The Cooking the Books Column from the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
The word ‘capitalism’ is well and truly back in circulation. At one time if you used it you were taken for a Communist. Not any more. Even stand-up comedians have incorporated it into their routines. One is Liam Williams who was given a page in Time Out (October 7-13) to tell jokes about capitalism. Actually, they were largely at the expense of those who defend capitalism.
Defining capitalism as being where ‘the means of production and trade are privately owned and operated for profit’, he has somebody called Mo%^&$fucker! object
‘The only alternative is a primitive economic system involving trading with stones or shits.’
Socialists have often heard this objection as ‘so you want to go back to barter?’ No, we don’t. Socialism will involve the disappearance of money but also the disappearance of all ‘trading’, all buying and selling. As the means for producing wealth (useful things) will be commonly owned so will the wealth produced.
The question will then be, not how to sell it (how can owners sell what they own to themselves?), but how to distribute it, how to share it out. Socialism doesn’t mean going back to barter. It means going forward, now that the technology and skills exist to produce enough for all, to distribution in accordance with the principle of ‘from each their ability, to each their need.’ People co-operate to produce what they need and then have free access to it. Money becomes redundant and does need to be replaced by anything.
Williams then deals with a more subtle defence of capitalism:
‘Capitalism is now the dominant economic model. It’s actually a product of nature, like maths and human song.’
This is the familiar ‘human nature’ objection to socialism. If socialism is unnatural, then capitalism is natural. Actually, capitalism is neither natural nor eternal. It has not always existed but is a product of social and historical evolution. It came into being, in western Europe, in the course of the 15th to 16th century when countries began producing for sale on an outside market that none of them were able to dominate or control but, on the contrary, had to adapt to in order to survive economically. This set in motion a process which led to one group of people (a small minority) acquiring money seeking profitable investment and another group (the vast majority) of landless people seeking to sell their ability to work to get money to buy what they needed to survive.
Capitalism has now spread all over the world. It is still a system of production by workers employed for a wage or salary by those who own means of production and working to produce wealth for sale with a view to their profit.
He mentions Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century which, he says, ‘shows how the gap between rich and poor is widening dangerously’ and adds ‘but even he thinks outright anti-capitalism is nonsense’. He goes on:
‘Most figures of political and intellectual influence agree that his proposals (including a global confiscation tax on the absurdly rich) are unfeasibly idealistic.’
It is not clear whether or not this is another joke at the expense of defenders of capitalism. In any event, it is true that Piketty’s proposals are ‘unfeasible’ as capitalism can’t be reformed to stop the rich getting richer. That’s a by-product of the accumulation of capital out of profits which is what capitalism is all about.