In ancient myths of paradise, people lived in boundless plenty without work or want. The fruits of the earth were freely available to all and no labor was necessary. If life under capitalism is a far cry from paradise, it is nonetheless beholden to its own myths of work, prosperity, and progress. Understanding what the world was like before the rise of capitalism, and envisioning a different world beyond the capitalist reality we live in today, calls for an examination of its myths and the structures on which those myths are built.
Capitalism usually presents itself as an economic system, a way of organizing the production and distribution of goods and services, of wealth and welfare, of material gain and loss. But capitalism is more than an economic system, it is a form of society: A form of society in which the economic has taken precedence over the social. Under capitalism, economic necessities become more important than basic social relationships – finding a job and keeping it can be more pressing than creating a fulfilling life together with friends and companions and loved ones; figuring out how to pay the rent or maintain the mortgage or make sure there’s food on the table wins out over exploring what we have in common; worrying about who’ll take care of us when we’re too old to work gets in the way of taking care of each other here and now. What is best for me individually becomes more vital than what is best for the communities I am part of, than what is best for all of us.
When we find ourselves thinking this way, it is not because we are inherently selfish beings. That notion of natural self-interest and acquisitiveness is one of the major myths of modern capitalism. Human societies have evolved myriad ways of arranging their economic interactions, many of them based squarely on communal rather than individual standards of wellbeing. They aren’t always liberatory, of course, but they do indicate that capitalism’s peculiar preoccupation with concern for oneself over others is not built in to human nature. And most people don’t get all that far under capitalism, economically speaking, no matter how much we focus on our own needs and wants. Though the free market continually holds out the promise of a better life for all, the promise generally becomes reality for only a few.
Viewed in this context, capitalism is by no means historically inevitable. It isn’t part of the fabric of the universe and it isn’t a consequence of the laws of physics. It is not an innate attribute of human existence. It is not, as it pretends to be, the natural state of economic affairs. Capitalism is a social artifact, something created and maintained by people, by our actions and inactions, whether deliberate or inadvertent, whether malevolent or well-meaning. It arose in particular places at specific times under distinctive conditions. It has a history, though admirers of capitalism sometimes like to portray it as timeless. Like everything historical, it has both beginnings and an end. If we made it, we can unmake it.
That means understanding how it functions. To do this we can draw on both theory and practice, incorporating the lessons learned from critical analyses of the basic structures of capitalism as well as the legacies of organized opposition to those structures. We can make use of the insights generated by radical social movements throughout the long history of emancipatory struggles against capitalism. Many of these struggles were led by workers in class-based movements resisting the growing power of capital. Others were made up of peasants or artisans, and some were community-based movements defending popular institutions from encroachment by an advancing capitalist system. The participants in these struggles disagreed about how to make sense of the seemingly senseless society formed by the development of capitalism, but we can distill a series of key concepts from their experiences.
From the perspective of these oppositional movements and their assessment of a world transformed according to capitalist imperatives, the core features of capitalism as an economic system and as a society can be characterized as follows:
Commodity production and exchange. Commodities are the fundamental unit of capitalist societies, as the cell is the fundamental unit of the body. Under full-fledged capitalism a commodity can be just about anything – something useful and necessary, something harmful and pointless, something rare or common, something intangible and ephemeral. What makes an item or an idea or an action a commodity is not some intrinsic quality of the thing itself, but its status as an object of exchange. In its simplest form, a commodity is a good or a service that is produced in order to be exchanged. It is valuable not primarily for what it is but for what price it can fetch when bought or sold, what can be gained by exchanging it for other commodities.
Markets. The mechanism through which commodities are exchanged is the market, a forum in which buyers and sellers compete for advantage. Historically markets were subject to social constraints: typically located in circumscribed areas, limited to certain times of the day or week or year, tempered by ethical stipulations. Many human societies assigned markets a deliberately subordinate position in communal life and delineated clear boundaries within which markets were allowed to operate. This changed with the ascendance of capitalism. In an ideal capitalist world, markets and their competitive dynamic no longer heed social limitations but are ubiquitous and unfettered; they are everywhere all the time. Though championed for their supposed efficiency, markets are frequently models of extraordinary waste and inefficiency. In their capitalist form markets have a tendency to permeate all relationships and all dimensions of social life, extending far beyond the immediate economic realm and turning neighbors into rivals, colleagues into competitors, allies into adversaries.
Property as private investment. Through the processes of commodity production and market exchange, more and more aspects of human life and the natural world are reduced to assets that can and must be owned. Wealth comes from the earth and its creatures and from the work of human hands and minds, and there are countless forms in which it can be created, discovered, and shared. Capitalism imposes one form as paramount: private ownership of resources. In contemporary industrial capitalist societies this type of private property can take the shape of entrepreneurs who own a business, shareholders or investors who own a corporation, landlords who own real estate, speculators who own stock or trade debt and credit and abstract commodities existing only in notional form. The driving force behind this kind of ownership is profit.
Wage labor. Most people in capitalist contexts don’t own assets that earn profit, and have to sell their time and effort to others in order to make a living. Selling your ability to work in exchange for a paycheck is known as wage labor, the component of capitalism with which most of us are intimately familiar. A division of labor between groups of people doing different tasks is not peculiar to capitalism, but in combination with commodity production, the predominance of the market, and private ownership of economic resources, wage labor means that the people who actually produce the goods and services that keep the system running have little say in how the things they produce are made and distributed. Those decisions are normally the prerogative of owners, executives, and managers, whose directives are supposed to be carried out by workers. When the system works the way it is designed, products end up in the hands of consumers divorced from any connection with or knowledge of the producers or their conditions of work, from mass manufacturing to the provision of services.
On the basis of these intertwined core features, capitalism has achieved remarkable levels of economic innovation and equally remarkable levels of ecological and social destructiveness. What drives both its accomplishments and its devastation is a constant requirement for accumulation, for increasing returns on investment, for profits that can be put back into circulation in order to yield even greater profit. Ever-expanding material reward is the carrot that entices capitalist ambitions, accompanied by the stick of potential economic ruin. While its operations are baroquely complex and often inscrutable, its underlying principles are starkly straightforward. This accounts for capitalism’s conspicuous flexibility, the capacity to accommodate itself to widely different social and cultural contexts. It also accounts for the profoundly alienated relationships at the heart of capitalist society.
Because capitalism is built around recurrent crises, economic and otherwise, it has always sparked dissatisfaction and resistance. From anarchists to marxists, from cooperative movements to anti-colonial struggles, diverse groups and individuals have contested the regime of capital for generations. For those of us fundamentally opposed to capitalism, it is crucial to keep in mind the political ambivalence of discontent with capitalist norms. History is littered with false alternatives to an inhumane and unsustainable system. Stalinism, to choose one all too recognizable example, is not a compelling replacement for free market nostrums. Many populists and fascists also oppose capitalism, based often enough on the alluring but deceptive paradigm of hardworking producers versus parasitic financiers. There are numerous authoritarian and right-wing versions of anti-capitalist sentiment. We need to remember this if we don’t want to end up in a future that is even worse than the capitalist present. The challenge is to come up with a comprehensive critical analysis of what is wrong with capitalism and a plausible array of alternative social institutions that could supplant it.
A helpful step toward that goal is to ask questions without easy answers. What is it about capitalism that we oppose? Its outsize impact on our lives, our character, our bodies, our planet? Its privileging of multinational corporations and millionaires? Its cosmopolitanism and its corrosive effect on traditional mores? Or is it alienation and exploitation that we reject? And what are we working toward? A more smoothly functioning liberal state that will provide for all? Local self-sufficiency and regional autarky? Planning bureaucracies and legislated equality? Environmental enterprise and reduced consumption? Neighborhood markets and family farms and mom and pop stores? Or do we want a genuinely anti-capitalist alternative, structurally antagonistic to hierarchy and domination, to profit and property, whatever their scale or scope?
Beyond decisive questions like these, there are many other problems to be thought through and worked out. Capitalism is not as all-encompassing as it appears; non-capitalist relationships exist within and alongside the dominant economy and society. And as central as production is to economic endeavors, reproduction and care are what make our lives possible, while the pleasure of personal and collective creation for its own sake, regardless of utility, can make our lives worth living. Indeed the very notion of «the economy» as a separate sphere of social life is itself a legacy of the historical emergence of capitalism. Today’s shifting affiliations linking capitalism to white supremacy, to patriarchy, to racial and gender and other hierarchies are not an implacable constant but always in flux, with oppressive as well as subversive potentials. The crushing weight of capital distorts any image of a life after capitalism, but the possibilities of transcending its bitter strictures are entirely real. They are ours to explore, ours to construct, and ours to share.