From a Critique of Corporate Power to a Critique of Capitalism

(this article co-written with Jay Driskell)

Note: This piece was originally written in 1997, before Seattle and the re-emergence of a radical grassroots international movement explicitly opposed to capitalism, at a time when anarchist and anticapitalist perspectives were still marginal within the movement against “globalization.” We’re reprinting it now because we think the ideas it contains still have some work to do.

With the recent wave of successes in the struggle against corporate control of our lives, many activists are beginning to assess the long-term goals of our efforts and the fundamental assumptions underlying our work. Anticorporate sentiment is on the rise in North America, and those of us organizing around the issue can play a much needed role by offering a coherent expression, as well as radical direction, to that discontent. We’d like to help move that discussion forward by offering a critique of some of the common assumptions within the movement. We don’t mean this as some sort of blueprint or definitive worldview; that’s been tried before. But we do think it’s worth spending some time reflecting on the vision of a free society that animates our hard work.

When we look at the experiences of our various historical predecessors, from the nineteenth-century Populists to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the things that led to their eventual failure was the lack of a unified vision, one that couldn’t be compromised or co-opted. We need a coherent understanding of exactly what we’re fighting against, as well as what we’re fighting for: we want our vision to be both critical and reconstructive. That means developing both an analysis and forms of action that are appropriate to our common goals. Otherwise, we leave our movement open to takeover by would-be vanguards waiting in the wings with ready-made ideologies—just what happened to SDS at the end of the 1960s.

Our contribution focuses on the discussion around corporate power. As the title indicates, we’d like to move this discussion toward a critique of the capitalist social system as a whole, the system that underlies corporate power. We want to make clear at the outset that we do not see capitalism as the primary target, much less the only target, of our subversive efforts. We’re committed to resisting domination and hierarchy in all spheres of life, from the smallest interpersonal interactions to the mightiest global institutions; and we consider patriarchy, white supremacy, and the state to be as crucial as capitalism—not to mention heterosexism and all the other oppressions we struggle against. The root problem is a society structured around domination and subordination; we’re simply focusing on one of those basic structures for the moment.

Why capitalism? Because it is the unacknowledged source of so many of the barriers to a just and democratic future. We’re arguing for a principled opposition to capitalism as a complex and highly resilient social system, one that is profoundly hostile to human needs and ecological limits. Piecemeal opposition to those aspects of the corporate order that we think are nasty isn’t enough; our eventual goal must be the elimination of the entire structure.

This step, moving beyond a critique of corporate dominance of various parts of our lives to a critique of the underlying system, is important for several reasons. First, it helps us see our local struggles, here and now, in a global and historical context: we don’t simply want to shove corporate predators out of our backyard into someone else’s, and we don’t want to fixate on the most obvious current manifestations of corporate greed and destructiveness (after all, are a few huge profit-making corporations really worse than lots of small profit-making corporations?).

Second, one of the things that makes capitalism so resilient is its ability to present itself as natural, eternal, and inevitable. Consequently, many people who are outraged by particular instances of corporate malfeasance would never dream of questioning the capitalist system itself. We need to push them to dream that dream if their outrage is to develop into revolt. Capitalism has taken on enormous and unforeseen self-transformations in the past, and we can expect it to do so again. To be prepared for this, we have to understand its fundamental nature. Though it might seem hard to imagine, a world without corporations but still built on capitalist premises is not impossible; and that world would not be a free world.

Third, we think it’s important to keep in mind the political ambivalence of previous anticorporate movements. There was, after all, a powerful anticapitalist component to European fascism, and many North American versions of populism have evolved in a right-wing, pseudo-democratic direction. Much of this has to do with partial critiques of corporate power that fixated on its most palpable incarnations but didn’t touch its systemic roots. For example, “finance capital” was often scapegoated (or sometimes simply “Jewish bankers”), as if financial and industrial capital weren’t inextricably linked. Or “consumerist lifestyles” were attacked, ignoring not only the immense class divisions that mark our society but also the central role of production, the heart of capitalism, in determining demand.

We want to avoid such mistakes. That means working to get clear among ourselves, as a movement, what our real targets are and why we oppose them. If that requires wrestling with some “theoretical” questions that sound abstract at first, it’s a risk we’ll have to take.

So what do we mean by capitalism? That’s difficult to answer, because the system itself is so flexible and constantly shifting. Capitalism has been developing for centuries, and has taken many divergent forms in various times and places. Still, we think there are some key characteristics that all forms of capitalism share:

Commodity production. Commodities are the basic unit of capitalist society. One way to think of them is as things that are manufactured for exchange (i.e. sale) rather than for use. That’s not to say they’re all useless by any means, just that the reason they’re produced is to generate profit, not to fulfill some social purpose.

Markets. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that markets are naturally ordained; in fact, they are merely one way of coordinating the distribution of goods, and a peculiar one at that. Unless they are securely anchored within a nonmarket social context, markets have a basically totalitarian dynamic: once they’re let loose, they tend to colonize every aspect of social life, eroding cooperation and instilling competition.

Private property. There’s nothing wrong with everybody owning their own toothbrushes. But private ownership of those things that are necessary for living—like land, housing, the production of food and basic goods, and all that makes up a healthy and comfortable existence—only makes sense if private gain takes precedence over social needs.

Wage labor. Capitalism is the only social system that forces most of us to sell our labor in order to survive. This means our own bodies are turned into commodities. The class system also divorces decision from execution: management decides what gets done and how, and workers are expected merely to carry out their orders—an elementary violation of democratic values.

Accumulation via exploitation. The things that we make and do at our jobs are taken from us and turned into capital, and we don’t get a say in what’s done with it. While executives, shareholders, and owners are the immediate beneficiaries of this process, the driving dynamic is the continuous accumulation of capital itself, which inexorably sucks people and the planet dry.

The growth imperative. In a market society, all economic units are eventually forced to grow or perish. This is a fundamental feature of capitalism that can’t be circumvented by well-meaning entrepreneurs or attempts to foster local businesses. The system is structured such that these efforts will either be eliminated or entirely absorbed, no matter what the intentions of their founders.

Alienated relationships. Capitalism isn’t merely an economic mechanism; it is a full-fledged set of social relations that warp human interests around the prerogatives of possession and material advantage. At the same time, capitalism systematically hides the very social relations it perpetuates, making it virtually impossible for people to interact in ways that are not somehow mediated by forms of capital.

If these are the essential building blocks of capitalism, then the conclusion is clear: capitalism is incompatible with a free society and healthy planet. If we are serious about creating a just and sustainable world, we will need to uproot capitalism, replacing it with a system of production and reproduction that respects the natural environment and fosters human freedom. That is, we’ll have to forge an economy that is subject to direct democratic control. We think there are two principles that can help guide this effort to overcome capitalism: Return capital to the control of communities; and Put production decisions in the hands of the producers.

If we think of capital as the social wealth produced by a community, then the community as a whole ought to decide—collectively and democratically—how that wealth is used. Local communities should have the final say in how surplus is invested, and all major decisions about production and distribution should be subject to communal approval. One way to institutionalize this process is by municipalizing the economy: property and production decisions are put in the hands of directly democratic citizen assemblies (not representative bodies) so that every adult member of a community is involved in cooperatively managing communal affairs. In this way the economy can be subordinated to popular control at the grassroots level, in order to make capital serve social ends rather than the other way around.

At the same time, the actual process of production must be under the immediate control of all those directly involved in it. This means that all the workers in a particular enterprise (to use a classic if somewhat outmoded example) participate equally in determining how their workplace is structured and how the work itself is done. A democratic economy must be democratic at all levels. This process can build on existing institutions of working-class power, but must go beyond them to encompass all forms of labor, all productive activity, including those traditionally assigned to the sphere of “reproduction.”

Growing out of these participatory and grassroots structures of collective self-management, a network of confederated communities could then provide the democratic framework for cooperation across regions. In this way, economic decisions would be integrated into public life as a whole, becoming a vital part of civic engagement and communal deliberation. Such a scenario represents the negation of capitalism.

But what does all this mean for our organizing work today? We’re not saying we should all immediately stop talking about “corporate power” and start talking about “capitalism” instead (much less focus on capitalism at the expense of racism, etc.). Rather, we’d like to see a radical critique of capitalism incorporated into our own analyses of corporate dominance, which will probably end up changing our public profile. The place to start, as always, is with education; and in this effort, we can draw on a large body of historical experience and theoretical insight from socialist, anarchist, and communalist traditions of resistance to capitalist encroachment.

Another possible emphasis is on building counterinstitutions (both creating new ones as well as strengthening, expanding, and radicalizing existing ones). Counterinstitutions are projects like food co-ops, housing co-ops, community supported farms, collectively run businesses, alternative credit programs, and similar attempts to take back socially necessary functions from the clutches of a profit-oriented economy. Such endeavors face the dilemma of using market mechanisms to undermine the logic of the market, a difficult and risky prospect under contemporary conditions. Their ultimate objective must be not coexistence with capitalist institutions but their wholesale replacement.

None of this is a substitute for continual political struggle—we all need to remain active revolutionaries no matter where we live, work, or eat, or which books we read. The point is just that a dual strategy of education and concretely contesting the structures of capitalist society offers a way to combine our critical and reconstructive visions. We think this only makes sense in the context of an explicit rejection of capitalism in all its forms.

Why is this move from a critique of corporate power to a critique of capitalism necessary? Because partial critiques run the risk of sending the wrong message. Focusing on huge multinational corporations can make small or locally based ones sound harmless. Highlighting corporate misdeeds can suggest that we simply need better managers and more sensitive executives. Faulting income inequalities leaves the class system intact. Pointing the finger at Wall Street neglects Main Street’s complicity. Focusing on consumption lets production off the hook. Talking about “industrialism” portrays our problems as essentially technical in nature and leaves the actual social causes unexamined. Targeting the concentration of capital ignores the possibility of a decentralized capitalism.

On the other hand, every one of these rhetorical strategies can become an effective and radical tool if it is situated in a broader anticapitalist critique. The lessons from our past show that this is a small but indispensable step toward creating a free, humane, and ecological society.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.