Can capitalism cast off its unending, destructive greed and discover a nicer nature?
When Steve Jobs, the head of computer firm Apple, died last week the media was full of praise for him as a better sort of money maker.
A week earlier Labour leader Ed Miliband had criticised “predatory” business practices—though he made it very clear that he wasn’t “anti-business”.
But “predatory” competition is the very basis of capitalism. It divides people into two main classes—bosses and workers.
Bosses make money by exploiting workers. This means they don’t pay workers the full value of what they produce. They keep some for themselves and call it profit.
Some people distinguish between “productive” bosses—who may own a factory for instance—and “unproductive” ones such as stockbrokers.
But no boss actually produces wealth—workers do. The entire international capitalist system, including finance capital, is interconnected.
And it is held together by the aim of making money.
If capitalists can’t be divided up by what they do, perhaps we should pay attention to how they do it.
Much of the praise for Jobs came because of his “visionary” ideas. But he wasn’t the chief executive of Apple because he had good ideas—but because he made a lot of money.
To make money he had to be competitive with other computer firms.
Apple makes money by producing its products in Chinese factories with conditions so bad that workers had to sign a contract promising they wouldn’t kill themselves.
His priority, like all bosses, was to make as much profit as possible.
This isn’t because all bosses are particularly nasty individuals. Competition constantly drives them to try and exploit workers harder.
Capitalist competition has led to bankruptcy, famine and wars for economic advantage.
Groups of people—such as black people or women—are oppressed because this benefits those at the top. And the constant drive for profit has degraded the environment.
Yet exploitation and oppression are not the same at all times. At some times workers manage to win a better deal from the system.
The ruling class in Britain could afford to concede reforms in the boom years that followed the Second World War. And mass struggle can still force it to concede more.
These things matter. Reforms like the NHS transformed people’s lives. Revolutionaries don’t dismiss them as irrelevant.
And bosses aren’t all the same. They can, for instance, pay workers more than the minimum wage or try to force people to accept peanuts.
There are many reasons for this. A boss may want to retain skilled workers in a competitive environment or they may want to ward off strikes.
So some bosses are worse than others and capitalism has at times delivered more for workers than it is delivering today.
But this isn’t the same as saying there can be a “good” capitalism working in our interests. At all times bosses are waging class war on workers, although it is sometimes harder to see it.
The revolutionary Karl Marx described class struggle under capitalism as “now hidden, now open”. But it is always there.
Our rulers talk of a “national interest” to try and disguise the class divide. Sometimes this can seem to make sense.
If workers take a pay cut to save jobs, it can seem to benefit everyone. But what’s really happened is the boss has increased the exploitation of workers.
And of course, the boss usually cuts the jobs later on anyway. The interests of bosses are directly opposed to the interests of workers.
This also affects the ability of the system to deliver basic services like healthcare or education.
Can bosses be convinced to act differently? The short answer is no.
The immediate drive for profits comes before all others.
As long as capitalism remains, there will be exploitation, war, oppression and environmental chaos.
We can’t reform these things away. The only way to end them is to overthrow capitalism and create a world where the majority run things for the benefit of everyone.