Review: The ABCs of Capitalism

Hannah Archambault

April 12, 2019

Vivek Chibber’s “The ABCs of Capitalism”, released through Jacobin, offers an analysis from a “class first”, or, less generously, “class only” perspective. The reality is that the working class is composed primarily of people who experience material oppression related to their identities and Chibber falls short even of his own class-first dictum because he neglects this fact. This, in addition to his decision to not fully critique power structures as a whole, leads to an incomplete vision of a socialist future. He makes the case for strong social democracy rather than a case for revolutionary change in which the working-class democratically controls all social, political and economic aspects of life.

Pamphlet A, Understanding Capitalism, lays out why we should care to critique capitalism. He begins, as most contemporary critiques of capitalism do, by laying out inequalities in both income and wealth. This is, of course, a good place to start. The statistics, though oft repeated, are shocking and stark in comparison with the rhetoric of equality of opportunity that saturates the  political mythos of the United States. Chibber lays out quite powerfully the absurdity of this mythos and the doctrine of individual responsibility and failure that it relies on.

Capitalism

The analysis of capitalism itself in the first pamphlet is quite clear. He accurately points out that “it is the pursuit of profit that shapes the entire organization of production capitalism”. The driver of capitalism is the pursuit of profit, but capitalism as a system is comprised of an array of institutions. Markets, wage labor, and private property, among other institutions, have existed outside of capitalism, and are still all integral parts of the capitalist system as well.  He is able to make some Marxist concepts relatively accessible. For example, the tendency of the rate of profit to equalize due to the “war zone” of market competition, and “that sooner or later, most every capitalist finds that if she wants to make her profits, it will have to come through winning the competitive battle” (17).

One of the first noticeable problems with the pamphlets, however, is that the expectations of the reader are not clear. At some points it’s obvious that they are for those readers who are completely unfamiliar with Marxist and socialist analyses of capitalism, but he sometimes seems to skip to terms and concepts that may require more of a background in critiques of capitalism or anti-capitalist thought. For instance, he refers to the relationship between capitalists and workers as “extortion”, rather than the Marxist term exploitation, but uses the phrase “means of production” without offering an explanation of the term, which is key to Marxist analysis.

Greed

Chibber often paints capitalists as toothless victims of a system—“pleading with capitalists to behave overlooks the structural pressures on them to abuse their power” (C, 3); “She doesn’t drive her workers because she is greedy, but because someone else might beat her to it and end up having an advantage on the market” (A, 22).  In doing so he neglects the fact that it is not just structural pressures that cause capitalists to “abuse” their power, but that capitalists have a vested interest in increasing exploitation of workers not just because they MUST grow, but because they WANT to accumulate. Chibber’s analysis often contradicts itself—mere sentences later he says that “capitalists modify their morality to justify their actions” (C, 3), which suggests an awareness and agency of the capitalist that Chibber, inexplicably undermines over and over.

At another point, the pamphlets state that “it’s the employer’s interests that typically win out” (A,23, emphasis in original) in relation to conflicting prerogatives between workers and capitalists. It’s important to know why the employer has said interests—they aren’t capitalists because they want to treat workers well, or produce things that the market wants, or because these means of production were forced on them, but because they have made active choices to maximize their profits to benefit themselves. While the interests of the individual capitalist generally aligns with objectives of the capitalist class, and they are participants in class struggle, it is not as neutral or passive class actors compelled by forces out of their control that they engage in the process of exploiting workers and producing surplus value. Individual capitalists are not acting for the benefit of the capitalist class, nor are they working for the benefit of their industry or the consumer, they are working explicitly for their own personal benefit.

Clearly, the capitalist exists because of the conditions of capitalism, and as such their position as capitalists requires them to exploit workers and obtain surplus value to maintain their class status. The capitalist, however, can’t be exculpated entirely from their own agency. Agency, within the bounds of material conditions, is explicit in historical materialism—indeed, Chibber repeatedly refers back to the agency of the working class to mobilize and change the conditions it works under. Why, then, deny capitalists their measure of agency? At this point it’s worth noting that Marx uses the phrases “capitalist” or “capitalists” and “capital” interchangeably when describing actions of the capitalist class. This happens throughout his work, and in Chapter 10 of Capital he powerfully states that:

“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour. Capital is dead labour, that, vampire like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”.

Chapter 10 of Capital Volume 1 provides many examples of Marx directing ire at the capitalist directly, and has some of his most powerful language, using the term “greed” to describe capitalists (or “capital”)  repeatedly, and comparing them, in the first place, with political and economic systems in which the ruling class had more direct “ownership” rights over workers in general.

 “Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.” (Marx)

Despite describing greedy behavior on the part of capitalists repeatedly, Chibber continues to emphasize that “capitalists don’t undermine their employees’ well-being because they are mean, greedy, or callous…[but] owners and managers will be punished if they don’t squeeze the most out of their labor force” (A, 35, emphasis in original). He describes workers’ agency to organize against capitalists, to “fight back”, without making capitalists responsible in any way for the role they play in the ongoing project of exploiting workers within a capitalist system.  Chibber, like Marx, was correct that we cannot appeal to the goodness of the capitalist to behave–however, we cannot absolve the capitalist of culpability either.

The most significant problem is that describing capitalists in this way could easily prevent a kind of movement where capitalists are, in fact, held accountable for not just perpetuating but actually embodying and enacting a system that necessarily exploits, harms, and kills working people. Changing the dynamics of the system means wresting control from capital, and the way that must necessarily happen is by facing capitalists directly. To fail to acknowledge this is to fail to acknowledge who, exactly the working class must work against, and to “humanize” the capitalist class beyond any extent necessary to prevent heinous crimes against them, is a project that can only discourage radical change.

Exploitation and oppression

In his description of exploitation (“extortion” in his terms) Chibber neglects to mention how some manifestations of exploitation, in particular the issue that he refers to as “underwork” in which workers are forced to have several part time jobs, disproportionately impacts women and Black Americans. Women who hold multiple jobs suffer not only from the problem of not “allowing them  to plan for activities outside their employment that are essential to their physical well-being” (A, 33), but also from having to perform reproductive and caring labor inside the home, and the resulting increased levels of stress, exhaustion, and alienation that results. This is a well-researched phenomenon and it is disconcerting that Chibber does not mention it at all. He mentions that the incursion of work-time outside of ostensible contemporary norms prevents worker vacations, going to movies, etc., but fails to acknowledge that it is worse than this for women—it prevents sleep, eating, medical care, and other such absolute necessities as women continue to make sure that other members of the family DO have access to such necessities. Towards the end of the final pamphlet he does mention that time is important since it “allows workers to care for all the other needs they have, apart from the need for physical survival”, and includes the issue of “taking care of family and loved ones” (C, 21), but seems to fail to recognize that this is, in fact a part of addressing the physical survival of the working class and disregards the specific oppression of women.

Chibber goes to great lengths to avoid mentioning any of the groups of people who make up the working class. In his explanation of why the working class should be the focus of political strategy he says that the political movement must be “fighting for things most people want and need, not just some chosen few, no matter how badly off that particular small groups is” (C, 4). The problem with rejecting the special needs of “particular small groups” is that he is certainly referring to groupings by identity and the individuals within those groups compose the working class  and they also experience oppression based on their identity.  By failing to acknowledge that “the working class” in the United States has often been interpreted as “the white, male working class”, Chibber risks excluding large swaths of the existing working class who upon reading his text may feel as though they have no place in  this analysis of the problems of capitalism and strategies to dismantle it.

In fact, he explicitly rejects the political project of addressing axes of oppression outside of “pure class” analysis. The most egregious specific example is perhaps:

“First, where [a policy proposal] doesn’t clash with what capitalists want, politicians are happy to take it seriously, even pander to it. The best example here is non-economic issues, like religious conflicts, or social issues like sexual identity. These are often allowed to move to center stage because however they are resolved, they won’t really touch the donors’ economic interests. In fact, they are very useful as political lightning rods because letting them rise to the top of the agenda allows the policies closer to class interests be decided backstage, in negotiations between capital and state managers.” (B, 17)

This plays into the most pernicious, politically alienating, and actively harmful stereotypes of liberation movements—that they are led by people who are either themselves tools of the elite, or that people who seek liberation outside of class are ignorant of what their real needs are. It’s worth noting that he mentions Lenin and Gramsci (C, 10)—rather than any contemporary activists, let alone contemporary women, people of color, or otherwise oppressed people—to cursorily address other axes of oppression. He neglects, again, to realize that the working class in general is made up of people who experience specific oppression along the lines of their identities.  In reality, as Marxist feminists have noted for decades, issues of race/gender/sexuality/disability etc., are not aside from class, as it were, but simultaneous and irremovable from class. This does not mean that addressing one addresses the other, but that addressing any one without explicitly recognizing the material impacts of the other in fact fractures leftist movements and not vice versa.

Socialism from above

Chibber seems to suggest a strategic outlook best characterized as socialism “from above,” where the existing capitalist state apparatus and political system are used to incrementally transition from capitalism to socialism, the imposition of socialism by politicians and bureaucrats. This is in sharp contrast to socialism “from below” where there is a revolutionary break from capitalist relations of production via a mass movement of the working class lead by members of the working class and independent working class organizations.

He uncritically states that historically “the Left physically located itself in the everyday lives and the employment venues of working people” (C, 3) which suggests a  “left” that is organized separately from the working class and enters into or embeds itself within the working class. This is in contrast to an autonomous, self activating and organizing working class–workers who organize as class for themselves. Effective class struggle has been waged by self organized workers, especially in terms of the most militant wings where workers have rejected the moderate calls of union bureaucrats for their own more radical ends. This is not to deny that organized revolutionaries historically (from the IWW, socialists and communists in the early 20th century, to communists/Trotskyists in the great organizing struggles of the CIO in the 30’s, to the revolutionary cadre of the 60’s) in the US were organic leaders in working-class struggles.  But members of vanguard parties can never substitute for the self-organization of workers more broadly nor is their role to lead but to help create new leaders from the workers themselves.

Chibber’s analysis suggests, while simultaneously superficially criticizing, that extreme power differentials can be acceptable or even beneficial and this legitimizes the reformist rather than revolutionary political project, in which the power of the state still lies with a bureaucratic or political class. In the first pamphlet he states that “the simple fact of being under someone else’s authority isn’t itself objectionable. Think of a family. Parents have near total authority over their children. encompassing every aspect of their lives. But we don’t typically object to this because we assume that parents will use that power to the benefit of their kids.” (A, 36). He is suggesting this as a site of acceptable unequal power relations, in contrast to the unacceptable power relationships of workers and capitalists. He characterizes this particularly extreme version of power relationship as “justified”, and the use of an explicitly paternal and patriarchal metaphor is a strange choice.

In pamphlet C he states that “A condition of dependence on someone else isn’t harmful if the dominant party has the same interests as the weaker one and assumes responsibility for the weaker one’s welfare” (C, 5), further legitimizing unequal power dynamics.  In his description of “member control” he explicitly states that “an organization of any size has to put some bureaucratic structures in place—it needs to have officials and staff who work full-time, whose job it is to manage its affairs, and who therefore are to some extent separated from members on an every day basis” (C, 27, emphasis added). Chibber pays lip service to accountability,  but does not critically investigate the possibility of structuring organizations in a significantly more democratic way. He could have easily drawn on a vibrant literature from the left that has indeed explored alternatives to capitalism’s traditional management structures.

Chibber’s perspective on the state is overly simplistic. He emphasizes that the state depends on the capitalist class for its maintenance via tax income, which requires ongoing investment by the capitalist class. This is certainly true, but he fails entirely to acknowledge that the bourgeois state was, in fact, built by the capitalist class and exists in dialectical simultaneity with it, and thus dependence is only one part of the ongoing power of the state to maintain class power. Chibber’s analysis of the state ends with the idea that the “challenge for the left to today is to engineer a shift toward” a political system in which there is a strong labor movement and a strong labor party (B, 35), and stops just short of anything more radical. He recognizes that the state under capitalism cannot be neutral and describes the variety of ways in which the state, as it were, is entangled and reliant upon capital. He comments on the limitations of electoral mobilizations, but declines to suggest a more radical shift in the structure and behavior of the state, which is necessary to build socialism.

Socialism from below

Chibber’s analysis is not so much incorrect as it is incomplete, and often inconsistent. He is correct that capitalism is irredeemable and liberation of working people can come only with its wholesale replacement; that the state, as it exists, is not separable from capital; that the exploitation of workers is the driver of the capitalist engine, and it must be workers who bring about change. He largely neglects, however, to acknowledge who the working class is, and that some workers—women, people of color, disabled people, queer people, and trans people, to name a few—experience specific oppressions that cannot be ignored if our goal is to achieve true human liberation. He devotes three paragraphs to the issue of “social hierarchies” on page 25 of 30 of the final pamphlet in the series, and another to address race specifically (and poorly) in the third to last paragraph of the series, after undermining and ignoring the material issues of axes of oppression throughout the 90+ previous pages.

This failure both undermines the political project of building socialism by creating an alienating narrative as to who socialists are and who they want to organize, and creates a dangerous situation in which oppression that exists within capitalism can be carried forward into a socialist future. His suggestion that solidarity requires “the creation of a common identity” (C, 23), in so far as it is part of building class consciousness, is not incorrect, but the suggestion that other identities are not important to organizing this solidarity is a dangerous one.

He also sets up a dynamic in which power is acknowledged as a problem only within the capitalist incarnation of the state, and fails to analyze the way that an ostensibly socialist state could reproduce power imbalances via the creation of a bureaucratic or managing class, which is destabilizing in itself. He legitimizes power imbalances that would make this likely.

Of course, these are just three short pamphlets and he could not address every problem. But specific issues stand out as things that must be explored immediately and cannot be left for later, even in our analysis of capitalism and before we get to building a future outside of capitalism, which is ostensibly his goal.

A liberatory socialism must be built by workers, and the workers are not homogenous. A liberatory socialism must reject power dynamics along all lines and must be radically democratic. A liberatory socialism requires the most radical goals now, to achieve the most radical ends later.

Hannah Archambault is a PhD student in Economics at UMass Amherst.

Comments
  • David McCullough says:

    “He also sets up a dynamic…” Can someone tell me what that means? I am not familiar with dynamic as a noun, a thing one can set up.

    • Luke Pretz says:

      Yes, dynamic can be used as a noun. Here Hannah is using it to say that Chibber sets up a framework/ ways of relating to the questions of capitalism, the state, power and the ways that oppressive power structures might arise if socialists view the bourgeois state as something neutral that can be plugged into a socialist society without consequence.

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