What is Capitalism? - Adam Buick & John Crump (1987)

In this pamphlet we shall identify the essential features of capital­ism and then go on to discuss state capitalism and the nature of the capitalist class. We shall be describing in Marxian terms, concisely but thoroughly, the economic mechanism and set of social relation­ships that constitute capitalism. We believe Marx’s analysis to be in general still valid even if, the institutional forms of capitalism have changed from those of Britain in the nineteenth century which Marx studied. We can assure readers who may initially find parts of this pamphlet difficult that if they persevere they will acquire a basic understanding of the key concepts in Marxian economics which will not only allow them to follow better the other, less theoretical passages but will also equip them to tackle the many other books and articles written these days from a general Marxist theoretical standpoint.

We shall suggest that, apart from being a class society, capitalism has the following six essential characteristics:

  1. Generalised commodity production, nearly all wealth being pro­duced for sale on a market.
  2. The investment of capital in production with a view to obtaining a monetary profit.
  3. The exploitation of wage labour, the source of profit being the unpaid labour of the producers.
  4. The regulation of production by the market via a competitive struggle for profits.
  5. The accumulation of capital out of profits, leading to the expan­sion and development of the forces of production.
  6. A single world economy.

GENERALISED COMMODITY PRODUCTION

Capitalism is an exchange economy in which most wealth, from ordinary consumer goods to vast industrial plants and other producer goods, takes the form of commodities, or items of wealth that have been produced with a view to sale on a market.

Commodity production existed before capitalism but in previous societies was marginal to the predominant form of wealth produc­tion. In previous societies, such as feudalism, wealth was principally produced for direct use and not for sale on a market. Wealth was used by those who produced that wealth, or else by the privileged classes who lived off the producers and acquired wealth from them by the actual or threatened use of force. In capitalism the roles of production for sale and production for use are reversed; it is now production for use that is marginal, while the great bulk of wealth is produced for sale. In particular, the elements needed for producing wealth (raw materials, machines and human mental and physical energy) become commodities.

In an exchange economy, wealth is not produced for its own sake. Wealth, or useful things fashioned or refashioned by human beings from materials found in nature, is not produced to be directly available for some individual or social use, but is produced to be exchanged. To be exchangeable an item of wealth has to be of some use, otherwise no one would want to buy it, but it is not for this use value that it is produced. It is produced to be exchanged for other items of wealth, for its exchange value.

This distinction between use value and exchange value, between wealth and value, is a key concept for understanding how capitalism works. Value is not something completely distinct from wealth since it is the same labour which fashions or refashions the material found in nature into an object of use to human beings which, in an exchange economy, gives that object its exchange value. Value is a character­istic of wealth in an exchange economy, the form assumed by wealth in such an economy.

To say that it is labour that gives wealth exchange value is merely to say that this is how the labour involved in producing useful things expresses itself in a society where wealth is produced for sale rather than for use. It produces exchange value as well as use value. The labour theory of value can be seen as a corollary to what might be called a labour theory of wealth. Most wealth, as something useful that satisfies a human want, is produced by human beings transforming nature by their labour. Certain things, it is true, are useful to human beings without being the product of their labour - the sunlight and the air we breathe, for instance - but these ‘gifts of nature’ are precisely the only items of wealth which have no exchange value, are ‘free goods’ in an exchange economy.

The labour theory of value is not so much a theory of price as a theory of the nature of wealth in an exchange economy. Even so, it is possible to construct a theoretical model of an exchange economy in which commodities would exchange in proportion to the amount of average social labour-time needed to produce them. In such a model, commodities would be produced by independent producers owning their own means and instruments of production and exchanging their products for those of other producers in order to acquire the things they needed to live. This model is not, of course, capitalism, but it bears a resemblance to the type of exchange which took place on the margin of pre-capitalist societies.

In capitalism, on the other hand, where most of those engaged in production do not own means and instruments of production and where exchange takes place not simply to acquire use values but with a view to profit, commodities do not in fact exchange at their labour-time values. Rather they tend to sell at a price calculated by adding to their average social cost of production a percentage mark-up representing the going rate of profit. However, the sum total of the prices of all the commodities is still equal to their total value, those selling above their value compensating, as it were, for those which sell below it. In other words, in capitalism, the value price equation posited by the labour theory of value has validity only at the level of the whole economy.

Value is not measured directly in units of labour-time but in units of money. This is because the exchange value of a commodity is not the actual amount of labour-time embodied in it, but only that which is on average necessary to produce it, an average which can only be established through exchange, on the market. Money originated from barter, the simplest form of exchange, as the one commodity in which the exchange value of all the other commodities could be expressed and measured. To perform this role money itself had to have exchange value derived from being a product of labour; which enabled the money-commodity to act also as a store of value. Money still performs both these roles today, although this is heavily ob­scured by the subsequent evolution of money away from its original terms (principally gold and silver) to symbolic coins and paper notes.

In capitalism money comes to be the universal unit of economic calculation. It is, in fact, the only possible such unit, since there is no other way of comparing the endless variety of different kinds of wealth. Use values cannot be compared as such; only exchange values can and it is these that in the end money is measuring.

INVESTMENT OF CAPITAL IN PRODUCTION WITH A VIEW TO PROFIT

We are now in a position to attempt a preliminary definition of capital, clearly a key concept for understanding the system to which it has given its name.

Capital, as a feature of an exchange economy, is a sum of exchange values, a stock not of wealth as such but of commodities, of wealth that has been produced for sale. Historically, capital has been re­garded as being a stock of the money-commodity and it is easy to see why: capital is a sum and a stock of value of which money is both the measure and a store. But capital can also be, and generally is under capitalism, a stock or collection of other commodities whose ex­change value is merely measured in monetary units.

Capital is no more simply a collection of exchange values than it is simply a stock of wealth; it is a collection of exchange values that is used to yield a monetary income. Capital is money which generates more money, or rather value which generates more value.

Capital, as money invested for profit, existed before the develop­ment of capitalism. Money lent for interest (usurer’s capital) yielded its owner an income. Similarly, money invested in the sort of trading which involved buying in cheap markets or simply plundering and then selling in dear markets (the early form of merchant’s capital) also brought in an income. But neither this interest nor this profit came from the capital having been invested in production. Certainly, ultimately, their source could only have been the labour of some producers, but this was not their direct source.

These two forms of capital played an important role in creating one of the historical preconditions for the development of capitalism as a system wherein capital is invested in production: the concentration into the hands of a small minority of sums of money looking for a profitable investment outlet. When the other preconditions were met - the formation of an international market, a certain development of the techniques of production permitting production on a larger scale than previously, but above all the separation of the producers from the means of production and the creation of a landless proletariat - this money was able to find the profitable outlet it was seeking by being invested in the actual production of wealth.

Thus, once capitalism has developed, capital can be defined either as money invested in production for profit or as wealth used to produce other wealth with a view to profit, both of which express the same idea from a different angle. A more rigorous, if more difficult, definition, whose full significance we will see later, would be that capital is value invested in production with a view to increasing itself, or self-expanding value.

EXPLOITATION OF WAGE LABOUR

What is the source of the profit which accrues to capital invested in the production of wealth? How does this increase in exchange value, this extra or surplus value, come about?

The usurer obtained his profit out of the revenue of the persons he had lent his money to, and the merchant adventurer acquired his profit by cheating or plundering direct producers or other traders, but profit arises in a completely different way when capital is invested in the production of wealth. It is created within the process of produc­tion itself.

Under capitalism, as we saw, the elements needed for producing wealth become commodities; not only the raw materials and the machines but also the labour power of the producers. Labour power, or the mental and physical energy of human beings, has the particular property of being able to produce wealth when applied to nature-given materials. This property of labour power expresses itself in an exchange economy in the capacity to create new exchange value.

Labour power is not to be confused with labour, as is frequently done in everyday parlance when we talk about the ‘labour market’ and ‘selling our labour’. Actually, At is not labour which is bought and sold on the labour market but labour power, the capacity to work. In fact labour, or work, cannot be sold since it cannot exist separately from the product in which it is embodied. Labour power is not the same thing as the product of labour. Indeed, it is precisely the difference between the values of these two separate commodities that is the key to the origin of surplus value.

The exchange value of labour power is roughly the cost of training, for their own purpose and benefit. The product and value which labour power produces belong to the purchaser of the labour power in question.

The exploitation of wage labour by capital is a defining feature of capitalism, reflecting the fact that capitalism is a class-divided society in which one class monopolises the means of production while the other, the vast majority, is forced to sell its mental and physical energies for wages in order to live. Capitalism is an exchange econ­omy involving the buying and selling of labour power, a social system in which productive activity takes the form of wage labour. Wage labour and capital are two sides of one and the same social relation­ship. Wage labour, under conditions of generalised commodity pro­duction, inevitably produces capital as a sum of values accumulated out of surplus value, while the means of production can only function as capital by exploiting wage labour.1 In this sense, capitalism could just as easily have come to be called ‘the wages system’ as ‘the capitalist system’.

PRODUCTION REGULATED BY THE COMPETITIVE STRUGGLE FOR PROFITS

An exchange economy such as capitalism implies not only that the various different kinds of wealth are produced by different producers in different places of work (a technical division of labour) but also, more importantly, that decisions about production are made by a number of autonomous economic units acting without reference to each other. Before goods can be exchanged they have to be regarded as belonging to some person, group of persons, or other subdivision of society. Exchange therefore implies the non-existence of the common ownership of the means and instruments of production that is the only basis on which decisions about production could be made in a conscious coordinated manner.

In capitalism the ‘autonomous economic units’ which make deci­sions about production are profit-seeking exchange institutions which we shall call enterprises. An enterprise is an institution owning and controlling a separate capital. An enterprise may be a single indi­vidual or it may be a joint-stock company, a nationalised industry or even a workers’ cooperative. It is not its internal structure that is important for understanding the role of the enterprise in capitalism hut rather the fact that it represents – incarnates, if you like – a separate capital, a separate sum of values seeking to expand itself through being invested in production.

All enterprises, whatever their legal status or internal structure, aim to increase the value of the capital they incarnate. This search for profit brings them into conflict with other enterprises, not just those engaged in producing the same or similar products but with every other enterprise, or rather with every other capital seeking to in­crease its value.

The origin of profits is, as we have seen, the unpaid labour of wage workers but this is not how it appears to enterprises. To them, profits are the difference between their production costs and their sales receipts and so appear to be made not in production but on the market. There is a sense in which this is true. The equation surplus value = profit is only valid for the economy as a whole, and it is the operation of the market which determines the share of surplus value going to the various competing enterprises as profits. Surplus value, in other words, is created in production but is won on the market as profits.

The total amount of profits that can be made by all enterprises is thus limited by the total amount of surplus value that has been produced, but it is not the case that each enterprise makes profits equal to the amount of surplus value created by the workers it employs. If this were so, then, since labour alone is the source of new exchange value, labour-intensive industries would make the most profits; capital would therefore tend towards such industries and there would be no incentive to introduce labour-saving machines; which is patently contrary to what is observable under capitalism.

What happens in fact is that the competition between capitals tends to lead to each capital making a profit in proportion to its size; there is a tendency for the rate of profit - the ratio of the increase in value to the value of the original capital - to be the same in whatever line of production it is invested. It is as if the total amount of surplus value produced in all enterprises were pooled before being distributed to the individual capitals and as if enterprises, as incarnations of these capitals, competed to draw from this pool as much profit as they could. It is in this sense that the struggle between enterprises to make profits is in the end a struggle against every other enterprise: the more profits one enterprise makes the less there is left for the others.

If this competition between enterprises were completely unre­stricted - if capitals could move rapidly and freely from one line of business to another - then each enterprise would make the same rate of profit on its capital; the amount of its profits would be directly related to the size of its capital. Such completely free competition and movement of capital has, of course, never existed, for political reasons (intervention of states) as well as for technical (minimum size of certain industrial plants) and economic (price-fixing and other monopolistic practices) ones. But it is still a tendency under capital­ism as a system of competing capitals producing for sale on a chang­ing market too large for any of them to control. Capitals, therefore, only tend to make the same rate of profit.

This tendency towards the averaging of the rate of profit explains why under capitalism commodities do not sell at their labour-time values but rather at a price equal to their cost of production plus a margin sufficient to allow the average rate of profit to be made on the total capital invested in their production.

In capitalism, then, decisions about production are in the hands of separate, competing capitals, be they large or small, privately owned or state controlled. However, this does not mean that production is completely unregulated. In any society there has to be some mech­anism which regulates and coordinates decisions about production, otherwise it could not survive. In capitalism this regulating and coordinating mechanism is the market through which all enterprises are linked in a network of buying and selling transactions. This is the case because all enterprises enter the market not only as sellers of what their workers have produced, but equally as buyers of the elements for producing wealth (raw materials, machines, labour power). It is through prices, and particularly through changes in prices, that the market influences the decisions of enterprises con­cerning production. The worldwide market under capitalism is not fixed and stable. Even if it tends to expand in the long run, its condition at any particular time is unpredictable and liable to fluctuate.

Each enterprise makes its decisions about what, how much and where to produce, how many workers to employ, the stocks of raw materials and finished products it should hold, what kinds of energy to use, whether or not to expand productive activity and so on, in the Light of the market prices of the commodities it has to buy or sell and on the basis of uncertain predictions as to how these might change. If the selling price of a commodity increases, then the enterprises engaged in producing that commodity will initially make bigger profits and so will be induced to increase their output; new enter­prises may even enter the industry. On the other hand, if prices - and hence profits - are falling, then output will be curtailed.

The equilibrium position which the operation of the market tends to bring about (but which, of course, is never reached since the market is always changing) would be one in which the productive resources of society would be distributed in such a way that the enterprises engaged in producing the multitude of different items of wealth each made the same rate of profit on their capital.

We are not saying that the market is entirely independent of the actions of men and women, even if it does confront them as an external force. The market itself is in the end only the sum of the decisions to buy and sell made by enterprises and other actors in the capitalist exchange economy (wage-earners, states). What we are saying, however, is that individual decisions of this sort bring about results which no one has consciously willed and which narrowly limit the freedom of choice of enterprises — and indeed states — when making subsequent decisions about production.

Adam Smith spoke of this unplanned regulating and coordinating mechanism as being the work of an ‘invisible hand’; Karl Marx called it ‘the law of value’; popular language simply speaks of ‘market forces’. All three expressions bring out the same idea: that produc­tion under capitalism is not consciously coordinated, but is deter­mined by forces operating independently of people’s will. Even though market forces are ultimately the result of a multitude of individual human decisions, nevertheless they confront people as external and coercive economic laws.

THE ACCUMULATION OF CAPITAL OUT OF PROFITS

The battle of competition between enterprises is fought by cheapen­ing commodities, by enterprises trying to increase their share of the market by underselling their competitors.

It is true that, if they get the chance, enterprises will increase their profits by raising their prices, but they are not normally in a position to do this and, even when they are, it is not a lasting situation (unless supported by a state). Nor can enterprises increase their profits by permanently depressing the prices of the elements of production they buy (raw materials, wages, etc.), though again they will do so if, and for as long as, they get the chance.

Given, then, that enterprises normally have to accept the prices established by the market, the only way that they can compete against their rivals is to reduce their costs of production through improving the productivity of their workforce. Productivity is a measure of the number of articles of wealth as use values that can be produced in a given period of time. An increase in productivity means that more can be produced in the same period so that the cost per individual article, or unit-cost, falls. In value terms, the price of the commodity falls because less average social labour-time is re­quired to produce it.

Productivity can be improved in a number of ways: by getting the workers to work more intensively, by a better organisation of the process of production, but above all by employing more and better machines and techniques of production.

So the battle of competition comes to be fought by enterprises increasing their productivity so as to be able to sell more cheaply than their rivals. Whether an enterprise adopts an aggressive or a defens­ive approach in this battle, the result is the same: all enterprises are forced to invest in new and better machines. Once one enterprise has put itself in a position to undersell its competitors through having adopted some new cost-reducing technique, then the other enter­prises are obliged to defend themselves by adopting the same new technique. Competition obliges all enterprises to run fast just to stand still; to remain in the race for profits, enterprises must stay competitive and to stay competitive they must continually increase their productivity, continually invest in new equipment. The weaker enterprises are pushed out of the market and eliminated from the struggle for profits, their capital passing into the hands of other enterprises.

This battle is fought throughout the worldwide capitalist economy in all industries. Investment in more and better machines to improve productivity is imposed on all enterprises by their competitive struggle for profits and as a price of their survival as a separate capital. The end result is twofold: the concentration of capitals into larger and larger units and a build-up of the stock and productive power of the instruments of production.

In capitalism this growth of the stock of instruments for producing wealth is at the same time an increase in the sum of exchange values, an accumulation of capital. The competitive struggle between capi­tals leads not only to capitals increasing their value, through the enterprises in which they are incarnated making profits out of pro­ducing wealth, but also to the reinvestment of this surplus value in production. This dynamic of capitalism results not simply in the expansion of production but also provides the stimulus for technical development.

Once again, this is not a matter of choice, but is something which is imposed on economic decision-makers as an external and coercive law. Enterprises are forced to accumulate the bulk of their profits as new capital by the same mechanism which regulates production under capitalism. Indeed, the accumulation of capital is part of this mechanism, since to accumulate capital is to allocate a portion of society’s productive resources to expanding the stock of the means of production. This imperative to accumulate is, in fact, the dynamic of capitalism.

In regulating and coordinating production under capitalism, the competitive struggle between capitals decrees that priority shall be given to the expansion of the means of production over the consump­tion not only of the producers but also of those who personify capital. Capitalism is not a system which gives priority to the production of profits for the personal consumption of those who monopolise the means of wealth production; it is a system where the bulk of the profits made from investing capital in production are reinvested in production. The aim of capitalist production is not so much profits as the accumulation of capital.

We can now see the logic of defining capital impersonally as self- expanding value. The expansion of value and its accumulation as new capital is something that is imposed on men and women irrespec­tive of their will. Capital is a product of people’s labour which has escaped from their control and has come to dominate them in the form of coercive economic laws which they have no alternative but to obey and apply.

The accumulation of capital does not proceed in a smooth and continuous way; the graph of growth under capitalism is not an unbroken upward line but a series of alternating peaks and troughs in which each successive peak is usually (but not necessarily) higher than the previous one, so that the overall trend is upward. The growth of production under capitalism is cyclical, an ever-repeating series of periods of boom, overproduction, slump and recovery. This too is an inevitable result of the competitive struggle for profits and could be included as a feature of capitalism.

A WORLD ECONOMY

One of the preconditions for the development of capitalism as a mode of production was the coming into being of a world market, or more accurately of an international market, since there was no need for the market system to have embraced the whole world before capitalism could develop. It was only necessary that the market should have embraced a number of countries specialising in the production of different kinds of wealth.

Capitalism came into being in Europe in the sixteenth century and continued to spread geographically until by the end of the nineteenth century it had come to embrace the whole world. This meant that it had become a world system in the full sense of the term, not simply an international system embracing a part of the globe within a single division of labour and a single exchange economy, but a world system embracing virtually all areas and all states.

This reflected the fact that the division of labour had become worldwide and that from then on all parts of the world were linked together in a single economic system via world trade and the world market. Capitalism had become a worldwide economic system. In­deed, capitalism could even be defined today as the world market economy.

This means that the economic laws of capitalism outlined in the previous sections operate on the world scale. Capitalism does not exist within the political boundaries of single countries; world capi­talism is not a collection of separately existing national capitalisms but a single economic unit. Capitalism only exists on the world level, as a world economic system. There is no such thing as a ‘national capitalist economy’ and there never was. What this term seeks to describe is in fact only a section of the world economy that is subject to the control of one particular political unit, or state. It is this political division of the world into states, each with the power to issue its own currency, impose tariffs, raise taxes, pay subsidies and so on, that has given rise to the illusion that, rather than there being one world economy, there are as many ‘national economies’ as there are states. But this is only an illusion. There is only one capitalist system and it is worldwide.

A state can be defined as a law-making and law-enforcing insti­tution having a monopoly of the legal use of force within a given geographical area. It is thus an instrument of political control, but states use their powers to play an economic role within capitalism. Up till now we have only mentioned this role in passing even though in fact states are just as much actors in the capitalist exchange economy as enterprises. This was deliberate since it is not possible to understand the economic role of states, even within their own fron­tiers, without having first realised that capitalism is a single international - now world - economic system embracing a number of separate political units.

Ever since capitalism came into existence states have intervened in the world market, to try to distort it in favour of enterprises operating from within their borders. They have used their political power to help their ‘home’ enterprises acquire a bigger share of world profits at the expense of enterprises operating from other countries. They have, for instance, imposed taxes on goods entering from outside their frontiers, in order to protect home enterprises from ‘foreign’ competition. They have, by diplomatic and by military means, sought to acquire protected foreign markets for home enterprises and, on the cost side, they have bargained and used force to acquire cheap raw materials for home industry. These interventions by states have led to periodic wars which can thus be included as another inevitable feature of capitalism.

Even so, states can only distort the world market to a limited extent. In making decisions that affect production within their fron­tiers they have to accept, just like any private enterprise, the press­ures of the world market as external, coercive forces to which they must submit, if the capitals operating from within their frontiers are to survive in the battle of competition. Basically, they too must give priority to keeping costs down, in particular through productivity being continuously improved; to do this they must encourage the reinvestment of the greater part of profits in new, more productive machinery and plant, and they must limit the consumption of the wage-working class to what is necessary to maintain an efficient workforce. The internal political structure of a country makes no difference in this respect. Whether a country has a government which is elected by a majority of voters drawn from the wage-working class or whether its government is a brutal dictatorship, its state still has in the end to pursue policies dictated by the economic laws of capitalism.

STATE CAPITALISM

Although states have intervened in capitalism ever since it came into existence, in so far as the aim was merely to interfere with the operation of world market forces, their intervention was only at the level of the division, not the production, of surplus value. However, over the past 100 or so years, there has been a definite trend in capitalism for states to go beyond merely trying to distort the world market, and to involve themselves in the actual production of wealth by establishing and operating state enterprises. In some countries, indeed in a large number outside what can be called the core area of world capitalism represented by North America, Western Europe and Japan, state ownership and state enterprise have become the predominant form.

In defining capitalism as a form of social organisation, now world­wide, in which production is carried on by wage labour and orien­tated towards the accumulation of capital via profits realised on the market, we deliberately left open the question of the form of owner­ship of the means of production — by private individuals, by joint-stock companies, by the state or even by cooperatives — since this is not relevant to the operation of the economic mechanism of capital­ism. The substitution of state for private (individual or corporate) ownership does not mean the abolition of capitalism, since it leaves unchanged commodity production and both wage labour and the accumulation of capital.2 It merely means that capital, or a part of the capital, in the political area of the world concerned has come to be incarnated by the state, or rather, in practice, by a number of different state enterprises.

The most appropriate term for describing this situation is state capitalism. Those countries where the most important means of production are state owned can be described as ‘state capitalist countries’. However, it must be clearly understood that state capital­ism is merely an institutional arrangement within world capitalism and that it can no more exist as a separate economic and social system in single countries than can any form of capitalism. The state capital­ist countries do not exist apart from the rest of world capitalism; they are an integral part of it, one where state ownership and state enterprise have become the predominant institutional form for the operation of the economic mechanism of capitalism. This point has been well brought out by Immanuel Wallerstein:

The capitalist system is composed of owners who sell for profit. The fact that an owner is a group of individuals rather than a single person makes no essential difference. This has long been recog­nised for joint-stock companies. It must now also be recognised for sovereign states. A state which collectively owns all the means of production is merely a collective capitalist firm as long as it remains - as all such states are, in fact, presently compelled to remain - a participant in the market of the capitalist world-economy. No doubt such a ‘firm’ may have different modalities of internal division of profit, but this does not change its essential economic role vis-à-vis others operating in the world market. (Wallerstein, 1979, pp. 68—9 - emphasis in original)

Though it is possible to imagine a state capitalist country organising itself as a single ‘collective capitalist firm’ to compete on the world market, in practice the state capitalist countries which exist today, such as Russia and China, have chosen to set up, to manage the accumulation of capital in the political area they control, not one, but a considerable number of state enterprises, each enjoying a certain amount of autonomy.

WHO ARE THE CAPITALIST CLASS?

Previously we argued that production is not carried on under capital­ism for the benefit of those people who monopolise the means of social wealth production. On the contrary, we argued that the eco­nomic laws of capitalism ensure that people in this position accumu­late as new capital the greater part of their profits. Nevertheless, these people still enjoy a privileged position with regard to consump­tion. Economically, they personify capital and act as its agents in the economic process; socially, they constitute a privileged, exploiting class. While, at the level of theoretical models, it is possible to imagine a situation in which personifying capital and enjoying a privileged consumption would not be linked, history has not pro­duced any lasting example of this. In practice, the two have always been associated.

In those countries where capitalism first developed, those who have generally personified capital have been individual owners, people with a legal property title to all or part of the capital of an enterprise. Such people receive a legal property income in the form of interest or dividends and are able to transmit their property rights to their heirs. Some of those who have discussed the nature of capitalism have wanted to make the existence of a class of such individually-owning legal property title holders a defining feature of capitalism.3 But this would be to make a fetish of a mere legal form.

Capitalism is a form of social organisation and, in analysing social formations, what is important are the actual social relationships that exist between the members of society rather than the legal property forms. Certainly, property forms tell us something about the way a society is organised, but they are not the most important element. At best they only reflect the real social relationships; at worst they disguise or distort them.

The basic social relationship of capitalism is that between capital and wage labour, that is to say between those who in social practice personify capital and those who produce wealth for wages. Those who personify capital are those who, for a separate capital, have the ultimate responsibility for taking decisions about production. To be in this position they must effectively have exclusive decision-making powers in respect of an enterprise and the capital it represents; they must have a de facto control over the use of the means of production concerned. In the end, this control, since it involves the exclusion both of the producers and of those who personify other capitals, can only rest on the sanction and backing of a state, i.e. on physical force.

Legal property rights involve such a backing, since such rights are enforceable by the courts, the police and ultimately by the armed forces of a state. But it is quite possible for de facto control over the use of means of production to assume other forms than legal property rights. Let us suppose that, as a result of some political upheaval, individual property rights in a country were to be suppressed and that formal ownership of all the means of production was vested in the state. Who, in these circumstances, would personify capital? The answer to this question would be, as before, those who had the ultimate responsibility for taking decisions about the use of the means of production. These people would personify capital even if they happened to be a group which exercised de facto control collectively, rather than individually as in the case of legal property title holders. It might be the case that the identity of these people could only be established by an empirical study of the precise structure of the state, the institution in which capital would be incarnated under the circumstances, but they would be whichever group was found to control effectively the state.

Naturally, in these circumstances, the privileged consumption associated with personifying capital would be distributed in a differ­ent way than in those countries where it is individual property owners who personify capital. Here again, discovering in what precise way this was done would depend on an empirical study of the social facts but it would no longer be in the form of a legal property income (rent, interest, profit, dividend).

In other words, capital does not necessarily have to be personified by individually-owning legal property title holders. In fact, even in countries where this is so, this personification is no longer strictly individual, as it originally was. In the early days of capitalism, capital was widely personified by an individual, the private entrepreneur, who was certainly a legal property owner but for whom there was no distinction between his personal wealth and that of his enterprise. His profits belonged to him personally, just as he stood to lose all his personal wealth if his enterprise lost out in the battle of competition.

However, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the legal con­cept of limited liability was introduced (or rather was extended from a few privileged corporations to all business enterprises which claimed it). By this means enterprises acquired their own legal identity separate from that of the individual property owners who supplied their capital. This allowed the shareholders to keep the rest of their personal wealth if the enterprise foundered, but it also meant that the enterprise had become a separate legal entity in its own right. Capital, in other words, had become personified in an institution rather than in an individual. Corporate capital had come into being alongside individual capital.

An institution is a group of individuals organised in a particular way, so it is possible to discover who, in any institution, has ultimate responsibility for taking decisions, but the important point is that the existence of enterprises as separate legal institutions shows that capital does not have to be personified by individuals as individuals. Once this is admitted, then there can be no difficulty in accepting that capital can be personified by a state, or, more accurately, by those who control it. State capital is just as possible as corporate capital.

The two most significant types of enterprise in the world today are the limited liability company and the nationalised or state industry. These are the two main institutional forms in which the major competing capitals are incarnated throughout the world. Although the internal structure of enterprises is irrelevant when it comes to understanding how capitalism works as an economic system, it is crucial for identifying those who personify capital, those who fulfil the role of capitalist class, in any particular situation.

A member of the capitalist class can be defined as someone who, either as an individual or as a member of some collectivity, has ultimate responsibility for taking decisions about the organisation of production by wage labour for sale with a view to profit and who, again either individually or as part of a collectivity, enjoys a privi­leged consumption derived from surplus value. In short, a member of the capitalist class is someone who has ultimate responsibility for organising the accumulation of capital out of surplus value and who profits from this process. This permits a wide range of institutional arrangements, of which the private capitalist enjoying individual property rights vested in him as an individual is but one historical example. Capital can be, and has in fact been, personified by a wide variety of individuals and groups.

NOTES

  1. ‘…the relation between wage labour and capital determines the entire character of the mode of production. The principle agents of this mode of production itself, the capitalist and the wage worker, are to that extent merely personifications of capital and wage labour’ (Marx, 1919 (vol. III) p. 1025). ‘ Capital and wage-labour (it is thus we designate the labour of the worker who sells his own labour power) only represents aspects of the self-same relationship’ (Marx, 1979, p. 1006).

  2. ‘Where the state is itself a capitalist producer, as in exploitation of mines, forests, etc., its product is a “commodity” and hence possesses the specific character of every other commodity’ (Marx, 1972, p. 51). In volume II of Capital Marx also refers in passing to ‘state capital, so far as governments employ productive wage-labour in mining, railroading, etc. and perform the function of capitalists’ (Marx, 1919 (vol. II), p. 110).

  3. For instance, James Burham: ‘Capitalist economy is a system of private ownership, of ownership of a certain type vested in private individuals, of private enterprise’ and ‘A capitalist is one who, as an individual has ownership interest in the instruments of production; entitled to the products of their labour’ (Burnham, 1945, pp. 92 and 103 – emphasis in original). Burnham inherited this position, which was also that of Trotsky, from the orthodox Trotskyist movement from which he came. It is still the position of orthodox Trotskyism as well as of the official ideology of the Russian state.