Friday, January 8, 2016

What is a Capitalist? (1984)

From the December 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

A capitalist is a man or woman who can afford to live without needing to sell his or her labour power for a wage or salary. By possessing a sufficient share of the means of wealth production and distribution, the capitalist can invest in the mental and physical energies of others, who are not capitalists, and who are paid less than the value of what they produce. The surplus value which is accumulated by the capitalist is that part of the product of labour which is over and above the cost of production. For example, if a capitalist employs ten workers at a cost of £1.000 a week, and if his non-labour production costs amount to £500 (for raw materials, overheads) then he is investing £l.500 in capital: the human capital is known in Marxist terms as variable capital and the other is constant capital. During the process of wealth production variable capital and constant capital must reproduce themselves, that is, £1.500 worth of value must be created. But. for the capitalist's investment to be worthwhile, the variable capital must not only reproduce itself but produce a value greater than its own worth: surplus value.

Capitalists do not invest in wealth production to give jobs to workers or to produce goods and services for needy people or to do any favours for anyone but themselves. To urge them to do so, as does the reformist Left, is like asking the Mafia to operate their criminal activities for the welfare of the public. In fact, a capitalist who ignored the aim of accumulating surplus value would soon go broke; this is true whether the role of the capitalist is played by an individual millionaire, a board of directors or the state.

It is often assumed that the capitalists are in control of capitalism. This is untrue. They are out to realise a profit by selling commodities on the market and. despite pretensions to be able to control trade on the part of governments and economic experts, the buying and selling system is not susceptible to control by the competing capitalists. If capitalists could force their system to obey their laws, there would not be hundreds of capitalists going bankrupt due to bad trade conditions. Unfortunately for them, the capitalists are the victims of their own system, in the sense that their much-cherished freedom of individuality must be surrendered on all occasions in response to the imposing demands of realising surplus value.

No capitalist would last long if he or she spent all the surplus value obtained from the exploitation of wage labour (variable capital) on their own personal luxury. Most of the surplus value which is accumulated is converted into new capital. There is a constant drive within capitalism for capital to be reproduced, thus forcing the capitalist to relegate even personal material interests to the hungry appetite of the system for the unceasing recreation of capital. Competition compels capitalists to limit their consumption of surplus value, because if they used it all up they would not be able to reinvest in the exploitation of that which will create more surplus value for them. If the workers are the geese who lay the golden eggs, the geese-keepers of the capitalist class must remember their need to keep the geese alive.

In pointing out that the inherent economic laws of capitalism give the accumulation of capital a higher priority than the creation of surplus value for personal consumption, we are not for a moment understating the extent to which the capitalists do live in affluence and privilege on the proceeds of surplus value. In fact, the capitalists need only a small part of the surplus value which is produced to allow them to live infinitely more comfortable and secure lives than workers can afford to lead. In general we can state that the extent of the capitalists' affluence is proportionate to that of the workers' deprivation. Or, to put it in a nutshell, their luxury is constructed out of our poverty.

Being a capitalist has nothing necessarily to do with speaking, dressing or acting in a particular way. There are capitalists who drop their aitches. capitalists who wear donkey jackets and capitalists who are quite pleasant people. Generally speaking, capitalists are conditioned by their class needs and therefore tend to behave in accordance with the anti-social ethics of commerce. But most capitalists do not understand the system in which they are participating and are as ignorant of the process of capital accumulation, as an historical process, as are the workers who are exploited by it. It is certainly not the case that capitalists reach their class position as a result of superior intelligence or greater initiative than members of the working class who run society from top to bottom. Indeed, many of them are as daft as they are rich, dependent entirely on the hired brains of wage slaves to administer their affairs for them.

The supporter of the aim of socialism is a socialist, but the supporter of capitalism need not be a capitalist — in fact, pathetically. the most ardent defenders of the profit system are usually members of the class which is milked for profit. Socialists are not out to convince capitalists of the need for socialism. As far as we are concerned, the historical role of the capitalist is over and it is now up to the workers to unite for a classless society. In a socialist society there will be no capital or capitalists, just human beings and resources to be used to satisfy human needs. The capitalists will have the option of either mucking in and sharing the world or remaining in splendid isolation as would-be exploiters who have no class left to rob.
Steve Coleman

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