Hearing or reading about the “contradictions of capitalism” in an article or at a rally might be intimidating, like a foreign language or a term only a certain group can understand. While the contradictions of capitalism are complicated, working and oppressed people can easily understand them for the simple reason that we all live with and negotiate any number of contradictions every day. The contradictions we deal with that are the most confining, that most constrain our capacities and that keep us oppressed are specifically the contradictions of capitalism.
On any given day, we find abundant evidence that makes it clear that the capitalist system doesn’t work in practice. Examining the contradictions of capitalism and demonstrating how they are inherent in the system, proves that capitalism doesn’t even work in theory. Understanding capitalist contradictions heightens our agitation and accelerates political consciousness by cutting through capitalist ideology and the various excuses of capitalists, politicians, and their media. Knowing capitalist contradictions better informs our tactics and strategies in any given struggle and serves as a bridge to socialist reconstruction in the U.S.
This series examines some of the primary contradictions of capitalism, including those between use and exchange values, private ownership and social production, and the interests of individual capitalists and capital as a whole. Each entry will break the contradictions down in an accessible manner, explaining some of their more intricate details, and showing how they relate to other contradictions. We provide some general and concrete examples of how they enhance our understanding of capitalism and our struggle to overthrow that system and replace it with a new one. The reason Marx dedicated so much time to studying and analyzing capital was not because it was “interesting” but because its contradictions were and are opportunities for working and oppressed people to advance and create the world the Earth and its inhabitants need and deserve.
The general and specific contradictions we navigate
Our personal lives are riddled with any number of contradictions—or tensions—that we have to deal with daily. The term “guilty pleasure,” for example, names the contradictory situations we face when we are both attracted to and repelled by the same thing at the same time. Our guilty pleasure might be a “reality” show, for example, or a certain genre of books, or any other activity we engage in that brings us both positive and negative feelings.
Many of us despise social media yet still pick up our phones or check our computers throughout the day to use various social media apps. We also deal with the contradictions of our basic life processes like going to sleep. If we stay up late—to catch the end of a sporting event or spend extra time with our friends—while fully knowing we will have to wake up at the same early hour, we’re wrestling with a contradiction. Whenever we have negative and positive feelings at the same time about the same thing (a show), relation (social media), or process (sleeping), we’re dealing with a contradiction.
We’re also familiar with political contradictions. How many of us and the people we know have zero faith in the ruling-class parties but still vote for them? How many of us live in communities that regularly experience the brunt of racist police violence but, at the same time, see the police as a kind of “necessary evil” to combat the regular violence in our neighborhoods, and even might support campaigns for more police or surveillance cameras?
We experience economic contradictions as well, like the tension between doing the quality of work we can be proud of and the quality of work we are paid to perform. As a teacher, I constantly grapple with this contradiction. I truly want to set up the best possible class to educate students in a way they deserve, which requires spending the time necessary to get to know each student, to find the right content to teach, and do so by crafting a plan for each unique class. To do this, however, means I have to work beyond my contract hours.
Even when we’re thrown out of a job, we search out new work for a paycheck to survive even though we know that paycheck will barely let us survive long enough to show up to work to collect the next one.
Philosophy and our understanding of contradictions
Not all contradictions are the result of capitalism. The oldest religious traditions and cultural customs, for example, provide guidance on dealing with contradictions, like those between love and hate or living and dying. Marx didn’t “discover” contradictions, but he and Engels, built on and critiqued theories of capitalism available at the time. By doing so, Marx and Engels found that, while the best political economists often asked the right questions (like what is the source of profit), they couldn’t answer them because they didn’t grasp the historical specificity of capitalism as a contradictory system. They showed that capitalist contradictions are not inevitable or permanent, only that they are unsolvable within the capitalist system. Similarly, neither Marx nor Engels envisioned socialism or communism as a utopian place free of any tensions or contradictions. The socialist struggle doesn’t aim to solve all contradictions, only those that are intrinsic to the capitalist system and that produce the widespread suffering of the world’s majority.
We all have experience with contradictions, yet how we understand them—and therefore how and if we respond to them—depends on our philosophy, which refers generally to “our world outlook.” Just as we have experiences with various contradictions, we have our own philosophical outlooks, even if we aren’t aware of it or familiar with philosophical language. Philosophies are grounded in material reality, which means “that the various systems of the philosophers also always express a class outlook” 1. The ruling class is the group that controls not only “the means of material production” but also “the means of mental production,” we’re all raised with their world outlook.
The capitalist philosophy we’re taught maintains that the world is made up of independent and fixed entities. Here, contradictions are the same as paradoxes, like the riddle of what came first, the chicken or the egg? This is only a paradox if we think about both as separate things, but there cannot be one without the other. Marxist philosophy explains that the world is made up of interrelated matter that is always in motion. The chicken and the egg are not independent or fixed but interrelated and always in motion. The reason there is no answer to the riddle is because it asks the wrong question 2.
Consider the common refrain that contemporary injustices like war or poverty are merely the result of “human nature.” Under this conception, humans have a nature that is independent of the world and any given social conditions. Humans have always been independent, competitive, self-seeking, etc. Capitalist philosophy thus explains the “failure” of alternative social systems by claiming they are simply “against human nature.” Human nature is presented as a thing, a static object remaining the same regardless of time, space, or society; this lets capitalism off the hook.
Many of us are taught to think that “humans” and “nature” are independent entities and there was once a pure “natural world.” Marx and Engels, addressing one of their contemporaries who adhered to this view, held that even if there was a “nature that preceded human history…. It is nature which today no longer exists anywhere” 3. We’re taught that capitalism is natural and the way it structures society is nothing but “human nature;” that we are naturally independent of each other, competitive, and out for our own interests; that we are individuals isolated from each other first before we enter into relations with others. It’s always been this way, the myth goes: we’re all free individuals who choose to be either lazy or hard-working, wasteful or frugal, make bad or positive life choices, or choose the “right” or “wrong” crowd to hang out with. That explains why some of us end up rich and the rest end up as workers, how some workers end up in apartments and houses and others end up homeless, employed or unemployed, etc.
Two worldviews in action: Education, testing, and the myth of meritocracy
In education, this myth takes the form of “meritocracy,” where the results of our test scores indicate how capable or incapable we are as individuals, how much time and effort we spent studying, etc… This assumes however, that standardized tests are “objective,” an assumption that, as educational theorist Wayne Au shows, allows the tests to be “used to compare students, teachers, and schools, and then make high-stakes decisions about being granted access to resources or subjected to punishment” 4. These tests are far from value-neutral or objective because, in reality, test scores and educational outcomes are ultimately related to one’s zip code. Moreover, they are historically rooted in eugenics and racism.
In the U.S., IQ (or “Intelligence Quotient”) tests were based on the idea that one’s “intelligence” was static and based on their individual biology and heritage. IQ tests are still “used to sort and rank different people by race, ethnicity, gender, and class according to supposedly inborn, innate intelligence” 5. The assumptions determine the results. If the language of the test is a certain kind of English, students from communities that speak a different kind of English or another language, like Spanish, will have less access to the questions. Regardless of the bias built into the test, however, those who can afford private tutors and do not have to work in the house or at a job, for example, are likely to perform better than those who can’t afford tutors and have to work to provide for their families, whether it be at a job or cooking dinner for their siblings while their parents are working three jobs.
If we understand the historical specificity of standardized tests, then, we understand they do not measure our “natural” or “individual” intelligence but our class standing. We then see that educational and economic success is not the product of an individual’s choices but rather the system that determines the choices available to us and our ability to access those choices. It disproves that we are “individuals” with our individual intelligence and shows that the very notion of “intelligence” is socially constructed under capitalism in a way that justifies capitalism’s inequalities as “human nature.” Individualism, as Marx showed in his critique of bourgeois political economists, was the product of “civil society” during a specific time and place that “appears as an ideal, whose existence [the bourgeois philosophers] project into the past” 6. In other words, “intelligence” isn’t a static or independent thing but a process interrelated to social practices, including white supremacy, capitalism, racism, ableism, and other forms of oppression, as well as struggles against standardized testing.
Capitalism as an inherently contradictory process
When an economic crisis grips U.S. society, capitalists blame it on some external cause. They debate whether it is the individual characteristics of a president, a Federal Reserve policy or decision, “state intervention” or lack of legislative oversight. In some cases, they unite and blame it on another country.
Marx demonstrated that capitalist crises are the inevitable result of capital’s internal contradictions and, more fundamentally, that capitalism is defined by its contradictions. Capital is value in expanding motion, meaning that capitalism as a system is defined by the accumulation of more and more value.
The process of capital is, at heart, contradictory for at least two reasons. First, the value of any commodity is the social average of the time necessary for its production. Because capitalists compete with other capitalists for a limited market, they are forced to reduce their individual production time to remain competitive, yet eventually, this lowers the overall social production time and, hence, their ability to accumulate value. Second, surplus value for the capitalist is equivalent to the additional unpaid value produced by labor-power. Because capitalists must invest at least some of their surplus value back to expand their own productive capacity to accumulate more value, there is a constant disproportionality between the value produced and the value realized (or sold) 7.
As Marx puts it, “the ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as opposed to the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as though only the absolute consuming power of society constituted their limit” 8. What he means is that the “absolute law of value” that drives the accumulation of capital expands both the wealth of the capitalists and the poverty of the masses. Even if our wages equal the value of our labor-power, it is impossible for our class to buy the total value we produce.
Capitalism can only move crises around and to higher levels
Contradictions push and pull us between the opposite ends of the same thing or process. Generally, most of these contradictions bubble below the surface. Every few years, however, they boil over into a crisis. To survive, capitalism must continually try to “solve” its contradictions, but can only shift them to different places, delay them, and raise their intensity.
For example, one way capital tries to “solve” the contradiction of surplus value is by extending credit to workers. With credit, we can purchase more commodities than our wages allow. At some point, of course, the debt must be paid. This increases the extent of the contradiction because credit comes with additional costs for us, which ultimately reduces our capacity to purchase goods or pay for the goods we already “bought” on credit.
Another example is how capital tries to “solve” the contradiction between its need to expand and the geographical limitations of the globe. Colonialism and imperialism provide capital with additional outlets to sell their commodities and provide capital with cheaper (often stolen) raw materials and labor-power. Imperialism resulted mainly from this contradiction because, once the capitalists had colonized the world, they could only gain access to extra markets by redividing “their” colonized territories through war. This explains why Lenin’s analysis of imperialism provided the real rationale for World War I 9.
The role of capitalist contradictions in building a revolutionary movement and society
As an inherently contradictory system, as capital grows its own power it, at. the same time, creates and increases its opposing power: the poor and working classes. In this series, we’ll explore some of the most pertinent contradictions of capitalism so that we can seize on them and finally resolve them through socialism.
Contradictions do not unfold in any predetermined manner nor is there any single one that is the most important for all time. Yet a foundational contradiction that is always helpful in raising class consciousness and clarifying the real source of many struggles is the contradiction between use value and exchange value. Under capitalism, all commodities are contradictory unities of both forms of value and capitalists only care about the exchange value of the commodities we produce for them The rest of us, however, buy commodities for their use value.
We rent apartments or take out loans for houses because we need to use them. Capitalists, however, only organize the production of houses for exchange value, or the profit they can make from them. Because capitalists compete for as much exchange value as possible, they end up producing another contradiction examined in the third entry: the absurd crisis of overproduction.
Whenever we struggle to make or keep something as a public good—whether it be education, our libraries, healthcare, water, or utilities—while the capitalists try to privatize it, we’re taking a side in the contradiction between use value and exchange value. We’re saying:
This is important to keep public because society uses and needs it, not because a small group of capitalists can privatize it and profit from it.
This clarifies that the interests of the masses are directly opposed to the interests of the capitalists and imperialists. When our elected (or unelected) officials still sell them off to corporations despite our protests, it shows our class whose interests the state represents. It further reveals that capitalism doesn’t care about what we need or want to survive, and that they don’t see us as anything other than exploitable and expendable sources of value. Additionally, it helps unite our historically divided class around our common interests, as access to basic public necessities impacts all working and poor people.
On our path toward building a revolutionary movement and society, understanding the contradictions of capitalism helps us accurately identify the cause of the crisis, show the class struggle in action, unite the broad masses, and reveal our common interests and, in general, provides us with the knowledge necessary for our political, tactical, and strategic decisions. The contradictory developments in any society are numerous and it is important to look for the contradictions that will most likely cause intense social conflicts, determining where to put our time and energy, who to reach out to and build connections with, and more.
In this series, we’ll examine multiple fundamental contradictions of capitalism. After examining the contradiction between use value and exchange value in greater detail, we’ll see how that in turn contributes to the absurd crisis of overproduction in the next entry. The series will address other contradictions as well, including the contradiction between technology and living labor, constant capital and fixed capital, and the production and realization of capital. For each, we’ll discuss how we can use them to advance the struggles we’re engaged in daily, promote socialist consciousness, and spread the fact that another world and system is possible and absolutely necessary. That way, we can have enough numbers on our side to seize a revolutionary opportunity: when capitalism’s contradictions pile up high enough that “the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way” 10.
- ↩ Maurice Cornforth, Materialism and the Dialectical Method (New York: International Publishers, 1953/1971), 7, 8.
- ↩ For more on this see Curry Malott, “What is Dialectical Materialism? An Introduction,” Liberation School, 04 April 2020. Available here.
- ↩ Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, with Selections from Parts Two and Three and Supplementary Texts, trans. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 63; see also Sohrob Aslamy, “Marxism, Capitalism, and Nature-Society Relations: An Introduction,” Liberation School, 12 October 2021. Available here.
- ↩ Wayne Au, Unequal by Design: High Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality, 2nd. ed. (New York: Routledge, 2023), 98.
- ↩ Ibid., 49.
- ↩ Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1939/1993), 38.
- ↩ For an explanation of the first reason, see Mazda Majidi, “Relative Surplus Value: The Class Struggle Intensifies,” Liberation School, 18 August 2021. Available here; for an explanation of the second reason, see Derek Ford and Mazda Majidi, “Surplus Value is the Class Struggle,” Liberation School, 30 March 2021. Available here.
- ↩ Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 3): The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, ed. F. Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1894/1967), 484.
- ↩ V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline,” in Lenin: Selected Works: Two Volume Edition (Vol. 1) (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1916/1963), 634-731. Available here. See also Brian Becker, “From Inter-Imperialist War to Global Class War: Understanding Distinct Stages of Imperialism,” Liberation School, 20 July 2018. Available here.
- ↩ V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” in V.I. Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 31): April-December 1920, trans. J. Katzer (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1920/1966). 85.