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There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns goes to the doctor to get a physical. Upon running tests on Mr. Burns, the doctor informs him that he is the “sickest man in the United States”, and the only reason he is still alive is because all his diseases exist in precarious equilibrium with one another. You can view the clip here.

Reading about capitalism fills me with the same incredulity at the fact that it continues to exist.

Think about what the capital power relation consists in. One class—the capitalist class—forces the bulk of the population to sell its labor power in order to survive and enjoy any access to the fruits of social wealth. People are forced to work to create social wealth. That social wealth is stolen from them, and then it is sold back to them as though it is the capitalist’s private wealth.

Pitched this way, capitalism is the world’s most elaborate confidence game. The first thing you do is force people to work. That’s nothing new. As a form of social control, forced work has existed in many societies. But no slave or serf is under the illusion that anything he is doing is forced work. The lord comes down from his castle, he takes a portion of what you’ve produced, and he lets you keep some for yourself.

Capital isn’t about half-measures, though. The capitalist takes the whole thing. Unless you’re stealing from the office or warehouse—which people spontaneously do as a primitive form of class struggle—you don’t keep anything you make. Instead you get a wage. You get a paycheck at the end of the week or every two weeks. And then you take that paycheck to the store and you decide what you’re going to spend the money on. For the vast majority of working families in the United States, what you spend the money on is determined in large part on what you can spend the money on. That is determined by the price of commodities, which in large part is determined by mere chance.

It’s sort of crazy when you think about it. The capitalist steals what you make. That’s not crazy, that’s just violent. But then he tells you he’s giving you the privilege of getting back some of what he and the other capitalists have stolen with credits earned through the labor which the capitalist forced you to do in the first place. It’s like winning the right to buy back your stolen goods from the trunk of a car on the side of the street two weeks after your house was robbed. If that happened, you wouldn’t feel privileged to buy your stuff back. You’d be pissed and call the police. But no one polices the capitalists but themselves.

You might wonder why people would ever stand for something so simultaneously unnatural and idiotic. The truth is that they don’t, and they never have. In any social organism where one class pumps surplus out of another class (i.e., steals what they make), the overriding and perennial problem is to maintain control over the class from which the surplus labor is pumped. In a sense, that’s exactly what the history of any class society is about: the changes undergone so that one class can continue to pump surplus out of another class. But the history of all societies is equally the history of resistance to this imposition of work and the various measures the ruling classes take to adjust to that resistance and keep the extraction going. When the extracting class runs out of options to meet these challenges, or when the challenges become so formidable they overwhelm all attempts to contain the contradictions, the pump stops moving surplus from one side to the other, and the history of that social organism is at an end.

Capitalism’s difficulty in this sense is twofold. Not only does it have to keep the condition of forced work in place, but it also has to keep the illusion going that it is somehow doing people a favor by allowing them access to anything less than 100% of the vast social wealth produced by our labor and ingenuity. In some places in the world, so much of the surplus is stolen from the workers and so little is given back that people are starving. Their access to social wealth is almost nonexistent. This is a necessary consequence of having the distribution of the surplus determined by the arbitrary averages of the price form. It is rife with contradiction, and we’ll quickly see the point where the contradiction explodes the system—just as it has done in every other form of slavery known to man.

Young people nowadays who never saw the upheavals of the 60s or 70s think the earth is more likely to be hit by a comet which eradicates all life than that capitalism will end. As if it will take a miracle for enough people to wake up and put a stop to this. In fact the real miracle is that this idiotic, counterintuitive, contradictory system of bald theft and violence continues at all.

It’s the capitalist who is the sickest man in the world, and the slightest breeze coming for him will be a hurricane.


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?