To look beyond the border fence: Reflections on “What is capitalism, and why should we be against it?”
Platypus Review 139 | September 2021
The following is a response to a panel hosted by the Melbourne chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society on May 22, 2021 at the Clyde Hotel in Carlton, Australia, which addressed the question, “What is capitalism, and why should we be against it?” The panelists were Rjurik Davidson, Arthur Dent, and Rory Dufficy.
THE PANEL DISCUSSION ADDRESSING the question of just what capitalism is, was significant for at least two reasons. First, there was a general consensus in accepting the broad idea that capitalism is a mode of production. That is a truism which needed considerable fleshing out, or perhaps not. We all live with capitalism and have been defining it now for over 170 years. Perhaps we do not need anything more than “capitalism is a mode of production” but it hardly advances our understanding and does not offer anything like an answer to Lenin’s question of “What is to be done?” The other significant issue was that after more than a century and a half, the divergences are still so wide.
For this observer, an important thing about the discussion was that fundamental change and a real challenge to the rule of capital was muted, at best. While accepting that discussion and debate prompts growth in theory, we are so often left with Marx’s comment about philosophers describing the world while the point was then and is now, to find ways to change it. A question from the audience encapsulated much that is problematic. The questioner asked, in effect, why should any of you bother? He did not assume but was quite resolute in his belief that capitalism had delivered and was delivering good outcomes for all and that to change that which was working was a ridiculous idea. It was a serious question and not a “Dorothy Dix” ploy. The response was illuminating. Rjurik Davidson spoke at some length about this and of the “relativities” that become obvious. He pointed out the global nature of the working class and of the global nature of exploitation. This might have been a springboard for other aspects of class and capital, and of the ongoing relevance of Marxism but the moment passed. What preceded this question, the contributions of the three speakers, possibly led to the question and possibly explains why the moment that the question offered was lost.
There was surprisingly little overlap between the three speakers, and the order of contributions was well arranged. Rory Dufficy presented a brief and concise background to what capitalism is and how this “mode of production” operates, of the wage-labor process, and permitted a brief mention of surplus value before moving to what underpins much of the problem with the Left today. As the focal point of Dufficy’s contribution was on capitalism and how it operates, it would have been good to have some issues fleshed out just a little. Capitalism is, after all, an organic compound and changes operation if not its nature.
The most noxious form that capitalism assumes today is the one that newsreaders speak of in breathless and excited tones as if, somehow, Wall Street were an indicator of how the global economy is faring. This is the capital that Marx described as "fictitious” — the capital of the speculator, the casino capitalist, the stock marketeer, where nothing is produced even as fortunes are made, where capital has no productive element but is such a powerful symbol of capitalism’s utter contempt for the people.
Then there is that other capitalism — the productive capitalism that builds and exploits, that creates wealth and misery. This form has a distinct and repetitive life cycle — Marx’s cycles or circuits of capital. Money capital allows productive capital to develop. Things get made. These things are translated into commodity capital. They are sold. This, in turn, produces money capital. It has a beautiful balance to it and money, we are reliably informed, makes money. It is not quite so beautiful if you are one of those who make the goods and are exploited along the way. But even so, things are made, wealth is created, lives are destroyed, and there is a certain logic to it all. Having made this observation, the fact remains that time is never a friend and it is a simple enough matter to comment without the constraint of having to watch the clock.
Rjurik Davidson, who was the second speaker did bring the audience’s attention to the issue of socialism and of how the movement for socialism and particularly Marxism has suffered over the previous decades. In particular he referred to the classical tradition of Marxism and what he referred to as its idea of the inevitability of a working class “rising” (a term he used frequently) and of the inevitability of capitalist collapse and how this did not transpire. This was rather dispiriting for many in the Marxist movement. Capitalist re-stabilization and the Stalinization of Marxism led generations of Marxist thinkers to look for ways of “rescuing” Marxism. We are still paying the price for each of these rescue missions. Bit by bit the theory was eroded, and the first casualty was the working class as a vehicle for revolutionary change. Davidson did correctly identify the capitalist state’s capacity to effectively co-opt opposition into the very structures of the state, although this, again, might have benefited from a little more explanation.
Somewhere along the way, something happened to theory and therefore to practice. The working class has all but been removed from the equation. Why there has been no “rising” and why capitalism remains unchallenged is a crucial issue for us all to consider. Part of the answer is the way the state manages things but that’s only part of the story. The Left has aided and abetted capitalism’s survival. It survives, largely as a result of the Left’s collective incapacity to confront, challenge, and defeat capitalism. Generations of attacks on Marxist theory, often by “Marxists,” in order to make Marxism “relevant,” have seriously weakened Marxist practice. This needs a moment’s reflection.
When capitalism emerged, its exploitative nature was met with opposition. The contradiction between private ownership and social production was clear. The working class reacted. The state first sought to crush opposition and then recognised that some appearance of conciliation needed to be made. Trade unions and workers’ parties were legalized and given a seat at the table. They were legitimized by the state and little by little, decade by decade, they became subsumed into the state. The best that could be hoped for was that some of the worst excesses of capitalism might be ameliorated, but capital was never to be challenged.
Rjurik Davidson spoke of Luxemburg and her “socialism or barbarism” thesis, and painted a picture of challenge coming via disaster as a catalyst. It is a bleak picture. Other unresolved polemics needed to be considered. The reform-or-revolution debate should be over and yet it never is. I am not talking here about the reformism of social democracy but of political expressions, clothed in Marxist rhetoric, that either reject the working class as the leading force in society or promote struggles that ultimately cannot hope to challenge capitalist rule.
The working class is the vehicle for change, and yet we have had single-issue politics, protest politics, and the politics of identity promoted as alternative vehicles. These social movements have brought huge numbers of people into action, their causes have been just, and victories have sometimes been won, but win or lose, they dissipate. The problem is that even if a campaign is victorious, even if all of them are victorious, capitalism will not have been challenged in any fundamental way. It all has an echo to those same struggles that rent the movement a century ago — reform or revolution.
Marxist “reformers” have for generations been moving the theory away from that espoused by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg. The working class was quietly shunted into a corner, relegated, its revolutionary potential ignored or denied. Some experts go so far as to dismiss the working class and all but deny its very existence. Odd, really, as capitalism continues, through its globalization of the economy, to build new contingents in every nook and cranny on the planet. At last count the global working class was four billion strong.
The final speaker, Arthur Dent, spoke from his activism of the 1960s. His view, although highly critical of much that has befallen the Left, was really a defeatist view. I share some of his misgivings about how the Left and the working class has been so poorly organized but cannot accept his premise that the Left is effectively defunct or that Marxism died. If it died then the Platypus slogan of “the Left is dead, long live the Left!” has some validity. Dent’s pessimism is a by-product of the way that Marxism has been treated by well-intentioned “Marxists.” It has retreated from a working-class perspective and is, therefore, hardly capable of offering the leadership that is so desperately needed. This is not some pollyannaish view, but is the view of classical Marxism, despite Davidson’s less than fulsome endorsement.
The world must not merely be interpreted but changed. This requires a theory that will speak to the working class and promote political practice that will actually challenge capitalist rule. The class will listen. It always has. It is just that people stopped talking to the working class. The Marxist message has not changed. The only difference is that capitalism is far more dangerous, brutal, and destructive than at any time in its existence. It makes a response all that more pressing.
The Right is on the march and yet the working class is moving to the Left. Before the COVID pandemic, the world was ablaze. Workers, in their millions, were on the streets. They are returning to the streets again. Why? Anxiety, alienation, insecurity, inequality, and misery surround us. There is a rise of the Right, of authoritarianism. There is a real and growing threat of war. There is climate destruction and pandemic. Our world is diseased. The disease is capitalism. There is one cure for the disease. Socialism. It will not come of itself. It will not come by endlessly describing capitalism and wishing it would either get better or simply go away. It won’t. It must be removed. This can only happen through political organisation that looks beyond the border fence and does not regard socialism as a “project” for future consideration.
 See “What is capitalism, and why should we be against it?,” Platypus Review 139 (2021), <https://platypus1917.org/2021/09/01/what-is-capitalism-and-why-should-we-be-against-it/>