“Capitalism is complex – but not difficult to understand”
An interview with the sociologist Vivek Chibber on academic Marxism, anti-discrimination and workers' movement.
Mr Chibber, you are politically very left-wing and make no secret of being a Marxist. How did you manage to become a lecturer at a prestigious university in the US?
Yes, that is unusual, but there is an explanation: first, I do without Marxist jargon in my writing and work very empirically. Secondly, the US education market in massive compared to the German system. It's therefore more difficult to control, and almost everybody gets a job, no matter how far-left they are. And finally, the US is a very liberal country. It values different opinions and allows itself a certain pluralism. In my experience, it is, ironically, more difficult in countries with strong Social-Democratic parties to be a Marxist and make a living of it.
So the US is a paradise for left-wing scientists?
Not quite. Of course, there is prejudice against Marxists, and you pay a high price for being one. It’s harder to get chosen for top positions, to receive big grants, and you will have to make do with less money. It is not attractive to academics who want to maximize their career chances.
Your three pamphlets, The ABCs of Capitalism, have just been published in Germany. In the introduction, we find the sentence, “capitalism is complex, but not difficult to understand”. Is that true?
Yes. Every aspect of social reality under capitalism has several dimensions, which is why it appears complex. However, it is very easy to understand the essence of capitalism: there is a small group of people who own almost everything, while the vast majority of people own almost nothing. This vast majority has to go to work for the propertied class every day. Take this as the starting point, and from there you can explain everything else – you just need to follow the tracks.
There already are so many introductions to capitalism. Why another one?
Most works that I have found are less about capitalism than about Marx and his theory, which they simply reiterate. They all start with the labour theory of value, i.e. the notion that labour determines value. Then they talk about commodity fetishism and just follow the logic of Capital Volume I as it unfolds. The problem is that those who have not gone to university, or not for a long time, will hardly understand this. By the time value-form analysis is dealt with, they will blankly stare into space. It is pedagogically unwise to simply follow Marx's account of capital. You have to start with something that people know and can see, and then go straight to the substance of it: what is capitalism, and how does it work?
Who is supposed to read the pamphlets – what kind of audience are you hoping for?
In my introductions, I espouse a fairly orthodox Marxist viewpoint, yet without using Marxist jargon. I address people who never had anything to do with Marx and who are not really that interested in him. The best publications about capitalism actually date back to the 1930s, when left-wing authors were still embedded in political parties or movements. From the sixties onward, they began entering the universities and building their careers writing incomprehensible stuff.
You demand simplicity. Then explain in a few simple words: why overcome capitalism?
So we can live under conditions in which people thrive because they have autonomy over their lives. That is, in principle, a liberal conception. But it cannot be realised under capitalism, because most people spend most of their day under somebody else's supervision and control - namely at work. Every day, they sell not only their labour power but also their autonomy for a certain number of hours. Thus, they lose freedom, which in turn means a loss of self-determination. The power that the capitalists exert over workers doesn't benefit workers, it benefits the enterprise, which often enough turns against the workers. If you depend on someone else for your survival for the rest of your life, you are constantly forced to ensure that you remain competitive, i.e. cheaper and more productive than others. Your entire social environment is influenced and shaped by this competition, which extends into leisure time too.
Autonomy sounds good. But if you argue against capitalism, you are usually told, “it's the only economic system that works. Just look at the Soviet Union!” In Berlin, demands for the socialisation of housing are countered with the buzzword “GDR”.
References to the Eastern Bloc are serious objections, and left-wingers must be prepared to address them. The left has long made the mistake of equating socialism with central planning as the only form of socialism. But so far there is no evidence that an exclusively centrally planned economy works.
What is the alternative?
We have to wring as many areas of production as possible from private capital and from the market, and then see what can be done beyond that. So initially, it will be about removing the logic of profit from large sectors of the economy and thus gaining more freedom.
Why not remove the logic of profit from all sectors at once?
I’m sceptical of the view that you can abolish markets altogether. But we have to treat it as a practical question, not an ideological one. If we can really have a fully planned economy, great. But we can’t make the issue into a litmus test for socialist purity.
We are a long way from an economy beyond capitalism. Today, the wealthy do not only control production, they also occupy the top posts in politics – at least in the US, where almost all politicians are millionaires. Would the poor be better off if they were ruled by middle-class people?
Yes, to a degree, it would matter if the state were run by the poor or the middle class. This is because rich people tend to make policies for the rich. But the difference would not be huge. Whatever your economic background it, as a politician you still have to prioritize the intersts of the one percent. In the US, the rich pay for election campaigns. Therefore, if a politician wants to apply for a post, he first has to raise millions. That is called the hidden election. But ultimately, the difference would be small for the population. Even if a politician were poor and wanted to fight for the poor - once in office, he would become accountable to capital and therefore hostile to the poor.
What do you mean by accountable? It is not the case that politicians have to report to the corporate headquarters every month.
Let us take Germany as an example: politicians there are less dependent on donations from the rich than they are in the US. But here too politics depend on capital. A ruling politician requires money to finance his political programme. He gets it through taxes. To finance his political programme, a ruling politician needs money, and he gets it through taxes. Tax revenue depends on economic growth and employment. These, in turn, depend on private investment - and therefore on enterprises. The first thing an elected politician must do, then, is ensure a favourable climate for investment, because that's what makes capitalists happy and richer. Even if a communist party went into government, it would depend on private investment to realise its best intentions. This fact is a structural barrier to every kind of left-wing reform, as social-democratic governments have learned the hard way in the past.
When a government's hands are mostly tied, social progress must come from below. You say that we need a strong workers' movement both for the struggle against capital and to improve living conditions. However, the big mobilisations currently occur elsewhere: against climate change – e.g. Fridays for Future – against racism and for civil liberties. Why is that?
I think for many working class people, waging struggle at the workplace today seems too dangerous, too risky. The power imbalance at the workplace is so enormous that people think they cannot do anything about it. Other issues seem to be more susceptible to change – after all, in the struggle against climate change and racism you also have large sections of the elites on your side. What is more, the social costs are lower in those areas of mobilisation.
What do you mean by that?
When people rebel against their employers, they risk their jobs and livelihoods. It is quite different when they protest against climate change: they might join a climate protest for an hour at lunch time, then they go home and watch TV, and the day after the go back to work. There is no risk involved, everyone can do it. So, we should not be surprised that many people choose to put their energy there – although I do not want to badmouth their concerns, as they are extremely important.
We are currently seeing major mobilisations against price increases, against climate change, against corruption and racism. Do we really need a workers' movement too?
Yes. Working class living standards have stagnated or deteriorated at different rates since the 1970s, and that affects everything: social relationships, the neighbourhood, access to health services, and all apparently non-class specific dimensions of life. Firstly, without a workers’ movement, none of this will improve. Secondly, without class struggle, we will not solve any of the other problems either. Take racism, for example: the problem of the black population in the US is essentially an economic one. Anti-discrimination laws only help the top third of the black population – the ones who compete for the better jobs. The fight for equality is therefore a struggle of the black upper class for better conditions.
There are two ways in which people of colour are discriminated against. Either they get paid less for the same work. Or they don't even get the job in the first place, even if they are qualified. However, this type of discrimination only explains 10 percent of wage differentials between people of colour and the white population of the US. The main problem for black people in particular is that they get all the bad jobs, because they come from poor families, and because they attend bad schools – their poverty is inherited over generations. In order to change this, (legal) equality does not suffice – it is necessary to change the priorities of state spending policy. Who controls it? Capital does. Only a mass mobilisation could exert pressure to this end. And what class could do that? Not the rich white or the rich black people, but black and white workers. Anti-racist struggle is only possible with class struggle, otherwise it is a lost cause.
Where is that workers’ movement?
It’s at its lowest ebb in a century, virtually dead. Even so, we see the beginnings of a revival of the workers' movement. It is partly not organised at all, or it is controlled by organisations that do not always have its best interests at heart. Organising that movement is a massive task ahead. It may be too late, though. Perhaps climate change will be faster than us.
One way of organising workers is through unions. However, their influence is waning. In the US, only eight percent of the workforce are still organised in unions. Is this the fault of the unions alone?
Not exclusively. But the unions have not acted decisively enough against their own disempowerment. They have taken note of their weakening and said to themselves: we'll just keep trying with less power. But you have to fight for that power – you aren't getting a bit of influence delivered to your doorstep every week, and if you come away empty-handed you just wait until the next week. Capital does not let up. It will always try to undermine your position. If you sit back and say, let's just fight with what we've got, it will not work. What we have got hasn't been enough for ten years.
This year has also seen the publication of your book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, in German language. It has been controversial because it scrutinises a particular view, according to which we view non-European societies exclusively through 'western glasses'. Isn't there some truth to that view?
I am not saying that there is no such thing as Eurocentrism. Nor do I claim that racism, as addressed by postcolonial theory, does not exist. What I do criticise, though, is the assumption that a theory cannot be understood in the East just because it was conceived in the West. Capital, wage labour, class – these are universal categories, despite all cultural difference. Capitalism in India does not care about the particular ways in which an Indian wedding ceremony unfolds. The laws of capitalism are like those of physics: they are the same in India as they are in Europe.
Vivek Chibber, born 1965, is a Professor of Sociology at New York University and publisher of the Marxist theory journal Catalyst.
From Neues Deutschland, 30 November 2019. By Stephen Kaufmann and Sabine Nuss
Translation by Maciej Zurowski[book-strip index="1" style="display"]