Primers on Power: On Capitalism

What is capitalism?

In a capitalist system, people’s labour and the products made by their labour, as well as the land, materials and tools required to make things, are treated as commodities that are owned and controlled privately by individuals and corporations. The combination of private ownership and commodification marks a capitalist system.

How does capitalism affect people and the earth?

In a capitalist labour process, workers, who represent the great majority, are paid less than the value of what they make. The individuals and corporations who own the means of production pocket the difference. This makes capitalism a system predicated on exploitation.

Because capital needs a steady supply of labour to exploit, for capitalism to survive people must be prevented from meeting their own needs. This happens when indigenous people are displaced from their land, when commons shared by peasants are enclosed, when goods required to meet needs are turned into commodities, or when new needs are stimulated that only capitalist markets can provide. This tendency makes capitalism a system that produces displacement, dispossession, and dependence.

Corporations compete amongst each other to preserve and expand their capital. When one corporation adopts a new technology that allows products to be made with less labour, it can widen the rate of exploitation, or make the same amount with fewer workers (creating unemployment), or sell a commodity at a cheaper rate than a competitor.

To survive, competitors must adopt this new technology or develop another to leap ahead. Producing ever more commodities at an expanded rate means that the cumulative material output in a capitalist system is always expanding. Historically, the capitalist system has expanded at a rate somewhere between 2-3% per year. This expansionary dynamic is catastrophic for the earth, and is fuelling a massive loss of biodiversity, climate change, and the exhaustion of finite goods we and other beings need to survive.

A further tendency intrinsic to a capitalist way of making things is to externalize costs associated with production. Because every corporation must profit to preserve and expand its capital, this leads corporations to attempt to push the costs of production onto other people or non-human entities.

For example, corporations require workers to make commodities, which presupposes workers must be transported to the site of production. Historically, corporations have forced the cost of getting to work onto workers. Or, the production of many commodities requires that workers develop various competencies. The costs of attending training schools, colleges and universities to develop these competences are forced onto future workers.

Corporations have also historically externalized costs onto the natural world. For example, the makers of pesticides have managed to avoid paying for the massive die-off of insects, birds, amphibians and reptiles, to name a few, that in turn compromise eco-systems, other beings, and reduce the earth’s capacity to sustain complex life.

What’s in it for us?

Being exploited sucks. Whether in the form of paying an owner’s mortgage through rent, or having to sell our capacity to work for someone else to profit from, or even indebting ourselves as students so that we can get a degree, exploitation is a fact of life for most people.

But it doesn’t end there. Capitalism alienates us from the natural world, each other and ourselves. In our capitalist society, our relationship to the natural world is primarily mediated through markets and commodities. We don’t directly relate to the land to meet our needs; instead, it is turned into property and its owners make decisions about how best to profit from that land. We also don’t relate directly to making the things we need to survive. Instead, capitalists and their managers dictate what to make and how.

Perhaps most insidiously, capitalism alienates us from ourselves and each other. We are subject to constant intrusions on our mental space in the form of advertising, mainstream education and corporate media. When we work, the use of our energy is placed at the disposal of managers and owners. This shapes who we are in ways that are not consensual. Finally, we are forced to compete with each other for work, and the ways we come together in the workplace, in the university, in the social welfare system, and beyond, are not conceived by us.

What can we do?

Chances are you’re being exploited. Figure out who else is in your position, and try organizing to change that. If you’re a student organize amongst fellow students to make a university that is not alienating, that everyone can access, and gives us the knowledge and skills we need to make a better world.

One aspect that has made capitalism so resilient is that it affects people in different ways. For example, workers in the global North, while exploited, benefit from even more severe rates of exploitation in the global South. Or, the kind of exploitation and displacement suffered by indigenous people differs from that suffered by factory workers or service sector employees.

All these differences complicate organizing. We need to respect each other, and organize in a way that allows people throughout the capitalist system to make autonomous decisions about what’s important, while still linking our struggles together by helping each other out. That’s solidarity!