Addressing the Real Problem: Capitalism

Steve T. Suitts, author of the report A New Majority: Low-Income Students in the South’s Public Schools, was quoted in a story in Education Week as saying: “If this new majority of students fail in school an entire state, an entire region, and—sooner or later—an entire nation will fail simply because there will be inadequate human capital to build and sustain good jobs, an enjoyable quality of life, and a well-informed democracy.”

The study was published by the Southern Education Foundation, which had a time line on their web page that covers the injustices of American society. However, Suitts use of the term “human capital” shows that at least one of the foundation’s members does not grasp a fundamental reality about American society. Capital is an owned resource that generates income and wealth. It is wealth in the form of money or property used or accumulated in a business by a person (or family) or group of people (corporation). It is material resource that is used or is available for use in the production of wealth. As capital, human resources are considered in terms of capacity to generate income and wealth. Human capital means that humans, either themselves or the results of their efforts, are property that belong to some person or persons.

For example, black slaves were human capital. The slavemaster owned a member of a disadvantaged racialized caste of human beings and used that person as capital to generate income. It was not the ownership of the African person or the person of African descent that generated the income, but ownership of the value created by the slave. Ownership was the form of control used to extract the value. Transfer of value from the person producing it to a person not producing it is exploitation. As a result of exploitation, the slavemaster lived a life of leisure in a mansion while the slave lived a life of toil in a small house. Because of his power and wealth, the slavemaster determined and shaped how life happened for both himself and the slave. Because the slavemaster owned the means of production, the slavemaster controlled society.

Similarly, a worker is human capital. While the capitalist does not formally own the worker, he does own the value created by the worker, a member of a disadvantaged economic class of human beings, and uses that value as capital to generate income. Structural coercion is the form of control used to extract the value—namely, the concentration of the means of production in the hands of a small number of families compelling most persons to sell their labor rather than dedicating most of the value they produce to self and collective improvement. As noted, transfer of value from the person producing it to a person not producing it is exploitation, and as a result of these exploitative relations, the capitalist lives a life of leisure in a mansion while the worker lives a life of toil in a small house. Because of his power and wealth, the capitalist determines and shapes how life happens for both himself and the slave. Because the capitalist owns the means of production, the capitalist controls society.

Returning to what Suitts said, his argument becomes problematic when the reality of capitalism is made explicit. Let’s read the key parts of the quote again: “If this new majority of students fail in school…there will be inadequate human capital to build and sustain good jobs, an enjoyable quality of life, and a well-informed democracy.”  

Human capital—the working family—is impoverished because of capitalist needs. Capitalists have, along with several other tactices, destroyed the labor movement in the United States to reduce wages and salaries in order to increase the surplus value produced by labor with the intent to convert that value into profit in the market to generate income for their life of leisure and privilege. Intensifying labor exploitation (whether through intensifying effort, mechanization and automation, rationalization, or globalization) is the fundamental imperative of capitalist relations. 

In the current period, is not very important from the capitalist standpoint that children from low income families have a real education for the simple fact that low income children will grow up to do jobs that don’t require a real education. Indeed, a real education is detrimental to the interests of the capitalist class; for, if you teach children to be creative and to think critically, more than a handful of them may come to the realization that capitalism is an exploitative system that should be replaced with real democracy—a government and an economy in which working families are in charge. Capitalists don’t want a “well-informed democracy.” They want a docile and subservient workforce educated just well enough to read instruction manuals and perform relatively simple calculations. The want a workforce just curious enough to turn on the television and watch corporate propaganda disguised as objective information.

So while I applaud any efforts to make real education a reality in this country, failure to understand the fundamental reality of capitalism leads to an effort that cannot substantially move the people forward in such a cause. Using the term “human capital” tells us right away that there is a failure to understand the fundamental reality of capitalism: a system of exploitation in which human beings are compelled to rent themselves to wealthy families who determine and shape how people live their lives.

The bottomline is that either a subset of persons in a society rules society or all the people in society rule society. Democracy is where the people rule themselves. Under capitalism, most people are ruled by a few people. Democracy is therefore not possible under capitalism. Ultimately, in order to make society work for working families, working families must be put in charge of ordering society. The people have to replace unelected rulers (capitalists) with democratically-elected leaders and direct democratic participation in a system that elminates the wall of separation between the polity and the economy. Democracy cannot exist without some form of socialism, and this requires a socialist revolution. We need a socialist movement.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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