We cannot begin to explore the subject of post-capitalism without a clear, working definition of the word capitalism. Otherwise, how would we know that capitalism was ending?
We cannot have a clear definition of capitalism unless we understand what makes the capitalist mode of production unique. So we must understand what a mode of production is and the meaning of its two elements — the means of production and the relations of production.
Finally, we cannot understand the relations of production unless we have a clear definition of the word class.
So we’ll start here, with the word class, and work our way back up.
Webster’s lists five different definitions of the word class, but we need only concern ourselves with two. One is common; the other less so. The usage of class to mean “social or economic rank” is common but less precise for our purposes. It is perfectly acceptable to speak of lower, middle, and upper classes of society or to break the population into quintiles based on income or wealth to explain socio-economic differences. But this usage conceals more than it reveals. We’ll begin to see why by looking at the other definition.
The less common understanding of class refers to one’s relationship to the production process. It actually falls under the definition that Webster’s lists first, “a number of people or things grouped together because of likeness; kind; sort,” although this is obviously generalized and we are concerned with its specific meaning within capitalist society.
In her book Democracy Against Capitalism Renewing Historical Materialism, Ellen Meiksins Wood gives the following explanation:
There are really only two ways of thinking theoretically about class: either as a structural location or as a social relation. The first and more common of these treats class as a form of ‘stratification’ , a layer in hierarchical structure, differentiated according to ‘economic’ criteria such as income, ‘market chances’ or occupation. In contrast to this geological model, there is a social-historical conception of class as a relation between appropriators and producers, determined by the specific form in which, to use Marx’s phrase, ‘surplus labor is pumped out of the direct producers’. 1
If we think of various social formations throughout history, ancient slave states or feudalism, for example, we see that there are generally those who do the work and actually produce the items needed for the society to survive. In different types of societies there are different mechanisms in place to get these “direct producers” to produce more than they need to keep themselves alive. This is the “surplus labor” in the phrase Wood references. There are also those in the society who do not directly produce but instead appropriate, by one means or another, (again depending on the historically specific rules of that society), the products of this surplus labor. These two different groups are what we mean when we speak of class. In broad outline, you are either a direct producer or an appropriator of the labor of others. (In the real world things get a little more messy and there is a lot more nuance than this, but here we are simply trying to make this definition of class as clear as possible.)
This is what we mean when we speak properly of “class struggle” or “class antagonisms.” There is a structure and a function involved in this distinction. If we associate these terms with the other “stratification”-based definition of class they become confusing and powerless. Are we supposed to struggle against those who are paid more than us? How much more? Twice as much? Three times? Do we envy the rich just because they are wealthy? No, this is confusion. Class antagonism arises directly from the conflicting interests of the two classes; it is structural. Class struggle speaks of the effort expended to confront this antagonism.
Marx actually worked out simple math formulas which describe this relationship. I won’t go into them now, but if you’re interested you can read about them here.
Here we simply want to establish that class, properly speaking, is simply a matter of which variable in the production equation describes you. You are either a wage-laborer who produces more value than you are paid or you are the one who appropriates that surplus value. If you are understanding this, congratulations! You have achieved “class consciousness.”
The Means and Relations of Production
As we’ve said, this system of class conflict is not unique to capitalism. What is unique and what is crucial to understand is the historically specific conditions under which this process occurs within the system of capitalism. Capitalism has its own rules, its own arrangements. These rules, and the conditions under which they operate are what makes capitalism capitalism. How capitalism goes about its business is what we mean by the term the capitalist mode of production.
As stated above, a mode of production has two elements — the means of production and the relations of production. The term “means of production” refers to all the material things needed to produce. If we think of a machine shop, for example, we think of the building, drill presses, lathes, grinders, mills, and so on. The means of production are the tools and technology the society uses to produce.
The term “relations of production” refers to how a society organizes itself to utilize those means. It also involves how a particular mode of production goes about extracting surplus value from the direct producers. The authority for this process is, of course, embedded in the relations. Capitalism has a distinct way of achieving this. Whereas previous social formations relied on state or military coercion to extract value, capitalism has moved the enforcement mechanism to the private sector. The underlying nature of class relations is as asymmetrical, antagonistic and exploitative as ever, but these realities are now concealed under the cloak of “market forces.”
Imperial Rome no longer takes you prisoner and forces you into slavery to build their great empire. The company you work for simply pays you less than you are worth as they pocket the remainder. Same result. This is not the time to undertake a fully-rounded exposition of labor market economics but if anyone is thinking utility theory contravenes this just remember if your marginal product of labor is not deemed to be greater than your wages you’re not going to get hired (rents and other obfuscations aside).
Toward a Useful Definition of Capitalism
The standard definition of capitalism as an economic system marked by the private ownership of the means of production and the existence of more-or-less free markets is correct, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. There’s not much here that is unique to capitalism. Markets are common to many modes of production and many direct producers owned their means of production under feudalism. We need a definition which emphasizes the elements of capitalism which distinguish it from what has come before and what will come after. This is where an understanding of modes of production is useful.
Within the capitalist mode of production it is the relations of production which serve to define a system as capitalistic and exclude it from being considered any other system. The reason is obvious.
Think of classic industrial capitalism and its tools and technologies. It is simple to imagine any variety of social formations utilizing the same means. A slave economy could use those same tools, for example. The former Soviet Union basically used those tools, and, to my point, they had a completely different set of production relations. Furthermore, the means of production may change, as in our transition from a industrial base to a service base, but if the relations of production do not change the economic system is still capitalistic. (This sums up the failure of Drucker’s thesis in his 1993 book, The Post-Capitalist Society.)
So a useful definition of capitalism must emphasize the capitalist relations of production. Although the following attempt is far from perfect, it demonstrates the direction we should be looking in to develop a useful definition:
Capitalism: A system of political economy in which the dialectic of class struggle arises from the antagonism between a class which privately owns the means of production and a class which subsists by selling their labor power to those owners.
This definition at least has the advantage of laying bare the fact that private ownership creates a dependent class of workers, and that the relationship between these two classes is the essence of capitalism. By focusing on this we can more easily see society’s transition to post-capitalism.
Feudalism Gives Way to Capitalism
The birth of modern capitalism came with the industrial revolution. This statement is very simplistic and open to debate and that controversy itself illuminates a very important point. No social order is created ex tempore, in one fell swoop. This is as true of capitalism’s birth as it will be of it’s death. Elements of the new are found in the old; elements of the old persist through the new. Daniel Bell described these social changes as being “like palimpsests, the new developments overlie the previous layers, erasing some features and thickening the texture of society as a whole.”
With this in mind we still assert that broadly speaking, it was the Industrial Revolution which gave impetus to the rise of modern capitalism. New technological advances in the textile and iron industries, for example, were far too expensive for individual craftsman and cottage industrialists to afford. The new technologies could produce goods of consistent quality at prices so competitive that they eventually drove the old way of doing business to the periphery. Capitalistic division and organization of labor, economies of scale, mass production, and advanced machinery were all far superior to the old feudalistic order’s resources.
This new way of producing, these new productive forces, required new social relations. Capitalism needed employees, people who were free, in the double sense — free of the legal obligations and commitments of feudal society, and “free” of property or of any other way of supporting themselves financially. A new class, the proletariat was born from the destruction of the feudal lifestyle. The relationship was symbiotic; the capitalists needed the proletariat and the proletariat were made to need the capitalists. New relations of production were thus forged.
Capitalism Gives Way to Post-Capitalism
This arrangement has endured and prospered some two-hundred years (give or take). The capitalist revolution has “created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together,” as Marx wrote, and led him to ask, ” what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?”
But, as Marx also wrote just two paragraphs later:
Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.
And this brings us to where we are today. Capitalism is no longer able to control the productive forces it has unleashed. The RoR, an uncontrollable force, will overtake capitalism just as capitalism overtook the feudal system. The new forces of production which are being created rail against our esteemed social relations. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned..,” this is the legacy of capitalist innovation.
Incessant, compulsory innovation is the quintessence of capitalism. This gives birth to technologies which outpace social development and conflict with existing social arrangements. Productive forces which no longer require a proletariat class to service them come to being in a society of proletarians which still need the old production relations in order to survive. This old order of social relations becomes a drag on the new productive forces.
This new condition of widespread and permanent technological unemployment and the subsequent political solution of some form of redistribution, perhaps in the form a guaranteed universal basic income, is predicted by Marx with uncanny accuracy:
But in order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence… And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. [emphasis mine]
The old social contract is no longer of use to the new productive forces. The familiar capitalist system no longer functions effectively. The strain is felt throughout society. Something must give. This is what we mean when we speak of the coming of “post-capitalist society.”
However, the phrase “post-capitalist society” is deliberately vague. What is this new society like? Is it better? Is it worse? These questions must remain unanswered for now. The fact that capitalism must change is predicated upon disruptive technologies reaching a stage in their development in which they come in conflict with capitalism’s relations of production. This much is a given. But what comes next depends upon how we “become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” Reactionary forces who wish to preserve the old capitalist order will battle with a variety of revolutionary forces for ideological dominance.
We may end up in a totalitarian surveillance state, worse than anything Orwell imagined, or we may finally achieve a humanistic, classless society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
All we can say with certainty at this point is, those who understand these precepts will have an edge in the struggle.
1 Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism Renewing Historical Materialism (Verso 2016) p. 76.