At the most fundamental level, capitalism is a system based on labour-power — the general human capacity to create new wealth — becoming a commodity, something to be bought and sold, across society.
Capitalism is geared around the relationship between those who own the factories and workplaces, and buy labour-power, and those who have no choice but to sell their labour-power.
Workers sell our labour-power — in capitalist society, a commodity like others, and yet not quite like others because it embodies the capacity to add new value — for a pittance sufficient to keep us in trim to continue selling it. The bosses win profits by organising labour — i.e. “consuming” the labour-power they have bought — in such a way as to add more and more value, more than they paid out in wages.
In his book Capital, Marx identified not only the “laws of motion” and tendencies of capitalism but its historical development.
He wrote: “If money… ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood stain on one cheek’, capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Capitalism is not eternal. It is transitory. It became established as the dominant mode of production not by quiet progress by in violent ways. In previous periods other forms of production and exploitation dominated.
The advances of previous exploiting societies created new social classes — such as the bourgeoisie within feudalism — and so destabilised those old ruling orders. Capitalist production first emerged in northern Italy, where feudalism never really took root, in the 14th and 15th centuries. It came into full flower, transforming technology as well as formal economic relations, with the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century, first in England.
In fairly short order, a new class — the bourgeoisie — came to dominate society, forcing a dramatic reordering of the world. Society was divided into two camps: bourgeoisie and proletarian; capitalists and workers.
Marxists recognise and in many ways admire the achievements and innovations of capitalist society. Capitalism is a system of exploitation, war and oppression. It is also its own worst enemy, and lays the basis for its own overthrow and replacement by a better society, because as capitalism expands, the working class grows ever greater in number.
As the bourgeoisie forced a revolution against feudal society, so also the working class must do the same against capitalism.
What capitalists will not do to ensure the production, flow and expansion of commodities could be written on the back of a stamp with a very thick pen. Force, in the form of states, laws, and armies, is used to preserve the interests of capitalism. New methods and techniques are continually deployed against nature and humanity to extract more and more value.
And devious financial ingenuity is applied to all aspects of human activity and within the financial system itself to fuel growth today at the cost of slump and ecological destruction tomorrow.
• Further reading:
Karl Marx, Capital
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx, Wages, price and profit