On Understanding Capitalism

By Joshua SperberJuly 12, 2021

On Understanding Capitalism

A People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics by Hadas Thier
Can the Working Class Change the World? by Michael D. Yates

AT ONE POINT during the night that Occupy Wall Street was destroyed, a half-circle of riot cops pinned a group of protestors to a wall. At that moment, when everything was falling apart and people were crying and wandering through the night amid the tear gas, artificial light, and amplified police noise, one of the trapped protesters screamed, “Mic check!” I don’t remember exactly what he or those echoing him then said, but the cops seemed startled. There was a sense, if only for a moment, that the initiative had shifted. We quickly saw that it hadn’t. But hearing Occupy’s emblematic tactic used not to conduct routine matters in the park or to perform activism in a grad school auditorium but rather amid the movement’s very destruction seemed to crystallize Occupy’s fundamental defiance.

Left organizations, such as the now-defunct International Socialist Organization, were caught off guard by Occupy Wall Street, which they had initially dismissed as an irrelevant gathering of politically immature anarchists. As soon as the movement’s electric spontaneity ignited, however, left organizations scrambled to associate themselves with it. And, once it was systematically smashed by the federal government and the NYPD, these organizations clucked that such a leaderless movement had been bound to fail all along.

With the 10th anniversary of Occupy approaching, left organizations have still not entirely escaped the movement’s shadow, which can be seen in Hadas Thier’s A People’s Guide to Capitalism. Thier aims to elucidate Karl Marx’s Capital (volumes one through three), and, conveying the exceptional relevance and power of Marx’s thought with clear and engaging prose, she often succeeds. She begins by denaturalizing capitalism’s historic origins in primitive accumulation (“dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as Marx put it) and guides the reader through discussions of the labor theory of value, the origins and function of money and profit, and the mechanisms of capital accumulation and crisis, before concluding with a discussion of credit and finance.

The book works particularly well as a primer, supplying readers with ample history and theory with which to repudiate capitalism. Capitalism is efficient, you say? What of its systemic use of planned obsolescence and the astronomical waste evident not only in the competitive production of marketable exchange values (while millions go hungry) but also in landfills, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, so massive that they can be seen from space? Anyone can make it under capitalism, you say? But if the entire working class somehow “made it” (meaning in practice that they acquired Porsches and joined the exploiting class), capitalism would instantly collapse — whom would they exploit? It is a system that both needs and reproduces poverty. For instance, full employment is prevented lest it produce inflation; labor is a business cost, after all. Meanwhile, those “lucky” enough to have jobs cannot afford to retire from them without assistance from outside the market (e.g., Social Security).

Interestingly, though, Thier does not address some of the most ubiquitous arguments for capitalism. Namely, if we are to eliminate private property and, with it, capitalism’s ever-present threat of “work or starve,” what mechanism will a future system use to motivate people to work? And once the wealth that capitalism previously produced is redistributed, what mechanism will then be used to ensure that future wealth is generated? On the one hand, these are loaded questions containing capitalist presuppositions regarding the nature of work, production, and wealth. And the notion that critics are required to provide solutions to the problems they criticize is similarly fallacious. A doctor does not refrain from providing a diagnosis just because there is no cure for the disease. Or, as Anton Pannekoek noted in Workers’ Councils, there is little point in developing blueprints for the future society, since revolutionary struggle will invariably result in entirely unanticipated problems while rendering many existing ones irrelevant. With revolutionary consciousness born of struggle, we will be positioned to see what we currently cannot.

On the other hand, it is fair to ask just who the “People” are that Thier is seeking to guide. Assuming that her readers are not confined to the minuscule ranks of the already converted, the non-committed ought to be convinced of what the fight for communism can mean. This is a question not of blueprints, as Thier recognizes, but of values and imagination. Yet few will be motivated to enter such a struggle in the first place, which will require far more daunting sacrifices than voting for Bernie Sanders, if the goal is merely an improved version of today’s wretched society.

Alternately, nobody should be expected to accept on faith Thier’s assertion that “socialism would use every advance to make more time for humans to rest, play, and thrive.” Thier supports this claim by quoting Leon Trotsky’s promotion of leisure, yet she notably severs Trotsky from the Soviet experiment that he helped inspire and violently defended. If, however, one can blame the counterrevolution for Trotsky’s violence, it is far more dubious to blame external forces for Lenin’s enthusiastic praise of the dehumanizing labor strategies of the American mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor. Thier herself condemns Taylor’s scientific management but does not consider why Taylorism was so amenable to not only capitalists but also the world’s most important socialist leader, who had in fact decried Taylorism until he took over the state. Rather preposterously then, Thier dodges the significance of the Soviet Union altogether by waving away the “false ‘socialisms’ of the totalitarian states of the past,” leaving us to guess at the ways in which the USSR’s socialism was false and preventing us from drawing any lessons from either its accomplishments or its failures.

In her Marxism and Freedom, Raya Dunayevskaya (who had worked as Trotsky’s secretary before breaking from him) criticizes the Soviet Union for abandoning the sine qua non of Marxist liberation: the abolition of alienated labor. On the contrary, the USSR merely reproduced alienated labor by requiring workers to toil not for private enterprise but for the state. Changing the boss but not the fundamental relationship to work, the USSR strayed from human liberation long before Stalin took charge and signaled his abandonment of world revolution by issuing the oxymoronic slogan “socialism in one country.” Threats to human liberation, in other words, are not merely external to liberation movements but also originate from movements’ own internal tendencies.

Nevertheless, Thier ignores the fact that left organizations all too often reproduce that which they claim to reject. Accordingly, she ignores not only previous socialisms but also some of the most important correctives to prevailing, and frequently Marxist, misconceptions of our political-economic system. Recycling discredited histories of civilization’s origins, in which hunter-gatherers could not wait to put down roots and establish large permanent settlements, Thier dismisses (outside of a single footnote) the work of scholars such as Marshall Sahlins and James Scott, who have shown that the establishment of civilization and the state was likely the most disastrous event in human history. Thier similarly sidesteps David Roediger’s invaluable work and resurrects the trope that racism reflects the false consciousness of duped white people who merely need to be shown that their “true” interests lie in abandoning their racial privileges. Notwithstanding the fact that Thier discusses Occupy and the book’s back cover refers to the one percent, she additionally omits any reference to the works of David Graeber, one of Occupy’s founders. On the contrary, Thier reproduces the age-old myth that money originated merely as a mechanism to facilitate barter, in effect disappearing Graeber’s most important (and well-known) scholarly argument: barter societies never existed, and money instead originated as debt.

The common denominator uniting these critiques is skepticism toward the state, which destroyed more leisurely and environmentally stable modes of living, created a hegemonic and violent world system, and produces pernicious ideologies that can make the privileges of racial citizenship more attractive than the prospect of securing a raise at work. Yet in addressing the state, Thier never goes beyond the Communist Manifesto’s assertion that “[t]he executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” a crudity written decades before Capital and one that Marx abandons elsewhere. As David Harvey notes in The New Imperialism, the state and capitalism should not be understood as a fused entity but rather as two discrete institutions with both overlapping and divergent interests. While Thier indeed addresses the ways in which capitalism benefits from the state, she fails to examine the equally critical ways in which the state benefits from capitalism (not the least, through capitalism’s generation of unprecedented taxable revenue that has converted even socialist governments into free market true believers).

This inability to identify the institutional interests of the state as such undermines Thier’s attempt to explicate her subject. She commits, for instance, several non sequiturs, from reductively blaming pollution on “corporate America” (the United States military is the biggest polluter in the world) and war on corporations (who as often as not oppose war) to twice suggesting that public sector work produces surplus value. In these regards, the book reads not merely as a critique of capitalism but also as an unspoken assault on critics of the state in general and anarchism in particular. To be fair, many organized socialists have reason to ignore anarchism. After all, while socialists were busy supporting careerist politicians and scolding one another with university-packaged jargon later adopted by HR departments in corporations throughout the country, anarchists, whatever their other shortcomings, created one of the most dynamic protest movements in recent memory.

Like A People’s Guide to Capitalism, Michael Yates’s Can the Working Class Change the World? uses Marx to describe capitalism’s historically unique emphasis on the unending accumulation of capital and its resulting human and environmental catastrophes. In Capital, Marx famously erected a hypothetical, ideally functioning capitalism freed from real world imperfections. By doing so, he demonstrated that, even in the best of circumstances, capitalism must always be exploitative and destructive since the foundation of capitalist growth is a social relationship in which capitalists take more from wage workers than they give back, thereby increasing wealth and power through an endless accumulation predicated on the immiseration of the working class. Adhering to Marx’s simulation of this ideally functioning capitalism, both Yates and Thier also explain that capitalist crises are intrinsic to capitalism and will not end by electing better politicians or implementing better policies. Considering our accelerating climate disasters, reform is not simply inadequate to solving our problems but, by extending the life of a rapacious system, is actively destructive. We will not save ourselves from Dracula by fining him for his excesses but by driving a stake through his heart.

Here, however, Yates’s account departs from Thier’s, as Yates also explains capitalism precisely by going beyond capitalism and, in a more dialectical and critical manner than Thier, addresses the ways in which ostensibly anti- or non-capitalist organizational activity often becomes incorporated into capitalism. Connecting his historic and global analysis of class to what he insists are equally important discussions of nature, patriarchy, racism, and imperialism, Yates evaluates the achievements and failures of the “actually existing socialism” of the USSR, China, and Cuba, labor unions, parties, and United States education. While numerous United States unions, for example, have been historically plagued by racism, sexism, and nationalism, Yates emphasizes that such attitudes are not merely relics of a bygone era. Instead, Yates encourages us to see how even progressive unions help reproduce capitalism and its social stratifications. While some unions have certainly made progress in organizing a more diverse rank and file and leadership, unions’ underlying dependence on the financial well-being of their employers presupposes the inevitability of alienated wage labor and actively militates against our emancipation from class society. Similarly, Yates recognizes that the problem with education is hardly restricted to privatization and charters imposed by conservative bad guys and corrupt liberals. Instead, national education has, from the beginning, indoctrinated pupils into nationalist values and inculcated the conformity required by the state.

Yates, however, does not deny that significant advances have been made by left organizations. On the contrary, chapter four (“What Hath the Working Class Wrought”) recounts numerous, often dramatic, instances in which the working class has used unions and parties to improve daily life for regular people. Among other examples, Yates recounts Greg Shotwell’s depiction of how United Auto Workers members humbled a boorish foreman at a General Motors plant. Nevertheless, Yates is cognizant of the limitations of workers’ power within inherently defensive organizations. This lesson applies not only to unions and parties but also to left NGOs, whose commitment to organizational expansion and fundraising puts them in competition with like-minded organizations at the expense of shared goals. An organization that genuinely sought radical improvement would be devoted, above all, to revolution and ultimately self-negation. That they are instead devoted to institutionalization and self-promotion has meant that workers’ interests are repeatedly undercut not only from the bosses on the “outside” but also from the organizational leadership of self-described allies on the “inside.”

It is with this attentiveness to the historic shortcomings and duplicity of left organizations that Yates rejects so-called democratic socialism, which even in its heyday failed to fundamentally challenge capitalism. Setting our sights on the mere (and, as history shows, inevitably temporary) reform of a fundamentally exploitative system instead reflects a colossal failure of imagination akin to the prisoner who spends all his energy advocating for a larger window in his cell.

To be sure, we are frequently informed that organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America have dramatically increased their membership over the last several years. Yet, considering the intensity of our enduring economic, social, and political miseries, it would be far more notable if general interest in socialism had not grown. The popularity of the DSA, as well as politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, does not merely reveal a growing enthusiasm for an imagined anti-capitalism. Rather, the institutionalization of this emerging interest simultaneously excludes alternative, and more radical, organizational and theoretical developments — ones in which the goal is not a diluted anti-capitalism or the White House but actual human liberation.


Joshua Sperber is the author of Consumer Management in the Internet Age: How Customers Became Managers in the Modern Workplace (Lexington Books, 2019).

LARB Contributor

Joshua Sperber is assistant professor of political science and history at Averett University. He has written for Salon, New Labor Forum, Monthly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and CounterPunch and is the author of Consumer Management in the Internet Age: How Customers Became Managers in the Modern Workplace (reissued in paperback, 2021). 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!