Riot police showed the brutal face of the British state on the streets of London last week. But protests that threaten governments—let alone the capitalist system—are rare. Much of the time it can seem that people are relatively content with the way things are.
So does capitalism survive because everybody likes it? And if people don’t like it, why do they put up with it?
Capitalism puts different pressures on people that influence how they act. Some of these are about ideas. Our rulers want us to believe that their system is natural and people are have always lived in the dog eat dog way that capitalism demands.
But capitalism has only existed for a few hundred years—about 1 percent of human history! For most of the time people have lived in cooperative groups. Most people go along with capitalism, but this isn’t the same as supporting the system.
For instance, on the surface of it, millions of people “consent” to going to work. Usually, no-one has to physically force them to do so. Of course many people want to work for obvious reasons—they want to do jobs that help other people, they want to be socially-useful, they want to earn a decent wage, and so on.
But the system also puts pressure on people to work. If people refuse to work, what happens? Unless they have some rich relatives or win the lottery they will live in poverty. The state will hound them, trying to snatch away their measly benefits and force them into work.
In short, the system will do everything it can to make life miserable—so no wonder most people go to work.
Many people aren’t happy with capitalism, but don’t think radical change is possible. This is partly because they accept the idea that capitalism is natural, but also because they don’t see how it could be changed.
The biggest section of society is the working class and the smallest is the ruling class—the rich people who own and control things.
The working class creates all the wealth in society so it is potentially the most powerful class. But workers don’t feel they have much power in their day-to-day experience.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci said that the rich use different ways to get everyone else to go along with their system.
He said capitalists rule by consent and force. So for most of the time, the bosses use their influence over things like the education system and the media to keep power.
But despite the fact that the bosses’ ideas dominate, that doesn’t mean that the mass of people are happy, nor that they never have ideas that challenge the dominant ones.
Gramsci described how ordinary people end up with contradictory ideas. He said that workers’ experience under capitalism, which is often negative, pushes them to challenge dominant ideas.
Bosses exploit workers. They make their profits by not paying workers the full value of their labour. Because bosses are competing with each other, they try and exploit workers more all the time—paying them less or forcing them to work faster.
But capitalism isn’t simply exploitative, it is also unstable and prone to crisis. The current round of cuts is an attempt to make ordinary people pay for such a crisis.
This pushes workers to fight back—which can transform their ideas. If a racist worker strikes alongside black and migrant workers, it undermines his bigotry.
In struggle workers can see most clearly that they have a common interest against the bosses. They can also see how powerful they are.
Capitalism isn’t as stable as it can sometimes seem. Protests, uprisings, strikes and revolution mark the world. Ordinary people have toppled governments—most recently in Argentina and Kyrgyzstan.
Millions more don’t want to live in a world wracked by poverty, oppression, war and environmental devastation. As the economic crisis has deepened, class confrontations have intensified across the world.
When clashes seriously threaten the ruling class it will deploy the full force of the state—the police and the army—to try and hold onto power.
But workers can beat back even this. And in a huge crisis, soldiers can switch sides and back the workers—and they have. The police can then melt away.
We have the power to take back our world and run it to meet the needs of the majority. But we must be aware that the rich won’t hesitate to use violence to stop us if “consent” fails—and we have to be prepared to take them on.
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