By Will, Chino, Saudade, Mamos and Arturo
We don’t live in a society where all people are free and equal; it’s not a “free market” system, as they teach us in school. It’s a class system called “capitalism,” which is characterized by the domination of capital over all else.
In the capitalist system, the largest class of people is the workers, who have nothing but their labor to sell. We workers sell our labor to another group of people—the business owners, or capitalists—in exchange for a wage. This exchange of labor for wages is not a fair exchange within a “free market,” where the capitalists and the workers meet each other on equal footing and work together in the best interests of all involved. Because we do not have any means of production of our own, we have no other choice but to sell our labor to the capitalists, who own all the businesses, factories, land, transportation, buildings, etc.
These are the two main classes in capitalism. Other classes include small business owners, who work in their own enterprises, as well as a small class of managers, administrators, and police, who discipline the working class. But the two largest and most powerful classes are the workers and the capitalists.
Alienation and Capital
Capitalism is more than just an economic system; it is also a social system. The activities and interactions of millions of people keep capitalism running, day after day, creating the oppression and exploitation that we experience. By understanding how this system works, we can figure out how to break free from it and create something new.
In the capitalist system, the vast majority of people experience alienation. Alienation is the act of separating something from yourself that originates with you. When you work for a capitalist, you alienate your abilities for physical and mental labor from yourself, in order to complete the length of the shift. Your ability to lift boxes, do mental math, or coordinate an office, are all properties of your body and mind. But for a few hours they become a tool for someone else to accumulate wealth. Rather than engaging in labor of your own choosing, you transfer your qualities and abilities from yourself to someone else. This relationship may seem simple, but it has huge consequences when it happens to millions of people every day.
The overwhelming majority of people alienate their labor, their time, their whole lives, just in order to get some money and survive. This class, the proletariat, or the working class, includes the workers who have to alienate their labor, as well as unemployed people who have to go back to work eventually, or who survive off of state assistance or fellow workers. The working class also includes those who do unpaid housework, taking care of relatives or partners, and who raise kids—by doing this, they are working for the capitalist system, because they ensure that the people they take care of can work for the capitalists.
The capitalists, or the bourgeoisie, alienate our labor when they do not pay us the full value that we create. They only pay us enough to reproduce our ability to work; in other words, just barely enough to cover the food, clothing, shelter, etc. that we need in order to keep going back to work. Meanwhile, our work actually produces a lot more value than what we’re paid. The capitalists keep the difference between the amount of wealth we create and the amount we receive in our paycheck; they call this “profit.”
The capitalists accumulate capital by alienating the value we produce with our collective labor, while we get only a fraction of the value back in the form of a paycheck. The overwhelming majority of the value goes to the capitalists, who then use it to make more money.
Money that is used to make more money is capital. Capital is our everyday labor, alienated from us, and reified into a thing that dominates us.
Reification happens when a relation between people starts to seem like a separate force, imposing itself on the people taking part in the relation.
We’ve all experienced reification at some point. When we’ve bowed down to our boss so often that bosses seem to have some innate authority, that’s reification. When we’ve been stuck in an unhealthy relationship for so long that the relationship seems normal, that’s reification. When we experience race and gender as innate and permanent, that’s reification. When the things made by millions of alienated workers appear to dominate over the workers themselves, that’s reification.
Instead of relating to other people by freely sharing the fruits of our labor, we have to relate to things we have to buy, and don’t see the working people behind them. We become alienated from each other.
We grow and harvest food in farms, but when it is sold on the market, it doesn’t belong to us. We manufacture products on assembly lines, but when they come out of the factory, they don’t belong to us. We transport stacks of goods in trucks to warehouses that don’t belong to us. We prepare and sell products that aren’t ours in restaurants and retail shops that aren’t ours. The capitalist appropriates the value of everything we make (or transport, assemble, cook, sell, etc.), and sells it to other alienated people.
Even when we’re unemployed, we’re surrounded by buildings, clothes, and food that don’t belong to us, and which were alienated from people just like us. We can’t take food, clothing, and shelter if we need them, or share them if we make them. Everything belongs to someone else: usually a corporation.
The Struggle against Capital
We reproduce the capitalist system every day through our practical activity. Capital lives only by sucking our labor. It can do nothing without us: our bodies are its arms, its legs, its reproductive organs, and its brains. Therefore we have the power to end it.
Oppressed and exploited people have struggled to overthrow capital countless times throughout history. Many people think they can escape the cycle of alienation, exploitation and oppression without revolution. Some think they can escape the rat race if they work hard enough, but the reality is that most people never can. Others think they can reform capitalism and avoid revolution. But these are all failed routes out of exploitation and alienation.
As long as relations of exploitation stay in place, the capitalists will keep gaining more wealth and power by using the alienated labor of the proletariat, and keep strengthening the social system that keeps this relationship going. To end this situation, we will have to do more than reform capitalism. We will have to attack the relations of exploitation and oppression that recreate capitalism as a whole. To do this, we will have to abolish the social relations between classes, the system of alienated labor, and ultimately the very existence of classes. We will have to take over the means of production, kick the capitalists out of power, and create a new society where labor isn’t alienated, where workers control their work, and where ordinary people control their own lives and communities.
Capitalism isn’t eternal and god didn’t decree it. Like any social system, it can be destroyed. We can destroy capitalism by organizing with each other to stop the process of exploitation, by defeating the forces that stand in our way, by creating new ways of running society, and by living together with dignity, peace and with all of our needs met. In a truly free society, everyone will labor for the common good of all, without being forced to work for a ruling class, and without being forced to pay for the goods produced by their fellow human beings. Throughout the history of capitalism, the struggle for this free society has been called anarchism, socialism, or communism.
The Struggle for Communism
Communism is the movement of people to overthrow the capitalist system and to build a free society, a society without class distinctions, in which the broad masses of people directly control the conditions of their lives, rather than working for a ruling class. Under communism, every person produces goods, services and ideas according to their abilities, and takes resources from the collective wealth of society according to their needs. Full communism is not possible without the elimination of capitalism, racism, women’s oppression, homophobia, transphobia, imperialism, nationalism, ecological degradation, and much more. For hundreds of years now, poor people have been trying to end these systems of oppression. This history has produced a long list of organizations, movements, experiences and ideas that we can learn from.
Unfortunately, many who called themselves communists through history, like those who call themselves Christians, Muslims or Jews, ended up practicing something very different from what they preached. Instead of fighting for a free society where everyone makes what they can and shares what they need, many communists created dictatorships run by elites, with the same alienation and exploitation as any other class society. After the twentieth century, the names Lenin, Stalin and Mao are more associated with mass murder and oppression than anything else. We agree with this assessment. At the same time, we know that communism isn’t limited to these tragedies. Many communists, socialists, and anarchists have fought against top-down state socialism, and tried to find a different path to liberation. Like them, we believe we can learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century, and create a genuinely free society.
It might seem impossible to think that people in this alienated society can come together to directly run their communities themselves. One of the great victories of capitalism has been to make people distrust each other, to be separated from each other, to think everyone is too stupid and ignorant for revolution. A communist revolution requires as many working class people as possible taking part in it, exercising direct control over their lives. There is no way around this. Without the participation of masses of working class people, there is no communist revolution.
The self-emancipation of the working class might seem impossible today, but the outbreak of revolution is never a predictable phenomenon. The masses of people who carried out the revolutions of the past did not know in advance that these revolutions were coming. However, as social, political, and economic contradictions developed over time, this produced mass movements that the ruling classes simply could not control. Nobody can predict the conjuncture of events and circumstances that will lead to a revolution in the United States in the 21st century. As capitalist crises and revolutionary struggles continue to emerge, our consciousness changes, and this makes a new kind of world possible.
At many points throughout history, whether in 1791, 1848, 1871, 1917, 1956, or in 1968, social movements went beyond winning small reforms, higher wages, or new presidents, and grew so powerful that the entire class system was thrown into question. Millions of people felt that a free, classless society was possible, and they tried to create it. Each time that a revolutionary movement has almost taken down capitalism, the capitalist system has transformed itself and emerged stronger. But the outcome of the next battle is still undecided. We can also emerge stronger, by learning from these past successes and failures. Every time capitalism transforms, it creates new conditions for its own destruction. Even now, there are movements going on in China, Mexico, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, in U.S. prisons and on the streets of poor neighborhoods, where oppressed people are learning that they can struggle together and win.
In the course of revolutionary struggle, everyday people dramatically change their personalities and ways of interacting. Consciousness is changed by great historical events such as the U.S. Civil War, the Russian revolution of 1917, World War I and II, the Vietnam War, the economic crisis of 2008, the Ferguson and Baltimore riots, etc. Consciousness is changed when poor and working people fight for their own freedom, and in the process clear their heads and develop new ideas. There is no magic trick to changing consciousness, no perfect conversation technique that will finally “enlighten” everyone. Billions of people will accomplish communism through strikes, riots, armed battles, and mass meetings. It will not be done by a small group of “enlightened” people. It will happen—like every revolution in the past—through mass movement and mass action born from the circumstances of our time.
The study of how consciousness changes is ultimately the study of history, class struggle, and the ideas that are born in them. People who understand this can become revolutionaries. They can find places where working class people are cooperating and struggling against alienation. They can participate in these struggles and learn from them, in order to help people struggle more effectively, and to help them understand the road ahead more clearly.
Revolutionary confrontations don’t come very often, but when they do, they require millions of people to take their lives into their own hands in order break their chains. Those of us who have studied the revolutions of the past, who consciously participate in the class struggles of the present, can help working class people prepare themselves for revolutionary struggle. However, we cannot manufacture a revolutionary situation. We must instead recognize the struggles that are already taking place, and contribute to their acceleration and self-development.
Great battles are coming between the rich and the poor. The rich know this, and are preparing for it. Are we?