In United States, many hear of the opposition to capitalism and think that it is opposition to markets. There are countless reasons for this confusion, but most importantly, there has been a deliberate program of propagandizing the US electorate to think think that capitalism is a synonym for free markets. In Michael Moore’s recent movie Capitalism: a Love Story, we see a clip from an old news reel where the talking head explains that ‘capitalism is nothing other than the free market system’. So with this deliberate conflation and obfuscation, it is little wonder that the US electorate is confused. However, when Marx, for example, wrote about capital in his seminal work of Das Kapital, Marx was not attacking free markets. Instead Marx was saying that even if free markets deserve all the worship and praise they get, there is something else that markets enable that fosters and enables an enormous – even intractable – social problem. That problem is capitalism.

Differentiating capital from commerce

In short, commerce is the process of buying and selling; whereas capital is the process of turning value into more value. In Capital, Marx differentiates these two distinct, though often intertwined, processes: commerce and capital. In commerce producers bring their wares to market – they make them available for purchase through sale. When those wares are sold, the seller experiences a change in what they possess in the form of a transformation of their wares – their commodities – into a particular sum of money. With this money, the commercial actor then buys other commodities distinct from what they originally brought to market. Using C to designate commodities and M to designate money, Marx depicts commerce as:

C – M – Cʹ,

where the new commodity purchased (Cʹ) is qualitatively different from the original commodity sold (C). So commerce is comprised of market transactions where the participants are interested in changing commodities into money and then back into commodities different in qualitative traits from the commodities with which they began the process. The commercial actor is first a seller and then a buyer, with the aim of the process being to acquire the other commodities Cʹ. Once the commercial actor acquires those other commodities, the process ends; though a new commercial process may follow. This transformation from one type of commodity into another facilitates a rich division of labor where some producers specialize in producing some things and other producers specialize in producing something else.

In contrast, the process of capital (as opposed to the process of commerce) is when the aim of the transaction is viewed from a very different point-of-view.

M – C – Mʹ,

where the money in the end is qualitatively indistinguishable but greater than the original sum of money (Mʹ > M). The aim of capital is to turn money into more money: to turn value into more value. In contrast to the process of commerce, the process of capital is never ending. Converting money into more money does not end the process, but leaves the agent of capital with a sum of money to continue the process again and again and again. Capital then consists of money, commodities, means of producing, instruments of labor, raw materials, inventories, labor-power, finished products, and work-in-progress as they participates in the process of turning value into more value.

When two or more commercial actors confront one another in commerce, they complement one another: each providing what the other needs. When capital actors inject themselves into the process, they bring entirely different motivations into the process. For the capital actor, the aim is to turn value into more value. While certainly the commercial actors want to sell their commodities for the highest price they can get and buy commodities for the lowest price than can find, the process has definite limits. For the capital process actors,  the aim is to endlessly increase the amount of value in their possession and so all reasonable limits are removed from the process. So while the aim of capital can facilitate commerce, it also adds a predatory and parasitic aspect to commerce where process of capital seeks to increase commerce for capital’s sake and not for the sake of the useful exchange of commodities.

One party to any commercial exchange might be interested in turning their wares into other desirable commodities. The other participant in the exchange might come to the process from a very different point of view. From the perspective of capital, it matters little which commodity serves as the go-between that turns their money into more money. The aim is simply to get more and more money at all times. Capital must find commodities useful to the other commercial participants and also develops an expertise in certain commodities, but since capital is only interested in turning money into more money, the commodity in the middle is inconsequential in the end. Similarly for the commercial participants, the money matters little except that the more money they can receive for their their wares – the higher the price of their wares – the more commodities they can buy with that money. Likewise the lower the price in the wares they buy – the less the amount of money the buyer must tun over in the commercial exchange for each commodity – the better off the buyer. In commerce generally we take the position of both buyer and seller, but not usually both commercial actor and capital actor. Within capitalism – as the division between those with capital and those without grows – most of us only sell our ability to labor, what Marx termed labor-power. With the money we get from selling our labor power (our salary or wage) we buy the commodities we need to live: our housing, our foot, our clothing, etc.

However, in terms of the process of capital, few of us ever take the position of capital. In fact, more and more, the position of capital is occupied by a faceless and soulless entity embodied in our the for-profit and increasingly multinational corporations. So much of the wealth produced by working men and women goes not to an idle leisure class, but instead to rent-seeking corporate entities which then employs salary, wage, and commission compensated workers who spend their entire working life cheating wealth from one another on behalf of their corporate employers. They do not produce new wealth, but simply cheat one another out of wealth produced elsewhere. The insurance adjuster devoted to finding excuses to deny claims, the Wall Street hedge fund managers who manipulates markets to reap stellar gains, the marketing director for an oligopoly enterprise who devises ways of drawing customers from the competing oligopolists: these all simply shift wealth around and have grown to dominate our economy. The important distinction is therefore not between a service economy and a product economy, but between productive and useful labor and rent-seeking labor. Our economy in the United States has increasingly become dominated by rent-seeking labor and less and less do we find either industrial or service-oriented production of wealth.

So commerce is directed at satisfying genuine finite human needs, wants, and desires. On the other hand, capital is driven by the infinite and insatiable quest for more and more value. The process of capital’s infinite quest for more and more value becomes even more destructive when it overwhelms society so that all other aims are subordinated to the process of capital. This subordination of everything else to the process of capital is the very definition of ‘capitalism’. So capitalism is not commerce nor markets at all. Capitalism is the subordination of all other human aims to the unquenchable thirst for more and more money. In colloquial language, capitalism is the love of money.

In a society that worships markets, those who do not worship markets are sinners

While the common confusion over commerce versus capital is a major source of the misunderstanding about those against capitalism, we find another source of confusion in the failure of we anti-capitalists to see markets as a divine solution to all life’s problems.  In a society that worships markets and commerce, those who do not worship markets are sinners. So while commerce is an incredibly useful process which facilitates effective decentralization of decision-making, a rich division of labor, and many other useful traits, it is not something that should replace all other social interactions. Marriage, family, friendship, community, government: these all represent other institutions just as useful and indispensable  as commerce. To a capitalist this can be blasphemy. Capitalism would prefer to see all other institutions replaced by capital supporting commerce. When families care for their own children instead of buying childcare from a capitalist childcare provider, this is an injury to capitalism. When government provides education to schoolchildren instead of schoolchildren buying their education from a capitalist charter school, capitalists views that as an assault on capitalism. Similarly for healthcare, emergency services, military defense, and so forth. The neoliberal dream of privatizing and commercializing everything under the sun is really just the aim of capitalism to subordinate all human interactions to the process of capital.

So an anti-capitalist is not at all necessarily against commerce, but the very defense of other institutions of human interaction fosters, for the rabid-pro-capitalist, a deep resentment, where any defense of non-commercial activity is blasphemy against ‘free markets’. To suggest that government might maintain a public square or act as a democratic steward for our natural resources, is to defy the god of markets and the god of capital. To claim that the love and interaction between a parent and a child cannot be replaced by commercial foster care or  childcare, is an affront to capitalism’s unquenchable desire to turn everything into a market gaining transaction. To insist that we retain a democratic process with one-person-one-vote instead of a capitalist dominated process of one-dollar-one-vote is to attack the capitalist because it removes a market for political influence. These immoral acts in the eyes of the advocate of capitalism all represent transgressions against capital and commerce simply because they suggest their might be room for other manners of human interaction than only commerce and only capital processes alone.

Capital is often harmful. On the other hand, commerce is a useful institution when applied to appropriate places – just like any other social institution. Marriage has a role, family has a role, friendship has a role, worship has a role, community has a role, government has a role, and commerce has a role. For the advocate of capitalism however, these other institutions, except for commerce, are all impediments to the process of capital: to turning value into more value. While they might be useful for a time and in certain social and historical contexts, eventually, as capitalism gains its footing, marriage, family, worship, community, and government all become impediments to capital. Even free commerce itself can become an impediment to the process of capital, so today we see the capitalist insurance sector lobbying for mandatory commerce as the insurance sector calls on improper use of governmental powers to force the purchase of their financial instruments (in other words their healthcare insurance policies). Such forced commerce improves their ability to turn value into more value which Wall Street and other FIRE sector elites demand of each and every health insurance enterprise, but certainly shows the commitment to ‘free markets’ as dispensable in the eyes of the FIRE sector capitalists whenever commerce itself becomes an impediment to capital (similarly when capitalists call for war to forcibly pry open foreign markets, they show that their commitment to commerce is secondary to their commitment to the process of turning value into more value).

Being anti-capitalist does not make one necessarily anti-commerce or anti-markets. I am anti-capitalist though I support unrestricted markets and only equitable taxing of the objects of commerce. For me regulation of commerce should be focused only on the protection of minors who engage in commerce, protections of the environment for production aimed at commerce, protection of human beings whenever they become the objects of commercial transactions (employment, servitude, sale of labor-power, etc.) or require public accommodation, and ensuring that the salient features of the objects of commerce which are important to consumers are fully disclosed and faithfully match that disclosure. I do not favor mandating commercial purchases against the will of consumers nor the prohibition of commerce consumers favor. This is in stark contrast to most ‘free market’ advocates who happily infringe on commerce whenever it inhibits capitalism or gladly infringe on commerce whenever such infringements can further entrench capitalism.

When we place greater value on capitalism, capital, or even merely commerce than living and breathing human beings and joys of life, we potentially ensure free markets at the expense of enslaving human beings. So by all means free markets, but not to the extent that we allow someone to sell themselves into slavery for life as a permanent and absolute solution to a temporary and minor problem. By all means let us free markets and allow free passage of persons (let do and let pass: laissez faire, laissez passer), however, when human beings themselves become the objects of commerce as in slavery and other sales of labor-power, let us not put abstract principle such as commerce above the needs and livelihoods of human beings.

Capitalist Exploitation

Understanding how the process of capital can turn value into more value requires some understanding of the relation of value – as expressed in commodities or money – to labor. In the US, we think of property ownership as creating wealth. When sunlight arrives to the Earth every day, we do not consider it wealth. However, when someone claims ownership of that sunlight it suddenly becomes valuable. However, in the Marxian tradition, this is not the case. Wealth is wealth whether it is owned or not. And wealth arises from two sources: either it is naturally occurring, or it is produced through the deliberate application of human brains and muscles. Even the application of human brains and muscles should be understood as a part of natural processes, however in terms of human society, Marxian economics privileges this wealth creation activity over others. After all, no human being can claim credit for the other wealth creation through nature, but the application of their own brains and muscles to the production of wealth certainly is a result of their own intervention into production.

So Marxian economics focuses attention on the labor process and the ways the labor process intervenes into other natural processes to mold wealth into other wealth. A tree grows on its own and even its seeds may be sewn through natural processes, but at times human labor intervenes to ensure the tree grows faster or stronger or where it otherwise would not grow. The usefulness of this intervention counts as wealth which would not exist without such deliberate human labor intervening into natural processes. So the process of laboring appropriates natural wealth and diverts it to produce more useful things such as a tree in my backyard rather than a tree in a forest of such trees somewhere else. The process of laboring also intervenes in the results of past labor to turn lumber into a cabinet. The lumber was created by previous labor appropriating the gifts of nature and the subsequent labor process transforms that lumber into a cabinet.

The natural wealth creation processes and specifically the labor process therefore constantly remakes matter and energy into useful things: in other words wealth. In contrast to the processes which create or produce wealth, society has norms and systems of distributing wealth which determine the ownership of wealth. While ownership of wealth might encourage a proprietor herself to make more wealth or to employ others to engage in a labor process to make more wealth, the ownership itself does not make wealth. Instead ownership is a means of decreeing the distribution of wealth.

As a labor process continues in duration or is applied more intensely, it creates more useful things: in other words ‘products’. When those products take the form of commodities, the products have a value attached to them as reflected in their price tag. The purchase of the power to labor along with instruments of labor (tools and machines), and raw materials which are either direct gifts of nature or the results of prior labor processes, this purchase is the M – C phase of capital. By buying these commodities (labor-power, instruments of labor, and raw materials), the process of capital enables an associated process of labor. That process of labor turns the raw materials and the depreciated instruments of labor into new products – new commodities. The more intensely the worker works and the longer the worker works, the more new commodities the worker produces – and therefore the more net value the worker adds. The value added is divided between workers and other non-workers, but we should not let that division obscure the source of the net value added in the labor process by workers themselves. Those newly produced commodities are then sold Cʹ – Mʹ. With a portion of the proceeds of that sale, the workers’ employer can compensate the workers by paying wages and salaries. However, the wage or salary is much less than the value added by the worker to the original raw materials and the depreciated instruments of labor. That difference between the net value added and the total wages and salaries paid to the productive workers is called surplus value and is the basis for the process of capital: of turning value into more value through the circulation of commodities: both products of labor and financial instruments.

While gains from market exchanges can occur due purely to a direct transfer from one party to another, such gains are unsustainable in any systematic sense. What allows the persistent gains from exchange or ownership is the surplus value derived from capitalist exploitation. The surplus value skimmed off the top of the net value added by workers facilitates an entire system of compensation based on ownership, swindle, and privilege.

Capitalist exploitation, rent-seeking, and the distribution of surplus value

Often those unfamiliar with criticisms of capitalism arising from the Marxian tradition think of surplus value as merely the profits of an enterprise or the profligate spending of the wealthiest among us. In that very narrow sense, the criticisms of capitalism can seem to some to be merely an envy of those wealthier than themselves. However, this is not the criticism at all. If every enterprise still had profit and there were still well-to-do among us, we could still eliminate the more severe cancers of capitalism. While surplus value certainly supports an idle leisure class and enables corporate profits, it is not those elements alone that are the damage from capitalist exploitation. It is that the capitalist exploitation become the primary motive for all human activity and, as it does, this capitalist exploitation becomes a motive force all its own.

In part, the exploitation of productive workers enables a complementary and supportive realm of unproductive activity. Such unproductive activity includes accountants, strategic planners, information technology professionals, symbolic analysts and all sorts of other activities that are not directly responsible for the production of wealth but aid, facilitate and complement the direct productive activity. That some workers produce the vast collection of commodities which comprise the entire population’s means of subsistence – and those workers produce a surplus of those means of subsistence – it frees these unproductive workers to focus on other unproductive activities. However, the surplus labor performed is not limited to only  producing the consumer products utilized by these unproductive workers. Other wealth must be produced which would not otherwise be needed if it were not for these unproductive laborers. Office buildings must be built, offices must be furnished, vast information technology systems must be produced and maintained, and so forth. From a macro perspective, these are all activities classified as surplus labor because these activities are not necessary for the production of consumer products or the intermediate raw materials and instruments of labor used to produce those consumer products.

While some activities are productive activities and other activities are unproductive activities there is an increasingly more prominent distinction which economic theory has illuminated termed  rent-seeking. Rent-seeking it the expenditure of resources specifically  to acquire wealth already produced rather than expending resources to produce wealth and adding value to existing wealth. In some sense all unproductive activity might be classified as rent-seeking, however, there is sometimes a productivity enhancing element to unproductive activity. For example, accountancy arises from the complexity of the division of labor and pervasive commercial relations. However, since this division of labor and these pervasive commercial relations actually enhance production, such activity is not rent-seeking per se. However, when some measure of accountancy is devoted to producing a fraudulent set of books to swindle shareholders or cheat the tax system, that activity is purely rent-seeking activity.

Similarly a supervisor of workers plays an important role in coordinating and directing the productive activities of many different workers. In that sense the supervisor acts like the conductor of an orchestra and such supervisory labor is itself productive. However, another role for a supervisor may be to push workers to work more intensely and stay long after their normal shift has ended to force the extraction of even more surplus labor than the worker would otherwise provide or is physically and mentally capable of providing. Such supervisory labor is not itself productive, though it results in more production. Instead that supervisory work counts as rent-seeiking activity since the gain for the capitalist enterprise is a loss for the workers whose health and livelihood is expended at  a loss to the worker. In this role the supervisors rent-seeking activity redistributes the wealth – in this case sacrificing the very physical and mental health of the worker for greater production output – from worker to the employing enterprise.

A more pervasive example of complementary economic activity become pure rent-seeking is evident in the realm of money, banking, insurance and finance in general. Finance is an necessary complement to commercial activity and even non-commercial economic activity. For example, in the Amish community the traditional barn raising is a crucial  form of finance: though one completely divorced from capital and even commercial processes. The barn-raising tradition temporarily diverts productive resources from every-day activities to the building of a bran or house for a newly wedded couple or another household in need. The diversion of economic resources from every-day activities to the construction of a long-term durable barn or house brings together the productive capacities of the entire community to provide a new household what it could never provide for itself in isolation. However, the members of that household know that in-time they too will set aside their day-to-day activities for a day or more to devote their abilities to building a barn or house for another household. This all takes place completely outside any capital relations and largely divorced from any commerce whatsoever. However, it is no different than the healthy types of finance which complement commerce. Within healthy commerce, we divert a certain portion of society’s resources to provide a house, a factory, railroad, or an automobile. The major difference is that, with the more complex division of labor in our society, a certain portion of society’s resources are permanently diverted to producing such durables. Finance thus becomes an ever-present and persistent feature of our economy.

However, rent-seeking activity enters into the process whenever financial activity is directed, not simply at mediating between savers and borrowers, but instead directed at supporting an enormous apparatus designed to merely gather wealth unto itself without producing any wealth, without fostering any greater wealth production, and merely to support greater and greater concentration of ownership. This is the dominant thrust of the US economy today. The role of finance could be facilitated by a very meager and streamlined bureaucracy. However, to promote capital processes and entrench capitalism the bureaucratic mechanisms of finance have grown so large in our society that they dominate nearly every aspect of civic life. While every particular financial worker simply does their job in much the same way as any other worker, their entire lives are devoted to swindling wealth amongst themselves on behalf of their employers: swindling wealth produced elsewhere by productive workers and swindling wealth on behalf of a faceless and soulless corporation. So such an unproductive rent-seeking worker experiences work much like a productive worker – receiving some compensation as a salary, or wage, or piece-rate commission – and receiving health insurance and a pension like any productive worker. However, their expenditure of labor and all of the expenditure of resources and labor which has gone into their office furniture and fixtures, office building, telephones, computers, and so forth is entirely wasted from a social perspective. If those labors could be diverted to productive activity we as a society could produce our means of consumption by sharing the load across a shorter work-week. Perhaps 32 hours, or 25 hours, 20 hours, or even less might be enough to produce the means of consumption for the entire US population (or even for the World population by sharing the work around the entire World), if we put restraints on capital and capitalism though not necessarily any undue restraints on commerce nor other economic activity.

The financial sector provides just one glaring example of the wasted diversion of society’s resources into rent-seeking  Other clear areas of rent-seeking include:

  1. Much of our military expenditure – reaching nearly $1 trillion for the US and $1.5 trillion for NATO out of a less than $2 trillion spent through the entire World – is devoted to rent-seeking activity. Our military is not interested in defending the United States, but instead in dispossessing other nations of their natural resources.to ensure capitalism has a never ending stream of raw materials rather than relying on the will of those foreign nations to participate in the World market at their own discretion;
  2. Most of our criminal justice system has been devoted to inventing and exaggerating threats around the use of intoxicants to create an over-bloated criminal justice system which brings immense profits to prison contractors, legal big business enterprise, and so forth and does nothing to help the victims of intoxicant abuse. However, the diversion of these criminal justice resources actually undermine our safety from real criminals and turns mere intoxicant users and intoxicant merchants into criminals by denying them the normal commercial and contract protections of our civil court and commercial enforcement systems others routinely enjoy. While we need to spend resources on criminal enforcement, most of the expenditures today are directed at these unrelated and utterly useless government-supported intoxicant crimes.
  3. Regulatory capture and government lobbying constitute a smaller but growing center of rent-seeking activity. Such rent-seeking activity is largely focused on diverting wealth from the public treasury – broadly conceived – into the hands of private for-profit ignoble mega-corporations. These include the ignoble corporations which operate our natural monopoly industries such as insurance risk funds, railroads, oil and natural gas pipelines, electrical distribution grids, wireless cellular networks and wired telephone, cable, fiber-optic and internet networks. However, such rent-seeking transfers from the public treasury also includes the transfer of fossil fuels and minerals buried deep under federal lands, the grazing and forestry operations on the surface of federal lands, and the enormous defense contractor industry which profits from its enormous price-gouging through sales to the federal government.
  4. In addition to the already mentioned descent of finance into rent-seeking, the Federal Reserve, IMF, World Bank, WTO, FDIC, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, TARP, TALF, PPIP, assembly-line foreclosures, healthcare coverage denials, red-lining and its complement in TIF districts and other real estate speculation, and countless other activities in the financial, insurance, and real estate sectors of our economy (FIRE sectors), devote enormous resources to redistributing wealth from the middle and working classes to Wall Street and other FIRE sector elites.

While difficult to measure, when all added up, these unproductive rent-seeking activities comprise an enormous portion of our commercial economy. A conservative estimate would suggest that at least half of the time devoted to capitalist labor – to working for capitalist corporations –  is devoted to rent-seeking activities. This implies that we could cut our work weeks to 20 hours or less and still meet all the needs and desires of the US population. This is before we even consider the way our ‘needs’ and ‘desires’ are shaped and even manipulated by the rent-seeking activity of Madison Avenue. So the diversion of our economic resources into overwhelming rent-seeking activities forces longer than necessary work weeks. However, it also forces enormous depletion of our natural resources, as the resources provided by the Earth are misused to provide the completely unnecessary instruments of labor and raw materials devoted to rent-seeking activities. The enormous waste of resources on military equipment and armaments,  the construction of office buildings and the manufacture of office equipment devoted solely to rent-seeking, the construction of prisons and  manufacture of instruments of oppression to incarcerate by far more of our population than anywhere else in the World: this not only taxes the physical and mental capacities of workers and their families, but places an undue burden on the mineral, fossil fuel, and other natural resources afforded us by this Earth.

Capitalism’s harms

“So when you spend a dollar that’s ten seconds of my time
And when you spend a billion that’s my life and that’s a crime
‘Cause for me life is hard like the track that I’m rappin’ on
Callin’ for the freedom of the backs that you steppin’ on.” — Lyrics by Boots Riley from the rap group The Coup

While I hope it is clear from the above discussion that capital is not a necessary process for commercial processes to persist and that capitalism is not a necessary part of commerce nor capital processes, I want to underscore some of the harms created by capital and especially the subordination of all other aims to capital: in other words capitalism’s harms. In some sense one can read Marx’s Capital as just such a litany of capitalism’s harms during the second half of the 19th century. While some of those harms have been partially addressed such as child labor, and attenuating some of the most dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, many of those harms remain even today. In addition we have become aware of other harms – such as ecological disruption and environmental damage – which Marx only barely understood. When all other human concerns are subordinated to the process of turning value into more value, the damage is profound. Capitalism robs some workers of the entire lives and even other less injured workers are made less whole. Still other workers around the globe are subjected to some of the harshest and exploitative conditions, not really for our benefit, but for the benefit of the rent-seeking and unproductive capitalist beast which dominates our lives. Therefore by freeing ourselves from the grip of capitalism (though not necessarily commerce), we also relieve the burdens of others whose lot is to face endless toil to complement our lot as mechanized consumers for capitalism. It is not that we would ever want to end consumption or production which are integral components of living, but we must end the capitalist impulse which – in capitalisms eyes – reduces us all to nothing more than capitalist producers and capitalist consumers.

While much has been done to address degrading working conditions within the United States, the safety of workers remains a secondary concern to the profits of each capitalist corporation. We see this in the Massey coal mine disaster and the BP oil rig explosion of 2010 which together cost the lives of dozens of workers within weeks: all preventable deaths arising from cost-cutting measures which compromised and subordinated safety for the process of capital, of turning value into more value. Many of the most dangerous occupations are moved out of the sphere of meager federal labor regulations to ensure safety measures do not get in the way of profits. Once these jobs move overseas we move the real threats to worker’s lives out of sight and out of mind. While these safety measures also inhibit the productiveness of these activities, those reductions in production are easily absorbed by diminished rent-seeking activities without damaging the quality of life of anyone in the World. However, in the capitalist mindset, every concern must be subordinated to the quest for more and more value: in other words the bottom-line or profits. So protections for commercial-labor reduce the overall profitability and the overall extraction of surplus value from the labor process. However, competition ensures those burdens are shared equally across all for-profit enterprise. Such regulations do not eliminate profits, they merely lower the bar so that every enterprise appropriates less surplus value and sees lower profit margins. To those steeped in capitalist ways of thinking a lower profit margin sounds unsustainable, but profit margins are always evaluated in relative terms. If capitalism became accustomed to 1,000% profit margins 999% profit margins would seem unsustainable (but it is not and neither are lower margins to which capitalism has grown accustomed today).

In terms of ecological disruption and environmental impacts, capitalism views any obstacle to capital processes as an unbearable injury to capital. Therefore to deny the abuse of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, or to impose environmental restrictions on deep water oil drilling violates capitalisms self-sense of entitlement to abuse any natural resources to satisfy its unquenchable desire for more and more value. Do these protections also diminish our ability to consume these useful resources? Indeed! However, without the demands of capitalism we are in a position to make reasoned assessments of tradeoffs. We can choose to protect a wildlife refuge by avoiding the damage of oil drilling and forgoing some of the resources we might obtain from that drilling. Without the capitalist way of thinking we can forgo the removal of granite from Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome to preserve a majestic natural wonder. When capitalism is allowed to dominate all public life these natural wonders are no longer safe. Nothing is sacred to the capitalist way of thinking except capitalism itself.

These conflicts which threaten worker health and safety and the preservation of our most treasured natural resources: these are not conflicts arising from commerce. They are not necessarily even conflicts arising from the process of capital: of turning value into more value. However, they are conflicts and threats arising out of capitalism: the subordination of all other concerns to the process of capital. The process of capital and its growth into capitalism – the subordination of all other concerns to the process of capital – implies human concerns are an obstacle to capital. This capitalist attitude infects every aspect of our civic life and public discourse. Government today is demonized merely because it is the most current and immediate field of battle for capitalism. In prior eras, capitalism jousted with other obstacles. For example, in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, we benefitted from a broad array of political viewpoints among the press. The views of workers were presented in some papers, those of small businesses in others and those of burgeoning mercantilists and capitalists in still other newspapers. Capitalism solved this dilemma through the consolidation of newspapers and other news outlets and by taking great advantage of new technological advances in radio and television broadcasting. Capitalism no longer worries bout the widespread publication of critical viewpoints. That problem is solved (at least for now).

Education, academia and institutions of higher learning remain one of the few places where these alternative viewpoints persist. Capitalism deals with that problem through a vilification of academia and more recently, through a capitalist takeover of institutions of higher learning. Now institution of higher learning are increasingly expected to assess each and every hire, tenure decision, and allocation of academic resources in terms of whether and how much it will appease the educational institution’s capitalist benefactors.

Along with academia, capitalism has squarely faced-off against government to increasingly ensure workers pay the costs of government, but the benefits of government accrue more and more only to capitalism alone. Therefore the Reagan revolution consisted largely of reducing or eliminating the taxes paid by capitalist enterprise.  Therefore the capital gains tax – essentially a tax on a major portion of capital processes – has been greatly reduced. Also taxes on corporate profits have been greatly reduced which required capitalist enterprise pay some portion of its surplus value to defray the costs of government services. Finally, the highest marginal tax rates have been greatly reduced so that incomes that can typically only result from exploitation, aka the appropriation or receipt of distributions of surplus value, now pay much less of those ill-gotten gains to defray the costs of government services.

At the same time capitalism has reduced its own obligation to cover government expenses and thus dumped more and more of that obligation onto working men and women, capitalist enterprises have insisted on the focus of  more and more government services on their needs alone. Therefore the military scarcely provides any military defense for the US population, but instead devotes its resources to securing foreign markets and natural resources within foreign lands for the use of capitalism while also imposing anti-labor and repressive regimes throughout the globe. Here at home, government services are more and more diverted to oppressive sectors of government such as the ATF, FBI, DEA and a wildly proliferating oppressive apparatus of over sixteen intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance.counter-intelligence, propaganda, and subversion organizations. These agencies also cooperate with private for-profit media conglomerates and state and local police to disrupt dissenting and oppositional political organizations: organizations which threaten to stand in the way of any of capitalism’s leading agenda. The Department of Homeland Security was created to foster paranoia and rampant suspicions rather than to address the military’s utter impotence and failure to respond to the attacks of September 11th.

Even other non-enforcement and non-defense sections of federal government have been subverted to aid the capitalist corporations rather than the general welfare of the US population. So the farm bill increasingly goes to large factory farms held by mega-corporation agricultural conglomerates and fails to aid the family farms and needy which those programs were originally intended to aid. Energy programs aimed at developing renewable and green energy alternatives instead go toward oil, natural gas, and coal producers who have too much vested interest in fossil fuel royalties to ever sponsor any green energy alternatives. Our entire political process has been upended to serve as an endless source of advertising revenue for media conglomerates rather than the media serving as a crucial source of information for the electoral process.

The latest capitalist assault on government has focused on turning our educational system increasingly toward for-profit charter schools. Of course private schools have long been an option throughout the United States, though previously operated by largely religious or otherwise charitable institutions. However, the charter school movement seeks to raid the public treasuries of municipalities, school districts, and other local taxing bodies to funnel tax revenues to Wall Street and other FIRE sector elites. While some non-profit charter schools are held as stellar examples of the potential for charter schools, these are largely and deliberately well-financed and non-reproducible institutions because the philanthropic funds are simply not available to sustain every school in the US at the same level as these example schools. What these examples therefore demonstrate is that with more resources devoted to eduction, we get more successful students. However, the capitalist school movement instead draws the lesson that capitalism can successfully school our children. While certainly capitalism can school our children, it cannot provide a worthwhile and fulfilling education to our children.

Capitalism’s assaults have not been limited only to the media, academia and government. It has also undermined marriage, family, friendship, worship, and community. Other harms include:

  • privatization of schools to turn a profit
  • environmental degradation because it turns a profit
  • welfare to workfare to force commercial and capitalist childcare and force the desperate into the workforce
  • replacing productive labor with rent-seeking labor
  • maintaining unreasonably long work weeks
  • undermining democratic institutions which stand in the way of capitalism’s ‘progress’
  • turning news, education, and worship into entertainment
  • turning academic research into pubic relations propaganda
  • when it bleeds into marriage, family, friendship, worship, community, and government capitalism overwhelms those other relationships and subordinates all the legitimate aims of these institutions to the process of capital.

Allowing commerce without capitalism: without capital dominating all else

My platform addresses the severe harms of capitalism in two ways based on combining the lessons of the Marxian tradition with solid Green Party values. The first remedy is to replace the capitalist control of our natural monopoly common infrastructure with a socialized public common. In this way the common serves the needs of commerce and other economic activity rather than all other economic activity serving the insatiable quest for more value among thoroughly capitalist ignoble for-profit natural-monopoly mega-corporations. This therefore replaces the system of tribute where surplus value extracted from workers makes its way up the capitalist hierarchy until it is all gathered and concentrated into the hands  of the ignoble mega-corporations of banking, insurance, finance, retail, oil, telecom, and transportation, and energy. Socializing the natural monopoly components of these economic sectors allows those sectors to serve the economic needs of the US population rather than turning the people of the US into disposable inputs into a process of unending concentrated wealth. The  private control of our commons by capitalist natural monopoly ignoble mega-corporations acts as an engine driving capitalism and capitalist exploitation to such an extent it damages the environment, brings indefinite war down upon communities, condemns third-world citizens to misery and hyper-exploitation, forces expansive governmental powers and an inappropriate levels of incarceration, and so forth. However, it is not merely due to the capitalist and rent-seeking driven results of capitalist controlled natural monopoly corporations that is a problem, but these ignoble corporations also wield governmental powers of control of the commons which no private oligopoly and oligarchical organizations should wield.  When Congress or states grant these corporate charters they violate the constitutional provision against granting titles of nobility by granting governmental powers over the commons to these ignoble corporations. The granting of these titles of nobility thus undermines the guarantee to a republican form of government where decisions, stewardship and proprietorship over the public commons must be made through the constitutionally inscribed legislative power of Congress and the state legislatures. By turning over these powers over the commons to these capitalist ignoble corporations we permit them to price-gouge consumers and impose a hidden tax to reap the spoils o the public treasury as their own private profits. So aside from the capitalist harms caused by these ignoble corporations there are many other reasons to avoid such capitalist control of the commons: not the least of which the Constitution prohibits it.

The other remedy I propose is to foster a proliferation of worker cooperatives and other worker reforms which curtail capitalist exploitation and the appropriation of surplus value within corporations. Worker cooperatives replace the capitalist appropriation of surplus value with what the Marxian tradition refers to as a communist appropriation of surplus value. While many hear the term ‘communist’ and think of China or the former Soviet Union, the term as used by Marx and a significant thrust of the Marxian tradition treats communism in this limited sense: where the workers who collectively work together producing surplus value also collectively and democratically join together to appropriate and distribute that surplus value in the interests of themselves and their shared enterprise. While some scattered communist appropriation of surplus value might occur in China and the Soviet Union, ‘communism’ has become largely a propaganda tool in much the way that government in the US has increasingly celebrated ‘democracy’ while paternally patting the electorate on the head and ignoring the views and needs of the electorate.

So the transformation of capitalist enterprise into socialist enterprise in the few natural monopoly enterprises which comprise the common infrastructure of our economy combined with the communist appropriation of surplus labor within worker cooperatives together will allow for a healthy level of commercial activity while still bringing capitalism under control by placing capital processes under proper restraints. While any particular worker cooperative enterprise might still pursue capital processes and experience a drive to appropriate more and more surplus value, such a drive to engage in capital processes is also attenuated because the workers producing the surplus value are the self-same workers making the decisions over how hard to drive themselves to produce surplus value. While the workers might democratically decide to hire more supervisors and provide incentives to work harder or extend the length of the workweek, they would not decide to close their own plant and move it overseas (unless they decide through deliberation they too want to move overseas). Therefore a decision to move production abroad is a simultaneously a decision to retool the plant and redirect their productive energies toward another product or service. Likewise the culture of capital which permeates capitalist corporations is transformed as workers are more interested in focusing on the usefulness of their products and their suitability for commerce and less on the wanton desire to endlessly appropriate more and more value.

At the same time, the socialization of the natural monopoly components of money, banking, insurance, finance and only a few other natural monopoly components of the economy, ensures that capitalist mega-corporations no longer drive the process from above by demanding more and more tribute from the capitalist enterprises arranged hierarchically beneath them. Instead the playing field is leveled and socialist enterprises which will replace these capitalist ignoble mega-corporations will merely serve the economic needs of these worker cooperatives and all other economic actors in a transparent and equitable manner with tight democratic oversight.

Summary

  • Commerce (the market) is not the same thing as capital nor the same as capitalism.
    • Commerce is buying and selling
    • Capital is a process of turning value into more value (turning money into more money).
    • Capitalism is the subordination of all other aims to the aim of capital.
  • We can have capital without capitalism.
  • We can have commerce without capital.
  • We can have less (or more) severe capitalism without doing away with capitalism.
  • We can have less (or more) predominant capital processes without doing away with capital processes.
  • Capitalist exploitation is the ultimate source of sustainable market gains and capitalist exploitation also fosters an enormous portion of our economy devoted to rent-seeking: of cheating one another out of the wealth produced by others.
  • While capitalist exploitation results in surplus value which manifests itself in corporate profits and the consumption of an idle leisure class, a far more harmful result of surplus value is its support for an immense and growing rent-seeking sector of economic activity. Such rent-seeking devotes entire worker’s lives and immense abuse of the Earth’s resources for activity devoted merely to transferring wealth already produced among rent-seeking corporations and other organizations.
  • The subordination of all human concerns to the process of capital – in other words ‘capitalism’ – immeasurably damages lives within the US and throughout the World. We must instead make a space in civic life for a richer set of human concerns where the commerce and capital are just two among many objectives of our public life.
  • Socializing the natural monopoly sectors including our monetary system, insurance, and credit intermediation can reduce the pressures of capitalism from above by removing the capitalist element from money, credit, insurance and finance, while proliferating worker cooperatives can eliminate the overwhelming capital impulse from private decentralized enterprises.

* Note: Considered Harmful essays are a tradition in the field of computer science starting in 1968 with Go To Statement Considered Harmful. It has been a way to elevate practices and end destructive behaviors for decades.