challenging capitalism potluck

Last Friday, Ethan and I (Tristan) hosted a potluck and roundtable conversation about challenging capitalism. I think it was a great success. Here is a copy of the handout/transcript and discussion questions we provided with some useful information about both some problems inherent in the capitalist system and some alternatives. The discussion was very lively! Thank you to all who came out; it is always a pleasure to talk!

Challenging Capitalism: Highlighting Problems and Some Alternatives
“Socialism is an effort to try to solve man’s animal problems, and after having solved the animal problems, then we can face the human problems…” -Karl Marx

Due to many existing definitions of the words listed below, some from meaning changes or results of ideological warfare and propaganda both among communists and capitalists, we will be operating under the definitions provided:

Capitalism: “a system of economics based on the private ownership of capital and production inputs, and on the production of goods and services for profit. The production of goods and services is based on supply and demand in the general market (market economy). Capitalism is generally characterized by competition between producers. Other facets, such as the participation of government in production and regulation, vary across models of capitalism” (Investopedia)

Some Problems with Capitalism: It separates workers and owners; workers must adapt and respond to markets to independently sustain themselves; there is societal and market (competitive) pressure to do what is profitable even if it opposes what is right (especially when it comes to environmental issues); surplus value is extracted from workers and some pays non-laboring positions (like shareholders, or positions not involved in production itself directly like marketers, or even CEOs) but much goes to reinvestment and making bigger future profit; Philanthropy is an insufficient solution to this problem and is often used as a form of advertising; Pay differences are drastically unequal between CEOs and lowest paid employees (301:1); workers are alienated from the products they produce; a small percentage of people own the majority of productive property; wealth and ownership of the means of production allows the capitalist class to have powerful political sway and influence over government through lobbying, advertising, and economic policy; workers are exploited by the millions in many countries all over the world unable to purchase the commodities they produce; commodities have a transcendent quality that surpasses material utility and makes rampant consumerism a problem.

Bourgeois economics definition of Capital: wealth in the form of money or other assets (factories, machinery, equipment) owned by a person or organization or available or contributed for a particular purpose such as starting a company or investing (Google and Investopedia).
Marx’s definition: the exploitive social relation between a laborer and an owner of the means of production (capitalist) whereby a relatively set wage is paid to a worker, but the worker allows the capitalist to profit. The value a worker adds to the value of a product in an hour minus the hourly wage paid is called surplus value which is “extracted.”

Marxist Communism (sometimes called Socialism): “The economic and political theory and practice originated by Marx and Engels that holds that actions and human institutions are economically determined, that class struggle is the basic agent of historical change, and that capitalism will ultimately be superseded by communism” (
“Masses of laborers crowded into a factory—organized like soldiers, an industrial army placed under the perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants” (Marx) is a flawed and exploitive organization to communists. Think of immense factories in the Third World, India and China with $0.25-$2 hourly wages where most products are assembled today. The fact that the vast majority of people, even in the US, do not own the means of production (productive property such as farmland, mines, water, factories etc.) while a tiny minority owns all of it is another major problem to Marx. Personal nonproductive property (houses within reason, dishes, your cat, the final produced products) is not of major concern, these things will be decided by self-conscious workers democratically. Marx, seeing the way unions and collections of workers throughout the world are opposed to harsh working conditions and the way many do not own any productive property and are totally dependent on low wages to survive, predicts that eventually all exploited workers will organize and lead a revolution abolishing anyone’s right to private (productive property) and seize global political power as a party ensuring democratic, collective ownership of the means of production, and using that political power, will lead the transition into a classless (this includes government bureaucratic classes who own means of production), nationless society where the state political apparatus will eventually “witherwhither away.” The ultimate aim is very much left to how the future actually plays out to Marx, but the maxim: “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” is a guide (both Marxist and Christian). The secondary maxim from the Communist Manifesto is also very important: “Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the power of others by means of such appropriation” (25). Socialism is sometimes referred to as an intermediate historical stage where workers become owners of the means of production and communism comprises the whole of the movement, trend, and goal. It is very important to note the role of self-consciousness, the idea that revolution will only occur if workers recognize how they are being exploited and observe the interconnectedness of modern society, organize themselves, and a global shift in value from profit maximization and exploitation to classlessness, collectivism, and democracy occurs. The Communist Party as written about by Marx is by definition on the side of and comprised mainly of the working class through its many historical developments and only can provide it with support, information, and education, not pretend it knows what is best for it and lead it with a Leninist-style vanguard party. There are both militant and nonviolent communists worldwide.

Anarchism (also called Libertarian Socialism, Council Communism, Anarchosyndicalism, or a type of Left Communism): “belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion” (Google)
Bakunin, a key Anarchist philosopher, wrote that Marx’s 1867 Capital was a starting text for Anarchism because it clearly addressed the problems of capitalism and modern society. He, and many others believed that the workers revolution will occur and that they should be helped. Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist philosopher, disagreed with the Marxist Communists in the seizure of political power to change society, rather they should use the revolution to abolish the state (governmental organization and institutions) entirely and immediately jump into a classless communist society. He was an important influence to important Catholic Worker figure Peter Maurin. Multiple Anarchists have expressed agreement with Fischer’s quote: “every anarchist is a socialist but not every socialist is necessarily an anarchist.” Bakunin in his Anarchist Manifesto wrote that each member of a prominent Anarchist organization in the International must first be a socialist. Noam Chomsky wrote, “A consistent anarchist must oppose private ownership of the means of production and the wage slavery which is a component of this system, as incompatible with the principle that labor must be freely undertaken and under the control of the producer.” Just like communism, anarchism has both militant and devoutly nonviolent members. Some anarchosyndicalists believed in seeking, “even under capitalism, to create free associations of free producers that would engage in militant struggle and prepare to take over the organization of production on a democratic basis…these associations function as a practical school of anarchism” (Chomsky quoting and paraphrasing). Anarchists are strongly opposed to control of the means of production by a government bureaucracy or dictatorship and fear political power by the workers might allow that to happen under communism. But, like the communists they historically oppose private productive property. Proudhon, considered by many the founder of Anarchism famously declared “property is theft…the exploitation of the weak by the strong.” Anarchists, like communists advocate for collective, democratic ownership. Power, under anarchism is not abolished entirely, rather it is democratically delegated and can be retracted by democracy at any time. Ethan can still lead a lettuce harvesting team without becoming Master Ethan, Dictator of Lettuce, or Alice can administrate Mustard Seed Farm without becoming Emperor, but this power can be retracted by democracy at anytime. Police and military personnel (militia) can even be enlisted by the democracy to enforce democratically determined laws, but their power can always be simply taken away if it is ever determined unjustified. Contrary to popular belief, anarchist visions are very organized. Finally, just like the communists, anarchists observe historical trends and have aims, but they do not assert a utopian, dreamed up society. The anarchist progression of emancipation theory has suggested anarchism is the third and final human emancipation: first slaves were the major class, then serfs working on the land of nobility, then wage earners, and finally the abolishment of proletariat (working class as a class) “placing the control of the economy in the hands of free and voluntary producers” (Fourier). They hold strong principles and defend and fight for them, but allow the future to determine exactly how anarchist society organically emerges.

Distributism (also called Distributionism or Distributivism): An economic and social theory based on the writings of Pope Leo XIII and others and developed by GK Chesterton and Belloc which defends private productive property as a God-given, fundamental right for all people, but because men are not gods, they must have limits on that property; ownership of the means of production must be spread out as far as possible. Seeing capitalism flawed and communism tainted by Bolshevik dictatorship, they wanted to create a middle theory. Distributists, therefore, are against large corporate or government control of the means of production (like anarchists), but unlike both anarchists and communists who defend collective ownership, distributists defend private productive property on small scales. Contemporary distributism often advocates for control of industry by owner-operator small businesses and worker controlled cooperatives. GK Chesterton is known for the distributist slogan “3 acres and a cow” for every person. A goal of distributism is to be able to earn a living without having to rely on the use of property of others to do so. Farmers would therefore own their land and machinery and plumbers their tools. The idea of the cooperative is an extension of this ownership whereby productive property can be shared by “business partners” in a local community. Distributism still allows for a state apparatus to establish public parks, transit, etc., and may even require it to protect property rights. Some distributists are opposed to private, for-profit banks because they commit usury and suggest federal credit unions as a better alternative. Often also, the state would function to enforce heavy anti-trust legislation (breaking up companies that got too big) because they agree with the statement “too much capitalism means too few capitalists.” Having the state control currency, police, military, and other institutions could also be required, but not necessarily (Dorothy Day was against state dependency and thought needing to rely too much on the state is dangerous). GK Chesterton is staunchly anti-anarchist. Many distributists are also against unions because they foster class war (they are organized along class lines) and see an alternative in guilds, small organizations that mix employer/administrator with workers to promote “class collaboration.” The basic social unit of Distributism is the family which extends to extended family and again to the human family. In summary: the distributist ideal is the unification of capital, ownership, and production on a local level (Wikipedia).

Form groups of three with the people around you
Question wave one: In Iowa recently there is a growing trend of large international corporate investment banks buying up agricultural land and renting it out to family farmers or other workers. These banks already own 1% of all agricultural land in the US. Most agricultural land in Iowa is owned by families, but the amount of land owned by individual families is often in the hundreds of acres. Around 50% of Iowa land is being rented out to cultivators. Talk about how property rights function for corporations, families, and renters, and whether or not there is moral justification for the way these various properties are protected. Perhaps consider a Native American seeking employment. Consider an undocumented worker. 6 minutes

Question wave two: What are some misconceptions you had about Marxist Communism? What frightens you about Marxist Communism? Is there anything you find to be noble and/or morally justified? Think especially about the concept of self-consciousness. 4 minutes

Question wave three: Based on what you learned about communism and anarchism, choose one and carefully answer the following: does the political ideology selected endorse the forcible redistribution of wealth? 4 minutes

Question wave four: What actions, if any do we take against the uneven distribution of wealth and property? Who decides who gets property under distributism? Is land for everyone sustainable? Is collectivism in anarchist or communist form a viable solution to the property question? Is capitalism already morally justified? 6 minutes

Question wave five: Choose an ideology above (Marxist Communism, Anarchism, Distributism, or Capitalism) that most interests you: How does the ideological society deal with police forces? Would they have them? If so, how would cases of police brutality be treated? How would laws be enforced? Would there be laws? Whether or not this information is given, try to extrapolate. 5 minutes

Questions? Clarification? Qualms?

written by Tristan Aschittino