Marx Lectures C: Problems with the Capital System

by Dr. Jan Garrett

C. Problems with the Capital System Noted by Marx and 19th Century Marxists
"Primitive" (Original) Accumulation - In the period 1500-1800, leading up to full-fledged capitalism in Europe, European colonial powers conquered or subordinated the Americas, Oceania, and parts of Asia (plus engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade), extracting by force and violence precious metals, labor-power, and other valuable resources already developed by indigenous peoples. This helped provide sufficient wealth to jump-start classical capitalism.

Alienation of Labor -- to be alienated from X (in Marx's sense) is to be aware of X as a hostile, dangerous, or oppressive force over an extended period of time; alienation under capitalism is a part of social reality, not a mere subjective experience.

* Worker is alienated from the product of her (and other workers') labor—as he produces it, it belongs not to him but to capital that is not his; machines are used against her (forcing her to work at an unnatural pace or rendering her unemployable by performing more cheaply the tasks she was once paid for performing).

* Worker is alienated from the process of producing, which is essential to his fulfilled creative, social existence; she has no control over the design of the production process or its pace. Compelled to do the same simple task repetitiously for 8-12 hours a day, she is deformed and rendered stupid by the work process itself.

* Worker is alienated from other human beings. He is alienated from capitalists, who try to extract as much s.v. from him as possible and usually demand that he use his body but not his creative mental capacities. The capitalist himself presents himself as "the producer" and gets to experience the power of realizing his plans, while using the workers as "[hired] hands," but the workers do not. The workers are also alienated from each other (as rivals for scarce jobs) and because the products of their labor are designed to make profits, not necessarily to meet genuine human needs.

Workers suffer from the booms and busts of the economic cycle: Employment and income are insecure; they depend upon the phases of the cycle; workers are employed only if what they produce can be sold at a significant profit but otherwise they are expelled from the workplace to fend for themselves.

They are regarded as means only; violation of the "categorical imperative" formulated by Kant: Always treat human beings as ends, never as means only. It rings hollow to say that the mutually voluntary nature of the labor contract respects workers as an end. The two parties to the labor contract rarely face each other with equal power. The worker may be one paycheck away from starvatiom or from losing his house b/c he cannot pay the mortgage.

In capital's early years, its representatives favor civil rights and civil liberties for the middle classes and their allies against absolute monarchies and hereditary feudal "nobility." But capital quickly becomes an anti-democratic force as the movement to empower workers, small farmers, and self-employed people grows. Capital's allies try to limit or suspend the civil and human rights of those most likely to resist its aggressive accumulation of capital. Hence forceful assertion of capital's "rights" is increasingly associated with use of brutal violence, up to and including torture, most dramatically in the transition from state "socialism" or relatively democratic nationalist regimes to the late 20th century's unbridled capitalism. This was the point of China's 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre of pro-democracy (but not pro-capitalist) students and workers. It was also illustrated by the mass executions and torture employed in the 1970's by military juntas in Latin America, who wished to remove resistance to their plans to privatize public works, deregulate the activities of private corporations, and open the economy wide to foreign corporate investment (and control). (The story behind Tienanmen Square and the violations of human rights in Chile and Argentina is well told and documented in Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine (2007).)

Hostility between ethnic groups (or genders) is not original to capitalism, but it is used and promoted by the system because such divisions among the workers prevent them from uniting to form unions, from effectively carrying out strikes, and from organizing working-class political parties that can oppose the capital system.

Additional problems of capitalism noted in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries:

Creation of false needs by advertising to sell overproduced commodities and keep profits coming; promotion of unsustainable levels of consumer indebtedness for the same reason.

Creation of a solid-waste problem from the production and sale of short-lived consumer gadgets that end up in landfills; expansion of solid-waste and pollution problems as byproducts of manufacturing and mining processes, which have multiplied over the years.

Alienation from nature. (Not new but more obvious in recent years.) Workers are alienated from nature because they are compelled by economic desperation to take jobs even if those jobs are part of a production process that damages the environment. Capitalism is inherently unable to value nature or future generations for themselves; the reason is that nonhuman nature and future human generations do not participate in markets, either as direct suppliers of commodities or as potential purchasers (possessors of money) of such commodities.

The deliberate promotion of the arms trade and military buildup, and the cultivation of fear of the "other" so as to justify government spending that buys up otherwise overproduced commodities. To make the political case for this plausible, countries must actually fight wars from time to time. These have long-term costs in lives and in physical and emotional well-being, to the soldiers of the belligerent powers, to civilians and environments in the lands where the battles are fought, and in national financial indebtedness. Since WWII, nuclear war and possible annihilation of humanity have been a real risk.

The creation of global inequality between the relatively prosperous centers of the system (recently in the U.S.-W. Europe-Japan) and the periphery (chiefly in the poorer countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the local capitalist class serves as a junior partner to the capitalists of the dominant countries).

Capitalism has proven itself skilled at shifting its problems from the center to the periphery. Wars are fought mostly in the periphery; toxic waste is mostly dumped in the peripheries; the worst environmental damage, as a byproduct of processes that are profitable to the core capitalisms, tend to occur in the peripheries.

The global south, including the Middle East and south Asia, are part of the periphery. But regions in core countries like the United States, such as the Gulf Coast and Detroit and rural Pennsylvania (where natural gas "fracking" is poisoning the groundwater) are increasingly treated in the same way.

Ethnic antagonism in the 21st century. The immigrant labor issue is a direct reflection of the capital system. Capital and commodities can cross borders easily, but laborers lose their rights when they do. When capital moves easily to places like Mexico and Central America, traditional subsistence farming is destroyed and workers leave to earn income elsewhere. But if they come to countries like the US here they can get jobs, which are low-paid and often dangerous but at least provide income, they are subject to harassment as so-called illegals.