Capitalism, past and present
With the Renaissance, and even more with the Industrial Revolution, came a historical novelty. As money bought productive labour and accumulated in the form of capital, from then on, the course of history was determined not just by the need to manufacture and sell, not just to make a minority rich nor to develop an industrial infrastructure, but to turn as much money as possible into capital. "Accumulate, accumulate ! That is Moses and the prophets !": this entails overaccumulation in the forms of overinvestment, overproduction, therefore selling not enough or below production costs, accumulating too much in respect to the balance between the various factors of production, and especially in respect to labour, the supply of which periodically exceeds demand. This also goes together with permanent increases in labour productivity, and with the plasticity of a system that prefers democracy, but derives its strength from its adaptability to nearly all brands of ideology and leadership.
In previous exploitation systems, once the exploited had given his due in labour, in tax or in kind, he spent his life separate from his lord and from the merchant. Capital buys what it exploits: even a starvation wage puts the worker in a forced couple with the bourgeois. In the past, wealth was turned into pyramids, palaces, cathedrals or Palladian villas. Today's super-rich of course treat themselves to Rolls Royces and private islands off Dubai. But valorisation forces capital to sell more and more, which includes selling to the workers. In spite of his miserable purchasing power, the Birmingham or Brussels 1850 slum-dweller was already caught in a monetary and merchant cycle that was unknown to the slave, the serf, the self-employed craftsman, the tenant farmer or the small-holder peasant.
For the first time, the heart of the exploitation system is made of the interplay of its two main constituents: those who own capital, and those who must sell their labour power to the former group. Capitalism is a social relation between the two classes that structure it: as long as these classes accept it, the contradiction that is its foundation and its driving force can be overcome, needless to say through crises and catastrophes.
The aim of the bourgeois is indeed accumulation, but even more the perpetuation of the bourgeois as a class: those two imperatives do not always coincide. Before 1914, one third of French wealth was invested abroad, not just to reap higher profits, but to keep away from a working class that had rebelled in the 1830s, in 1848, in 1871, and to restrict a potentially dangerous industrial growth. Capitalist rulers aren't the agents of an irresistible and constant "development of the productive forces". It even happens that in order to maintain their domination, some bourgeois rally most of their class behind a political faction (the Nazis for example) that not only threatens the political power of the bourgeois, but also their assets and their survival as a class. Profit remains the basic goal, but the means to get it may contradict the goal.
Therefore, no characteristic capitalist feature, however essential, be it free competition, money and labour mobility, the worldwide opening of markets, or any other element typical of globalisation, possesses a dynamic of its own. The competition between firms (i.e. value poles each in search of its own growth), the profit motive, the expansion of the markets, the constitution of a class whose members privately (and not collectively as in "State capitalism") control the means of production, all these features are indeed essential to capitalism, but they only become real in so far as they're taken on by individuals and groups. Capitalism is the conflictual interrelation between two sets of human beings, the bourgeois and the proletarians, and that relationship determines, promotes, delays or blocks the emergence and functioning of the main features of capitalism.
Neither the individual bourgeois nor the bourgeoisie of a country care about capitalism in general, or about its conformity with its basic definition. Their prime concern is their own individual interest, and in troubled times they'll favour the short over the long term. When they enjoyed Nazi law and order, German industrialists could not (and did not wish to) imagine that such an order would result in a military defeat that deprived the East German bourgeois of social function and political power for forty-five years.
Deep inner capitalist logic (economic and therefore - up to a point - political competition, valorisation, accumulation) eventually prevails in the long run, but that run can indeed be quite long and follow a tortuous unexpected path. Since classical economists and their socialist and communist critics analysed the general "laws" of capitalism, the times and places directly or totally governed by these laws have been and still are far from being the majority.
In the beginning, industry, commodity and the wage system come to rule a society which has been moulded by thousands of years. Later, they determine a society that they tend to reproduce according to their own norms: the landed class is integrated into the bourgeoisie, the military turns into a profession, politics into business, culture into spectacle. These long-term trends are ever more powerful, but never fully completed. In the 19th century, capital faced a society as it was, and transformed it. Now it has transformed it, but it never creates anything out of nothing: it always has to deal with what Bordiga called "race and nation factors".
In the "unpublished 6th chapter of Capital" (part of his 1861-65 manuscripts), Marx distinguishes between capital's formal domination, based on the lengthening of the work day and the extensive exploitation of labour, and real domination, based on shorter but more intensive working hours. That distinction does not separate two historical periods, as if reformism had been inevitable in the first stage, and revolution was at long last on the agenda in the second. There will never be a "pure" enough situation where capital and proletariat would come face to face as sole competitors on the historical stage, the only alternative being between capitalism and communism. The Weimar Republic lived under real domination: Berlin's huge department stores, cultural explosion, critique of moral standards and media empires rivalled with London and New York modernity, while reactionary groups and Völkisch ideas thrived. After 1930, that society fell into the Nazi black hole.
Formal and real submission of labour combine. Downtown Paris, nowadays, a minute's walk is enough to meet Pakistani or Tamil workers (often clandestine) paid (piecework or by the hour) by clothes wholesalers, next to small firm wage earners, workers employed by construction multinationals, and a few blocks further business consultants who fly to Zurich or Tokyo every week. Formal domination is not a remnant that has to be disposed of for capital to fully mature, but a component of real domination. German economic power is not just based on big corporations, but on a tight network of small efficient firms. In the whole world, subcontracting enables "modern" companies to stay profitable by having manufacturing done overseas where labour is cheap. Part of the strength of capital comes from its employing semi-proletarians, completely dominated by capital but incompletely involved in it: as their wage is not their only source of income, capital only has to pay part of the reproduction of their labour power.
However, real domination capitalism needs to structure the whole of society, including the "backward" elements it carries along. Therefore social critique is only relevant if it encompasses the whole of social activity, and does not limit itself to class factors. For us, analysing religion, eating habits and justice matters as much as analysing strikes and riots, even if the latter determine the former, and not the other way round. That's what the SI meant with its unitary critique: the mutual capital/labour involvement bears upon every domain of human activity.