Capitalism or Capital?

a clarification

Every analysis that starts from ‘capitalism,’ rather than ‘capital,’ starts from the wrong premise. ‘Capitalism,’ like most ‘isms,’ seems to imply some kind of philosophy or policy or scheme that individuals could opt for or against, and that evidently some (malevolent? unethical?) individuals opt for because it gives them power. Capital, on the other hand, is a social relation.

In every era, our species must acquire or produce the useful goods and effects we need to stay alive, and to raise another generation of humans: this is the species’ metabolism with nature. But in every era this necessary metabolism with nature, by which man produces her necessaries and reproduces herself, acquires a determinate social form. Capital is that social form in the modern era: this is what it means to say that it is a mode of production. It is an antagonistic mode of production, because the production process itself presupposes and reproduces the diremption of humanity into classes: the owners of land, the owners of means of production, and the ‘owners’ of nothing but their own labor-power. But this does not mean that it is at base a mode of acquisition of political power for the ruling class. Man cannot eat ‘power;’ she cannot subsist or propagate herself on ‘power.’ As Freidrich Engels succinctly put it, “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” Capital is a mode of producing the material, useful goods and effects necessary for the species to reproduce and propagate itself.

What is unique about this mode is that in it, this production of material, useful goods like food and shelter, as well as effects like medical care, education, transportation, recreation, and increasingly, even love and friendship, which are necessary to the species is subordinated to the self-expansion of a real abstraction, value, which it happens in-and-through. Useful goods and effects can only be produced if their production process also produces surplus value. Value is the expression of the abstract labor (that is, productive activity separated from all other activities and considered as such, regardless of the concrete, particular aspect it assumes) which is socially necessary for a commodity’s production, and this includes the commodity labor-power. The measure of value is labor-time. Surplus value is the expression of the labor-time worked in the direct production process over and above that labor-time which is socially necessary for the reproduction of the commodity labor-power (that is, how much time it would take to produce the stuff we need to live). Value wears many masks, or forms, but it is as money that it is able to function as an abstract universal equivalent, which can be exchanged for any other commodity. It is the real abstraction of exchange against a universal equivalent that allows all manner of concrete, particular goods and activities, which are in themselves incommensurable, to be considered equal. This abstraction is a real one, because it doesn’t happen in our minds — we don’t look at a thing and reduce it to the average time necessary for its production — but in our practice, in the the act of buying and selling. Because in a society which reproduces itself via this mode, the overwhelming majority of useful goods and effects are produced in order to be bought and sold, and by means of buying and selling (of means of production, raw materials, and labor-power), we can call exchange the social form of production, which stamps the direct production process, as well as the goods and effects produced, with a character adequate to it. Only what will turn a profit gets produced, and it’s produced in the most profitable way possible, no matter how damaging to our species, to other animals, or to the planet. So in practice, this social form of the production process is really a process of social deformation — its requirements may appear as natural facts, but they’re only social scars. That relation which flows through this whole process and drives it, we call capital.

Capital is value in process, which assumes the form of money, becomes other to itself in commodities, then returns to itself as more money, and throws itself into this circuit again. The moments of this process are all personified — the financial capitalist, money capital personified, lends out money to the industrial capitalist, productive capital personified, who turns it into commodities (constant capital: means of production and raw materials, and variable capital: labor-power) to be brought together in the direct production process (and to be clear, it makes no difference whether this process takes place in the factory, the fields, or the various places where service commodities are today produced). In the direct production process, the worker, the bearer, or personification, of the commodity labor-power, transfers a portion of the value of the means of production and raw materials into new commodities, to which her labor-power adds new value (because she works at them longer than is socially necessary to produce the value of her own means of subsistence, which she recieves in the form of wages) — this process thus has a dual character, not only a production process of useful goods or effects, but of surplus value, a valorization process. The new commodities must then be taken to market (usually by a commercial capitalist, commodity capital personified) and their surplus value is realized when they are sold for a greater sum of money than was thrown into the process in the first place. A portion of this profit must in turn be thrown back into the process again on a greater scale if it is to continue expanding, but a portion of it is also shared out to the commercial capitalist (these days, quite a big portion), a portion must be returned as interest to the financial capitalist who funded the venture in the first place (these days, often an even bigger portion), and, if the direct production process took place on land or in a building that’s not owned by the industrial capitalist, but is instead leased, a portion must also be shared out as rent to the landlord (that is, landed property personified). As we can see, all profit, no matter how it’s divvied out, is derived from surplus value produced in the direct production-cum-valorization process. Capital is essentially this process of value valorizing itself; the phenonmenal appearance of its personifications, its ‘character masks,’ is secondary, and differs historically with the ever-developing exigencies of the capital-process. For example, productive capital can be personified by an individual entrepeneur, by the board and shareholders of a modern public corporation, or even by the state, as in the USSR.

This process is self-perpetuating, completely aside from the conscious will of its personifications: capital, value in the process of becoming more value, has its own logic; it must expand or die. More money must exist at the end than did at the beginning to reinvest in the process, or nothing we need can be produced. Thus we, its personifications, worker and owner alike, are compelled to carry out its logic, because the material goods and effects that it utilizes as its bearers are the same goods we need to reproduce and propagate ourselves. Therefore capital is in one sense merely our own activity: a social relation of production, but one with a fetishistic character. In it, we appear to be personifications of things, and it is things that appear to engage in social relations. We live in an apparently bewitched world, where mere dead objects (money, commodities, land) have had life breathed into them by the spectral subject value, and these things appear to do things, and we can do nothing but obey their dictates. This appearance is real — our lives depend on it — but all the same, it conceals its constitution: the dead things have life only because they vampirically suck our life, our living labor, our time. People are dominated by the self-movement of the products of our own activity. Capital is at once us, and not-us; our own productive power, and a power over and against us.

We are all the slaves of a fetishistic social form of the species’ productive activity, capital — which is thus a form of abstract social domination. We are all forced into a position in which we can only live by buying and selling things to and from each other, and as buyers and sellers, the law of this society, which is enforced by the state, treats us all as equals, as abstract legal subjects free to dispose of our property as we please. But this formal equality conceals the fact that, in reality, some us only consistently have one thing that we can sell — our own capacity to labor for a determined length of time. Some slaves have to have it worse than others. For this process to continue, there has to be a class of people who have no way of accessing the useful goods and effects they need to live except by selling their labor-power as a commodity. We call this class the proletarianized class.

The existence of such a class is a product of history, of the violent separation of people from their means of subsistence. But it is not an accidental or contingent sociological datum, but a logical necessity that is both the precondition and the continually-reproduced product of this mode of production — it is contained in the concept of capital. Because why else would somebody sell off their own time and effort for alien purposes unless they had no other choice? However, this class can appear in many different phenomenal forms historically, depending on the ever-developing exigencies of the capital-process. Those of us that comprise this class don’t have to be in just one ‘income bracket,’ or look or act or think just one kind of way, or do one kind of work, or even work at all if there’s no work to be had, which there often isn’t (because this process by definition does not develop smoothly but by-and-through crises) — but in the latter case, we appear as a relative surplus population, and then we’re in a real pickle.

The class that has no choice but to try to sell chunks of our time (and whatever we do during those chunks), as sellers of a commodity, obviously have an immediate interest in making that sale at as high a price as possible, under as favorable conditions as possible, and in having some kind of social insurance to fall back on if we can’t make that sale. So we struggle with the buyers of our labor-power, who own the means of production, over the terms of sale. But this struggle between poles of the class-relation is business as usual — it too is contained in the concept of capital. It can be a headache for the owners of the means of production, but it poses no threat to capital, which is this relation itself, including us-as-labor, or better, including us-as-variable-capital. We could even call this the kind of struggle that constitutes the capital-relation.

But the proletarianized class, not as sellers of the commodity labor-power, but as human beings — who, if it were up to us, probably wouldn’t want to be silently compelled by material necessity to sell chunks of our own time at all — have a potential interest in being done with “this whole shit,” as Karl Marx put it, and finding some other way of acquiring or producing the useful goods and effects we need to live. This other way — without money, without buying and selling, in which time is not quantified and exchanged, completely incommensurable activities are not abstractly identified as ‘labor’ expressed in ‘value,’ there’s no longer any link between how long you work and how much you eat, and the kinds of useful goods and effects that we actually want, need, and desire can get produced and consumed because we want, need, and desire them, not only as an incidental by-product of a process of making money into more money  — this other way is called communism.

Communism is a social relation between people as people rather than as things, a way of living in which wealth isn’t measured by how much neccessary labor-time is caked up in commodities, but by how much free time we have that we can use however we like — which actually needn’t be measured at all, as long as we have a lot of it. Global communism wasn’t always possible, and we don’t know exactly what it’ll look like, because it emerges from our struggle to be done with the whole shit of capital. We only know what it’s not, because communism is the determinate negation of capital. For obvious reasons, this communist kind of struggle happens far less often than the first kind, and some would say it has only become a possibility fairly recently. But we can call this the kind of struggle that transcends the capital-relation.

When this kind of struggle succeeds, we won’t get higher wages, but to live in a world without wage-labor; not quantitatively more survival, but a qualitatively different life; not the domination of a new class, but free association as a community in which no one is classified or dominated by abstract compulsions that nobody can control. When the proletarianized class wins this kind of struggle, we won’t do so as proletarians any longer, but as humans. In the human community, everyone won’t be treated identically — that’s this society, the capitalist society, the society of abstract equivalence, of buyers and sellers equal before the law, in which anything we do can be exchanged for money, and if it can’t, it’s worthless and might as well perish. In the human community, we can be different without fear.

Only once we grasp all of this, can we speak of ‘capitalism,’ as a kind of shorthand way of refering to the society whose reproduction is held hostage to the capital-process, the society we want to do away with.

A New Institute for Social Research