Capitalism—what’s in a word?

Posted: 28 May 2015 in Uncategorized
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While we’re on the topic of keywords, let’s try another one: capitalism.

According to Richard Wolff, critics of capitalism need to be clear about what they mean by capitalism. It’s not free markets or free enterprise, both of which have been present in various forms of slavery and feudalism (and, of course, both of which have been absent in various forms of capitalism). Instead, it’s how surplus labor is organized, in the form of surplus-value.

Whatever distinguishes capitalism from such other systems as slavery and feudalism, markets and free enterprises are not it. . .

So then how should we define capitalism to differentiate it from alternative economic systems such as slavery, feudalism and a post-capitalist socialism? The answer is “in terms of the organization of the surplus.” How an economic system organizes the production, appropriation and distribution of its surplus neatly and clearly differentiates capitalism from other systems.

In slavery, one group of persons, the slaves that are others’ property, performs the basic productive labor. Slaves use their brains and muscles to transform objects in nature into what masters desire. Masters immediately appropriate their slaves’ total output, but they usually return a portion of that output for the slaves’ consumption. The excess of the slaves’ total output over what they get to consume (plus what replaces inputs used up in production) is the surplus. The masters take that surplus and generally distribute it to others in society (e.g., police and army, church, etc.) who provide the conditions (security, belief systems, etc.) needed for this slave organization of the surplus to persist through time.

Feudalism displays a different organization of the surplus. Serfs are not property as slaves are; lords do not immediately and totally appropriate what serfs produce. Instead, serfs and lords enter into personal relationships entailing mutual obligations (in European feudalism: fealty, vassalage, etc.). In medieval Europe, lords assigned land parcels to serfs, whose labor there yielded outputs. Feudal obligations typically included either 1) serfs’ laboring parts of each week on their assigned plots and keeping the proceeds and laboring other parts of the week on the lord’s retained land, with the lord keeping the product of that labor (“corvée”); or 2) the serf delivering to the lord as “rent” a portion of the product (or its monetary equivalent) from the land assigned to and worked by the serf. Corvée and rent were forms of Europe’s feudal surplus.

Capitalism’s organization of the surplus differs from both slavery’s and feudalism’s. The surplus producers in capitalism are neither property (slavery), nor bound by personal relationships (feudal mutual obligations). Instead, the producers in capitalism enter “voluntarily” into contracts with the possessors of material means of production (land and capital). The contracts, usually in money terms, specify 1) how much will be paid by the possessors to buy/employ the producer’s labor power, and 2) the conditions of the producers’ actual labor processes. The contract’s goal is for the producers’ labor to add more value during production than the value paid to the producer. That excess of value added by worker over value paid to worker is the capitalist form of the surplus, or surplus value.

And the alternative? The elimination of the exploitation that is common to slavery, feudalism, and capitalism.

  1. cardiffkook says:

    Seems like a reasonable definition to me, though the rabbit ears on “voluntary” seems a little loaded.

    The issue I have is with your color commentary on “exploitation”. This is one of those words which has multiple meanings, but the pejorative version, which is implied is “selfish utilization” such as “He got ahead through the exploitation of his friends.” It implies a zero sum, win lose dynamic.

    In the case of slavery and feudalism, exploitation does apply as both are non voluntary. In capitalism (aka free enterprise) the assumption is that employment is mutually voluntary (no rabbit ears) and expected to be mutually beneficial (in other words positive sum and welfare enhancing.)

    Note it would be just as accurate to say the worker hopes to gain more value by specializing in labor than she expects she can earn via self employment or foraging in the woods. In other words, everyone is optimizing their situation in mutually beneficial way within a world of division of labor and exchange.

    But please do share your ideas on eliminating this supposed exploitation. Details? Empirical results?

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