Capitalism is Still the Problem

Image of anti-capitalist poster.

Image by Jon Tyson.

As far as the United States is concerned, today’s Left is not only small, it’s also quite confused. Sure, there are debates regarding the conflict being fought in Ukraine and the wisdom of organizing in the Democratic party, but I’m talking about more fundamental questions. Primary among them is the nature of class and how it should be addressed. The basic understanding in Marxism is that there are two classes under capitalism—the bourgeoisie and the working class. This dynamic places the workers in the position where the primary commodity they have to sell in a marketplace of commodities is their labor. This understanding also theoretically provides the worker with the freedom to sell their labor to the highest bidder. In other words, the employer who will pay the best wage and provide the most benefits. Of course, most workers don’t actually have this luxury as individuals; it is only through organizing as a class that they can then (ideally) force the employer class to reach an arrangement most of the workers can agree on. Naturally, any such arrangement will only be agreed to by the employer if it divides the profit derived from the labor of the workers in the employer’s favor. In other words, how much of the labor created by the worker will be stolen by the owners.

This relationship between employers and workers (the bourgeoisie and the working class when writ large) is one of the essential elements of capitalism. The other commonly understood element is the exploitation of the earth and its bounty. The wealth derived from this exploitation is understood as the process whereby enough wealth was accumulated by the unholy coalition of merchants, armies, traders and governments to shift the nature of Europe’s economy away from feudalism towards capitalism. Marx called this process “primitive accumulation.” As co-author Nancy Fraser states early on in the recently released book Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory: “there is a whole back story about where capital comes from—a rather violent story of theft, dispossession and expropriation.” (29) As the discussion on this particular topic continues, it not only becomes apparent that this process continues, it also includes historical activities beyond mining coal from the earth and other extractive operations. Indeed, it includes the creation of maintenance of the transatlantic slave trade and its development into a breeding and selling operation identical to the process used to raise beasts like cows and sheep. It also includes the colonization of much of the global south by northern governments, mostly Britain, and it is the economic rationale for the conquering of the western hemisphere and the genocide that involved. Both historically and in the present times, Fraser insists there cannot be wage exploitation in the traditional working class without expropriation elsewhere, be that through wage differences and precariarity among women, debt peonage, prison labor and non white workers, or ecological extraction and imperialist wars. Of course, all of those phenomena are part and parcel of modern capitalism.

The paragraphs above are the foundation of the text mentioned above. The book itself is framed as a discussion between two philosophers: Nancy Fraser from the New School for Social Research and Rahel Jaeggi of the Center for Humanities and Social Change at the Humboldt University of Berlin. The decision by the authors and editors to present this book of theory as a discussion was a wise one. It is that format which makes it accessible in a way that a more traditional exposition would not have. As I read this, I felt as if I was sitting in a room listening to a conversation unbound by any supposition other than that capitalism is a problem for the earth and those who exist on it. As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that in order to resolve the problem of capitalism and its destructive nature, it is necessary to expand the current definitions of it. That is the task of this work. It is a task at which it succeeds, even as it leaves many questions left to answer. Those answers lie in this book and in the future of the struggle against capitalism.

In their search for a more expansive definition of capitalism, Fraser and Jaeggi maneuver through different prisms: historically, morally, ethically and functionally. In doing this, they point out the weakness of each and the necessity of combining the views each of these prisms in order to come up with an expansive, inclusive and more honest understanding. In their examinations of these various ways of critiquing capitalism, various shortcomings of historical movements against capitalism are pointed out and considered. Likewise, the fascist movements of the last one hundred years are discussed in relation to the anti-capitalist aspects of their rhetoric. The nature of identity politics in modern politics is analyzed; both their possibilities for liberation and their reactionary possibilities. The exchanges between the two authors concerning the rise of right wing populist (fascist) movements echo dozens of conversations I have been part of or at least observed over the last few decades. Those conversations seem to have increased since the fact of trumpism and other right wing movements have surged in the global north. It is a discussion that is intertwined with the intensification of identity politics on the left. Fraser’s analysis here is one that makes the most sense and one that she verbalizes better than anyone I have heard so far.

“In the decades since the 1970s,” she states. “two different sets of struggles unfolded at about the same time in many countries of the capitalist core. The first set pitted labor against capital, which sought to break unions, drive down real wages, and relocate manufacturing to low-wage regions in the semi-periphery and precaritize work. This was an old-fashion class struggle, which has mainly been won by capital, at least for now. But unfolding to it in parallel to it was a second front, which pitted the forces of emancipation (in the form of new ‘social movements’ such as feminism, multiculturalism, LBGTQ rights, etc.) against defenders of “old-fashioned” family values and lifeworlds, many of whom were also on the losing end of the first struggle and the “cosmopolitanism” associated with the new globalizing economy. Caught up in the second struggle and largely oblivious to the first, hegemonic currents of the progressive movements dropped the ball on political economy, ignoring the structural transformation underway.”(200)

Furthermore, the identity based movements moved away from the liberationist hopes from which they were born to a strategy demanding for a place at the ruling class table for individuals from these groups. It is a strategy that leaves the mechanics of exclusion and oppression in place for the majority of those in the groups affected.

This book isn’t a book of answers; it is a book of questions and discussion resulting from those questions. The only certainty one might derive when they have finished reading it is that the only chance we have in defeating the ongoing march towards greater catastrophe wrought by human subjugation to capital is to be found in the struggle against capitalism and in organizing that struggle.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com