Don't mention the (class) war... (or, “okay, so we’re against capitalism.... but what does that mean?)

A contribution to the "Reflections on J18" collection.

J18, according to the propaganda, was coordinated by a wide range of groups. It is probably fair comment to say that in fact most of the groups involved are part of what is sometimes called the “direct action movement” or the “activist movement” (ie Earth First!, Reclaim The Streets!, genetics groups, animal liberation groups etc). The J18 proposal identified global capitalism, based on the exploitation of people and planet for the profit of a few, as the root of our common social and ecological problems...this could be seen as a consequence of the growing politicisation of the direct action movement over the years. This trend could be noticed in the movement away from single-issue politics (hence the commonly heard slogan “no issue is single”), the much vaunted link-up between “direct action activists” and striking workers (eg Reclaim The Streets! and the Liverpool dockers, and Critical Mass/RTS and the Tubeworkers..)…

On one level this apparent trend of increasing anti-capitalism within the direct action movement is very encouraging. However it often seems that many people within the movement are not too clear about what capitalism is (is it money? Banks? Transnational Corporations?), and so having put a name to the problem, are still not too sure about what it is. And this can lead to confusion when deciding what to do, how to take effective action to move towards that (maybe not so) distant objective of dismantling global capitalism. The purpose of this limited discussion paper is to briefly attempt to clarify a few concepts relating to capitalism, whilst recognising that no-one has all the answers..

Capitalism is often equated with money, so that you often hear people talking about the need to abolish money to achieve a “fair society”. Sometimes LETS schemes are proposed as an alternative. Similarly banks and other financial institutions are often regarded as the essence of capitalism (and this explains why the proponents of the June 18th international day of action are targetting financial centres across the globe). Alternatively the problem is seen as the expansion of the global market and free trade, (with globalisation and neo-liberalism the buzz-words) and accordingly the World Trade Organisation (WTO) (which polices free trade agreements) is seen as enemy number one. This is particularly the opinion of Peoples’ Global Action (PGA), the international network founded as a result of the Encuentros (the international gatherings catalysed by the Zapatistas) – indeed the full name of PGA is People’s Global Action against free trade and the WTO. A related view situates multi-national corporations (or, increasingly, trans-national corporations, TNC’s) at the root of the problem, with corporate dominance blamed for “disempowering local communities” (the local is often emphasised as an alternative to big, centralised, “undemocratic” corporations and institutions). What none of these views seem to bring out or emphasise is the essential relation within capitalism, the relation without which capitalism couldn’t exist. (Instead they focus on physical manifestations). Money, banks, financial institutions, markets, TNC’s, the WTO are all features of the capitalist system, but THE defining capitalist social relation is the relation between capital and labour. For it is wage labour, alienated labour (ie production not for the direct benefit of the producers, but appropiated by capitalists) which is the life-blood of capitalism. Capitalism depends on wage-labour for its existence; if the working population didn’t have to sell themselves for money each day (ie if we could produce for our daily needs) who would want to work for a capitalist or for the state? But we don’t own the means of production, capitalists do... and this is the way the capital-labour relation reproduces itself (by continually forcing people to work for a wage). The capital-labour relation is the relation between classes (this question of class is especially something which tends to dismay many in the direct action movement, perhaps unnecessarily1.

This question is vitally important for anybody seriously considering strategies for attacking capitalism. For if we recognise that it is capitalism, which by appropriating the process of production and by extension taking control of nearly all forms of human activity and subjugating them to its own need for constant expansion and accumulation, which is responsible for the exploitation of people AND the destruction of the environment, then the target of our attack should be the capital-labour relation itself. In this sense we can understand why ultimately the only way to “reverse the forces of environmental destruction” (Earth First!’s avowed aim) is to attack wage labour. Hence the importance of link-ups with groups of workers in struggle, such as the Magnet strikers, the Hillingdon Hospital workers, the Tubeworkers, the electrical engineers on the Jubilee line, etc. Many in the direct action movement are reluctant to get involved in these struggles, seeing a contradiction in being against work and yet fighting to get workers their jobs back. And it is true that these struggles are at present about the conditions of the exploitation of labour, rather than putting in question the exploitation of labour itself.. the challenge is to push beyond these boundaries through the intensification of struggle to the point where wage-labour, hence capital is threatened. One of the prerequisites for this intensification of struggle (and also a result of it) is an increased level of consciousness.. the point was made in the pamphlet on dole autonomy2 that many in the direct action movement depend on dole cheques for their survival, but paradoxically are mostly unwilling to get involved in anti-New Deal struggles, perhaps not seeing it as a sexy enough issue. Yet this “issue” is part of the ongoing offensive of capital against labour (yes, that’s you and me when they hassle us off the dole or onto the New Deal or into some crap job). The New Deal is intended to create a more disciplined workforce and to force workers to accept worse conditions and pay and more profits for capitalists. And as we all know, more capital accumulation means more environmental destruction (so anti-JSA actions are not just another “single issue”). This is not to say that all we should be doing is opposing the JSA, or supporting striking workers (or going on strike ourselves when we are forced to work). It is true that work-place/dole struggles are not the only way of attacking the capital-labour relation; another example is housing struggles. It is interesting that whereas the 80’s class struggle anarcho movement was sometimes criticised for focusing too much on the point of production (“workerism”) to the exclusion of eg gender issues, reproduction, the environment etc, the 90’s activist scene can be criticised for failing to recognise the importance of class. We can only realise our revolutionary potential when we break out of our isolation, and uniting with other workers/shirkers in struggle, overturn both wage slavery and dole slavery. Only by taking control of our human creativity and activity ourselves can we decide what kind of life we want to lead, what conditions do we want to live in, and what relationship with / impact on the environment we will have.

Nick X

  • 1. ), and it is this relation which must be abolished if capitalism is to be dismantled. So we see that by focusing on money, or on the financial institutions, or corporations, or regulatory bodies such as the WTO, we are missing the point if we do not attack the underlying social relationthe tendency to understand capitalism not as a social relation but as a thing (eg money, banks etc) can be called reification (literally, turning a phenomenon into a thing), and to become obsessed with the thing rather than the relation can be called fetishisation (as in the fetishes or idols worshipped in religions, whereby an object is seen as possessing supernatural powers, or the force of the universe etc)
  • 2. Aufheben pamphlet “Dole autonomy versus the re-imposition of work”