Griffin Mahon, editor of YDSA’s publication The Activist, interviewed Hadas Thier, author of A People’s Guide to Capitalism. Hadas will be giving a talk for DSA members across the country on Tuesday, March 9th, at 8:30pm ET / 5:30pm PT. You can sign up for Hadas’s talk here: https://act.dsausa.org/survey/socialist-school-of-economics/.
Q: When people think of Marx’s Capital, they might think “theory that’s long and difficult to read.” But how can the ideas in Capital help people understand the world around them?
A: Capital can be a bit daunting. It took me a few tries to get into it! Marx doesn’t pull any punches, especially in the beginning, it starts at the most abstract level. And it was written a long time ago, so the prose is different.
It’s a really, really useful entry point into Marx’s method of analysis. It’s not meant to be a blueprint for understanding the ups and downs of prices. It’s meant to be a framework for understanding the world that we live in.
Capitalism is purposefully mystified. The economy is talked about as though we’re not meant to understand it, we’re supposed to leave it to the experts. There’s the idea that we’re all equal players on an equal playing field, selling our labor for a wage, getting something in return. Marx dives beneath the surface and tries to get at what’s really happening. What are the driving dynamics of capitalism? He talks about the system as a social relationship between different classes.
It’s not just me and you and Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Donald Trump, each as individuals playing our part. There are classes in society and those classes are engaged in a process of exploitation. What matters is which end of that process of exploitation you’re on.
At the end of the day, Capital explains the world around us. It’s not just philosophy for academics. It’s a philosophy for changing the world. Instead of you as an individual and your boss as an individual, Marxism places your experiences within a broader system. Regardless of whether your boss is a particularly greedy jerk or not, why is it that your boss acts the way he does? The whole process of the accumulation of capital inherently places short-term profits ahead of anything else. That’s the big picture that Capital and Marxism tries to explain.
Q: There’s a tradition of taking more complicated philosophical works and trying to make them much more accessible, not because workers can’t understand them but because we only have so much time. In the past, there were pamphlets; now you’ve published your book and are making “Marxism in a Minute” videos. How do we communicate the socialist message so that it is equally educational and understandable?
A: When we explain socialism, our stance has to be about explaining the world around us and situating our lives within a bigger picture. That’s an important starting point. We’re not talking about Marxism to score radical points or be more radical-than-thou. These are common-sense ideas actually!
In my book, I’ve tried to seriously strip out the jargon. Any time you use a term, you have to break it down into regular language. That’s a very different approach than academia, where fancy-sounding words often supersede the content of what you’re communicating.
For instance, people get tripped up on “the labor theory of value” or “the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.” Some people talk about Marxism like they’re trying to impress their fellow communists. But the terms aren’t impressive in and of themselves, they’re just explainers. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall is an important part of Marx’s theory of economic crisis, so I do explain it in my book. So it’s important to mention the organic composition of capital (the ratio in which capitalists invest in equipment and materials relative to what they invest in labor power) but I don’t get into the differences between the technical and the organic composition. Those can be found in the footnotes, and if people are interested, they can delve deeper into those details.
More elaborate writing and conversations are necessary. Even if it’s not the first thing you read, I really recommend people read Capital! But it’s also useful to crystalize theory into shorter bits. The point of crystallizing things into popular versions is to give people an entry point, so that they feel confident. We don’t want someone to pick up Capital and give up after a couple of pages. With enough of the language and the connections to their lives, people can put on Marxist glasses and use that lens to demystify the news, their time at work, and everything in between.
Q: Capital is a study of political economy, but what practical lessons do you think it suggests? What should our organizers consider when making democratic decisions about DSA’s strategy and tactics?
A: Capitalism is an economic system. But you can’t separate politics from economics; you can’t separate the state from private profiteering. They’re completely enmeshed. Economics typically gets talked about in the mainstream as the stock market and technocratic arguments about Gross Domestic Product, as though that’s the realm of economics, then there’s our lives over here. But it especially becomes clear that these are connected right now during an economic crisis. The minimum wage, stimulus bills, economic relief, all of those things obviously have to do with our lives and political organizing. It’s why we organize for an increase to the minimum wage.
But you can’t separate the economy from anything! Whether it’s climate change or healthcare, the compulsion toward short-term profiteering seeps into every aspect of our lives. During the pandemic: how long it took for states to properly lock down, how quickly they were jammed back open, the debate about sending teachers back to work in unsafe conditions. All of that is economic. They might talk about their concern for children, but it really has everything to do with the fact that politicians of every stripe want to get parents back to work. Our public school system is basically all the childcare we have in this society. So in order to get parents back to productive work — and revitalize state budgets, which have taken a major hit because businesses have shut down, tax revenues are down, etc. — you have to force the economy open, and a big part of that is schools.
Then, of course, there’s the oppressive institutions and ideology that keep capitalism ticking: bigotry and scapegoating and the divide-and-conquer that pits us against each other and creates large swaths of vulnerable, low-wage workers.
There are tons of organizational implications: What kinds of demands do we make? Do we try to incentivize capitalists to do the right thing or do we have to regulate them? Take climate change. We can’t just wait for there to be the right economic incentive to transition to green energy — no, we actually just have to regulate all these companies, and in some cases nationalize them and shut them down. The entire Texas power grid was built on a model of deregulation. When supply is down, they can raise prices. This was supposed to encourage them to produce enough power. But the numbers don’t add up that way. It wasn’t in the interests of the utility companies to winterize their plants and produce enough power in the winter. That’s how literally millions of people were left without power, how so many people suffered and many died as a result.
When we understand these economic questions and how they’re connected to the system, we know who’s on what side and why these industries aren’t our friends. And the flip side of that is that working people around the country — and actually around the world — are our natural allies, across lines of race, gender, and nationality.
What kind of power do we have as workers? The whole driving force of capitalism is profit. Capitalism can’t move forward without making a profit. As the working class, we are the ones who produce that profit! We can organize at the point of production, and sometimes outside the point of production, and our side can withhold our labor — withhold the creation of profit — and that’s where we have tremendous leverage.
Q: Finally, the world has changed a lot in the last century-and-a-half. In your book, you use contemporary examples like the Great Recession and Bitcoin to illustrate Marxist economic principles. Have these principles really held up to the test of time and the scrutiny of other economists? What changes do we need to make to update Marx’s worldview for the 21st century?
A: The short answer is that the ideas have absolutely held up. We are still living in a class society with exploitation, where short-term profits drive capitalism. In that sense, it is an extremely contemporary tool. Capital isan’t about predicting X, Y, or Z fluctuations in the economy, even though it can have a predictive quality. Its most important feature is that it’s a method of analysis.
Marx couldn’t have predicted the wild financial products that exist now, but he did talk about financial capital and its relationship to productive industrial capital and credit. We have to take these building blocks and use our own minds and our own thinking to apply them to the world around us.
I think we owe a great debt to some Marxist feminists that have helped fleshed out the theory of social reproduction. Our ability to labor has to be reproduced daily, through getting fed and clothed. Marx made some comments about the importance of labor power being reproduced, but overall paid little attention to what that entails.
It benefits the status quo that many of us feel like this stuff is above us or think that the economy needs to be left up to experts. Even within the socialist movement, thinking that some people will understand these things and others will be on-the-ground movement activists. We need to have a different approach to organizing. We should all be engaged in the theory and the practice because the theory informs the practice and the practice informs the theory. I invite everyone to grapple with these issues. It makes our movement a lot stronger to know what we’re up against in order to change it.