Four critical vulnerabilities of capitalism we can leverage to kill it

by Jehu


The Art of [Class] War

Sun Tzu wrote:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Have you ever tried to make a list of the major vulnerabilities of the capitalist mode of production?

I know a lot of debate has taken place over crisis theory. And this, I suppose, is one way to approach the problem, but I am going to try another tack: to put together a list like of vulnerabilities present in the capitalist mode of production based on Engels’s synopsis of capital. The results will be very crude, but it will be sufficient for you to see where I am going with this idea.


In his synopsis of Capital, Engels breaks the book into four major subject areas that also might be thought of a four critical vulnerabilities of capital. These are:

  1. Commodities and Money
  2. The Transformation of Money into Capital
  3. The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value
  4. The Production of Relative Surplus-Value

Can these four subject areas be used to uncover critical points of vulnerability in the capitalist mode of production that we can exploit to bring it down? Let’s see.

1. Capital always mediates real human relations

Of the first subject area, Engels says this:

“The difficulty with a commodity is that, like all categories of the capitalist mode of production, it represents a personal relationship under a material wrapping. The producers relate their different kinds of labour to one another as general human labour by relating their products to one another as commodities — they cannot accomplish it without this mediation of things. The relation of persons thus appears as the relation of things.”

Engels point here can be interpreted as a warning that what we see as fundamental to capital (prices, money, etc.) are only superficial expression of real relations among members of society. But it can also be read as exposing a critical vulnerability of capital: relations between individuals MUST take the form of relations between things.

The first interpretation allows us to peer below the superficial appearances of capital; while the second interpretation asserts the superficial form is absolutely necessary to the survival of the mode itself. It is not just that real relations among individuals appear to us as material relation between things, they can only appear this way. In other words, capitalism cannot exist unless real relations among the members of society are mediated by material relations among things.

Now, if you’re trying to kill capitalism, what sort of strategy does this suggest? In my view this suggests we might want to choose approach that favors real relations among individuals over material relations among things.  To give an obvious (and probably a simplistic) example: state issued education vouchers versus free universal education. Another example is suggested by @ArbitraryDesign: Open borders versus negotiated trade agreements.

We do want to avoid getting too simplistic about this, but the above examples demonstrate at least the spirit of the point I am making here. Capital is vulnerable to radical approaches that emphasize real relations over material relations. Our approach should be guided by the desire to address issues in a way that does not make capitalist categories our starting point.


2. Capital always requires a worker who must sell her labor power to live

Engels’ second point is equally interesting:

“For conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find in the commodity market the free labourer”.

This free laborer who both has nothing to sell but herself and who must be obliged to sell herself to live. Engels explains an essential premise of capitalist production: it is founded on free labor and requires nothing more than the premises of commodity production and exchange; but his point can also be read as exposing a critical vulnerability of capital: absent a laborer who must sell her labor power to eat, capitalism cannot exist.

The critical vulnerability of capital is not just that it must find a free laborer who is compelled to sell herself, it must reproduce this free laborer in this state despite the fantastic increases in the productivity of labor it makes possible. This means, no matter the increase in the productive power of labor and the growing ease with which commodities are produced, the laborer must always be reproduced in the state she is forced to sell herself to capital in order to live. If capital cannot meet this very simple condition, it cannot exist.

This would suggest a viable strategy to exploit this vulnerability of capital is simply to eliminate the need of the laborer to sell her labor power. In my view this suggests we might want to choose approaches that favor separating labor from subsistence. To give an obvious (and again probably simplistic) example: my previous suggestion that favors free universal education over state issued education vouchers might be seen not only as a means to replace material relations with real relations, but also as a means to free the worker from the need to sell her labor power.

But let’s be bold: why not have free food and free housing as a universal right of all members of society? In the United States today, agriculture requires no more than one percent of the total labor time of society. Why can’t the product of this one percent of labor time be distributed without requiring labor of anyone, just as education and medical care is distributed in most civilized countries?

Is education and medical care more important than food? Of course not. Do education and medical care require as little aggregate social labor time as is required by agriculture? Of course not.

What then is the distinction to be made between education and medical care, on the one hand, and food, on the other? The distinction is obvious: the workers cannot go without food for very long. Thus, they have an immediate and over-riding compulsion to sell their labor power to acquire the means to eat.

Thus, we have a cute little aphorism:

“Starve the capitalists by feeding the workers”


3. Profit always requires a longer labor day than is necessary to reproduce subsistence

Engels third critical point of capitalist vulnerability is often overlooked even by Marxists:

“As a value-creating process, the labor process becomes a process of producing surplus-value the moment it is prolonged beyond the point where it delivers a simple equivalent for the paid-for value of labor-power.”

Engels point here can be interpreted as a explanation of how capital creates surplus value by exploiting the labor of the worker. But it can also be read as exposing a critical vulnerability of capital: the social labor day MUST be longer than is necessary to reproduce the wages of the worker. If the social labor day cannot be extended beyond that necessary to produce the aggregate subsistence of the working class, capitalism cannot exist.

The first reading allows us to peer below the superficial appearances of capital to uncover the secret of profits; while the second reading asserts the labor day under the capitalist mode of production MUST ALWAYS be longer than is necessary.

Capital is thus inherently vulnerable to any mandatory shortening of the social labor day. To give you some idea of the extent to which the labor day could be shortened right now, the iPhone can be had for about $300, but it is estimated to contain no more than $30 worth of labor. Again this is a simplistic example, but it suggests fully 90% of the cost of an iPhone is surplus value. Applied to the aggregate expended social labor time of society, this would suggest it presently takes no more than four hours of labor to reproduce the aggregate wages of the working class — per week, not per day.

Assuming the iPhone is a special case, we can double or triple this calculation to arrive at a social work week of no more than 8-12 hours. This can be compared with the prediction of Keynes in 1930 of a 15 hours work week by 2030. Two calculations, arrived at by two different methods, lead to more or less the same results.


4. Capital always responds to a limitation on labor hours by reducing labor in production

Engel’s fourth critical point of capitalist vulnerability is again often overlooked even by Marxists:

“As soon as the shortened working-day becomes law, the machine becomes a means of squeezing more intensive labour out of the worker, either by greater speed or fewer hands in relation to machine.”

Engels point here can be interpreted as a explaining how capital creates relative surplus value by replacing the labor of the worker with machines, but it can also be read as exposing a critical vulnerability of capital: limits on hours of labor compels capital to eliminate the direct employment of living labor in the production of material wealth.

The first reading allows us to understand how capital responds to any limitation on hours of labor to maintain the rate of surplus value; while the second reading reveals to us how the inherent tendencies in the capitalist mode of production can be leveraged by our movement to completely abolish all labor in the production of material wealth.

It is not just that capital is compelled to develop forces of production by progressive limits on labor time, it can only respond this way. Once you know how your enemy HAS TO respond to your action, you own him, you have already defeated him in battle. The initiative now rests with you, while your enemy must react to your actions in a way you can predict.