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What Keeps Capitalism Going?

Michael A. Lebowitz is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, and is the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). He is currently living and working in Venezuela.
This essay is based on an address to the Rebuilding the Left Conference at Simon Fraser University on September 23, 2003.

I want to address a very simple question: What keeps capitalism going? or, in the somewhat more technical language of Marxists, How does capitalism as a system reproduce itself?

Of course, the first point that we need to establish is what I mean by capitalism. People mean a lot of different things when they use the term. They may have in mind a market economy or an economy with wage-laborers—or maybe only an economy in which corporations dominate. Naturally, then, what they mean by anticapitalism will also differ—it may mean, anti-markets, anti-wage-labor, and it may simply mean anti–large corporations.

My definition is the one that Marx developed: capitalism is a relationship in which the separation of working people from the means of work and the organization of the economy by those who own those means of work has as its result that, in order to survive, people must engage in a transaction—they must sell their ability to work to those owners. But, the characteristic of capitalism is not simply that the mass of people must be wage-laborers. It is also that those who are purchasing that capacity to perform labor have one thing and only one thing that interests them—profits (and more profits); that is to say, the purchasers of labor-power are capitalists, and their goal is to make their capital grow.

What the capitalist gets as the result of purchasing that ability of workers is the right to direct workers in production and the right to all they produce. It is a set of production relations quite different from the case, for example, of the cooperative or collective where workers direct themselves in production and have the property rights in what they produce themselves. Within capitalist relations, the capitalist has purchased the right to exploit workers in production. He pays them, on average, enough to meet their customary needs, but he has purchased the right to push them to produce more than it costs him for the use of them. As a result, the worker produces additional value, more money, profits, for the capitalist—the worker produces more capital for the capitalists. And that capital, the result of the exploitation of workers, goes into the accumulation of more means of production. What you see when you look at capital is the result of past exploitation.

This was the central message that Marx was attempting to communicate to workers. What is capital? It is the result of exploitation. It is the workers’ own product which has been turned against them, a product in the form of tools, machinery—indeed, all the products of human activity (mental and manual).

But, turned against them how? Before talking about how this system keeps going, how it reproduces itself, we need to understand why this question is even important to ask. Think about the drive of capitalists to expand their capital, the drive to increase the exploitation of workers. How can they do this? One way is by getting workers to work more for the capitalists, for example by extending the workday or intensifying the workday (speedup). Another is to drive down the wages of workers. And, still another is to prevent workers from being the beneficiaries of advances in social knowledge and social productivity. Capital is constantly on the search for ways to expand the workday in length and intensity—which, of course, is contrary to the needs of human beings to have time for themselves for rest and for their own self-development. Capital is also constantly searching for ways to keep down and drive down wages, which of course means to deny workers the ability to satisfy their existing needs and to share in the fruits of social labor. How does capital achieve this? In particular, it does so by separating workers, by turning them against each other.

The logic of capital has nothing to do with the needs of human beings. So practices such as the use of racism and patriarchy to divide workers, the use of the state to outlaw or crush trade unions, the destruction of people’s lives by shutting down operations and moving to parts of the world where people are poor, unions banned, and environmental regultions nonexistent—are not accidental but the product of a society in which human beings are simply means for capital. We could go on about the character of capitalism, but I think the point is clear.

So, back to the topic—how is it that this continues? What keeps capitalism going? How is such a system reproduced? Let me suggest a few answers.

First, the exploitation of workers is not obvious. It doesn’t look like the worker sells her ability to work and that the capitalist then proceeds to get all the benefits of her labor. The contract doesn’t say—this is the part of the day you are working for yourself (reproducing your requirements), and this is the part that you are working for the capitalist and adding to his capital. Rather, it looks like the worker sells a certain amount of her time (a day’s work) to the capitalist and that she gets its equivalent in money. So, clearly the worker must get what she deserves—if her income is low, it must mean that she didn’t have anything very valuable to sell, nothing much to contribute to society (certainly, very little compared to the capitalist); in fact, she should be happy she got anything. On the face of it, in short, there is no exploitation. Marx was very clear on this point—the very way that wages are expressed as a wage for a given number of hours extinguishes every trace of exploitation—“all labour appears as paid labour.” This disappearance of exploitation on the surface, he noted, underlies “all the notions of justice held by both the worker and the capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production” (173).* Note that it is not only the capitalist who will tend to think there is no exploitation; it is also the worker. If that’s the case, when workers struggle, they are struggling not against exploitation but against unjust wages or working conditions—they are struggling for a better wage or shorter day, for what they see as fairness: a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.” In short, they do not see themselves as challenging the system, only some of its unfair results.

Second (and closely related), if it doesn’t appear as if there is exploitation of workers in the process of production, then capital cannot appear as the result of exploitation—it cannot be recognized as the workers’ own product. So, where does all that wealth come from, then? What is the source of machinery, science, everything that increases productivity? It must be the contribution of the capitalist. Having sold to the capitalist their ability to work (and thus the property rights to all they produce), the social productivity of workers necessarily takes the form of the social productivity of capital. Fixed capital, machinery, technology, science—all necessarily appear only as capital. Marx commented, “The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital” (156). What I am describing here is the mystification of capital. The more the system develops, the more that production relies upon fixed capital, on the results of past labor which take the form of capital—the more that capital (and the capitalist) appear to be necessary to workers. It is no accident, in short, that workers would see themselves as dependent upon capital. Marx made a very significant comment in this respect:

The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of this mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance.(157)

Given the hidden nature of exploitation and the mystification of capital, we obviously already have a strong basis for the reproduction of capitalism as a system. But, there is more.

A third reason why capitalism keeps going is that society does not only appear to be dependent upon capital and the capitalist for all advances. As individuals within capitalist relations, workers really are dependent on capital to meet their needs. As long as they are separated from the means of work and need to sell their ability to work in order to get the money to buy the things they need, workers need the capitalist, who is the mediator between them and the realization of their needs. For the wage-laborer, the real tragedy is not the sale of her labor-power; it is the inabilityto sell it. What can be worse for one who must sell a commodity than to find no buyer? Workers, it appears, have an interest in the health of capitalists, have an interest in expanding demand on the part of capitalists for their labor-power—by education, tradition, and habit, they come to look upon the needs of capital as self-evident natural laws, as common sense. The reproduction of workers as wage-laborers requires the reproduction of capital.

Do we need any further reasons for the continuation of capitalism as a system? Let me throw in just one more before we consider some of the implications. Workers are not simply dependent upon the state of capital in general for their jobs and thus their ability to satisfy their needs; they are dependent on particular capitals! Precisely because capital exists in the form of many capitals, and those capitals compete against each other to expand, there is a basis for groups of workers to link their ability to satisfy their needs to the success of those particular capitals that employ them. In short, even without talking about the conscious efforts of capital to divide, we can say that there exists a basis for the separation of workers in different firms—both inside and between countries. In other words, we can easily see how workers may see other workers as the enemy and will make concessions to their employers in order to help them compete better.

Is it hard, then, to understand why Marx could say that capitalism produces a worker who looks upon its requirements as “self-evident natural laws”? When we think about the dependence of the worker on capital, is it difficult to grasp why capitalism keeps going? After all, Marx not only proposed that capitalism “breaks down all resistance” he also went on to say that capital can “rely on his [the worker’s] dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them” (899). Capitalism tends, in short, to produce the workers it needs.

Well, you might say that I’m presenting a rather distorted picture of capitalism. That I’m making it seem as if capitalism is a system without contradictions, a stable economic system that delivers the goods. What about economic crises? Doesn’t capitalism inevitably come up against crises, crises inherent in its nature? Some people predict the collapse of the system once a week. I don’t think too much of arguments that suggest that the permanent crisis of capitalism began in the hour of its birth. But, the system does have crises—periods in which profits fall, production drops, people are unemployed. Don’t those crises demonstrate that a new system is necessary?

Without question, an economic crisis brings the nature of the economic system to the surface. When there are unemployed people, resources, machinery, and factories—and at the very same time people with the need for those things that could be produced—it is pretty obvious that production in capitalism is not based on human needs but, rather, only on what can be produced for a profit. This is a time when people can be mobilized to question the system. However, so long as people continue to think capital is necessary, then the solutions they look for will not be ones which challenge the logic of capital. (The same will be true in the case of the environmental crises that capitalism produces.) So long as they see capital as the source of jobs, the source of wealth, the source of all progress, then their answer will be that they don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The same point needs to be made in relation to the struggles of workers against capital to reduce the workday, improve working conditions and raise wages—both directly against specific employers and also in the attempt to capture the state and to use it in their own interests. So long as workers do not see capital as their own product and continue instead to think of the need for healthy capitalists as common sense (and as in their own interest), they will hold back from actions that place capital in crisis. As long as workers have not broken with the idea that capital is necessary, a state under their control will act to facilitate the conditions for the expanded reproduction of capital. Here, in a nutshell, is the sorry history of social democracy—which, despite the subjective perspective of some of its supporters, ends by reinforcing the rule of capital.

So, we return to our question—what keeps capitalism going? How is capitalism reproduced as a system? I think you can see the answer that I am offering: capital tends to produce the working class it needs. It produces workers who look upon it as necessary—a system that is unfair, one that requires you to struggle constantly to realize your needs, a system run by people out to get you, yet a system where the reproduction of capital is necessary for the reproduction of wage-laborers. What keeps capitalism going? Wage-laborers. The reproduction of workers as wage-laborers is necessary for the reproduction of capital.

Note that I haven’t said anything about patriarchy or racism. Some people on the left argue that patriarchy and racism are necessary conditions of existence for capitalism. I think we need to distinguish between what is necessary and what is useful for the maintenance of capitalism. When we speak of necessity, we are saying that without x, capitalism could not exist. I don’t think this is true of patriarchy or racism. Capital certainly uses racism, patriarchy, national, and ethnic differences to divide the working class, to weaken it and to direct its struggles away from capital. But, it can find many ways to divide and weaken workers. And, it can, if forced, do without racism or patriarchy just as it can, if forced, live with higher wages or shorter workdays. (Just as it has been able to do without apartheid and white rule in South Africa.) What capital cannot live with, however, is a working class that both understands that capital is the result of exploitation (i.e., that the wealth that confronts it is the product of the collective workers) and is also prepared to struggle to put an end to that exploitation.

Obviously, a working class with this characteristic does not drop from the sky—not when capital produces workers who look upon the requirements of capital as self-evident natural laws. Is the answer, then, the vanguard party which brings a socialist consciousness to ignorant workers? Why should the workers who are the products of capital pay any attention to these messages from the outside? This picture seems like a scenario for inevitable irrelevance and isolation.

Let me propose, however, that the picture is not necessarily as bleak as it seems. Workers are not simply the products of capital. They are formed (and form themselves) through all the relationships in which they exist. And, they transform themselves through their struggles—not only those against capital but also against those other relations like patriarchy and racism. Even though these struggles may take place fully within the confines of capitalist relations, in the course of engaging in collective struggles people develop a new sense of themselves. They develop new capacities, new understandings of the importance of collective struggle. People who produce themselves as revolutionary subjects through their struggles enter into their relations with capital as different people; in contrast to those who are not in motion, they are open to developing an understanding of the nature of capital.

But, they are merely open to this understanding. All those actions, demonstrations and struggles in themselves cannot go beyond capitalism. Given that exploitation inherently appears simply as unfairness and that the nature of capital is mystified, these struggles lead only to the demand for fairness, for justice within capitalist relations but not justice beyond capitalism. They generate at best a trade union or social-democratic consciousness—a perspective which is bounded by a continuing sense of dependence upon capital, i.e., bounded by capitalist relations. Given that the spontaneous response of people in motion does not in itself go beyond capital, communication of the essential nature of capitalism is critical to its nonreproduction.

For those within the grasp of capital, however, more is necessary than simply to understand the nature of capital and its roots in exploitation. People need to believe that a better world is possible. They need to feel that there is an alternative—one worth struggling for. In this respect, describing the nature of a socialist alternative—and analyzing the inadequacies and failures of 20th century efforts—is an essential part of the process by which people can be moved to put an end to capitalism.

To the extent that those of us on the left are not actively attempting to communicate the nature of capitalism and working explicitly for the creation of a socialist alternative, we are part of the explanation as to what keeps capitalism going.


Parenthetical numbers refer to Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

2004, Volume 56, Issue 02 (June)
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