Capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit. Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation,competitive markets and wage labour. In a capitalist economy, the parties to a transaction typically determine the prices at which assets, goods, and services are exchanged.
The degree of competition, role of intervention and regulation, and scope of public ownership varies across different models of capitalism. Economists, political economists, and historians have taken different perspectives in their analysis of capitalism and recognized various forms of it in practice. These include laissez-faire capitalism, welfare capitalism, crony capitalism and state capitalism; each highlighting varying degrees of dependency on markets, public ownership, and inclusion of social policies. The extent to which different markets are free, as well as the rules defining private property, is a matter of politics and policy. Many states have what are termed capitalist mixed economies, referring to a mix between planned and market-driven elements. Capitalism has existed under many forms of government, in many different times, places, and cultures. Following the demise of feudalism, capitalism became the dominant economic system in the Western world.
Capitalism was carried across the world by broader processes of globalization such as imperialism and, by the end of the nineteenth century, became the dominant global economic system, in turn intensifying processes of economic and other globalization. Later, in the 20th century, capitalism overcame a challenge by centrally-planned economies and is now the encompassing system worldwide, with the mixed economy being its dominant form in the industrialized Western world.
Different economic perspectives emphasize specific elements of capitalism in their preferred definition. Laissez-faire and liberal economists emphasize the degree to which government does not have control over markets and the importance of property rights, Neoclassical and Keynesian macro-economists emphasize the need for government regulation to prevent monopolies and to soften the effects of the boom and bust cycle. Marxian economists emphasize the role of capital accumulation, exploitation and wage labor. Most political economists emphasize private property as well, in addition to power relations, wage labor, class, and the uniqueness of capitalism as a historical formation.
Proponents of capitalism argue that it creates more prosperity than any other economic system, and that its benefits are mainly to the ordinary person. Critics of capitalism variously associate it with economic instability, an inability to provide for the well-being of all people, and an unsustainable danger to the natural environment. Socialists maintain that, although capitalism is superior to all previously existing economic systems (such as feudalism or slavery), the contradiction between class interests will only be resolved by advancing into a completely social system of production and distribution in which all persons have an equal relationship to the means of production.
The term capitalism, in its modern sense, is often attributed to Karl Marx. In his magnum opus Capital, Marx analysed the "capitalist mode of production" using a method of understanding today known as Marxism. However, Marx himself rarely used the term “capitalism”, while it was used twice in the more political interpretations of his work, primarily authored by his collaborator Friedrich Engels. In the 20th century defenders of the capitalist system often replaced the term capitalism with phrases such as free enterprise and private enterprise and replaced capitalist with rentier and investor in reaction to the negative connotations associated with capitalism.
What is Capitalism?
The word capitalism is now quite commonly used to describe the social system in which we now live. It is also often assumed that it has existed, if not forever, then for most of human history. In fact, capitalism is a relatively new social system. For a brief historical account of how capitalism came into existence a couple of hundred years ago, see Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto.
But what exactly does 'capitalism' mean?
Capitalism is the social system which now exists in all countries of the world. Under this system, the means for producing and distributing goods (the land, factories, technology, transport system etc) are owned by a small minority of people. We refer to this group of people as the capitalist class. The majority of people must sell their ability to work in return for a wage or salary (who we refer to as the working class.)
The working class are paid to produce goods and services which are then sold for a profit. The profit is gained by the capitalist class because they can make more money selling what we have produced than we cost to buy on the labour market. In this sense, the working class are exploited by the capitalist class. The capitalists live off the profits they obtain from exploiting the working class whilst reinvesting some of their profits for the further accumulation of wealth.
This is what we mean when we say there are two classes in society. It is a claim based upon simple facts about the society we live in today. This class division is the essential feature of capitalism. It may be popular to talk (usually vaguely) about various other 'classes' existing such as the 'middle class', but it is the two classes defined here that are the key to understanding capitalism.
It may not be exactly clear which class some relatively wealthy people are in. But there is no ambiguity about the status of the vast majority of the world's population. Members of the capitalist class certainly know who they are. And most members of the working class know that they need to work for a wage or salary in order to earn a living (or are dependent upon somebody who does, or depend on state benefits.)
The profit motive
In capitalism, the motive for producing goods and services is to sell them for a profit, not to satisfy people's needs. The products of capitalist production have to find a buyer, of course, but this is only incidental to the main aim of making a profit, of ending up with more money than was originally invested. This is not a theory that we have thought up but a fact you can easily confirm for yourself by reading the financial press. Production is started not by what consumers are prepared to pay for to satisfy their needs but by what the capitalists calculate can be sold at a profit. Those goods may satisfy human needs but those needs will not be met if people do not have sufficient money.
The profit motive is not just the result of greed on behalf of individual capitalists. They do not have a choice about it. The need to make a profit is imposed on capitalists as a condition for not losing their investments and their position as capitalists. Competition with other capitalists forces them to reinvest as much of their profits as they can afford to keep their means and methods of production up to date.
As you will see, we hold that it is the class division and profit motive of capitalism that is at the root of most of the world's problems today, from starvation to war, to alienation and crime. Every aspect of our lives is subordinated to the worst excesses of the drive to make profit. In capitalist society, our real needs will only ever come a poor second to the requirements of profit.
Capitalism = free market?
It is widely assumed that capitalism means a free market economy. But it is possible to have capitalism without a free market. The systems that existed in the U.S.S.R and exist in China and Cuba demonstrate this. These class-divided societies are widely called 'socialist'. A cursory glance at what in fact existed there reveals that these countries were simply 'state capitalist'. In supposedly 'socialist' Russia, for example, there still existed wage slavery, commodity production, buying, selling and exchange, with production only taking place when it was viable to do so. 'Socialist' Russia continued to trade according to the dictates of international capital and, like every other capitalist, state, was prepared to go to war to defend its economic interests. The role of the Soviet state became simply to act as the functionary of capital in the exploitation of wage labour, setting targets for production and largely controlling what could or could not be produced. We therefore feel justified in asserting that such countries had nothing to do with socialism as we define it. In fact, socialism as we define it could not exist in one country alone—like capitalism it must be a global system of society.
It is also possible (at least in theory) to have a free market economy that is not capitalist. Such a 'market economy' would involve farmers, artisans and shopkeepers each producing a particular product that they would exchange via the medium of money. There would be no profit-making and no class division—just independent producers exchanging goods for their mutual benefit. But it is doubtful whether such an economy has ever existed. The nearest that may have come to it would have been in some of the early colonial settlements in North America. Some Greens wish to see a return to this kind of economy. We do not think that it is a viable alternative for modern society. Such a system would almost inevitability lead to capital accumulation and profit making—the definitive features of capitalism.