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What is Capitalism?

surplusvaluecolorCapitalism is a mode of production – a totality of social relations that shapes how the society as a whole reproduces itself, how we all meet our needs, how we get from one day to the next. There are different modes of production, distinguished from one another by what drives the economy. This economic foundation generates, and is in turn supported by, a corresponding political system (which keeps one class in power over everyone else), plus prevailing ways of thinking that make it all seem natural and inevitable (such as the idea that “poverty we shall always have with us.”)

Other contemporary and recent modes of production besides capitalism are slavery and feudalism. All of these have one thing in common: class divisions that facilitate the accumulation of wealth by a small parasitical minority on the backs of the producing majority.

For slavery and feudalism, the new wealth taken possession of by the ruling class is the product itself. Under feudalism, a landlord takes half or a third of a peasant’s grain, whatever the quantity is and however much work the peasant put into it. But capitalist accumulation runs on a different formula. For capitalists, the product itself is not the point—the wealth they accumulate is the labor power extracted from workers in the production process. Labor power is wealth crystalized in commodities, in the form of surplus value (a form of profit). The particular kinds of commodities we produce don’t really matter; the money is made in the production of them.

In order not to starve, workers, who possesses or control no means of production, must sell our labor power, or ability to work, to the capitalist, for wages. (Our predicament is no accident, but has been engineered through systematic historical dispossession of formerly self-sufficient, land-based people.)

The big scam of capitalism is that wages are supposedly a fair trade of money for the amount of time that we work. Wages are generally based on what capitalists decide that we need for our survival—to pay our rent and feed our families. But in reality, capitalists are not buying our time—they are buying our labor power, which they use to produce commodities for them, that they later sell at a price higher than what they paid us. This profit is reinvested as new capital, which causes businesses (and the economy as a whole) to constantly grow larger. Continue reading What is Capitalism?

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Confessions of a Petit Bourgeois Radical Striving to Assist the Working Class in the Fight Against Capitalism

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An old comrade of mine died last spring. Around 25 years ago we were part of a team distributing “Revolutionary Worker” newspapers in Miami neighborhoods. After I left the RCP a few years later, we ceased working together but remained friends.

He left behind a box of pamphlets from the mid- to late-1970s issued by various New Left groups in the Bay Area, where much of his political development took place. I put them out on the porch and have been slowly going through them, curious about how the Left conceptualized revolutionary activity back then, and looking for clues as to why it largely abandoned class struggle in favor of social justice activism.

Judging by these pamphs, which were issued by at least half a dozen different communist organizations, it seems like the political scene in the Bay Area was pretty lively. Most of the texts are long, highly detailed polemics against rival communist groups, on questions ranging from the socialist character (or not) of China and Albania, to whether all forms of nationalism are reactionary (or not).

Personally, I’m interested in their attempts at participating in workers’ struggles and spreading revolutionary class consciousness among workers. Most, if not all, of them claimed to recognize the need for the working class (or some “most oppressed” section of it) to lead the struggle against capitalism/imperialism, but they seemed to have spent much of their energy attempting to be the leaders themselves, and going for each other’s throats in competitive attempts to become “The” Party.

I looked up the pamphlets online and in case you’re interested, many of them can actually be found in this vast archive of “anti-revisionist” struggle: https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/erol.htm

For someone unfamiliar with this history, these arguments between highly specialized groups can seem mind-boggling, with demarcations of line being pared down to what might seem an almost obsessive and insane narrowness. But keep in mind that it was a different time: social and political struggles were flaring up globally, including in the US, and as any movement matures, political differences translate into differences in approach and strategy that really do matter. So I’m not ridiculing the need for demarcations and polemics, which are always present whenever people try to do anything together (“Let’s watch Mistresses.” “Hell no, the acting has really gone downhill.”)

But it must be asked: where are they now? Did all that passionate quarreling make any difference at all, did it help advance working class power in the struggle against capitalism, or was it just a “tempest in a teapot”? Did it reflect an appropriate assessment of and response to the actual conditions that existed at the time?

Continue reading Confessions of a Petit Bourgeois Radical Striving to Assist the Working Class in the Fight Against Capitalism

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Class struggle is our starting point.

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Since class divisions formed among humans thousands of years ago, class struggle has been the driving force of all major social change. While in any given society there may be a variety of different classes, the central struggle, the one that shapes all the others, is that between a class that produces the bulk of what the whole society needs, and a non-productive, parasitical class that controls production and steals the social product.

 

To defend their ruling position and assert their interests, a class must dominate the entire society: by claiming ownership and taking possession of the means of subsistence and production (land, waters, resources, factories, etc), holding political power to facilitate the running of their affairs and to repress dissent, and directing the flow of information and development of knowledge, persuading people through culture and education into understanding the arrangement as natural and desirable.

 

Owners and producers are the two fundamental classes of any class-divided society, because the struggle between them determines its mode of production, the parameters of how things are produced and distributed, as well as everything else that can go on in that society. Slave owners and slaves struggle for and against slavery. Landlords and serfs or peasants struggle for and against feudalism. Capitalists and workers struggle for and against capitalism.

Continue reading Class struggle is our starting point.

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Revolution: there is no formula

2Capitalism, even in deep crisis, will never cease struggling to adapt and grow. It will not collapse or dismantle itself, until it destroys the planet and everyone on it. So it falls on us to destroy it. In destroying capitalism, we construct something new. Revolution is the total transformation of the way everything is produced, the social relations of domination that go along with it, and the ways of thinking that keep us trapped.

We need to understand our roles in the revolutionary process so that we may direct our energies to contribute the most we possibly can. The more intentional we are, the more effective we can be as consciously active agents for emancipation and social transformation.

There is no formula or plan to tell us what to do. We learn what we can from the millions of revolutionaries who have existed everywhere in the world throughout history, but each place and time is different, so whatever worked for them can’t automatically be applied to our circumstances. While relayed experiences, theories and observations are extremely useful, the revolution can’t be simply handed to us by others; we have to figure it out for ourselves.

We learn by doing. We can only master something if we practice it. This is true for playing a musical instrument, making furniture, or organizing for revolution and building a new society. Knowledge doesn’t come from the sky or from inside our heads; it comes from the real world and our experience of it. We make decisions about what to do, based on our interpretations of reality.

Many people call themselves revolutionaries because they possess and express “correct” beliefs, or write up the perfect programme or position paper. But no amount of study of theory, no amount of discussion, no collection of brilliant insights can ever change things — unless they are based in reality and are in turn implemented in reality. Theories that don’t come from practice can’t connect to reality. And they’re useless until they are actually USED. Knowledge is not an end in itself, but a guide to action, a tool to affect the material world. It is in use that it becomes embodied, and real.

Since none of us can destroy capitalism alone; we need to act collectively. The reason we need theory is to construct a shared frame of reference with which to share knowledge and experiences, so we can overcome what divides us, and organize our disparate spontaneous acts of resistance into a unified and powerful social force.

Continue reading Revolution: there is no formula