500 Years of Capitalism — A Brief Overview
It was during the 16th century that capitalism took the place of feudalism as society’s primary economic and political system. The structure that was composed of lords and dukes, kings and queens was replaced by a different system of hierarchy, violence, extraction, and scarcity. It is not that hierarchy, violence, extraction, and scarcity did not exist during the feudal period, because it did indeed, but now it was going by a new name — capitalism.
So when you hear mention of postcapitalism, it is easy to think that this political and economic system will be just another byproduct of traditional capitalism, or further yet, of feudalism. That said, I am confident that the collapse of the capitalist system will not simply change our relationship to capitalist principles; instead, it will replace these principles altogether.
As mentioned above, the four capitalist principles include hierarchy, violence or coercion, extraction, and scarcity. These principles are the foundation of the capitalist perspective — the four pillars, if you will — and they define our social, political, and economic relationships. All of capitalism’s power and all its problems derive from these four pillars.
Capitalism requires a hierarchy so that power can flow through the system. For example, organizations are set up as a hierarchy of offices, with each office exercising power over a certain realm of activity, which often includes other offices beneath it. The office on top exercises power over the office on the bottom, and often, the bottom office contains only one, individual employee. To some degree, all corporations are structured this way; all militaries are structured this way; and all governments are structured this way. It does not matter who fills the positions within each office so long as the office is filled by someone who can be held responsible for carrying out the office’s tasks. In this sense, hierarchy has defined our economic relationship for centuries.
But hierarchy has deeper elements, too. As a structural component of the capitalist society, it defines how the power flows through our social and political relationships. In fact, the idea of a hierarchical system is so endemic to our culture that, in the mainstream, we tend to view these relationships as “normal,” and hierarchy becomes the basis of social power differentials in our society. But when we look at the current political and social landscapes in the United Kingdom and the United States, we can begin to see that people are fed up with the seemingly endless rifts in the societal structure. Any current unrest will contribute greatly to our future unity, and furthermore, the eventual disintegration of our hierarchical power structure.
The second pillar — violent coercion — is a fundamental feature of capitalism. The system uses violence to coerce, to bully people into compliance, especially in the various forms of labor. Violence breaks strikes and peaceful protests; it drives conquest and the control of natural resources; it is the root of destruction in the natural environment; and violence was at the core of slavery. Finally, violence is the threat behind the rule of law that enables police, as representatives of the state, to keep order. In these instances, violence too easily devolves into the brutality against people lower in the hierarchy, thus displaying the negative, abusive side of the Rule of Law.
In most cases, both now and in the past, violence typically involves the dehumanizing the image of one’s enemy, and the practice of violence usually habitualizes dehumanization. For those involved, it’s easier to hate and to kill when indigenous populations are viewed as “savages”; when they believe that “the only good German is a dead German,” as many soldiers believed during WWII; or when young black men are perceived by law enforcement and the media as threatening criminals. This dehumanization is a central part of most social ills.
The third pillar of capitalism is extraction. Capitalist success depends on access to resources, and those resources must be extracted through activities like mining, oil drilling, agriculture, and logging and clear cutting. This principle makes capitalism extremely geographic, and led to the development of previously nascent ideas of private property and state control of territory. Over time, states came to control territory so that private land ownership could be defended, and so that lumber, mining, and mineral extraction rights could be exercised. Perhaps unlike any other principle, this one shows the interconnections between the capitalist system and our current forms of government.
Extraction and exploitation are inevitable in an economy that tends to expend its resources, either by burning them, or using them to produce another product. Extraction is further magnified by capitalism’s imperative to grow endlessly into new markets to help maintain profits. In turn, extraction is tied to the consumption economy in that it needs people to burn, waste, and dispose resources so that economic extraction can move forward.
The final pillar is scarcity. The capitalist market depends on the scarcity of goods and services because limited supply creates competition among buyers. When capitalism manufactures one unit of a product, one person can buy that product. But when other buyers also want to purchase that product, competition arises. This competition among buyers creates demand, and it pushes prices and profits up, which is good news for capitalists. Therefore, without scarcity, the market cannot function, and capitalists can no longer sell their goods.
A Crumbling Foundation
Activists, environmentalists, and social theorists have long known that the roots of our current challenges trace back to these four principles. In their writings, these people describe how hierarchy, violence, and dehumanization, for example, provide the roots of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. They show that extraction, violence, and scarcity support mining, drilling, and deforestation. In other words, the systemic oppression described by activists and critics derives directly from the capitalist system and its core principles.
Just as the strength of capitalism has been an obstacle to social change in the past, the disintegration of the system now presents a tremendous opportunity for social and environmental change. As capitalism crumbles, a new system can be created that doesn’t systemically support racism, misogyny, climate change, war, environmental degradation, and homophobia. The last time this happened, feudalism crumbled and capitalism emerged to reorganize society. This time, capitalism will crumble, and it’s up to us to shape postcapitalism and to reorganize society once more.