of exploitation and the mystification
of capital, we obviously already have a strong basis for the
reproduction of capitalism as a system. But, there is more.
(3) A third reason why capitalism keeps going is that society
does not only appear to be dependent upon capital and the capitalist
for all advances. As individuals within capitalist relations,
workers really are dependent on capital to meet their needs. As
long as they are separated from the means of work and need to
sell their ability to work in order to get the money to buy the
things they need, workers need the capitalist, who is the mediator
between them and the realisation of their needs. For the wage-labourer,
the real tragedy is not the sale of her labour-power; it is the
inability to sell it. What can be worse for one who must sell
a commodity than to find no buyer? Workers, it appears, have an
interest in the health of capitalists, have an interest in expanding
demand on the part of capitalists for their labour-power--- by
‘education, tradition and habit’, they come to look
upon the needs of capital as ‘self-evident natural laws’,
as common sense. The reproduction of workers as wage-labourers
requires the reproduction of capital.
(4) Do we need any further reasons for the continuation of capitalism
as a system? Let me throw in just one more before we consider
some of the implications. And, that is that workers are not simply
dependent upon the state of capital in general for their jobs
and thus their ability to satisfy their needs. They are dependent
on particular capitals! Precisely because capital exists in the
form of many capitals, and those capitals compete against each
other to expand, there is a basis for groups of workers to link
their ability to satisfy their needs to the success of those particular
capitals that employ them. In short, even without talking about
the conscious efforts of capital to divide and separate workers,
we can say that there exists a basis for the separation of workers
in different firms--- both inside and between countries. (Cf.
Engels in BK, 158.) In other words, we can easily see how workers
may see other workers as the enemy and will make concessions to
their employers in order to help them to compete better.
9. Is it hard, then, to understand why Marx could say that capitalism
produces a worker who looks upon its requirements as ‘self-evident
natural laws’? When we think about the dependence of the worker
on capital, is it difficult to grasp why capitalism keeps going?
After all, Marx not only proposed that capitalism ‘breaks
down all resistance’; he also went on to say (K, 899) that
capital can ‘rely on his [the worker’s] dependence on
capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves,
and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them’. Capitalism tends,
in short, to produce the workers it needs.
10. Well, you might say that I’m presenting a rather distorted
picture of capitalism. That I’m making it seem as if capitalism
is a system without contradictions, a stable economic system that
delivers the goods. What about economic crises? Doesn’t capitalism
inevitably come up against crises, crises inherent in its nature?
Some people predict the collapse of the system once a week. I don’t
think too much of arguments that suggest that the permanent crisis
of capitalism began the hour of its birth. But, the system does
have crises—periods in which profits fall, production drops,
people are unemployed. Don’t those crises demonstrate that
a new system is necessary?
11. Without question, an economic crisis brings the nature of
the economic system to the surface. When there are unemployed people,
resources, machinery and factories--- and at the very same time
people with the need for those things that could be produced, it
is pretty obvious that production in capitalism is not based on
human needs but, rather, only on what can be produced for a profit.
This is a time when people can be mobilised to question the system.
However, so long as people continue to think capital is necessary,
then the solutions they look for will not be ones which challenge
the logic of capital. (The same will be true in the case of the
environmental crises that capitalism produces.) So long as they
see capital as the source of jobs, the source of wealth, the source
of all progress, then their answers will be like those of a former
NDP Premier here--- ‘we don’t want to kill the goose
that lays the golden eggs’.
12. The same point needs to be made in relation to the struggles
of workers against capital to reduce the workday, improve working
conditions and raise wages--- both directly against specific employers
and also in the attempt to capture the state and to use it in their
own interests. So long as workers do not see capital as their own
product and continue instead to think of the need for healthy capitalists
as common sense (and as in their own interest), they will hold back
from actions that place capital in crisis. As long as workers have
not broken with the idea that capital is necessary, a state under
their control will act to facilitate the conditions for the expanded
reproduction of capital. Here, in a nutshell, is the sorry history
of social democracy--- which, despite the subjective perspective
of some of its supporters, ends by reinforcing the rule of capital.
13. So, we return to our question--- what keeps capitalism going?
How is capitalism reproduced as a system? I think you can see the
answer that I am offering: capital tends to produce the working
class it needs. It produces workers who look upon it as necessary---
a system that is unfair, one that requires you to struggle constantly
to realise your needs, a system run by people out to get you, yet
a system where the reproduction of capital is necessary for the
reproduction of wage-labourers. What keeps capitalism going? Wage-labourers.
The reproduction of workers as wage-labourers is necessary for the
reproduction of capital.
14. Note that I haven’t said anything about patriarchy or
racism. Some people on the Left argue that patriarchy and racism
are necessary for capitalism—i.e., are necessary conditions
of existence for capitalism. I think we need to distinguish between
what is necessary and what is useful for the maintenance of capitalism.
When we speak of necessity, we are saying that without X, capitalism
could not exist. I don’t think this is true of patriarchy
or racism. Capital certainly uses racism, patriarchy, national and
ethic differences, etc to divide the working class, to weaken it
and to direct its struggles away from capital. But, it can find
many ways to divide and weaken workers. And, it can—if forced---
do without racism or patriarchy just like it can—if forced---
live with higher wages or lower workdays. (Just as it has been able
to do without apartheid and white rule in South Africa.) What capital
cannot live with, however, is a working class that both understands
that capital is the result of exploitation (i.e., that the wealth
that confronts it is the product of the collective worker) and which
also is prepared to struggle to put an end to that exploitation.
15. Obviously, a working class with this characteristic does not
drop from the sky. Not when, as we have seen, capital produces workers
who look upon the requirements of capital as self-evident natural
laws. Is the answer, then, the vanguard party which brings a socialist
consciousness to ignorant workers? Why should the workers who are
the products of capital pay any attention to these messages from
the outside? This picture seems like a scenario for inevitable irrelevance
16. Let me propose, however, that the picture is not necessarily
as bleak as it seems. Workers are not simply the products of capital.
They are formed (and form themselves) through all the relationships
in which they exist. And, they transform themselves through their
struggles--- not only those against capital but also against those
other relations like patriarchy and racism. Even though these struggles
may take place fully within the confines of capitalist relations,
in the course of engaging in collective struggles people develop
a new sense of themselves. They develop new capacities, new understandings
of the importance of collective struggle. People who produce themselves
as revolutionary subjects through their struggles enter into their
relations with capital as different people; in contrast to those
who are not in motion, they are open to developing an understanding
of the nature of capital.
17. But, they are merely open to this understanding. All those
actions, demonstrations and struggles in themselves cannot go beyond
capitalism. Given that exploitation inherently appears simply as
unfairness and that the nature of capital is mystified, these struggles
lead only to the demand for fairness, for justice within capitalist
relations but not justice beyond capitalism. They generate at best
a ‘trade union’ or social-democratic consciousness---
a perspective which is bounded by a continuing sense of dependence
upon capital, i.e., bounded by capitalist relations. Given that
the spontaneous response of people in motion does not in itself
go beyond capital, communication of the essential nature of capitalism
is critical to its non-reproduction.
18. For those within the grasp of capital, however, more is necessary
than simply to understand the nature of capital and its roots in
exploitation. People need to believe that a better world is possible.
They need to feel that there is an alternative--- one worth struggling
for. In this respect, describing the nature of a socialist alternative---
and analysing the inadequacies and failures of 20th Century efforts---
is an essential part of the process by which people can be moved
to put an end to capitalism.
19. To the extent that those of us on the Left are not actively
attempting to communicate the nature of capitalism and working explicitly
for the creation of a socialist alternative, we are part of the
explanation as to what keeps capitalism going.
Michael A. Lebowitz is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Simon
Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada and is the
author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the
Working Class (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). email@example.com