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Capitalism is. The leftists who target neoliberal globalization denounce privatization, free markets, unfettered mobility of capital, and government deregulations of industry. They propose instead that national or supra-national governments control and regulate market transactions and especially capital movements, increase taxes on profits and wealth, and even own and operate industry. “All in the interests of the people,” they say, democratically.
Yet Marx’s critique of capitalism never focused on government regulations, interventions, and state-owned industries. They were never his solutions for the costs, injustices, and wastes of capitalism. Instead, Marx targeted and stressed capitalism’s “class structure” of production. By this he meant how productive enterprises were internally organized: tiny groups of people (boards of directors) who appropriated a portion — the “surplus” — from what the laborers produced and the enterprise sold. Marx defined such surplus appropriation as “exploitation.” And, as Marx said, capitalist exploitation can exist whether those appropriators are corporate boards of directors (private capitalism) or state officials (state capitalism).
Marx opposed capitalism’s exploitative class structure of production on political, ethical, and economic grounds. He preferred a communist alternative where productive workers functioned as their own board of directors, collectively appropriating and distributing the surpluses they produced. Equality and democracy, he argued, required the abolition of exploitation as a necessary condition of their realization.
Capitalism as a system has always and everywhere gone through phases, repeated swings between two alternative forms. Private capitalism is the neoliberal, “laissez-faire” form: government intervention in economic affairs is minimized, and individuals and businesses interact largely through voluntary market exchanges. The other form is state-interventionist, “social democratic,” welfare-state capitalism: government manages the economy by regulating what the private capitalists can do or by sometimes even taking over their enterprises to turn business decisions into government decisions.
Every few decades, in every capitalist country, whichever of these two forms has been in place runs into serious economic difficulty. Workers lose jobs, incomes decline, enterprises fail, and so on. The cry arises that “something must be done.” Those feeling the least pain and making good money prefer to let the existing form of capitalism correct itself. Those hurting the most and losing money demand more drastic change. When this second group prevails politically, the existing form of capitalism is ended and the other installed. A few decades later the same drama is played out in reverse.
When a booming private capitalism in the US hit a stone wall in 1929, the country shifted over into welfare-state capitalism. When the 1960s and 1970s produced crises in that welfare-state capitalism, the country shifted over to private capitalism (neo-liberalism). Now, after thirty years of globalized private capitalism yield proliferating difficulties, too many leftists have joined the chorus that sees the only solution in yet another swing back to welfare-state capitalism. The legacy of Coolidge and Hoover was overthrown by FDR’s chorus. The legacy of the New Deal was overthrown by Ronald Reagan’s chorus. The Reagan-Bush legacy may now be overthrown by Clinton, Obama, et al. Such phased reversals between capitalism’s two forms occur nearly everywhere, varying only with each country’s particular conditions and history.
As forms, private and state capitalism are oscillating phases of the capitalist system. When one phase cannot solve its problems, the solution has been a shift to the other phase. Thus, crises of capitalism have so far avoided provoking the alternative solution of a transition out of capitalism. Yet that transition was precisely Marx’s goal. He aimed to persuade workers that oscillations between state and private capitalism were not the best solutions to capitalism’s failings, at least not for workers.
Many leftists today catalog the awful results of 25 years of neoliberal dominance: economic and social crises punctuating ever deeper inequalities of wealth, income, and power across and within most nations. They cite the burst investment bubbles, unsustainable debt explosions, collapsed credit markets, threats of recession, crumbling social services, unsafe commodity production, and so forth. They propose “solutions”: governments — national or maybe now supranational — must be recalled by a democratic upsurge to their proper role. Governments should limit, control, regulate, or replace private capitalist enterprises in the interests of the people.
This way of thinking repeats the left’s mistakes in the 1930s. Then, when private capitalism had imploded into the Great Depression, deteriorating conditions turned most Americans against the likes of Republican Herbert Hoover and toward Democratic FDR. A new era of government economic intervention took the name, Keynesian economics. However, New Deal Keynesianism always left in place the private boards of directors of the capitalist corporations that dominated the US economy. Those boards remained as the receivers of the surplus produced by their workers — the corporations’ “profits.” They used those profits to grow the corporations, to make still more profits, to pay higher salaries to top officers, to influence politics, and so on.
Welfare-state capitalism in the US imposed taxes, regulations, and limits on — and mass employment alternatives to — those private corporations. But by leaving their boards of directors in place as the receivers and dispensers of corporate profits, the welfare state signed its own death warrant. The boards of directors had the desire and the means to undo the welfare state. It took them a while to change public opinion and build a rich and powerful movement led by business to achieve their goals. In the Reagan administration and since, enabled by a crisis of the welfare state in the 1960s and 1970s, they succeeded in switching the US and beyond back to a phase of private capitalism we call “neoliberal globalization.”
Understandably, many people cannot see beyond capitalism’s two phases or the debates, struggles, and transitions between them. But leftists who see no further — who criticize neoliberal globalization and advocate a warmed-over welfare-state Keynesianism — have abandoned Marx’s critical anti-capitalist project. They have become just another chorus for yet another oscillation back to the welfare state form of capitalism.
The working classes need and deserve better than that, now more than ever.
Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002) and (with Stephen Resnick) New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006).