Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 1

Index to posts in this series.

I didn’t see a precise definition of capitalism in Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, though it’s obvious Wood is talking about capitalism in the UK and the US. Here’s a definition I found in a 2006 paper by Bruce R. Scott, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus at the Harvard Business School. The paper is titled The Political Economy of Capitalism.
Scott offers this definition of capitalism taken from the Palgrave Dictionary of Economics:

Political, social, and economic system in which property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled for the most part by private persons. Capitalism contrasts with an earlier economic system, feudalism, in that it is characterized by the purchase of labor for money wages as opposed to the direct labor obtained through custom, duty or command in feudalism…. Under capitalism, the price mechanism is used as a signaling system which allocates resources between uses. The extent to which the price mechanism is used, the degree of competitiveness in markets, and the level of government intervention distinguish exact forms of capitalism. P. 2-3, fn. omitted.

He comes up with a slightly different definition, and I’ll come back to this paper in another post. I doubt this definition would be acceptable to Wood, because it hides the reality of capitalism. For example, it says that in feudalism, one class “obtains” labor from another, which is probably not how peasants experienced it. She would at least state that almost all social systems enforce some form of expropriation by a dominant class, and discuss the mechanisms of that domination and expropriation in capitalism. She would want to discuss the logic that operates in capitalism, which I take to be something like this.

a. The goal of individual capitalists is to increase the amount of capital under their control.
b. The point of capitalism as a system is to produce returns to capital. Those returns come from producing goods and services for sale at a profit.
c. Capitalists only produce goods and services for sale. Capitalists produce nothing that cannot be sold for a profit.
d. Any means that can be used to increase the returns to capital will be supported by capitalists. These include cheating on taxes, use of tax havens, pollution, screwing workers, supporting tax cuts and tax advantages for capital (lower capital gains rates, ending Estate Taxes, lower marginal rates, special depreciation rules, outright exemptions for certain types of income, extortion of state and municipal governments for tax benefits), fighting unions, bribing legislators, regulators and executive branch officials, the list is endless and as far as I know has never been assembled in one place.

These four points aren’t laws, in the sense of the laws of physics. They are simple observations of the actual behavior of the capitalist class. They paint a bleak picture of capitalism, utterly unlike the way capitalism is portrayed in the media, by the government, by politicians, by educators and even by religious leaders. Wood argues, essentially, that any benefits it confers were forced by workers or governments, and are under constant assault. Violations of laws by capitalists are never punished as the serious crimes they are. Which executive of BP, Transocean or Halliburton went to jail for blowing up a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and poisoning the waters? No one is accountable for the damage done by capitalists behind the corporate shield, whether to the environment or to the people they employ.

I’ve gotten in the habit of referring to our current system of capitalism as neoliberalism, but for Wood, the capitalism we see today is just the logical growth of capitalism as Marx predicted, following the logic described above. When Marx wrote, capitalism had a solid foothold in England, but it had yet to reach its full extension. In both England and the US there were many artisans and free farmers who owned their own means of production, and were free from the imperatives of the marketplace. They had the ability to feed and shelter their families with little or no recourse to a market economy. They were for the most part free to sell or retain their production for their own use. Outside of Europe and the US, pre-capitalist economies were the dominant form.

That is no longer the case. It is very difficult for any not-rich person to provide for themselves and their families without selling their labor to capitalists. That is just as true of software engineers as it is of doctors and plumbers. No one, even the rich, can provide the necessities of life without using markets.

Wood argues that we have nearly reached the situation Marx predicted: a society of two classes, capitalists and producers. The capitalists provide some level of sustenance to those they hire, and the rest are dependent on the state or they are on the street. Or they die. The difference between the value produced by workers and their pay is sucked up by the capitalists. Although Wood doesn’t mention it, the financial sector eats up some of the sustenance received by the workers. All of us are forced to participate in a system dominated by the rich.

This system is supported by neoliberalism, an ideology dreamed up by economists and other academics. There is no point of contact with democracy. In fact, there is good reason to think that neoliberalism would work better in an autocracy or an aristocracy, and some conservatives, such as the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, think the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) should be repealed as a step in that direction.

The main goal of neoliberalism is to provide a theoretical basis for denying governments the power to interfere with the business activities of capitalists, an utterly anti-democratic goal. Most people spend a huge part of their time working and commuting to work, and thinking and worrying about work. Corporations now make decisions that have massive impacts on individual lives, and on society, with little or no input from government or non-rich individuals or society, and regardless of whether they serve any purpose that outweighs the damage. It’s absurd to say that the bulk of our lives should be controlled by the decisions of the rich and powerful with no democratic control. But it’s just fine under neoliberal theory. To be very specific, holders of private capital have created the current planetary environment, which is rapidly becoming inhospitable to human life. A theory that supports their efforts to do so is suicidal.

As I say, it’s a bleak picture. In the next part I look at a somewhat less somber picture.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Index To Posts

This list will be updated with links to the conclusory post or posts on Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, and all posts are updated to include a link to this post. As a reminder, I read this book on a Kindle, and it didn’t give page numbers. All citations are to the Kindle location, as best I could tell.

This book turned out to be very difficult going. Part of it was my own unfamiliarity with the vocabulary of Marxist thought, where even the definitions are hard to understand concretely. Part of it is that most of the previous books engage with a history I’m vaguely familiar with, while the primary issues of Marxist thought relate to the transformation of feudalism into capitalism, and from monarchy to liberalism. Wood adds detailed discussions of ancient Greek and Roman history that I didn’t knowabout. Understanding these transformation required a lot of background reading. Another difficulty is that I’m not familiar with any of the work Wood cites. Unlike most writers, Wood only engages with Marxists, with the exception of Karl Polanyi, whose work she mentions briefly.

But mostly it was difficult because it is a criticism of capitalism from outside capitalism. All of the other books I’ve discussed take capitalism as a given, and do not even offer much of a definition. At most, they criticize it from inside the bounds of capitalism. This orientation makes it very difficult for those of us raised to believe that the only option to capitalism was pure evil.

I mention these difficulties because I think this perspective is worth the difficulties of learning a new set of ideas. Even if some of the book is jargon, the value is there, and it’s worth wading through.

I did not write about Chapters 5, 8, or 9. Chapter 5 focuses on Wood’s view of Weber. The latter two chapters concern the social issues on which the left was focused during the late ’80s and early 90s. Wood argues that these issues are important, but that they were diverting leftists from the economic issues that have always been at the center of left theory. Maybe progressives are relearning the political reality that food and shelter are at the forefront of the lives of almost everyone. I generally agree with that view and have written about it repeatedly.

In my introduction, I mentioned a post by Eric Levitz, a writer at New York Magazine. I hope people will take the time to read this excellent discussion of relationship between capitalism and democracy, and the article by Jedidiah Purdy linked in it. As I have said throughout this series, you don’t have to be a Marxist to see the problems capitalism creates, and I think these two pieces illustrate that nicely.

1. Introduction To New Series.

2. Competing Stories About Wages.

3. The Separation Of Politics And Economics.

4. Capital In A Fiat Money World.

5. Base, Superstructure and More Definitions.

6. Neoliberalism.

7. Class.

8. Notes On Class.

9. Markets.

10. Democracy.

11. Liberalism.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Liberalism

In Chapter 7 of Democracy against Capitalism Ellen Meiksins Wood sets out an historical analysis of the politics of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, starting with England. In Wood’s telling, two of the major steps along the way were Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Both events temporarily settled the relations between the nobility and centralizing state in the person of the monarch. Neither event had anything to do with the establishment of democracy in the sense of rule by the people. The settlements assume the continued servility of the masses, and continued domination by the aristocracy. The power of the nobility was based on their economic domination through non-economic means, military, juridical, and ideological, and on control over the power of the nascent state.

As feudalism morphed into capitalism, domination was split between two forces, the centralizing state and increasing economic power, mostly held by the aristocracy and by the rising merchant class. The latter were threatened by growing centralized power, and reacted to it by working to increase the power of the Parliament which they controlled. Capitalism helped make this possible because the economically dominant class was able to extract surplus from the productive sector through economic power, only somewhat aided by the power of the state.

Liberalism became the dominant ideology among the dominant economic class. This use of the term “liberal” has a specific meaning: it refers to a set of values including limited government, constitutionalism, individual rights and civil liberties. Kindle Loc. 4499. The pre-condition for this kind of liberalism is the existence of a centralized state, one that has to be limited by these ideological constructs. Kindle Loc. 4502.

The dominant classes were willing to extend civil protections from the central state to the multitudes. What they were not willing to do was to allow any intrusion on their rights of property. That led to a search for legal and constitutional protections of their property rights. Capitalism provided the economic framework for this project. Citizenship relates to the State, and a growing right to select representatives to govern. Citizenship is irrelevant to the economy, where the economically dominant class controls everything. Legal and ideological structures protect that division.

Wood looks at US history, and sees a somewhat similar process. In the US, a limited form of democracy existed in the States at the time the Constitution was written, and the Founding Fathers could not displace it. Still, the same solution emerged. The Constitution protects property interests. Theoretically, all citizens share in that protection of property, but the emphasis is on political freedoms, the liberal freedoms of individual rights and civil liberties, and limited government. The principle limit on government was to prevent it from imposing restrictions on the free use of property. The dominant class, first merchants, then industrialists, and then financiers, controls the economy.

The idea was that all citizens would be represented by their elected officials. Wood says that the representatives are removed from the people at large, both spatially in the sense that the central government was isolated; and in the sense that the representatives are few in number compared to the number of citizens.

In ‘representative democracy’ rule by the people remained the principal criterion of democracy, even if rule was filtered through representation tinged with oligarchy, and the peoplel was evacuated of its social content. Kindle Loc. 4436; ital. in orig.

The term “social content” means the natural social context in which people live, relations of home, work, church, community. This idea of representation is natural according to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 35, quoted by Wood

The idea of actual representation of all classes of the people, by people of each class, is altogether visionary…. Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants in preference to persons of their own professions or trades…. they are aware, that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by merchants than by themselves. They are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments without which, in a deliberative assembly, the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless…. We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community. Kindle Loc. 4240.

These words could have come from Plato, substituting a different elite for merchants, or from any other elitist theorist. This obviously is not rule by the people, as in the original meaning of democracy. As I type this, we can see our elitists in action, busily confirming a known liar and a sexual creep to join four other conservative hacks on SCOTUS, where they will decide just how much majority rule we are allowed.

The political sphere is the home of limited government, the home of civil liberties, the home of individual rights. That sphere is separate from the economic sphere, which is put into the hands of the oligarchs, the rich, and their minions. The economic sphere is the area that provides us with the means to live, mostly by selling our labor. The idea is that the political sphere is not supposed to interfere with the economic sphere, insuring that every part of our productive lives are at the disposal of the rich, including our ability to provide our families and ourselves with food and shelter.

Wood sees liberalism as “democracy tinged with oligarchy”. As I explain in this 2013 post at Naked Capitalism, we live in an oligarchy inside a democracy. This and similar posts at FDL are based on Oligarchy in the United States? by Benjamin Page and Jeffrey Winters and on Winters’ book Oligarchy. They argue that Oligarchs share three interests:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

Oligarchs differ on what we call social issues (the carceral state, abortion, gay rights, guns and so on), which in Wood’s telling are the domain of the political sphere. Consequently some legislation on those issues is possible. Their views on economic issues are almost identical. A threat to one rich person is a threat to all. Therefore they unite on economic issues and generally prevail when legislation or regulation threatens any of them. Or when they really want a SCOTUS nominee to be confirmed.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Democracy

The second half of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book, Democracy Against Capitalism, is devoted to a discussion of the current state of democracy in the UK and the US. She begins with a discussion of ancient Athenian democracy, which she regards as a real democracy, and a good model for comparison. In Athens, there was a class of peasant farmers and artisans who were juridically free citizens. They owed no duties to tyrants or aristocrats. They possessed their own means of production, lands and tools, and worked as they saw fit with out any regard to the demands of any other class, or tyrant or government. There were slaves, to be sure.

But the free labourer enjoying the status of citizenship in a stratified society, specifically the peasant citizen, with the juridical/ political freedom this implied and the liberation from various forms of exploitation through direct coercion by landlords or states, was certainly a distinctive formation and one that signaled a unique relationship between appropriating and producing classes. Kindle Loc. 3586.

In other pre-capitalist societies, either the state or a group of aristocrats appropriated some or all of the production of the peasant class “… through various mechanisms of juridical and political dependence, by direct coercion – forced labour in the form of debt bondage, serfdom, tributary relations, taxation, corvée and so on.” Kindle Loc. 3700.

In classical Athens, all citizens, including the peasant farmers and artisans, had the right to participate in decision making on all issues. Of course, people generally deferred to experts on technical matters, such as warship design, but all were entitled to hear the presentations of the experts and to choose the one they thought best. In the same way, all participated in other political decisions. It goes without saying that this “all” didn’t include slaves and women. Even so, this is a remarkable advance for the peasant class.

This arrangement was the subject of debate among the Athenians; though it’s fair to say that pretty much everything was a subject of debate there. Wood offers a fascinating discussion of Plato’s dialog Protagoras as an example. Protagoras was perhaps the most famous of the Sophists, a group of teachers of wisdom and virtue. We only have fragments of his work directly (as opposed to the words Plato puts in his mouth), but I especially like this:

Man is the measure of all things; of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not. P. 239, The Pre-Socratics, ed. John Wainwright.

In the dialog, Socrates defines the issue as whether virtue can be taught. Roughly, Wood claims Plato argues through Socrates that virtue is philosophical form of knowledge available only to those with a privileged access to a higher truth. Obviously to Plato man is not the measure of all things; rather there is some other sphere of understanding and universal truth that eludes most people, but is available to a special few.

In the Dialog, Protagoras argues that virtue is taught from the beginning of life.

Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life. Mother and nurse and father and tutor are vying with one another about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand what is being said to him: he cannot say or do anything without their setting forth to him that this is just and that is unjust; this is honourable, that is dishonourable; this is holy, that is unholy; do this and abstain from that. And if he obeys, well and good; if not, he is straightened by threats and blows, like a piece of bent or warped wood. At a later stage they send him to teachers, and enjoin them to see to his manners even more than to his reading and music; and the teachers do as they are desired. And when the boy has learned his letters and is beginning to understand what is written, as before he understood only what was spoken, they put into his hands the works of great poets, which he reads sitting on a bench at school; in these are contained many admonitions, and many tales, and praises, and encomia of ancient famous men, which he is required to learn by heart, in order that he may imitate or emulate them and desire to become like them.

That sounds like something Pierre Bourdieu might have written. We teach our young how to be virtuous in our own societies, using the social understandings we learned in the same way, and through our own experience of our culture, including our own study of the texts available to us. This argument leads to the conclusion that every citizen partakes in virtue, and that this civic virtue is the indispensable tool of democracy. Socrates takes the view that only some have access to the higher, universal virtue, and those ought to rule. Wood adds that the producers should be required to enrich and feed the chosen few.

Wainwright says that the Sophists primarily taught people how to win arguments. Those arguments might or might not be best for the community, or even virtuous or moral. Wainwright seems to favor Plato’s position. This argument is ongoing; for example, it’s a big part of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

Two thoughts.

1. Philosophy. Plato draws a distinction between appearance and reality, a dualism that survives today. Appearance is the aspect of reality that comes to the human mind mediated through our senses. Reality is something else, a deeper unchanging universal existence which only some precious few of us can grasp. One analogy is Plato’s cave, where we humans can perceive only the shadows that real things cast on the wall, not the things themselves. It’s as St. Paul says, 1 Corinthians 12.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Reading this, it’s easy to see how St. Thomas Aquinas might have been influenced by Plato, if he had those texts, and at least by the Neo-Platonists, which he did have.

Protagoras’ view that man is the measure of all things rings true to me. I will resist the temptation to write about this in depth, but I more or less agree with the ideas Richard Rorty, the American pragmatist, discusses in his accessible collection of essays, Philosophy And Social Hope. It’s worth noting that Rorty really despises Marxism, at least dogmatic Marxism, for reasons that are baffling after reading Democracy Against Capitalism, and which are hard to square with his appreciation of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a book praised by Wood.

2. Democracy. I think Protagoras has the better argument on this point. Decisions about how society ought to operate should be made with the participation of as large a number of citizens, the people most affected, as possible. Wood agrees. She thinks that socialism comes from decisions made by a large majority of us or not at all. In our current system, we assume that it’s enough that we are represented in those decisions through our elected officials. But what does that even mean in our current version of democracy?

Democracy Against Capitalism: Markets

While the development of capitalism certainly presupposes the existence of markets and trade, there is no warrant for assuming that markets and trade, which have existed throughout recorded history, are inherently, or even tendentially, capitalist. Democracy Against Capitalism, Kindle Loc. 2355

Human beings have always enjoyed markets and trade. In The Histories by Herodotus, written in the Fifth Century BCE, there are many mentions of markets and trade. In this excerpt, he describes a huge excavation project, and adds this:

Now there is a meadow there, in which there was made for them a market and a place for buying and selling; and great quantities of corn came for them regularly from Asia, ready ground. Book VII § 23.

There certainly wasn’t any such thing as capitalism 2500 years ago, but people still bought and sold in markets and carried goods to markets over remarkable distances. Markets and trade are found in all societies as far back as we can see. In a society with complex division of labor, they seem essential as a mechanism for distribution of production. Wood takes up the question of the role of markets in capitalist societies in several places. For example:

It is not capitalism or the market as an ‘option’ or opportunity that needs to be explained, but the emergence of capitalism and the capitalist market as an imperative. Kindle Loc. 2360

One important aspects of the transformation of feudalism into capitalism in England was the enclosure of lands. That concentrated land ownership in the hands of the aristocrats and landed gentry, a very small group. Some small farmers were able to participate in the market for land leases, giving them access to the means of production and maintaining and reproducing themselves. But the only way for them to raise cash to pay their rient was to sell their produce in the market. The small group that controlled most of the land used markets to get cash as well, having no need for all they produced and desiring cash returns. Instead of market as optional means of distribution, markets became imperative.

Agricultural workers with no access to the market for leases were forced to sell their labor to those with access, thus becoming participants in a labor market, and to use their wages to buy the food and other goods they produced. This is the early stage of capitalism, when its drives become clearer and more demanding. Small leaseholders can only raise the cash they need to pay rent by selling their produce. Their profits increase if they can extract more labor from the workers or pay them less. They are competing with other small leaseholders, so they benefit by crushing their competition or by crushing their workers. These are the seeds of the transformation identified by Wood.

Wood is clear that there is nothing inherently problematic with markets as means of distribution. The problem is the ideology and use of markets in capitalist systems, which Wood despises. First, she rejects the theory that markets are self-regulating,

… the guarantor of a ‘rational’ economy. I shall not explicate that distinction here, except to say that the ‘rational’ economy guaranteed by market disciplines, together with the price mechanism on which they depend, is based on one irreducible requirement, the commodification of labour power and its subjection to the same imperatives of competition that determine the movements of other economic ‘factors’. Kindle Loc. 5679,

This is the same idea we see in Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. He describes labor as a fictitious commodity, as I discuss here. Like most European intellectuals, Polanyi was well-versed in Marxist thought, but there is little direct evidence of that in his book, a point Wood makes. Kindle Loc. 3074. It’s another illustration of the way Marx’ historical materialism has influenced intellectuals. It’s the method that’s important, but Marx’ conclusions and even his history and sociology are open to argument and correction. I do think Wood herself is less open to questioning and correcting what she finds in the Marx canon; I can’t find much where she engages with her contemporaries outside her fellow Marxists. I’d welcome a correction on this.

Criticism of the notion of a self-regulating market has recently risen to a level that makes it almost impossible to take it seriously. After the steady string of economic crashes brought on by deregulation, only the most rigid among us cling to that idea. But it’s useful to remember that Wood wrote this in the early 1990s.

Second, Wood says that capitalists use markets to further the ends of capitalism instead of to meet the needs of human beings. The market is a tool to establish dominance and control over producers. Wood puts it this way:

I have suggested throughout this book that the capitalist market is a political as well as an economic space, a terrain not simply of freedom and choice but of domination and coercion. Kindle Loc. 5997.

Indeed, throughout the book Wood argues that the market is an imperative, not a choice in a capitalist society. Few of us have the ability to produce to meet our needs. If we want to eat, we are forced to sell our labor. Even those who can produce goods and services must, as the tenant farmers Wood describes, sell their goods and services to get cash for other needs. Capitalists produce those things they think they can sell without little regard to the long-term consequences, and without any input from interests affected by such production. Wood quotes Marx from Das Kapital:

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. Kindle Loc. 2647

In other words, the point of capitalism is to provide returns to capital. The point isn’t to make life easier or better for the vast majority of workers and citizens. In the exact same way, the point of markets is to provide a return to capital, not to provide the best allocation of resources or to provide the lowest price for goods and services. We see this more clearly as neoliberalism tightens its grip on the economy. Big Pharma is a good example.

These two criticisms are closely connected to the division of the political sphere from the economic sphere. We can think of the “market” as a proxy for the economic sphere, which in capitalist systems is separated from the political sphere. Wood puts it this way:

… the so-called economy has acquired a life of its own, completely outside the ambit of citizenship, political freedom, or democratic accountability. Kindle Loc. 4579.

The separation of the political and economic spheres has given private interests the dominant position in the lives of workers. They control the hours worked, the nature of the work, the kinds of things that are produced. This control arises through the property relations established and enforced by the state. With the sanction of the state, these private interests have the power to decide people’s income and whether they are allowed to earn an income at all. We even see private interests setting limits on the speech and assembly rights of individuals. Private interests have the power to limit health care benefits, vacations, and childbirth leave, just to name a few. Legislation to assert the interests of workers is routinely defeated, and when not defeated, is always watered down, in the name of efficiency, or of profit, or of the absolute rights of people/corporate entities to the property they control.

I don’t see any argument here that could not be made by a neutral observer of modern neoliberal capitalism.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Notes on Class

In this post I described Ellen Meiksins Wood’s view of class from Chapter 3 of Democracy against Capitalism. In this post I look more closely at two aspects of class that seem especially relevant.

1. The small number of classes. Wood pointed out that the concept of class has not received much elaboration. Basically, we can identify three classes, the working class, the capitalist class, and the artisan/small business/professional class. That seems inadequate to describe the class structure of the US. Are there more?

Class is based on social relations, including primarily the relation to the means of production. It’s obvious that people have different levels of access to the means of production and different levels of control over use of the means of production. Meat cutters, Amazon warehouse workers, and the working class generally have no access and no control. At some point in a business hierarchy, that changes. People are given different access and different levels of control. At the top of each organization there are managers who have been given full access to the means of production and full control over their use. All of these higher-ups have control over assets, and more important, control over the people lower in the hierarchy.

It’s hard to see how to use this to identify a nascent class among those with some degree of access and control, such as supervisory and managerial workers. Classes don’t exist just because we can identify structural similarities. There has to be some way for them to connect across employers, so that they can see commonalities in their work lives and their social relations above and below. More likely many supervisory workers identify as producers first and managers second, so that many supervisory workers would see themselves in the working class. That becomes less so as we move up the hierarchy, where people begin to identify more closely with those above them. I’m pretty sure that people at the top of the hierarchy identify with the capitalists. Thus, it’s not likely that we will find other classes in this group.

Maybe a better view would be to identify classes based on actual antagonisms and conflicts. I’m not sure how that would work either. Maybe this difficulty explains why the concept of class has not been expanded.

But maybe it’s not a crucial issue. There are about 126 million private full-time employees in the US. Non-farm production and non-supervisory employment was at 104.5 million. Adding in government and farm workers and others not included would increase that number, so that about 85% of full-time employees are production/non-supervisory workers. It’s safe to assume that all part-time workers are in that category as well. If we take these groups as a proxy for the working class, we are probably safe in assuming that we are accounting for most of the population with our three categories.

2. Domination and hegemony.

Wood, following E.P. Thompson’s The Making Of The English Working Class, says that the working class makes itself as workers experience the relations of production and the relations with other people of their class and of other classes. Once the working class becomes aware of itself as a class, it is able to struggle over the surplus value it creates, and against the system that enables the capitalists to seize all of the profits. She acknowledges the difficulties this poses, including the “people’s own resistance to socialist politics”. Kindle Loc. 1982.

She sees a trend in Western Marxism to downplay or even reject the role of the working class in changing the capitalist system, eventually leading to socialism. But she says that change through the working class is the only way to bring about a socialism that is consistent with democratic values and political realism. Kindle Loc. 2001.

Wood says that the alternative to the leadership of the working class offered by some Marxists is change through other groups, especially intellectuals. She flatly rejects that approach, quoting Thompson from The Poverty of Theory claiming that their premises are profoundly anti-democratic:

… Whether Frankfurt School or Althusser, they are marked by their very heavy emphasis upon the ineluctable weight of ideological modes of domination – domination which destroys every space for the initiative or creativity of the mass of the people – a domination from which only the enlightened minority or intellectuals can struggle free. … it is a sad premise from which socialist theory should start (all men and women, except for us, are originally stupid) and one which is bound to lead on to pessimistic or authoritarian conclusions. Kindle Loc. 2006.

Pierre Bourdier focused his life’s work on the way systems of domination reproduce themselves, according to David Swartz in Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Here’s Swartz’ discussion of Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence:

Bourdieu understands ideology, or “symbolic violence,” as the capacity to impose the means for comprehending and adapting to the social world by representing economic and political power in disguised, taken-for-granted forms. Symbolic systems exercise symbolic power “only through the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it. In using the term “symbolic violence” Bourdieu stresses how the dominated accept as legitimate their own condition of domination. P. 89; cites omitted.

I discussed symbolic violence in neoliberalism here. Wood no doubt accepts the idea that capitalists, the dominant class, try to impose their ideology on the working class, and to create the “people’s own resistance to socialist politics”. Bourdieu doesn’t say that symbolic violence works all the time. People retain their agency; they can change their habitus, the way they are predisposed to understand society and their place in it.

It’s also possible to resist symbolic violence. For example, in White Kids Margaret Hagerman, emphasizes that affluent white kids are not blank slates, but actively participate in forming their own views on racism which may or may not align with the authority figures in their lives. In the same way, all of us can resist the attempts of the dominant class to control our understanding.

Wood says people can throw off the domination that symbolic violence tries to create. Again, she thinks that this is the only democratic and politically realistic way forward. Given the large number of workers and their voting power, that seems true. The hope is that people can see the facts in front of them, and that workers would eventually figure out that they are being dominated and exploited, and that the surplus they produce is being appropriated by the dominant class and that this is wrongful. Some groups of workers have realized this and acted. But most people, including most workers, just keep working without thinking about what’s happening to them.

Wood doesn’t make a lot of room for intellectuals, including herself. Maybe their work is to produce a competing ideology that respects working people?

Democracy Against Capitalism: Class

Chapter 3 of Ellen Meiksen Wood’s book, Democracy Against Capitalism, takes up the issue of class. She says that class can be defined in one of two ways: “either as a structural location or as a social relation.” Kindle Loc. 1504, ital. in original. The first way takes an index and divides it into parts. For example, we rank everyone by income, then call the lowest quintile the lower class, the next three quintiles, the middle class, the 81-99% the upper middle class, and the rest the upper class.

The second way is to define class in terms of relationships, the relations of the members to the means of production, relations among themselves, and relations with members of other classes. In this treatment, the working class is people who have no direct access to the means of production and only have their labor to sell. Marx wrote:

“In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate – i.e., does production take place.

I saw a folk musical recently in Chicago called Haymarket, about the Haymarket Affair, a general strike that turned violent in Chicago in 1886. The play opened with one actor singing a union song, Solidarity Forever. She encouraged us to join in the chorus, which, of course, I did. It was a great way to demonstrate how organizers of that day worked to instill a sense of comradeship among workers in different industries, a sense that they had a lot in common, a sense that they formed a class in opposition to the capitalists, a/k/a the “greedy parasites”. This is the last element of class in Marxist thinking. The class can be seen objectively, which Marx called a class-in-itself, but when the members become aware of their status as class members and begin to struggle together for a common end, Marx called it a class-for-itself.

This last point is illustrated by E.P. Thompson’s book, The Making of the English Working Class, which Wood discusses at length. The basic class structure is in place long before the members begin to understand that they are a class. People similarly situated in the relations of production experience them in class ways. Kindle Loc. 1614. Shared experiences bring them together. Ultimately the members of the class become conscious of the conflicts of interest and aggravation that are making them miserable, and those become the grounds of struggle. The struggle eventually leads to confrontation. Marx argued that in the long run those confrontations lead to socialism as the only form that gives workers a voice.

Wood identifies the relations of production in capitalism as exploitation, domination and appropriation. Neoliberal capitalism has jacked up these three relations at the expense of all workers. For example, meat companies use government regulations to increase the exploitation of meat cutters by increasing line speeds. Payday lenders suck money out of military families and other low income people, protected by the totally not corrupt Republican Mick Mulvaney. For domination, look at the way Amazon warehouse workers are treated. As to expropriation, look at the latest research on the impact of concentration of businesses on wage rates. Or just check out this simple chart, discussed here. The blue line represents corporate profits in constant dollars; the red line is wages in constant dollars.

The concept of class has received “remarkably little elaboration, either by Marx himself or by later theorists…”, Kindle Loc 1519, but it’s possible to identify several. Capitalists own the means of production and control access to them. The working class owns no assets and has no access to the means of production other than through individual relations with capitalists. They own only their own labor, and rely on their ability to sell that labor to stay alive and reproduce. Slaves don’t own themselves or their labor. Professional people, small business people and artisans own a little property and use it to produce goods and services for sale. Many of them are dependent on the capitalists in the financial sector through loans and leases, which compromises their independence as a class.

In America, everyone is middle class. Barack Obama appointed Joe Biden to chair a multi-agency Middle Class Task Force. The Department of Commerce was the only agency to respond, as I discussed here. The Department offered the following definition of middle class:

Middle class families are defined by their aspirations more than their income. We assume that middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations.

There’s something fabulously American about that definition, so focused on the individual and so utterly indifferent to the context in which people try to achieve their aspirations. Also, who doesn’t want that stuff? The vacuity of the definition makes it clear that we as a nation are not willing to confront the implications of class.

In our highly differentiated economy, it isn’t easy for people to understand that the unpleasantness or worse that they endure in their jobs is common to everyone. That makes the nastiness feel like something specific to the job, a bad manager, bad policies or other excuses. We don’t notice appropriation because the capitalist pumps money out of workers using the “market”, and producers think it’s normal for the capitalist to grab all the profits. Somehow US workers don’t recognize that they are being exploited. They think their long hours and wrecked evenings and weekends and lack of vacations and medical and personal leave and lousy pay and benefits are just fine.

Wood has a different idea. She thinks that capitalism has successfully separated democracy from the economy. Everyone agrees that the government should be controlled democratically. People are taught that the economy is and should be controlled by private interests, and that private control should be sanctioned and enforced by government. Employers exercise domination and control in ways that would not be acceptable if done by the state. Employers restrict exercise of political rights in ways that are forbidden by the Constitution to the government. Fear of losing our income silences most of us at least occasionally.

Wood argues that the economy should not be separated from democratic control. She doesn’t offer a specific mechanism; she thinks that people will eventually demand change, and that the new controls will spring from democratic control over the State. She quotes E. P. Thompson who asked:

By what social alchemy did inventions for saving labour become agents of immiseration? Kindle Loc. 1739.

We can’t begin to solve the problems capitalism creates until we all come to grips with this question. And we almost know the answer, even if we haven’t verbalized it yet. It springs from the relations of the capitalist mode of production: exploitation, domination, and appropriation.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Neoliberalism

I’m writing Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book Democracy Against Capitalism as part of my general project of understanding the origins of neoliberalism and its sudden takeover as the sole way of understanding the economy and society. Marxists use the metaphor of base and superstructure, the production base, and the cultural, ideological, legal superstructure. See this post, which defines these and other terms used in this post. Neoliberalism is an ideology, a set of ideas that we use to understand the world. Therefore it is part of the superstructure.

Wood says that no system is pure capitalism because there are always other modes of production in every society. We say we live in a capitalist society because the capitalist mode of production is the most widespread. I use the definition from Wikipedia:

The capitalist mode of production is characterized by private ownership of the means of production, extraction of surplus value by the owning class for the purpose of capital accumulation, wage-based labour and—at least as far as commodities are concerned—being market-based.

This article is very much worth reading. Wood explains the relevance of Marxism today:

… we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system. It’s universal not only in the sense that it’s global, not only in the sense that just about every economic actor in the world today is operating according to the logic of capitalism, and even those on the outermost periphery of the capitalist economy are, in one way or another, subject to that logic. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic—the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximization, competition—has penetrated just about every aspect of human life and nature itself, in ways that weren’t even true of so-called advanced capitalist countries as recently as two or three decades ago. So Marx is more relevant than ever, because he, more effectively than any other human being then or now, devoted his life to explaining the systemic logic of capitalism.

For me, at least, the bold-face sentence sounds exactly like a brief description of neoliberalism. The capitalist mode of production is driven by the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximization and competition. We are at an historic high for those forces, which today reach farther into our lives than ever before.

Wood points out that earlier Marxists confronted societies where the capitalist mode of production had not taken over, as in the Russian Revolution, where there were masses of peasants living in a pre-industrial mode of production. The same situation confronted Mao in China. Marx, she points out, studied an early form of capitalism in England where it had suddenly become the most widespread mode of production but where there were still large pockets of other modes of production. She argues that as capitalism matured in England, it depended on imperialism and colonialism, which operated in non-capitalist forms. This argument is also made by Polanyi in The Great Transformation and Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism in great detail (I discussed these here and here.) That is not the case any more. Capitalism is everywhere.

This explanation helps answer the question about the rise of neoliberalism. It’s not a new thing, it’s simply the form of capitalism that arises from the logical working out of capitalism in historical terms. In this view, the ideology comes into being to justify the form into which capitalism is evolving.

This isn’t to deny agency to the people creating the ideology and pushing it to its dominant position or to the people driving the changes in capitalism. There are always choices, choices to replace capitalism or to control it.

Wood says ideology changes in response to the changes in the social relations created by the capitalist mode of production, which is the way Marxists typically understand the relation between base and superstructure. She puts less emphasis on the individuals who create the ideology, and little emphasis on the people who create the changes in the economic base. She says that something like the current form of capitalism was bound to happen whether the ideology changed or not, and irrespective of who was in the capitalist class.

Wood says that no society is pure, so that the capitalist mode of production is just one of several modes of production. Even in more mature capitalist societies, some workers are not separated from the means of production; they own their own tools, or have a small capital, or a trade that is independent of large pools of capital. They and some others produce goods and services not just for money but also for for other reasons. In its early stages, capitalism can expand into other societies which have not adopted the capitalist mode of production. More recently, those avenues are closing off, and capitalism is expanding by assimilating more and more of those who have until now avoided it. As an example, look at doctors. For decades they owned their own practices and their own tools and offices. Now they are being sucked into the medical industrial form in which they own nothing but their labor, just like factory workers. That changes the social relations between doctors and patients, and the relations between people and the medical system.

Nobody resists. The rich and powerful benefit. Social structures change. A new ideology, neoliberalism, arises to explain and justify this new set of social relations, and to justify further change. The capitalists merge and consolidate, they buy up more small artisans and producers, they acquire dominance over formerly independent professionals, they set up institutions to replace socially owned and controlled sectors like hospitals, jails and schools, and begin to replace government whenever possible. This is a form of domination we used to describe with perjoratives, but now most of our elites are on board.

In this post I discuss the rise of neoliberalism from the perspective gained reading Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdier. In my telling, Bourdieu emphasizes the role of the rich and powerful in the rise of neoliberalism. The important factor is a relatively small number of members of the dominant class, the group which benefits most from exploitation, domination and appropriation. They are able to impose their views on the producers through what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence; a term that is probably more rhetorical than descriptive. Following Page and Winter on oligarchy in democracy, we can add that most members of the dominant class do not interfere with those who move to effectuate their common purposes of wealth protection, wealth enhancement and absolute freedom to deploy their wealth.

The difference is that in Wood’s telling, the current form of capitalism is a logical evolution from prior forms, while in my telling, neoliberalism is imposed from above. Both Wood and Bourdieu are trying to understand how society has changed with a view to helping activists identify ways to effect change. For Wood, the problem is centered on the capitalist mode of production. Social change will come from changing to some other mode of production. For Bourdieu, the problem is the rich and powerful people who are able to dominate the discourse and impose on the rest of us. For him a primary direction for change is to reduce their power to dominate.

Or, we could do both.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Base, Superstructure and More Definitions

The goal of Ellen Meiksins Wood in Democracy Against Capitalism is to resuscitate the Marxian method of historical materialism. This seems to be a perennial problem for Marxist thought; it was one of the central issues facing the Frankfurt School as we saw in The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay. See, e.g. pp. 41 et seq. Part of Wood’s method is argue her definition of some of the critical terms used by Marxists especially in Chapters 2-5. Wood compares her view to those she considers less valid, a typical approach in technical works. My interest is whether any of this can help us understand the rise of neoliberalism.

Chapter 2 discusses a common metaphor, base and superstructure. This from Wikipedia gives a good idea of the problem Wood wants to address:

In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base (or substructure) and superstructure. The base comprises the forces and relations of production (e.g. employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations) into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. The base determines society’s other relationships and ideas to comprise its superstructure, including its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state. While the relation of the two parts is not strictly causal, as the superstructure often affects the base, the influence of the base is predominant. In Orthodox Marxism, the base determines the superstructure in a one-way relationship. Marx and Engels warned against such economic determinism.

This definition contains more terms requiring a definition. What are the relations of production? This is from the Marxists International Archive Encyclopedia:

The objective material relations that exist in any society independently of human consciousness, formed between all people in the process of social production, exchange, and distribution of material wealth.

Examples of objective material relations are listed in Wikipedia: “employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations”. The forces of production are the unity of the means of production and labor.

Wood gives a her own list of the relations of production: exploitation, domination and appropriation. Kindle Loc. 1175.

And since we’re doing definitions, here’s a description of the term Capitalist Mode of Production from Wikipedia:

The capitalist mode of production is characterized by private ownership of the means of production, extraction of surplus value by the owning class for the purpose of capital accumulation, wage-based labour and—at least as far as commodities are concerned—being market-based.

The Wikipedia discussion of base and superstructure suggests that the general idea is that the economic base exerts control over the superstructure, and that occasionally changes in the superstructure cause changes in the base. Wood thinks that the two are more closely related. Capital has a lot of control over the superstructure, and can force changes in the base. At the same time, changes in the economic base can force changes in the superstructure.

All of this seems quite obvious. Changes in the machines and processes used in production can require adjustments to laws and rules both to allow the use and to protect workers. It’s also true of other superstructure elements, such as law. In the US, for example, the laws have gradually changed to allow non-compete clauses in contracts between employers and the lowest level of employees. Restaurant chains can require delivery employees, cooks, and window clerks to sign non-compete agreements. That obviously is part of the work conditions between employer and employee, which is identified as part of the base while the change in law is part of the superstructure.

The primary use of this distinction for Wood seems to be that we can use the ideas to isolate parts of society for study and analysis, but that we have to remember always that different parts of a society affect each other.

I draw the following conclusions from this chapter, which I’ve now read three times so you don’t have to.

1. Reading this book is tedious, in part because one or more of the terms I’ve defined and a few other terms we all sort of know (social formation, class struggle, etc.) appear on every Kindle page, which for me is probably 100 words. But in this kind of work, careful definitions matter. When we look back at the past, we see a vast number of specific events. Historical materialism tries to make sense of these events in terms of forces that amount to more than the individual decisions of all our ancestors, logic and laws that can be derived from study. Wood describes historical materialism as follows:

A materialist understanding of the world, then, is an understanding of the social activity and the social relations through which human beings interact with nature in producing the conditions of life; and it is a historical understanding which acknowledges that the products of social activity, the forms of social interaction produced by human beings, themselves become material forces, no less than are natural givens. (Kindle Loc. 491.)

To do this, Marxists use the terms I’ve defined here, although often with other definitions. Each definition has the potential to produce a different interpretation of history. Consequently, these tedious definitions and the tedious prose they help create are necessary.

2. The description of the relation of production as exploitation, domination and appropriation is striking. I wonder if there are any large societies in which these relations do not control production?

3. Domination seems to be the most important, perhaps because of the books I’ve been writing about. Pierre Bourdieu made it a central element of his life’s work. I didn’t get to finish Foucault’s Security Territory and Population (maybe I will someday), but one of the main ideas of that book and other works by Foucault is governmentality, and the systems that have arisen to produce it. Domination is a central focus of oligarchy, because it enables the oligarchs to achieve their common purposes:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

I doubt that Marxism is the best way to study domination in a contemporary complex society like the US or France. I don’t see on the google any evidence that Wood engaged with the works of Bourdieu or Foucault. But I am sure that our normal social discourse depends on pretending that we are not dominated.

4. The three relations have deep roots in our individual psyches. It’s easy to see that domination/submission drives behavior in the animal kingdom as pictured in the term Alpha Male. Exploitation and appropriation are frequently found with domination. Perhaps recognition of those fundamental psychological issues drove the scholars of the Frankfurt School to attempt to incorporate Freudian psychology into their revamped Marxism.

5. Ideology is one part of the superstructure, I plan to take that up using this article by Wood.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Capital In A Fiat Money World

In Democracy Against Capitalism the Marxist scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood says that the driving force of capitalism is the urgent desire to accumulate more capital. As we know, and not just from Marx, capitalist only expends capital in the expectation of profit, and generally can be counted on to invest capital if profit seems likely.

In the US, it has always been the norm that those with access to capital should control every possible avenue that might lead to profit. The government has always been there to provide cash to support capital, with no compensation or justification to the government except maybe new jobs. As an example, the US handed huge tracts of land and direct subsidies to the crooks and cheats who built US railroads. I learned about this from Frank Norris’ book The Octopus, but Railroaded, reviewed here, looks even better. And here’s a sympathetic explanation of this monstrous give-away. There’s an obvious question that no one asks: if railroads were so important, why didn’t the government just build them?

In this post I looked at Wood’s definition of historical materialism and its use in the evolution of the separation of politics and economics starting in the middle ages. The comments add a lot of fascinating detail; thanks to all. What’s missing from Wood’s discussion and from economics generally is the motivation behind this evolution, namely greed and indifference to other humans. As the reviewer of Railroaded, the historian Michael Kazin, says:

The history of American capitalism is stuffed with tales of industries that overbuilt and overpromised and left bankruptcies and distressed ecosystems in their wake: gold and silver mining, oil drilling and nuclear power, to name a few. The railroad barons wielded more power than other businessmen in the Gilded Age. But their behavior revealed a trait they shared with many of their fellow citizens: too much was never enough.

That still true, and governments under both parties are as willing as they ever were to let the capitalists profit and to stuff their pockets with subsidies. As an example, look at the Democrats who run Chicago. In 2008, Chicago leased its parking meters to a group of investors headed by Morgan Stanley; investors today include the wealth fund of Abu Dhabi and other hidden investors. Mayor Richard Daley agreed to a front payment of $1.15 billion to the city.

In the seven years since, the meter company has reported a total of $778.6 million in revenues. It’s on pace to make back what it paid the city by 2020, with more than 60 years of meter money still to come.

There’s the incredible story of the city getting ripped off for hundreds of millions of dollars in derivative transactions. Chicago recently offered Amazon over $2 billion to put its new headquarters here.

That eagerness to coddle capitat has always been part of our culture. Maybe it could be justified in a society hemmed in by commodity money and weak financial markets, where there might be some limitations to the amount of capital available for investment. But there is far more capital looking for profits today than there are plausible investments. We’ve just run a huge real-life experiment. The Republican tax bill gave corporations billions of dollars in tax breaks for money stashed “offshore” to avoid taxes. The brilliant CEOS had no profitable use for it and gave it to their shareholders.

Here’s an example of the amount of capital available to waste, electric rental scooters. Much of that useless capital is employed in various kinds of direct exploitation like payday lending.

Beyond the factual reality of a world awash in capital, we don’t live in a world of limited money. Money is a commodity created by the state. It isn’t pieces of metal, and it isn’t limited by how much of the metal there is in government vaults. Government can create all it wants and needs. The Republicans just passed a bill slashing US revenues for the foreseeable future. Then they passed a bill raising spending. Where is that coming from? Stephanie Kelton explains in a quick and easy introduction to Modern Money Theory.

Returning to the railroads, the government could have built them itself, using a combination of taxes, revenues and borrowing. It might have taken longer; and it would have been corrupt though it would never have been as corrupt as it actually was. Why didn’t that happen?

Or look at oil. In some countries, oil is owned by the State, which employs people directly to drill and refine, or hires private drillers and refiners. We don’t do that. We just let the capitalists take the resources out of public land for a small fee which is rebated in the form of sickening tax breaks like depletion allowances.

There was never any justification for the US system other than the demand of the rich and powerful for greater profits with utter indifference to the rest of us who are left to clean up after the bankruptcies, frauds, toxic spills, nuclear waste and whatever other trash they leave behind. Capitalists won’t make society a better place, because that isn’t profitable. Capitalists believe that they should be able to expropriate all the profits from their investments. The point of making society better is that the benefits from that either can’t be monetized, or we don’t want to lose the benefits to the demand for profit. We don’t need capitalists to make society better and we never did. We just need to be able to control our own government, making it operate for our mutual benefit.

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