There isn't a single political issue that isn't deeply affected and structured by the logic of capitalism. If this is true, then it entails that capitalism is the ground of all other political issues. This doesn't mean that these issues can be reduced to questions of economy, just that economy influences all of these issues and plays a key role in how they are structured. Understanding what capitalism is is therefore vital to all political engagement. Failure to understand the nature of capitalism leads to two things: 1) pursuing policy prescriptions that further entrench oppression, exploitation, and bigotry, or 2) treating symptoms rather than causes. Just as you don't cure a cold by taking Nyquil, but only suppress its symptoms, a great deal of political activism in our contemporary age amounts to little more than taking Nyquil.
A lot of people have a very vague understanding of what capitalism is. This diary is intended to contribute to rectifying that and discussing how capitalism relates to a number of political issues that are of greatest concern to us as progressives. My hope that is that it will contribute to more clear sighted activism and better strategy in responding to issues. I apologies in advance for the length of this diary. There's so much to say, so much to understand, and I haven't said it nearly well enough nor have I even begun to scratch the surface.
1) Capitalism is not "buying and owning things", nor is a capitalist merely someone who buys and owns things. Once money came into existence, there hasn't been an economy in history where people haven't bought and owned things. This includes socialist economies. Nor is everyone who lives in a capitalist system a capitalist.
A capitalist is something very specific and it's important to understand this. A capitalist is someone who uses their money to make money. This is done in a variety of ways. It's done by buying cheap in one place and selling high in another. It's done by owning property and renting it to others. It's done by earning interest on money lent to others or by investing. It's done by organizing labor in such a way that more is earned through the sales of items produced than by the cost of producing those products.
While all of us live in a capitalist economic system, very few of us are capitalists, or are only capitalists in a very limited sense. If the money you earn as a laborer is used primarily to buy goods you use to live, you're not behaving as a capitalist. The capitalist is someone who uses her money to make more money, not someone who uses her money to buy food, shelter, transportation, entertainment, etc. These days many of us are limited capitalists in the sense that we have 401's and 403's where we invest money for a retirement, but unlike full blown capitalists, we largely still sell our labor as a way of getting a wage to live on and don't live on our investments alone. Most of us are workers, not capitalists, and have no alternative but to sell our labor to get the wage we require to live.
2) While there are certainly greedy capitalists, capitalism is not primarily driven by greed. The thesis that capitalism is driven by greed is one of my biggest pet peeves here on Dailykos, because it fundamentally fails to understand why capitalism functions as it does. The idea seems to be something like this:
Capitalists are greedy people that selfishly don't care about others. In other words, the capitalist is a morally flawed person. If we could persuade the capitalist not to be selfish, then we could overcome the injustices wrought by capitalism.The problem with this line of thought is two-fold: First, it fails to recognize that the "good capitalist" is not a person who enjoys his wealth, but rather re-invests his wealth to make more wealth. To be sure, there are plenty of capitalists that enjoy their wealth through luxurious living, but this is a by-product of their capitalist activity, not the essence of that activity. A "good capitalist" is, rather, a bit like a Buddhist or Christian monk that forgoes the consumption of his wealth. Instead, he re-invests that wealth to make more wealth. This is the essence of capitalism: re-investing the profit you've made to make more profit. Unlike fabled kings of the past that aimed to live lives of decadent consumption and luxury, the capitalist is a strange creature in that he limits the consumption of his wealth so as to invest it in making more wealth.
This brings us to the second problem: The reason the capitalist does this isn't a matter of his personal greed-- though this can enter into the picture in a non-essential sort of way --but because the nature of capitalist economy forces him to do this. The capitalist has no choice but to re-invest his money to make more money. Businesses are required to show growth over the previous quarter every quarter. The reason for this is simple. If a business does not show growth it loses its shareholders and investors. If it loses its shareholders, it is edged out or becomes extinct. The only way a business can stay afloat is therefore by continuing to grow. Put a bit differently, capitalists behave the way they do because of other capitalists. If they don't continue to grow and do everything it takes to grow, they're competitors will use this to their advantage and will edge them out so as to "corner the market". Competition between capitalists is thus a bit like an arms race. Just as the states involved in an arms race might prefer not to invent and produce new and ever more lethal weapons, they are nonetheless compelled to do so because the other state is doing so and they have to defend themselves.
I think this is one of the most overlooked things among American progressives-- who by and large lack an economically informed political perspective --in their discussions of the abuses of capitalism. Our tendency is to speak of the Bill Gates's of the world as suffering from a moral deficiency, failing to recognize that the dynamics of capitalism are structural, not the result of a set of moral attitudes. As a result, we end up adopting ridiculous political strategies. We think that if we just morally edified these people things would be different, when the real thing we need to do is address these structural dynamics.
3) Point 2 is the reason that capitalism is a bit like a form of madness or a nightmare. It's like the bus in Jan de Bont's film Speed, where things can't slow down or moderate themselves even though we want them to. Among all the economic systems throughout history-- ranging from "gift economies" among hunter-gatherers to feudal systems --capitalism is unique in that it is the only system premised on endless growth and expenditure, rather than satisfaction of needs. In feudal systems, for example, the aim was not to produce more than was produced the previous year, but to produce enough to sustain the serfs and the appetites of the lords. Feudal systems, like any system, might attempt to produce enough to prepare for hard times such as a drought or siege, but they didn't aim to grow for the sake of growing. Likewise, in gift economies, the aim is to give back, to push one's goods away so as to form social bonds, rather than to accumulate. Capitalism differs from all other systems in that it's aim is not the satisfaction of needs, but perpetual expansion. "More! More! More!", says capitalism, "even when we don't need it!"
Again, this drive to perpetual expansion and growth doesn't arise from a "personal preference" on the part of capitalists. Rather, it is a structural feature of capitalism. It's a feature, not a glitch.
4) Point 3 has incalculable political consequences and is the reason that capitalism is the organizing horizon of all political issues today. I'll outline a few of these, but there are many more.
a) First and foremost, these dynamics of capitalism entail that over time wages and benefits for workers will always decline. Remember, every business has to grow. At a certain point, a capitalist's product saturates the market and isn't able to make as much profit as it was in the past. For example, people already have it as in the case of a car and don't need a new one or another one. In response to this problem, the capitalist can adopt one of three strategies (and usually uses all three):
(i) The capitalist might look for new markets as in the case of McDonald's exporting its product to Japan, Israel, or Saudi Arabia.
(ii) The capitalist might look for ways to render its existing products obsolete so as to encourage people to buy their new product. This is done by coming out with new models of cars, smartphones, or gaming systems, for example, or in the pharmaceutical industry, through the invention of new illnesses like "restless leg syndrome". Then there are products that approach "perfect" capitalist commodities, like cigarettes because people become addicted to them (though for the capitalist there's always the question of how to create new addicts), or inescapable credit card debt that turns people into eternal interest creating machines like the bodies in The Matrix, or the entertainment and fashion industry where new films, games, and styles of clothing and food approach the creation of endlessly expanding markets.
(iii) Finally, the favorite of capitalism lies in reducing the cost of production. If the cost of production can be reduced, then more profit can be made from commodities and the business can expand. There are a number of strategies capitalists can devise to reduce the cost of production. The capitalist can influence governments to get rid of costly regulations and tariffs that cut into their profits. We recently saw an example of the effects of this strategy in the explosion of the Texas fertilizer plant. The capitalist can also find cheaper materials through which to produce their products, thereby increasing their profit. This, for example, is why we see scandal after scandal in the restaurant and food industries. For example, if we think of the mad cow disease epidemics, why feed cows with costly grains, when you can simply feed cows to cows?
Finally, capitalists can decrease the cost of production by modernizing businesses through technology (thereby cutting wage paying jobs), or outsourcing to other countries where labor is cheaper, or by cutting benefits and wages. Given this last strategy, the general strategy of capitalism will be in the direction of a decreased standard of living for the vast majority of people. Notice also that these strategies of decreasing labor costs in production work in conjunction with one another. For example, given that most people are highly reluctant to accept decreases in wages and benefits, how can the capitalist get people to accept such things? Through the threat of modernization through technology or outsourcing. Given the choice between no job at all and a job with reduced salary and benefits, the worker chooses the latter.
b) Of course, reducing the cost of labor produces a predicament for the capitalist. In the United States we have this myth that says that it is capitalists that create wealth through their entrepreneurial activity and the way it creates jobs. This gets things upside down. First, insofar as capitalism is driven less and less by labor, but rather increasingly through financial capital produced through loans, credit cards, investment on the stock market, etc., it simply isn't true that all capitalist investment increases jobs. What is good for the capitalist is no longer good for everyone else (sadly the belief that what is good for the capitalist is good for everyone-- "a rising tide lifts all boats" --is a belief shared by both republican and democratic leaders). Second, it is workers that create wealth both through their labor and through the expenditure of their wages on commodities.
Without people to buy goods, there's no need to create more jobs because the demands of consumption just aren't there. For this reason, capitalism is inherently unstable. Over time the gap between rich and poor increases because the capitalist must find a way to reduce the costs of production so as to maximize profit. As a result, workers are able to consume less. The economy then goes into a tailspin that threatens capitalist and worker alike. There is no capitalism that isn't prone to repeated crisis as a result of a growing gulf between the ultra-wealthy and those that are increasingly pushed into near subsistence living (which today is true even of much of the middle class that are a paycheck away from financial ruin should they lose their job, home due to natural disaster, or major illness).
c) If financial collapse doesn't occur in this way, it happens through workers pushing for more luxury, better living conditions, better working conditions, and more benefits. Workers, of course, deplore their working conditions and want more. They thus organize and demand more benefits and better wages on pain of refusal to work. We're often successful in these struggles and over time our standard of living rises. However, as our standard of living rises, the profit of capitalists decreases. As a consequence, capitalists must cast about for ways to decrease production costs. Towards this end, they use geography to their advantage, taking production elsewhere on the globe where labor is cheaper and there are fewer labor and environmental regulations.
Jobs thus disappear where the production began (think of car companies shutting down in Michigan) and the process begins elsewhere (for example, India). Of course, because wages have dried up in the original geographical location, the capitalist must now find new markets. We thus get the same pattern repeating over and over again: Standards of living begin to rise as workers push back, profit decreases, capitalist production shifts elsewhere. Capitalism behaves in a way that is thus like the aliens in Roland Emmerich's film Independence Days. Just as the aliens move from planet to planet taking all the resources in the area, capitalism moves from geographical location to geographical location, taking cheap labor where they can and moving on when labor is no longer cheap. On and on it goes.
Understanding the global nature of contemporary capitalism is vital to understanding American politics. I'll say more about this below, but because of the global reach of capitalism, politics is no longer restricted to the national. It all unfolds in a global context and this global dimension is a huge part of what allows the capitalist to exercise as much power as he does in national politics.
d) Cultural Politics: Capitalism has both its emancipatory dimension and its oppressive dimension. From the standpoint of the capitalist, if two people can produce the same amount through their labor, there's no reason not to treat them as equal. It's no accident that we witness a general tendency towards democracy and universal suffrage beginning around the 18th century in Europe with the rise of modern capitalism. Within capitalism there is a tendency, over time, towards formal equality (not material equality) because all that matters is whether or not workers can produce. Hence you get the emancipation of oppressed minorities such as African-Americans and women, the disappearance of monarchial systems of governance, and the erosion of ethnic differences and segregation over time in capitalism.
There is, however, a dark side to this as well. Remember that bit about workers organizing so as to improve their labor conditions and standard of living? Capitalists, of course, are not very happy about this because they want to maximize their profit. To the same degree that capitalism tends towards universal suffrage, it also tends towards unleashing ethnic hatreds, racism, bigotry, and sexism. Why? For two reasons: First, as the standard of living decreases, and because the dynamics of capitalism are hard to discern for the average person because we tend to think in terms of personal relationships with others rather than large-scale patterns, people begin to cast about for scape-goats when times get bad. It's no accident that racism is worse in the South than the North, for example, because economic conditions are worse. Folks down South thus blame the black man, rather than looking at the dynamics of the capitalist system. After all, it's easier to lynch a black man and blame him for all your woes, than it is to take on a global economic system. While bigotry can't be reduced to economics, flagging economic conditions certainly intensify racism. This is why a huge part of fighting racism also involves addressing economic conditions. It's not enough simply to "raise the consciousness" of people or debunk their racist beliefs, it's also necessary to address economic powerlessness.
This brings me to my second point, workers organizing. Capitalists use bigotry between different groups (men and women, straight and GLBT, different ethnic groups, etc) as a way of undermining the ability of people to organize. Groups are pitted against one another, either blaming each other for their own economic woes or arguing about who has it worse and which issue is more important, and spend their time fighting amongst each other rather than organizing to improve their standard of living. General paralysis occurs in politics.
e) More Cultural Politics: Religious Fundamentalism and Government Corruption The dynamics of capitalism lead to a general corrosion of government over time and the disappearance of true representation. Whether it's the need for massive campaign contributions from capitalists to fund campaigns leading to the indenture of politicians to business interests rather than the interests of the people, the ability of big business to wield media as a weapon that forces politicians to capitulate to their will lest they be smeared across the airwaves, or Faustian bargains on the part of politicians between retaining some jobs here lest business move elsewhere on the planet, people increasingly lose their representation in government, one of their only sources of power.
Where government is no longer responsive to the people, where people become bare life subject to the whims of business interests with little alternative or ability to do better their circumstances, and where people don't understand the dynamics of why life is this way, a certain segment of the population turns to religious fundamentalism. "Only a God can save us now", they say. There are a couple reasons for this. On the one hand, because capitalism has an inborn tendency to erode personal relationships, ethnic identities, and traditions, part of the population recoils from the aimlessness and confusion of the world in which they live and engages in a futile effort to retain their tradition (which is their identity and source of meaning at all costs). On the other hand, denied any real power in the world, witnessing again and again the failure of government representation and protests to effect justice and change, they feel as if God is the only thing they have left. Where economic conditions are bad and where people feel as if they have no political power, religious fundamentalism intensifies. As if things weren't bad enough, we now get the mess of religious cultural politics and endless debates over whether evolution is true and should be taught in schools, whether women should have choice and contraceptives should be covered by insurance, whether GLBT folk should be able to get married, and so on. Part of addressing religious fundamentalism thus involves responding to economic issues and economic disempowerment.
f) Climate Change Because capitalism is premised on perpetual expansion, it is necessarily at odds with the climate. Capitalism will pursue every opportunity it can find in the pursuit of capital. To be sure, some of these opportunities will lie in the direction of "green technologies", but many others will lie in the direction of destructive technologies such as fossil fuels, the exploitation of rain forests, the unwise use of disappearing water resources, and so on. If one country or set of countries doesn't do it, another will. It's like a game of whack-a-mole. We solve a problem here, but it pops up again elsewhere. Likewise, because capitalism produces more than it needs by its very nature, it also leads to population growth. Not only has there been a "hockey stick" with regard to climate change, there's been one for population growth as well. Increased population, of course, means the need for greater resources to sustain those populations. This means the need for more fuel, more materials for building homes, roads, and cities, the need for more food and therefore the burning of more fuel and the use of destructive fertilizers and pesticides, and so on. Endless expansion necessarily comes in conflict with limited resources, leading to the general destruction of the planet or the greatest existential threat we've ever faced in the short existence of humanity.
We can expect a few things from the growing climate, energy, and water crisis. As these things intensify, there will be massive economic turmoil. That economic turmoil, like all economic turmoil, will lead to an intensification of bigotries of all kinds, as well as an increase in religious fundamentalisms. If your central concerns lie in a struggle against bigotry and fundamentalism, then you should also be an environmentalist. All these things are wrapped up inside one another. Food scarcity produced by drought and diminishing water and energy reserved, will also lead to large migrations, new forms of oppression, and warfare over limited resources.
Capitalism and the dynamics of capitalism are at the heart of all these issues. It is therefore crucial for us progressives to be clear about these things so we can determine where and how it is necessary to intervene. A politics where one isn't clear on these matters is like a blind man groping in the dark.