In How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century, Erik Olin Wright has distilled decades of work into a concise and tightly argued manifesto analyzing the varieties of anti-capitalism, assessing different strategic approaches, and laying the foundations for a society dedicated to human flourishing. This is an urgent and powerful argument for socialism, and a unparalleled guide to help us get there.
For many people, the idea of anticapitalism seems ridiculous. After all, look at the fantastic technological innovations in the goods and services produced by capitalist firms in recent years: smartphones and streaming movies; driverless cars and social media; cures for countless diseases; JumboTron screens at football games and video games connecting thousands of players around the world; every conceivable consumer product available on the Internet for rapid home delivery; astounding increases in the productivity of labor through novel automation technologies; and on and on. And while it is true that income is unequally distributed in capitalist economies, it is also true that the array of consumption goods available and affordable for the average person, and even for the poor, has increased dramatically almost everywhere. Just compare the United States in the half century between 1968 and 2018: the percentage of Americans with air conditioners, cars, washing machines, dishwashers, televisions and indoor plumbing has increased dramatically in those fifty years. Life expectancy is longer for most categories of people; infant mortality lower. The list is unending. And now, in the twenty-first century, this improvement in basic standards of living is happening even in some of the poorer regions of the world as well: look at the improvement in material standards of living of people in China since China embraced the free market. What’s more, look what happened when Russia and China tried an alternative to capitalism! Even aside from the political oppression and brutality of those regimes, they were economic failures. So, if you care about improving the lives of people, how can you be anticapitalist?
That is one story, the standard story. Here is another story: the hallmark of capitalism is poverty in the midst of plenty. This is not the only thing wrong with capitalism, but it is the feature of capitalist economies that is its gravest failing. In particular, the poverty of children who clearly bear no responsibility for their plight is morally reprehensible in rich societies where such poverty could be easily eliminated. Yes, there is economic growth, technological innovation, increasing productivity and a downward diffusion of consumer goods, but along with capitalist economic growth comes destitution for many whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the advance of capitalism, precariousness for those at the bottom of the capitalist labor market, and alienating and tedious work for the majority. Capitalism has generated massive increases in productivity and extravagant wealth for some, yet many people still struggle to make ends meet.
Capitalism is an inequality-enhancing machine as well as a growth machine. What’s more, it is becoming ever clearer that capitalism, driven by the relentless search for profits, is destroying the environment. And in any case, the pivotal issue is not whether material conditions on average have improved in the long run within capitalist economies, but rather whether, looking forward from this point in history, things would be better for most people in an alternative kind of economy. It is true that the centralized, authoritarian state-run economies of twentieth-century Russia and China were in many ways economic failures, but these are not the only possibilities. Both of these stories are anchored in the realities of capitalism. It is not an illusion that capitalism has transformed the material conditions of life in the world and enormously increased human productivity; many people have benefited from this. But equally, it is not an illusion that capitalism generates great harms and perpetuates eliminable forms of human suffering. Where the real disagreement lies—a disagreement that is fundamental—is over whether it is possible to have the productivity, innovation and dynamism that we see in capitalism without the harms. Margaret Thatcher famously announced in the early 1980s, “There is no alternative”; two decades later, the World Social Forum declared, “Another world is possible.”
That is the fundamental debate.
The central argument of this book is this: first, another world is indeed possible. Second, it could improve the conditions for human flourishing for most people. Third, elements of this new world are already being created in the world as it is. And finally, there are ways to move from here to there. Anticapitalism is possible not simply as a moral stance toward the harms and injustices in the world in which we live, but as a practical stance toward building an alternative for greater human flourishing.
What is capitalism?
Like many concepts used in everyday life and in scholarly work, there are many different ways of defining “capitalism.” For many people, capitalism is the equivalent of a market economy—an economy in which people produce things to be sold to other people through voluntary agreements. Others add the word “free” before “market,” emphasizing that capitalism is an economy in which market transactions are minimally regulated by the state. And still others emphasize that capitalism is not just characterized by markets, but also by the private ownership of capital. Sociologists, especially those influenced by the Marxist tradition, typically also add to this the idea that capitalism is characterized by a particular kind of class structure, one in which the people who actually do the work in an economy—the working class—do not themselves own the means of production. This implies at least two basic classes in the economy—capitalists, who own the means of production, and workers, who provide labor as employees.
Throughout this book, I will use the term capitalism to designate both the idea of capitalism as a market economy and the idea that it is organized through a particular kind of class structure. One way of thinking about this combination is that the market dimension identifies the basic mechanism of coordination of economic activities in an economic system—coordination through decentralized voluntary exchanges, supply and demand, and prices—and the class structure identifies the central power relations within the economic system—between private owners of capital and workers. This way of elaborating the concept means that it is possible to have markets without capitalism.
For example, it is possible to have markets in which the means of production are owned by the state: firms are owned by the state and the state allocates resources to these firms, either as direct investment or as loans from state banks. This can be called a statist market economy (although some people have called this “state capitalism”). Or the firms in a market economy could be various kinds of cooperatives owned and governed by their employees and customers. A market economy organized through such organizations can be called a cooperative market economy.
In contrast to these two kinds of market economies, the distinctive feature of a capitalist market economy is the ways in which private owners of capital wield power both within firms and within the economic system as a whole.
Grounds for opposing capitalism
Capitalism breeds anticapitalists. In some times and places, the resistance to capitalism becomes crystallized in coherent ideologies with systematic diagnoses of the source of harms and clear prescriptions about what to do to eliminate them. In other circumstances, anticapitalism is submerged within motivations that on the surface have little to do with capitalism, such as religious beliefs that led people to reject modernity and seek refuge in isolated communities. Sometimes it takes the form of workers on the shop floor individually resisting the demands of bosses. Other times anticapitalism is embodied in labor organizations engaged in collective struggles over the conditions of work. Always, wherever capitalism exists, there is discontent and resistance in one form or other.
Two general kinds of motivations are in play in these diverse forms of struggle within and over capitalism: class interests and moral values. You can oppose capitalism because it harms your own material interests, but also because it offends certain moral values that are important to you.
There is a poster from the late 1970s that shows a working-class woman leaning on a fence. The caption reads: “class consciousness is knowing what side of the fence you’re on; class analysis is figuring out who is there with you.” The metaphor of the fence sees conflict over capitalism as anchored in conflicts of class interests. Being on opposite sides of the fence defines friends and enemies in terms of opposing interests. Some people may be sitting on the fence, but ultimately they may have to make a choice: “you’re either with us or against us.”
In some historical situations, the interests that define the fence are pretty easy to figure out. It is obvious to nearly everyone that in the United States before the Civil War, slaves were harmed by slavery and they therefore had a class interest in its abolition, while slave owners had an interest in its perpetuation. There may have been slave owners who felt some ambivalence about owning slaves—this is certainly the case for Thomas Jefferson, for example—but this ambivalence was not because of their class interests; it was because of a tension between those interests and certain moral values they held.
In contemporary capitalism, things are more complicated and it is not so obvious precisely how class interests over capitalism should be understood. Of course, there are some categories of people for whom their material interests with respect to capitalism are clear: large wealth holders and CEOs of multinational corporations clearly have interests in defending capitalism; sweatshop workers, low-skilled manual laborers, precarious workers, and the long-term unemployed have interests in opposing capitalism.
But for many other people in capitalist economies, things are not so straightforward. Highly educated professionals, managers and many self-employed people, for example, occupy what I have called contradictory locations within class relations and have quite complex and often inconsistent interests with respect to capitalism. If the world consisted of only two classes on opposite sides of the fence, then it might be sufficient to anchor anticapitalism exclusively in terms of class interests. This was basically how classical Marxism saw the problem: even if there were complexities in class structures, the long-term dynamics of capitalism would have a tendency to create a sharp alignment of interests for and against capitalism. In such a world, class consciousness consisted mainly of understanding how the world worked and thus how it served the material interests of some classes at the expense of others. Once workers understood this, the argument went, they would oppose capitalism. This is one of the reasons many Marxists have argued that it is unnecessary to develop a systematic critique of capitalism in terms of social justice and moral deficits. It is enough to show that capitalism harms the interests of the masses; it is not necessary to also show that it is unjust.
Workers don’t need to be convinced that capitalism is unjust or that it violates moral principles; all that is needed is a powerful diagnosis that capitalism is the source of serious harms to them—that it is against their material interests—and that something can be done about it. Such a purely class interest–based argument against capitalism will not do for the twenty-first century, and probably was never really entirely adequate. There are three issues in play here. First, because of the complexity of class interests, there will always be many people whose interests do not clearly fall on one side of the fence or the other. Their willingness to support anticapitalist initiatives will depend in part on what other kinds of values are at stake. Since their support is important for any plausible strategy for overcoming capitalism, it is crucial to build the coalition in part around values, not just class interests.
Second, the reality is that most people are motivated at least partially by moral concerns, not just practical economic interests. Even for people whose class interests are clear, motivations anchored in moral concerns can matter a great deal. People often act against their class interests not because they do not understand those interests, but because other values matter more to them. One of the most famous cases in history is that of Frederick Engels, Marx’s close associate, who was the son of a wealthy capitalist manufacturer and yet wholeheartedly supported political movements against capitalism. Northern abolitionists in the nineteenth century opposed slavery not because of their class interests, but because of a belief that slavery was wrong. Even in the case of people for whom anticapitalism is in their class interests, motivations anchored in values are important for sustaining the commitment to struggles for social change.
Finally, clarity on values is essential for thinking about the desirability of alternatives to capitalism. We need a way of assessing not just what is wrong with capitalism, but what is desirable about alternatives. And, if it should come to pass that we can actually build the alternative, we need solid criteria for evaluating the extent to which the alternative is realizing these values. Thus, while of course it is vital to identify the specific ways in which capitalism harms the material interests of certain categories of people, it is also necessary to clarify the values that we would like an economy to foster.