Sunday, January 07, 2007

Capitalism Defined

As promised in an earlier post, I will in this post describe what Marx meant by capitalism when he used the word. Discussing socialism with others involves clearly defining what is meant by the term, and how it relates to capitalism.

My first task is to dispel some misconceptions about capitalism that were created to make it more appealing, even worth defending. "Capitalism" to the US is "everything good that we do". "Capitalism" is the ability to own your own toothbrush. "Capitalism" is when you can go to a store and buy products. "Capitalism" is freedom to do what you want. "Capitalism" is what makes possible all the nifty products and services we have available. "Capitalism" is the laws of supply and demand. There are all sorts of things capitalism is and does. Rub some on a wound, and it heals miraculously. Put some in your gas tank, and your car goes super fast. Throw it at a country ruled by a despotic leader, and they will suddenly be made free. Amazing!

As Marx defined it, capitalism is the relationship between those who "own" the means of production and those who don't. The latter must sell their labour to former. *Yawn* Talk about bland and boring; what does it mean, anyway?

Let's start off with a hypothetical. There are five people roaming around the jungle. One of them sees a fruit tree and thinks: "If I could just get the other four to pick fruit for me, I would have an easy life of luxury and sweetness." To this end, the person "claims" the fruit tree, and tells the other four that the only way they can have any fruit from it is if they pick it, give him the bulk of it, and then keep the rest. This is basically what capitalism is. If you don't understand this, or think it is something otherwise, you are wrong. Marx wrote the book on capitalism, and while admittedly he may have been wrong on some things, this concept, as he defined it, is right and undeniable. This is the relationship between those who own the means of production and those who don't.

How did Marx come to this definition? By exploring other cultures and other economic systems, he was able to piece together this almost eternal struggle between these two distinct classes of people. Stage by stage humans progress through different modes of production, in all but one the means of economic production are arbitrarily owned by some ruling class.

**Stage 1: Primitive communism - This stage was way, way, way in the past, and probably the longest-running economic system. It was during a time when humans were not that plentiful, numbering in the mere thousands, scattered across the globe in little bands of hunter-gatherers. We can return to the world of the previously created hypothetical to take a closer look. Those other four that were given the terms of their slavery would probably have laughed at the one who sought to tell them what to do. When the treemaster is asleep, the four will pick fruit and eat it as they see fit. They will go to another tree, or eat something else. The one has very little control over the others. Using force to dominate the others would be impractical for several reasons. Firstly, the survival of each is dependent on the survival of the others. This is not to say that if treemaster died, the others would starve, but they would certainly be worse off without an extra set of hands. Second, those trying to use force would have been shunned, perhaps even kicked out of the group, for the very reason listed previously. It is also highly unlikely that the four would have put up with treemaster's crap for very long. They could band together and remove him from the tree, or thwart his efforts to use force against them. It was in these conditions that, I believe, our understanding of freedom and democracy developed. In such a setting, each person is a vital member of the group, and the benefits of a social network would have been readily apparent. The concerns of each are genuine and related to the concerns of the others. While it was necessary to cater to the well-being of the group, this was not freedom-stifling in principle, because supporting the group was, in effect, supporting each individual person. (Why this is so hard for people to understand is beyond me. Randroids, eat your hearts out... if you have them.) Thus human society formed and many of the truths and rights we feel we have created recently were actually formulated well before our time.

**Stage 2: Ancient/Classical society - fast forward a few thousand years from our original hypothetical to a new time, when humans are much more prevalent and congregate in much larger groups, resources have become less abundant, and farming and the domestication of labour beasts has begun. Something new and different has also occurred: a descendent of treemaster has managed to convince people that he "owns" something, that is, he has unlimited claim to it, and anyone desiring the products of this something must either give him something in return for it or sell their labour to him in exchange. How this came about, we can only guess. I have used my feeble imagination to come up with one possible way:

Suppose a group of humans was getting a bit large, and food more scarce. Early farming was probably just leaving a patch of seeds to grow when the group was away, chasing the herd or migrating to warmer climes. In this large group, farming and other important food-related tasks may have been assigned to particular people, AKA specialisation. Suppose the one who did the farming became an expert at it, knowing all sorts of useful things about the soil and rain and how far apart to plant, etc. This person was indispensable to the rest of the group. They could now lay claim to the field of crops which they tended and demand that the others do work for them on it in order to get the products of it. I want to clarify this point a bit. Specialisation in a society, by its very nature, means that one person somehow provides the product of their labour to someone else, who also has something to offer the original giver. In this case, the person farming can make the threat to not farm any more. The group is dependent on this one person, and compliance means survival. Over several generations, farmmaster's descendants have milked their status for all it was worth. The idea of their superiority as compared to the others has become a built-in understanding for the whole group. At this point, farmmaster no longer needs to work on the farm, but can instead become "master" of the group, and have them do the farming for him.

This stage is also when such horrible institutions like slavery (of workers and women) became prevalent. Farmmaster can have his subordinates (goons) go out and conquer other groups, bringing home their children and women. He can then impregnate the women and use the children as slaves. If they haven't yet learned that he is better than they are simply because everyone around him believes him when he says he "owns" farmland, they will soon learn, either from his brutality or the drone-like insistence of the others. Fortunately, human society is still rather scattered, so even very poor people could still "own" something of value, like land or a herd. Little pockets of resistance lasted only as long as they could repel the expanding influence of the major civilizations. The freedom of the previous stage is all but lost, and don't even try to bring democracy into it. Yes, the Greeks had representative government, as did the Romans, but not for very long. And always undermining this most noble of systems was the false truth of ownership. Those who owned or laid claim to the most resources have more power and influence than others. Thus so long as one person can tell others what to do by means of a social construct and violent goons, there can not be genuine freedom nor democracy. Bear in mind that all this stuff happened way in the past, but it still happened, meaning that if the Romans conquered other lands and laid claim to it, the descendants and subsequent kingdoms would have been dealing with the changes and constructs wrought during Roman times. This point will be brought up later.

**Stage 3: Feudalism -

The peasants had their own land, sort of, in that they had to give the lord a percentage of the yield of their crops in exchange for his "protection". Mob-like in its underpinnings. The social construct of ownership is further refined and buttressed by powerful religious institutions. Divine Right, original sin, and other freedom-crushing memes and practices poisoned society. All sorts of wars between kingdoms were fought because one monarch of one kingdom believed he had a claim to the land of another kingdom (Hundred Years War). Land and wealth changed hands often during this stage as in the previous, often a result of violence and force. The Catholic church, one of the most corrupt institutions ever conceived by humans, gains power and influence and itself lays claim to morality and heaven and souls. These false intangibles are used as leverage to glean wealth from people and to demand obedience. Please notice how there is no difference between the idea of "owning" a tangible thing, like land, and of "owning" the true path to heaven. "I own it, you have to bow to me in order to get it." The domineering attitude is present in both.

**Stage 4: Mercantilism - In this stage, language and culture become very refined. Printing allows standardisation of language and mass media, even in this crude form. Propaganda and other social control mechanisms are used to great effect during this time. Whereas previous kingdoms and empires were tenuous at best, in this stage, their existence was made stable and secure by means of a common and standard language.

The lords kicked the peasants off their land and claimed it for their own. The peasants were left with few options: go to the cities to find work in manufactories (more on these later), or turn to crime. A higher population density than the previous stage has a few important repercussions. First, relatively few people were necessary for farming, and the peasants were often idle, doing little work, because there was very little for each of them to do. Second, as a result of a flooded labour market, labour was cheap - people were desperate for work. (This describes the stagnation of China around this time, and with this in mind, we can see how rickshaws came about. It also explains the current situation in China with its abundance of cheap labour.) Lastly, all these extra people milling about and being thrown in jail compelled the kingdoms to explore and expand, seeking new lands to form markets and empty prisons. When resources are scarce, it is a habit of humans to seek to migrate, and is probably built-in from our evolutionary history. This may explain the age of discovery and subsequent expansion of European powers.

(I often wonder if China had less ocean between it and north america, would it have colonised it first? The most I can get out of this is that China did send out explorers, but was so paranoid and isolationist that no expansion phase was implemented to alleviate the overcrowding and cheap labour. The government destroyed the maps of the explorers for fear that China's unique and exalted place in the world would be undermined.)

The aforementioned manufactories were early assembly lines. One skilled shoemaker, working diligently and carefully on each part of a shoe, could not make as many shoes as twenty people each doing a distinct and simpler task on each shoe made. This is specialisation taken to the logical extreme. Whereas the shoemaker might have been an apprentice for several years before becoming a skilled shoemaker, a person working in a manufactory does not need a full set of shoe-making skills. All they would need is knowledge of the simple, repetitive task they are to perform. They don't even have to know how to make a whole shoe, from beginning to end. Workless and penniless peasants would work in these industries, selling their labour because they had nothing else to offer. This will come up again later.

One last thing to mention about this stage: This was when America was formed. The end of this stage and the emergence of the new was the creation of the USA. Many children in the US learn that the US was created because it wanted independence from an oppressive Britain. This is just false. Citizens in London paid 40 shillings a year in taxes, on average, whilst American colonists paid a paltry 1 to 1.5 shillings. Britain at the time had the best navy, the best army, the best merchant fleet, and the most markets. Ah, the exclusive markets I should say, since this was the age when wealth was deemed finite, colonial powers formed exclusive markets to keep money in their empire. The one great break with this was the USA. The American colonists, especially the merchants, wanted to open their markets to other nations, violating the understood rules of mercantilism. This was the main difference between England and America, and part of the stunning success of the latter.

Stage 4: Capitalism - This stage is marked by rapid industrial growth as a result of machine-aided automation. The manufactories became just factories when an outside source of power (electricity or steam, etc) was introduced. Now the monkeys could make even more units of a good in even less time. Productivity was improved even more when Taylor and other efficiency experts made careful observations of factory workers. Some suggestions, like breaks, are certainly commendable. Others, like dividing up an overarching task into tasks that require the least amount of movement, make monkeys into extensions of the machines they use to make goods. This is very important.

Huge machines that are used to make finished goods cost enormous amounts of money, only affordable to those who have wads of cash lying around. The wealth and power disparity in this stage is greater than it ever was before. The owners of the manufactories of the previous stage now manage the labour of hundreds of people, affect thousands in the market, and influence millions in politics. Wealth concentrates more and more in the hands of a few. Fewer and fewer people own the means of production, and cottage industry as it was known in the previous stages is all but obsolete and vanished. The economy that Adam Smith described is now very different, and his prescient warnings about power consolidation and the hijacking of the political machinery by greedy capitalists are ignored.

Later in this stage, roughly starting shortly before WWII, comes state capitalism, which was the dominant political feature of the 20th century, and existed both in the US and in the USSR (no, for the last time, the USSR was NOT communist). State capitalism is the unabashed use of state machinery to expand the control of capitalists, especially with the help of the military-industrial complex. Half of federal tax money goes to military spending, and much of that to "defense" contractors. (If you wanna see who gets how much, check out this website: )

The main thing to look for between stages is who owns the means of production, how these social relations are enforced, and how these relations link to political power.

I often point out a racist element to present-day capitalism, that being that those with lower melanin levels tend to do better than those with higher melanin levels. Such a distinction is also present in genders. Black people were slaves in the US, "owned" by rich white men. Two-hundred years later, and the descendents of these wealthy plantation owners are probably still rolling in the dough. Thus, much of the current wealth-distribution has to do with violent and vicious deeds committed in the past. Our acceptance of this reality is also a mild acceptance of the cruelty and grotesqueness perpetrated. I could write a whole other post on the subjugation and mistreatment of women.

If we accept this definition of capitalism, and are honest with ourselves, we realize that previously defined concepts of freedom and democracy do not jive well with these kinds of social relations. At the heart of our economic system lies the dirty truth of manipulation and control of millions of people for the almost exclusive benefit of a select few. For roughly a third of your life, where you live, where and what you eat, when you wake up, when you go to the bathroom, who you marry, what kind of schools you have available for your children will be largely determined by someone else. Yes, you do have choices, but only those within your monetary means are genuinely considered. You have no voice in how much of a product is to be made, how much of a role you play in it, how much you make for it, how often and for how long you are to work on it, how much it costs, how it is transported, advertised and sold, how and when you are fired/laid-off. Your input on these matters is of no concern to those who decide all these things for you. Even simple matters like these, some which affect you greatly, are outside of your control. The main activity of your life is dictated by someone else.

At this point, you might say that of course humans have these kinds of social relations, we are primates, and primates have dominance hierarchies as part of their social makeup. This is true. But, again, if we accept this as being true and ignore any possibility of it being otherwise, then our concepts of freedom and democracy are incompatible with our very nature. Male chimps in the wild are known to rape female chimps in a desperate act to have their genes passed on. Some claim there is a similar tendency in humans. I would agree to an extent, as I have met people that behaved much more like chimps than like humans, but this raises some serious issues. Is rape to go unpunished, because it is simply biological behaviour? Do we accept this as being the way we are, and do nothing about it? Is it wrong to try to alter our behaviour to make life more amenable to all?

A short example here involves democracy. The US claims it was founded as a democracy. If only rich, white, land-owning people are considered human, then yes, the US was a democracy. Black slaves, of course, were considered 3/5 of a person, and couldn't vote any way other than that of their owner. They weren't considered whole people until 1863. Women were ignored until the early 20th century, and minorities were STILL not considered real PEOPLE until the 1960s. You can see a general trend toward democracy, towards more and more citizen participation (or, rather, the right of citizens to participate). Fortunately, democracy and freedom are static definitions, so we can always tell if we are moving closer or further away from them. We would view the move towards them as being desirable.

I have actually met someone who didn't care that they were living in a giant dominance hierarchy, their fate determined by people far away in distance, wealth and power. It struck me as odd, but then I realized this may be one of these chimphumans. They had this sense that so long as they were allowed cable TV and big SUVs, they didn't care that their lives were almost entirely decided well before they were born by pre-existing social relations. There is this sense that if they have a chance at being at the top of the dominance hierarchy (not bloody likely), they will exchange a chance at a world less restricted by dominance hierarchy (and one, I believe, more in line with our concepts of freedom and democracy) for it.

So, now that we have defined capitalism and demonstrated why it is very much against our concepts of freedom and democracy, what would we call an alternative system, one in which dominance hierarchies are not the basis for social relations and the means of production are not arbitrarily controlled by a few domineering jerks? I was gonna save it for another post, but this succinct definition will suffice for now:

"Socialism is based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and exchange, upon production for use as against production for profit, upon the abolition of all classes, all class divisions, class privilege, class rule, upon the production of such abundance that the struggle for material needs is completely eliminated, so that humanity, at last freed from economic exploitation, from oppression, from any form of coercion by a state machine, can devote itself to its fullest intellectual and cultural development. Much can perhaps be added to this definition, but anything less you can call whatever you wish, but it will not be socialism."

Straight from:

Make of this what you will, recognizing that, like concepts such as freedom and democracy, this is an ideal, perhaps one that will never be attained, but one which we feel is worthy of pursuing. It is also static, so claiming that socialism is what happened in the USSR and China is just flat-out wrong. Something like socially appropriate behaviour, fashion, or the status quo is dynamic, and subject to the whims of public opinion and popular beliefs.

This post took far longer to write than I thought it would, and is a bit rambling and loose in places, so please forgive me for that. If you feel I missed something, or could explain something in greater detail or clarity, please let me know. I am planning on defining anarchy and/or socialism in the coming posts, but since he has been reading a lot on it as of late, perhaps delta of freethought weekly can define the former term.


Blogger Delta said...

Great, detailed post! I think you bring up a good point in that not only do we need to combat the very widely held (even in so-called intelligent circles) misconceptions about communism/socialism/anarchism, but we also need to combat the misconceptions that so many have about capitalism. Or at least we must extract the "feel good" characteristic from it and replace it with its actual definition.

Yes, you do have choices, but only those within your monetary means are genuinely considered

Exactly. As Alexander Berkman says in What is Anarchism?:

So, what becomes of your freedom? What can you do with it? Can you do more with it than your wages permit?...
The freedom that is given to you on paper, that is written down in law books and constitutions, does not do you a bit of good. Such freedom only means that you have a right to do a certain thing. But it doesn't mean that you can do it. To be able to do it, you must have the chance, the opportunity. You have a right to eat three fine meals a day, but if you haven't the means, the opportunity to get those meals, then what good is that right to you?

So what good is the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" if ones wages do not permit one to attain them?

As for a definition for anarchism, a popular one is perhaps given by Peter Kropotkin, who wrote the following in 1910 for the Encyclopedia Britannica:

"Anarchism, the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being. In a society developed on these lines, the voluntary associations which already now begin to cover all the fields of human activity would take a still greater extension so as to substitute themselves for the state in all its functions. They would represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international temporary or more or less permanent — for all possible purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory, and so on; and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever-increasing number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs. Moreover, such a society would represent nothing immutable. On the contrary — as is seen in organic life at large — harmony would (it is contended) result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences, and this adjustment would be the easier to obtain as none of the forces would enjoy a special protection from the state"

But, perhaps more concisely, anarchism is a theory whose goal is to create a society free from political, economic, and social hierarchies.

Your posts are very good Mookie. You should drop by random atheist and political blogs and make comments and get more traffic through here (if you care of course).

09 January, 2007 15:28  

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