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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.