Study guide to Capital for the anti-capitalist. Introduction

You Don’t Need Marx to be an ‘Anti-Capitalist’

Why do we need to read Marx’s Capital?

Or should I say: Why do you need to read Capital? And who do I think ‘you’ are, anyway?

Well, let me tell you . . .

You are, I imagine, a fellow worker. That is, you depend on a wage in order to live. (Or perhaps you have either retired from a life of ‘wage-slavery’ or depend on the wage of a family member.) You are, in other words, one of the 99% – or whatever the exact figure might be).

But I also imagine – as the title series suggests – that you are an ‘anti-capitalist.’ Am I being presumptuous?

I don’t think so. What I mean by ‘anti-capitalist’ is simply that you are, at the very least, dissatisfied with present-day society. You might prefer to describe the object of your frustration as ‘the establishment,’ ‘the status quo,’ ‘Wall Street,’ or something else. But I’m going to take the liberty of lumping this feeling under the category of ‘anti-capitalist.’ After all, we’re living in a capitalist world.

There are certainly millions upon millions of ‘anti-capitalists’ in that broad sense: those whose experiences of living and working under capitalism have brought dissatisfaction and frustration.

In the United States, the extent of the dissatisfaction with the social system has been laid bare by the presidential election. The Sanders and Trump campaigns were able to attract strong support, despite overwhelming opposition among the media and financial elite, by tapping in to the anger among workers.

And in the past few days (because I am writing this in late June 2016), the ‘Brexit’ referendum [on Britain leaving the European Union] passed, reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with elite bureaucrats and investment banks as well as fantasies that nationalism might right the wrongs of globalism.

Granted, such anger is being channeled toward ‘solutions’ premised on the continued existence of capitalism (and as such, doomed to fail), but that does negate that these political movements are a manifestation of the wave of frustration with the ‘status quo’ and ‘establishment’ (read: capitalism!).

None of the workers who are fed up with things as they are had to read Marx to arrive at that position. Experience drove home the point much deeper than any book could have done. We can leave it to the workings of capitalism, not the pages of Capital, to generate anti-capitalist sentiment.

Nor do we need Capital to inform us where capitalism is headed – unlike in Marx’s own day, where some readers found in his book an image of the fate awaiting their own (less developed) countries. As Marx’s wrote in 1867 in his preface to the first edition, ‘The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.’ But today, 150 years later, even the least developed nations today are firmly integrated into the capitalist world. Workers in those countries have not only tasted but had to eat their fill of the bitter fruit of capitalist development.

Some ‘Marxian economists’ might enjoy playing the role of Cassandra by warning us of future wars and crises – secure in the knowledge that eventually they will be proved correct. But how useful are such predictions, really, apart from providing the theorist with the told-you-so joy when the stock prices or bombs are falling. If anything, the knowledge that capitalism has new disasters in store for us can lead to a passive fatalism and despair.

My own interest is not in predicting what might happen under capitalism, but in participating in the project to rid ourselves of this social system once and for all. And I am convinced that this will not come about by simply listing up all the problems of this system. We already know the problems – all too well!

Yet it is crucial to understand the source of the problems. That does not mean, however, that understanding the root of capitalist problems puts us in a position to solve them. Indeed, an understanding of the essence of capitalism teaches us that the calamities and tragedies we face today, such as war and poverty, arise naturally from a class-divided system that revolves around profit and exploitation.

The solution, therefore, can only be found beyond capitalism – in a society where there is no room for the problems to even exist in the first place!

And the basic contours of that new society come into view, I believe, through reading Capital. By clearly tracing the fundamental limitations of capitalism as one historical ‘mode of production,’ Marx enables us to better imagine what might on the other (future) side of that boundary.

Normally we are so deeply emerged in the reality of capitalism that we find it hard to step back and view it as just one historical form of society that has existed to date or will exist in the future. This makes it terribly difficult to imagine an alternative to capitalism. But once we have grasped what distinguishes capitalism from other social forms, as well as what elements are common to any form of society, then an image of a new type of society naturally comes into view.

That is the perspective from which I want to read Capital – always keeping in mind the need to create of a new society beyond capitalism, and writing for everyone who loathes the status quo but has not yet arrived at a clear and realistic alternative to it.

 

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