Do you really want to overthrow capitalism?

Some of us struggle to articulate our core values and our main ideas in a non-specialist vocabulary. There’s a place for specialized vocabulary, but we need to challenge ourselves to be able to make our points in other vocabularies as well. The following two documents attempt this. They were written shortly after the Jimmy John’s Workers Union campaign went public in Minneapolis. The first appeared in the newsletter of the Twin Cities branch of the IWW.

“Do you really want to overthrow capitalism?”

Someone asked one of us this question recently. The short answer is, yeah, we do. Our union’s constitution says that we want the workers to “take possession of the means of production” and “abolish the wage system.” We think capitalism is morally wrong. In our view, there is no such thing as fair capitalism or morally good capitalism — it’s like child abuse, child abuse is always wrong. Capitalism is always morally wrong.

Here’s what we mean. Did you ever think about why bosses and companies hire workers? The reason is that workers make things and perform services that the company sells. In general, employees make things or do stuff which employers charge other people a fee to purchase. Employers take in money by selling the goods and services that workers make. The money employers take in has to be more than they pay out in wages – otherwise they start to fire people. Why else would companies hire people? What this means is that workers make more money for employers than we get in wages. We think that’s wrong. Capitalist society is built around the idea that some people should profit off of others. We think that this is why there are so many people living in poverty right now at the same time that there are a few people with incredible wealth. In 2009 loads of working people lost their jobs, but the top 15 richest people on earth all got richer.

Part of why capitalism continues to exist is that we can’t get a lot of what we need and want unless we have money. Most of us can’t get money unless we work for someone else. This means our bosses have a lot of control over our lives. If we lose our jobs and can’t find new ones, we risk losing our homes, losing access to health care, let alone being able to spend money on the things we enjoy. Bosses know that if they fire us we won’t have an income anymore. Many bosses use this to push people around on the job. We basically give up our democratic rights on the job. We don’t have a right to free speech at work, for instance. The boss can tell us what to say and what not to say. We think that’s morally wrong too, and many of us find it emotionally intolerable too — we hate how it feels to get bossed around.

For us, all of this is a good reason to get rid of capitalism. Because we want to get rid of capitalism, some people compare us to dictatorships around the world that called themselves Communists. That’s not what we have in mind. We’re against dictatorships, and we want to point out that workers under dictatorships often have it the worst.

We want to replace capitalism with a world that is more democratic. When we organize on the job we are trying to change the balance of power. Usually the boss calls all the shots. We organize to make it so that the workers have a lot more input. Of course, we can only get so far with this because we still live in a capitalist society. In the long term we want to organize every workplace to make them all
democratic. In our view, in a good society, all people would have democracy on the job, instead of leaving our rights at the door when we get to work like we do now.

In addition to democracy on the job, we’re for democracy off the job. We think that until all people have democracy at work, we can’t have real democracy in the rest of society. Think about how many hours most people spend at work, commuting to and from work, looking for a job, and thinking about work when off the clock. Work takes up a ton of our lives, and work in a capitalist society is undemocratic. With so much of our lives spent in undemocratic workplaces, how could we have real democracy in the rest of our lives?

We also think that all people should have their basic needs met – people should have enough food, and safe secure homes, access to medical care, some access to entertainment and the arts, and so on. We think it’s terrible that our society wastes so many resources on the lifestyles of a few super rich people while so many poor people go without the bare necessities. We think if we did away with capitalism this wastefulness would go away and there would be plenty for everyone.

(This was written by IWW member Nate Hawthorne and reflects just my views, not the view of the whole organization.)


Can We Talk About How We Talk About Capitalism?
I recently submitted a short article I wrote called “Do You Really Want To Overthrow Capitalism?” My hope with this is to open up a conversation, not to have the last word. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts about that article.

Here’s what I was trying to accomplish with this piece of writing. For one thing, I wanted to be very direct and honest in answering that question: yes, we want to end capitalism. I wanted to sound very reasonable and calm in answering this, because I think people with radical values and vision tend to get depicted as unreasonable and whacko. I also wanted to put this in a straightforward and common sense way. We simply will not have a just capitalist society, because capitalism is unjust. I wanted to say all that with a minimum of jargon. I hope I succeeded somewhat at each of these goals. I would like to hear from people about whether or not they think I did. I’m definitely open to feedback on how to do this better. Or, better yet, people could write more stuff that tries to meet these goals!

I’d also be interested in hearing what other people think our goals should be for pieces of writing like this. Some goals may be incompatible – there’s a time and a use for firey-ness, which is different from the time and use of calm-ness. One piece of writing can’t do everything, so we need multiple pieces of writing. Here are a few things that I think this piece of writing fails to accomplish. It doesn’t discuss personal experience at all. In my opinion, first-person accounts or writing based on first-hand experience of various aspects of the problems of working class life under capitalism is some of the most powerful writing there is. Especially when these pieces, tie in with and underline the fundamental problems of capitalism. We should have more writing like that.

This piece also does not give much detail about what different alternatives are to capitalism. The IWW doesn’t really have a clear official view on what should come after capitalism. Multiple visions for what comes after the wage system can co-exist in the IWW. It’d be good if we had some longer document that started with a general statement of vision and values then said “here are a few different detail ideas/models that different people/groups have come up with, each person/group believes their model is compatible with the over all vision and values.”

At least two other things are missing here. Capitalism encourages and benefits from divisions between workers. The piece doesn’t say anything about racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination against people with disabilities, or numerous others social problems that divide workers. These are a serious problem for our class, and much of the time capitalism encourages these. The piece also doesn’t talk about why some people attack us for being anti-capitalist. I think addressing that would require specifically addressing union busting, and should extend that point outward to a bigger picture — we want to change the power relations in society. Right now most people suffer like crazy from those power relations, and a few people benefit like crazy. Of course they don’t want to give up the power arrangement that benefits them, so they attack us for calling for change. I’m sure there are other things we could and should do with pieces of writing about our vision and values. I’d love to have more discussion about all this.


6 Responses to “Do you really want to overthrow capitalism?”

  1. beyondresistance Says:

    I wrote this a few years ago as a basic intro to anarchism. Slightly different to what you were hoping to convey, but I also tried to employ less jargon:

    The fact that most of us have to work for someone else everyday just to earn a living is pretty weird. We are born, schooled (if we’re lucky), and then we get to work all our lives, slaving for a wage and for a decent existence. Then, the little ‘lesuire time’ we get costs us too, both in monetary terms, and mentally — we are either escaping work, delaying work, or killing time until we have to go back to work. Work is never far from ones mind.

    Other larger problems exist as well, and just as pressing. Think about things here in NZ — the latest string of factories closing with massive job losses, petrol and food prices rising all the time, more crime, housing problems,
    and poverty. Likewise, around the world there are millions in massive poverty, yet there’s enough food to feed us all 3 TIMES OVER. Workers in sweatshops earning $2 a day while others don’t even need to work at all. Not to mention war, sexism, racism, genocide, torture, violence, and the ever growing environmental and economic crisis.

    This life we live is a natural product of a system known as CAPITALISM, a system that exploites, pillages and destroys — and is based on principles of greed, profit, expansion and competition. It’s the cause of our current ills in society, yet most continue to accept it as normal.

    If by working you mean slaving for a wage all your life, then yes, it’s working. Because while you and I work for a wage, as does the majority of the world, a tiny few really get to enjoy and control life. 40% of the world’s population has access to 3% of the worlds revenue. This means that while most of us work in factories, malls, shops — any workplace where there’s a boss — someone else, not us, is benefiting from our labour, while we have no real say on where and how the money from the stuff we make gets used.

    So what happens with that money? As workers we get a little back in wages (not much), and some of it covers materials and costs, but the rest, as profit, goes into the pockets of the company owner and its shareholders, who didn’t do any work but get the bigger share.

    This is the nature of the Capitalist system all over the world, and it is made to seem normal to us. This is because if we don’t think its messed up, that small elite of people get to keep benefiting, in both PROFIT and DECISION MAKING, and not us.

    Capitalism is enforced physically by the government — the laws they make, and the police who enforce those laws — while the media, news, advertising and the education system make us think its ok. These institutions are known as THE STATE. So really there are two problems with this system, CAPITALISM and THE STATE, which are interconnected and working together
    to make sure we don’t kick up a stink about it all. However, there are alternatives to this system…

    Anarchists believe that most problems in life exist because a minority get to tell others what to do, that POWER EXPLOITS, as does any kind of HIERARCHY. It would be better if you and I made the decisions that directly effected us, and not someone else. That way we wouldn’t need a state or
    government telling us what to do, and we could get rid of Capitalism and share out goods and profits for the benefit of us all.

    This is often countered by some as advocating ‘chaos’. In fact, Anarchism is
    not about disorder at all, but order. Its all about organising differently to what we do now. It’s against rulers, not rules. The reason it is made out to be ‘extremist’ or ‘chaotic’ is because those in power want to stay that way (politicians, bosses, corporations). They realise that the practical, logical ideas
    of Anarchism threaten their positions of power, because Anarchism means we wouldn’t need them at all.

    Put simply, it’s about deciding for ourselves how best to run our community and our workplace — without any kind of boss telling us how. It means working together to figure out stuff that directly effects us, because we should all get a say in how we work and how we live. It means SELF-MANAGEMENT — we do it in most aspects of our own lives already.
    This could be expanded to all aspects of life, on a personal as well as a broader level.

    Do we? Put a group of people in a room with a task to do. Logically they would go about it together, all sharing the problem, figuring out who is good at what, who can’t do something, and get it done. Vary rarely would they
    choose one person to make all the decisions, and then let that person tell everyone else what to do, with a limited window of opportunity every four years to object. No one has the right to dominion over another, yet isn’t this how society currently works?

    Think about what the police actually do. They hardly ever prevent crime, but respond after it’s happened. So government or not, crime still happens. This is because most crime is based on greed — wanting something we don’t have, or because some are poor and desperate.

    If we had everything we needed it would be logical that most crime would dissapear. Therefore crime is actually a PRODUCT of capitalism. In fact, the worst kind of crime — war, torture, genocide — are committed by GOVERNMENTS, not us. All police really do as an institution is protect the state and their interests.

    Sadly, all of this takes place under the political system we call ‘Democracy’. Yet when we vote, all we get to do is choose between options given to us, whether it’s the prime minister, a political party, or their policy. But they always make the options we have to choose between, not us. Its like
    saying you can choose, but only between Pepsi or Cola.

    Real democracy is DIRECT, by you and me. That’s when we decide what the choices are, and what should be done — at home and at work. Real change (not reform) has happened because people themselves took action, acting together as a strong, united group. Workers rights, ending Segregation, Land rights, Womens rights — all achieved by people like you through DIRECT ACTION, not political parties. Voting changes absolutely nothing.
    Until the system itself changes, nothing will truly change.

    Anarchism is based on the idea of the joining together of free individuals (or to FEDERATE). This means when we need to decide on things which are bigger than just our immediate areas, we would involve other groups who
    are effected also. Obviously we can’t all go, so we could send a couple of us to act for us.

    These people want the best for us, because they are us, they are from our groups themselves and want the same things. They are not permanent or seperate, but rotating members of the group. If they didn’t do a good job, or mis-represented us, we could recall and replace them at any time. These people have NO power to decree at all, meaning all decisions are made democratically by all, with equal input for all, for the benefit of all, based on MUTUAL AID.

    This same idea works in greater society from the bottom-up, so communities, workplaces, industries — any group — all FREELY ASSOCIATE together to help each other out. Think of society as many circles overlapping, rather than the traditional ‘pyramid’ image of the people at the bottom and the rulers at the top. It can be done locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally, between all aspects of life.

  2. beyondresistance Says:

    Sorry I should say that’s by Jared in a personal capacity (not representing Beyond Resistance).

  3. hi Jared,
    Thanks for posting this. I like it. I’m curious what, if anything, you’ve done with it. I wrote the stuff in this post and the first article went in my IWW branch’s newsletter. That’s cool but it didn’t go anyplace else. Oh, I also sent it to one of my brothers, who really liked it… 🙂 I’m not real active at the moment (I’ve got a very young child; pareting takes up a huge part of my time and energy) so I don’t much opportunity to test stuff out in practice. I have a hunch that we could use more stuff like this, and I also have a hunch that it’s more than just writing we need. I think we also probly need to practice talking more about all this, and to create more situations where we’re having these conversations with people outside the left, and in a way that they care. Know what I mean?

    I also wanted to share another thing that a friend of mine used to use to explain this stuff. He’d do it like this —

    We all brush our teeth. As toothpaste consumers, we want a lot of toothpaste at a low price and we want it to be high quality stuff. Generally speaking toothpase producers want to charge as much as they can for as little toothpase as possible and they want to keep costs down as low as possible, which means lower quality cheaper ingredients. Our economic sstem rewards this kind of behavior. Say one toothpaste company is selling less toothpaste in a tube for the same amount as another company. All things being equal, the first company will do better economically. So even if an individual toothpaste manufacturer really does want to supply more better toothpaste for less money, the economic system generally doesn’t reward that behavior. Consumers and producers of toothpaste have different interests.

    It’s the same way with bosses and workers. As people who supply our labor to bosses, we generally want to get paid a high wage for few hours and we want to work in good working conditions, which often cost more than bad conditions. Our employers, as consumers of our labor, generally want the opposite. They want to get as much of our time as they can for as little pay as possible and they want to spend as little as possible on our working conditions. Our economic system rewards that behavior. Say two companies are basically the same but one of them spends less money on wages and conditions. The company that spends less on wages and conditions will do better in a capitalist economy, all other things being equal. So it’s just like with the toothpaste example. Toothpaste consumers and toothpaste producers have different interests. Workers, people who supply labor, and bosses, people who consume labor, have different interests.

    What do you think?

    take care,

  4. beyondresistance Says:

    Hi Nate,

    I know the business of becoming a dad (my wee one is 15 months).. it’s hard to be active… you start to realise how a lot of groups privilege those without children. Luckily Beyond Resistance is super accommodating (there’s a number of parents involved).

    The text was originally distributed as a wee flyer, A4 in height but quite skinny, that folded up to fit in your back pocket. It was a popular format that meant you could carry it around, leave at stalls and events, or insert into books. We gave heaps of them out.

    It’s also ended up in a few zines, and I just posted it on out website. We’ve actually had an increased number of hits because of it, and I noticed many people re-posted it on Facebook—even quoting it! Which makes me think that there is a place for articles that contain less jargon and plain talking, in a way that doesn’t treat the reader as simple but can convey complex ideas in an easy manner.

    We’ve had feedback from friends who come to events but aren’t super involved. Often a lot of terminology is alienating to them… it makes them feel they are either not in the know, or not smart enough to contribute to discussion. I really think we need to think about ‘our audience’ (to use a disgusting marketing term) a lot more as speakers and writers….


  5. […] presentation is based in part on the post “Do you really want to overthrow capitalism?” LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  6. […] surplus value. I tried to lay this out with as little jargon as possible in a piece I wrote called “Do you really want to overthrow capitalism?”, and again in a post here at libcom called Workers, The State and Struggle. In another piece I […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: