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Capitalism's "Original Sin"
The perpetuation of capitalism, as Karl Marx describes it, requires the constant exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.
Since profit and wages are inversely related (an observation made by Adam Smith and later agreed upon by David Ricardo), the capitalist must push down wages to an artificially low point (reinforced, he points out, by British Parliament), while the wage laborer is “doubly free” – as Marx sarcastically names it – in the sense that he is free to sell his own labor (which alienates him from the products he creates) and is “free” from owning the means of production.
That said, this constant exploitation of the wage laborer is not capitalism’s worst offense. Rather, it is the original acquisition of the capital that Marx calls the “original sin” of capitalism, analogous of course to Christianity’s original sin, which leads to the Fall of Man, plunging humanity into inescapable sin. Because of this, it is not just the way in which capitalism functions to which Marx objects; he objects to its very origins, and it is from this starting point that capitalism’s founding principle of private property begins to take its grotesque shape.
What is Capital?
It is essential to note that capital, in Marx’s terms, is not simply money. Rather, it is defined as money or machines with which the capitalist can create more money through investment.
“We have seen,” he writes, “how money is transformed into capital; how surplus-value is made through capital, and how more capital is made from surplus-value” (87).
This is what he calls the circuit of capital, whereby the capitalist turns money into more money by first converting it to capital, which he invests. He then points out, however, that this understanding of the system is incomplete, as it assumes that surplus-value already exists at the beginning of the cycle. After all, how can the capitalist invest his money without the surplus-value that is inherently present within capital? Even the man with extensive resources cannot afford the capital to invest unless his wealth exceeds the value that is needed to perpetuate its existence. In order for this to be possible, then, there must have been some form of primitive accumulation that led to the surplus-value, which could then be invested in the circuit of capital.
Where Did It Come From?
Adam Smith called this the “previous accumulation” – presumably because it was assumed to occur prior to the system about which he developed his political economic theory – but spent very little time expanding on the idea. Marx, however, sees primitive accumulation as a subject that is absolutely vital to examine because the nature of its bloody history is embedded into the capitalist system that it create.
“In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” in the original creation of capital (874). It is due only to this force that surplus-value (which should have been given to the laborer but was instead extorted from him) is added to the wealth, thereby turning it into capital, which can go on to create more wealth for the capitalist while the wage-laborer has, essentially, nothing but his own skin to sell.
Capitalism emerges in “those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians” (876). This begins with the seizure of communal farmland for private agricultural production at the end of the fifteenth century, as Marx outlines in Chapter 27.
In Chapter 28, he describes how it comes to full force in Western Europe throughout the sixteenth century when ruling classes showed no mercy towards the workers who had been forced off the land they had previously tilled for subsistence and even enforced legislation against them to keep wages low.
Eventually, that legislation was reversed and became, in effect, a minimum wage – the laws requiring lower wages being, at that point, an “absurd anomaly as soon as the capitalist began to regulate his factory by his own private legislation” (902) because competition between wage-laborers would naturally keep wages low even without legislation – but the damage of the wealth and power transfers was already done. It is this immoral and forceful reassignment of ownership of the means of production that has such profound implications for the operation of the rest of the capitalist system.
Thus, not only has the capitalist robbed the proletarian of his right to the products he creates, but he has also robbed him of any property he had formerly owned or at least been allowed to occupy.
“These newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements” (875).
With this framing of the process by which capitalism emerged, the reason for Marx’s outrage at the system becomes immediately clear: primitive accumulation is the only means through which capitalism can come to fruition, and yet it requires the blind robbery of an entire class of people, leaving them without any reasonable option to amass wealth within the system.
This, again, is Marx’s idea of the “double freedom” of workers: “they neither form part of the means of production themselves, as would be the case with slaves, serfs, etc., nor do they own the means of production, as would be the case with self-employed peasant proprietors” (874). The post-feudalism worker has literally no option other than to sell his sweat at a lower price than he is worth so that the capitalist may make a profit.
With the means of production in the hands of the bourgeoisie, then, and the proletariat left only with his own manpower to sell, capitalism begins to realize its true form. The most despicable aspect of the system, as Marx describes it, is the distribution of ownership of the private property.
“Private property… exists only where the means of labour and the external conditions of labour belong to private individuals. But according to whether these private individuals are workers or non-workers, private property has a different character” (927).
Marx’s issue with capitalism, therefore, is not so much the ownership of private property; it is who owns the property. Only when the worker is the sole owner of the means of production is the system just, and in capitalism this is not the case.
Capitalism originates in exploitation, and so it must utilize exploitation in order to continue. The capitalist cannot squeeze additional value out of his wealth unless he forcibly takes labor, resources, or both from someone else. And without that surplus-value, he has no capital with which to invest. And so, in order to obtain “capital,” the bourgeoisie must essentially steal it from the proletariat. This is the original sin of capitalism.
These doubly free workers, who are truly not free at all, no longer have any of the protections afforded to them by the feudal system. Instead, they are faced with a simple choice: work for a subsistence wage or die.
The capitalist, in forcibly acquiring surplus-value for himself, has stolen it from the wage-laborer. Not only has he transferred surplus wealth to himself, but he has also stolen the freedom of the worker by forcing him into a system in which he has no recourse.
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Capitalism, too, has no recourse. It can never become a “just” system because its very foundation is in force and bloodshed. Even if, somehow, the wage-laborer could be liberated or properly compensated for his time, the system would still not be redeemed because of primitive accumulation.
The inhumane ripping of surplus-value from the hands of the helpless proletarian was the beginning of capitalism (this, again, is the beginning of the circuit of capital, which leads to all investment in the capitalist model); without the depraved origins of primitive accumulation, capitalism cannot exist.
And so, thanks to its “original sin,” political economy can clearly see that the economic system of capitalism is doomed to immorality forever, much in the way that theology sees mankind to be fated after his original sin in the Garden of Eden.
All of the above information is derived from my reading of Marx's Das Kapital and based on a political economy course I took in Fall 2009. The views described are simply my interpretations of Marx, not my own ideas about capitalism. Additionally, I'm not an expert; I just wanted to decant some of the ideas in the very dense volumes of Marx's work. Criticism and correction are welcome! Here's the version I used:
Marx, Karl. “Capital Volume I.” New York: Penguin, 1990.