I’ve always harbored the prejudiced view that even though America is the very seat of global capitalism, its ‘dynamic’ society offers the poor more of a chance to improve their lot than European countries where social class was more solidified. As it turns out, this is very much untrue for the wide swath of developed capitalist nations–all except Britain have a greater chance of social mobility than the United States. But still the old myths about American being the Land of Opportunity, the Great Meritocracy, persist, perhaps because they have had certain appeal to people coldly evaluating their circumstances, even though they are contradicted by empirical fact. But their untruth plays an important ideological role. It causes people to endorse an economic system that impoverishes them, acting in a way analogous to the horror-tales of ‘Socialist Medicine’: they believe that while it is not exactly ideal here it is way better than anywhere else.

While the myth of America as a Land of Opportunity lead economists to suggest that a person’s inheritance accounted for as little as 20% of their wealth, or ‘earnings advantage’, the new measurements show that it accounts for somewhere between 40-60%, and maybe even as much as 65%. This of course is rather startling, and was even covered in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (May 13, 2005 and Nov 14 2002, respectively). When one’s inherited position accounts for so much, your parents’ social position not only gives you an advantage or disadvantage, it plays a determining role in your place in society–and that is to say nothing of your grandparents and great-grandparents. As long as America is perceived as a socially mobile society, and not one whose recent trends suggest an even further entrenchment of social class, the realities of class will remain on the periphery of consciousness. It’s time we disabused ourselves of our myths.

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One of the mainstay whipping boys of Marxist explanations of history is the bourgeoisie: a class of persons invoked both to serve as foil to the proletariat and to establish a target against which to struggle. While there are some benefits to this approach–it is simple, it carries the weight of tradition, it has a certain theoretical elegance–it does not properly convey the forces at play in the historical development of capitalism. And so, it is not much use in thinking through possible avenues beyond capitalism. Obviously, this is unacceptable. A correct understanding of history, one that drives a wedge between capitalist and bourgeois is necessary. But for that you must get a glimpse of the broader situation of pre-capitalist Europe and how it is portrayed in both mainstream and radical accounts. I hope, through this series of posts, to offer just that.

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Often I encounter bright, worldly, middle class people my own age who are critical of capitalism and aware of its injustices but whose disillusionment of one form or another prevents them from seeing socialism as a viable alternative to what we have now. I was having drinks with two such people last night—old friends of mine who radicalized me in my teens—and one of them raised the following question which I’ve heard many times before: Doesn’t human nature make socialism or really any alternative to capitalism impossible? Don’t we have a “natural” system set up now that rewards innovation, punishes laziness, and which channels our innate animal aggressivity?

I’ll admit the amount of lager in my system preempted a considered response, but here is at least the beginning of one: though the question of where society leaves off and nature begins is one we cannot answer, we can say with certainty that the capital social relation is not natural in the least. Capitalists had to violently impose the commodity-form on labor. They had to kick people off the land. Without access to the means of production, people could no longer grow food to feed themselves and their families. They had to buy it from the capitalist with wages “earned” from working in the capitalist’s factory. But as Marx points out, the propertyless are more likely to become “vagabonds, robbers, or beggars” than workers. Getting those people off the lands and into the factories was an extraordinarily difficult process for the capitalist class. They met with resistance every step of the way. With regard to some who resisted—the aboriginal people of North America, for example—the task was impossible, and the capitalists had to exterminate them.

The great watershed of human history—the universalization of the commodity-form—was accomplished by means of naked brutality and aggression. Perhaps one might argue that this very brutality is part of the human condition. Capitalism is merely a new thing to enforce. However, I think it becomes difficult to defend this position when you consider the sheer magnitude and extent of the violence which in this case was global, absolute, and directed toward the whole of humanity in such a way as to encompass and determine nearly every aspect of social existence. The argument is made more difficult when you consider the aggression was perpetrated by a relatively small group of bourgeoisie coming from one specific part of the world. If there is a natural, biological, anthropological component to this violence, it is obviated by whatever manmade conditions arose to give it such a radically different, absolute, and universal character.

The arbitrary, unnatural essence of the capital social relation does not disappear once the commodity-form has been imposed, either. Friction continues, first in the form of a struggle against the length and quality of the work day. Legislation limiting the length of the work day and the people who are allowed to work did not come from the kind hearts of legislators concerned about the breakdown of the Christian family. It came about because the large bulk of workers protested and threatened to shut down the entire operation. The capitalist class was then forced to introduce mechanical automation into the production process in order to make up for the productivity lost when the work day was shortened and children and women were no longer allowed to work.

It would be reasonable to assume that the introduction of automation would make labor easier. Did we only live in such a world! Toil became greater as fewer workers now struggled to keep up with the machines. As a result, workers end up working harder and longer than “primitive” people who lacked technology all together. This paradox arose because workers lacked and still lack any control over the production process. Technology is not introduced in order to make life easier for people. It is introduced in order to maximize the surplus the capitalist can steal from the workers. The use of technology in capitalist society is inseparable from the essence of capitalism itself, in other words.

After the revolution, this will no longer be the case. What we produce and how we produce it will be determined by a conscious effort to increase our satisfaction, lessen our toil, and maximize our time for social activities other than work. Under capitalism, work increases as productivity grows. Socialism promises the opposite, more rational alternative: as our productivity as a society grows, we will work less, because there is objectively less need to. The measure of wealth will be what everyone already knows it should be: disposable time. What is more “natural” than that?