Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult

Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult

by Sasha Lilley

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In an era of profound economic and ecological crisis, this collection unravels the dynamic contradictions at the heart of capitalism and points possible ways forward to a liberatory future. Through a series of incisive conversations with some of the most eminent thinkers and political economists on the Left—including Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, David Harvey,


In an era of profound economic and ecological crisis, this collection unravels the dynamic contradictions at the heart of capitalism and points possible ways forward to a liberatory future. Through a series of incisive conversations with some of the most eminent thinkers and political economists on the Left—including Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, David Harvey, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Mike Davis, and Doug Henwood—Sasha Lilley examines the roots of the global economic meltdown, neoliberalism in the Global South and North, struggles against empire past and present, the eternal pendulum swing of social revolt, and the potentialities of the radical tradition in a time of austerity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"These conversations illuminate the current world situation in ways that are very useful for those hoping to orient themselves and find a way forward to effective individual and collective action. Highly recommended."  —Kim Stanley Robinson, author, The Years of Rice and Salt

"This is an extremely important book. It is the most detailed, comprehensive, and best study yet published on the most recent capitalist crisis and its discontents."  —Andrej Grubacic, coauthor, Wobblies and Zapatistas

"In this fine set of interviews, an A-list of radical political economists demonstrate why their skills are indispensable to understanding today’s multiple economic and ecological crises."  —Raj Patel, author, Stuffed and Starved

"This collection of interviews introduces the reader to much of the best thinking about social issues on the U.S. left today."  —Barbara Epstein, author, History of Consciousness

"Sasha Lilley’s Capital and Its Discontents is a superb introduction to some of the best traditions, given to us through some of the sharpest thinkers of the Global North." —Vijay Prashad, author, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World

"The value of this book lies in its accessibility. . . . Key points are presented quickly, clearly and in a language that is comprehensible. [This] is the perfect book for liberals and leftists who want to move beyond superficial criticism of bad policies and greedy corporate executives and toward a structural critique of capitalism and imperialism." —Indypendent (April 6, 2011)

"As a whole the book offers incredibly thought-provoking interviews, made more so by Lilley's excellent questioning, and demonstrates her deep and insightful knowledge of the issues and the thinkers with whom she engages." —

"This cool-headed but urgent volume--timely but sophisticated and wide-ranging enough to remain a longtime reference--will serve as an excellent introduction for readers lacking familiarity with discourse in political economy, while providing important elaboration on central themes for those with more background." —Publishers Weekly - Starred review (June 22, 2011)

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Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult

By Sasha Lilley

PM Press

Copyright © 2011 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-532-5


Ellen Meiksins Wood: Empire in the Age of Capital

While empire long precedes capitalism, contemporary imperialism is inseparable from capitalism. What, then, are the distinguishing features of capitalism as an economic system, as you see it?

EMW: I think the essential characteristic is that all of the major economic actors are market dependent, dependent on the market to maintain and reproduce their conditions of life. This also means that the relationship between classes is mediated by the market, so that unlike precapitalist systems in which exploiting classes were able to extract surplus labor from exploited classes by means of superior coercive power, direct noneconomic coercion, in capitalism the compulsions are economic imperatives. So in a mature capitalist economy, the capitalist doesn't need to have superior political, legal or military power over workers, the way a precapitalist landlord had to have power over peasants who had nonmarket access to land. Wage laborers have to sell their labor power to a capitalist simply in order to gain access to the means of their own life, their own labor, and so on. And of course the capitalist depends on the market for access to labor and to realize the profits the workers produce. Of course there's a huge difference between propertyless workers and the owners of capital, which means a huge imbalance of class power. But capitalists are no less dependent on the market to maintain themselves and their capital. The whole capitalist system is operated by market imperatives, the compulsions of competition, profit-maximization, and capital accumulation.

Why don't commerce or trade in goods constitute capitalism, as some might assume?

EMW: I make a distinction between market opportunities and market imperatives. And I think it's only in capitalism that you have a system in which people are obliged, are compelled, to enter the market simply to guarantee their own existence and their own self-reproduction. There have been markets throughout history in which people have brought their surpluses to sell, but there's never been a system before capitalism in which producers and appropriators both were absolutely dependent on the market for their most basic conditions of life and therefore compelled to follow the dictates of the market in order to sustain themselves.

You write that the exploitation that is a necessary part of capitalism is hidden in certain ways, unlike the coercion that characterized feudal societies where naked power was more apparent. How is exploitation under capitalism opaque? D

EMW: The contrast that you just indicated, between capitalism and feudalism, is a useful one. If you think about what the relationship is between a feudal lord and a dependent peasant, it's a very transparent relationship, which is even legally recognized as a relationship of inequality.

In capitalism, the capitalist and the laborer begin, on the face of it, as equals. They're legally equal, and on top of that, the capitalist actually pays the workers instead of transparently extracting surpluses from them. In the case of feudalism, the peasant is obliged to do labor services or to transfer surpluses directly to the lord; whereas in capitalism, the relationship appears on the face of it to be the opposite, because the capitalist actually pays the worker up front before realizing profits from the worker's labor in the market. So it takes some complicated calculation to figure out how it is that the worker's surpluses are transferred to the capitalist and how it is that the capitalist derives a profit from the worker's labor.

What are the main features of capitalist imperialism?

EMW: The main feature of capitalist imperialism is that it operates as much as possible via economic imperatives, instead of by direct colonial rule. I think that if you had talked about American imperialism before the invasion of Iraq, you would likely meet the objection that the United States doesn't really possess colonies. But I actually think it remains true that it's not a colonial power in the sense that we've traditionally understood it. I think the United States would still prefer to stay out of colonial entanglements and operate its domination through economic imperatives.

I think that the United States is actually the first, and so far the only, truly capitalist empire, which has exercised its domination largely by these economic imperatives, by making subordinate powers subject to economic compulsions emanating from the United States and from American capital.

So in the case of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, would you say then that it is an exception to this rule?

EMW: I think the mess that they made of it in Iraq, and the complete lack of planning for after the war, probably testifies to the fact that they hadn't really intended it to be this way. They hadn't intended to be an occupying power. What I think they hoped would happen was that they could decapitate the regime and just install some more compliant leadership and then allow

American capital to insert itself comfortably into the Iraq economy and into the production of oil. The very fact that they made such a hash of it seems to me to confirm the point, rather than the reverse.

What is it about capitalism today that allows empire to exist and to flourish and to expand without the need for military colonialization?

EMW: When we were talking about the relationship between capital and labor, I talked about the ways in which capital can exercise its domination over labor, because workers are market dependent and obliged to enter the market, to sell their labor power, simply in order to gain access to the means of life and self-reproduction. In a way, an analogous thing has happened on the global plane, in which more and more parts of the world have been subjected to these market imperatives by making them dependent on entering the market. Capitalists have to pay workers up front before they realize profits from the workers' work through the market just to gain access to the means of maintaining themselves. You only need to think about the conditions imposed by the IMF on developing economies, which are designed to make them more dependent on global markets and foreign capital. Or, for example, think about agricultural producers who have been forced into single cash crop production and increasingly forced to orient themselves towards the external market and export. The more they've been oriented in that way, the more susceptible they've became to the imposition of this kind of domination from the advanced capitalist countries.

Why wouldn't smaller, poorer countries just try to stay independent of a global economy in which the winners are clearly the richer countries?

EMW: This is obviously the toughest question for anybody in these countries to answer. The extent to which economies can withdraw themselves from the global capitalist economy is obviously a matter of huge contention and, frankly, I can't answer it myself. It's really difficult now to imagine a world in which people could be independent and completely autonomous of the global market. But I think that what has happened is that increasingly, through the IMF and so on, these countries have more and more subjected themselves and allowed themselves to be drawn even more into this form of domination, more dependent on foreign capital and finance.

Take Brazil for example. The Brazilians in recent years have liked to talk about their independence or decoupling from the global economy, but in reality, even under the Workers' Party, they've made themselves more dependent on international capital, and some economists far more expert than I am have raised questions about whether this has been wise or even necessary. You might think that an economy as big and potentially autonomous as this could have detached itself much more than it has been prepared to do. Whatever the press is now telling us about the Brazilian recovery from the current crisis, there's ample evidence that they've suffered more from the recession than they needed to do or than they would have done had they not been following IMF principles and made themselves increasingly dependent on the global economy. But I really don't feel qualified to comment on this with any confidence. You distinguish empires of capital — capitalist imperialism — from at least two other kinds of imperialisms that have existed and to some extent flourished in the past for a time: empires of commerce and empires of property. You regard the Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire in Latin America as conforming to the latter. What defined these empires?

EMW: I selected these two forms of empire and distinguished them from the empire of capital because a focus on property and on commerce are something that we associate with capitalism. I wanted to show that it was possible, and historically did happen, that empires could be property-oriented or could be commercially oriented without being capitalist and without responding to the same capitalist imperatives.

The Roman Empire is probably the first really to be grounded in the acquisition of private property. The reason I called the Roman Empire an empire of property is because, first of all, it was responding to the interests of private propertied classes in ways quite different, for example, from empires like the Chinese, where private property was well developed but where the imperial state was a primary mode of appropriation for officeholders and the main source of great wealth. In the Roman Empire we're talking about property in land as the principal source of power and the empire was constructed on that foundation. The republic that created this empire was basically an oligarchy of propertied classes and it was their interests that were being expressed in imperial expansion. And, in fact, although they created an imperial state, the imperial state never became the primary source of wealth for the ruling classes. Property was always the objective, the sole reliable source of wealth, while the imperial state served as an instrument of appropriation indirectly by protecting and expanding private property. The Roman Empire was basically one big land-grabbing operation.

All the ruling classes enriched themselves big time. They also, to some extent, used imperial land to pacify their own peasant armies, whom they had basically been expropriating at home. But they also effectively created local propertied classes in their colonial territories, even in places where aristocracies of property hadn't existed before. So the empire was in a sense more a coalition of local landed aristocracies than an imperial state.

What empires of commerce, which are based on commerce and trading routes, stand out to you historically?

EMW: Probably the most commercialized empire that ever existed before capitalism was the early modern Dutch Empire. But you can also identify the Arab-Muslim Empire in these terms and, for example, the Venetian and other Italian commercial city-states. The principal reason that I call them noncapitalist is that their commercial success depended on their extra-economic powers, political, military, and so on. I have this complicated argument — and this is obviously very contentious and controversial — about how the Dutch economy, as commercialized as it was, was not driven by capitalist imperatives. It was above all a commercial power, but its commercial successes depended not really on competitive production. Although it did introduce quite a few innovations in production, its main successes had to do, for example, with its naval power, its navigational skills, its extra-economic command of trade routes and its imposition of de facto trade monopolies in various places.

So trade, which would involve buying low and selling high, is not a hallmark of capitalism, which involves a certain kind of competitive production to continually make products faster and better at less cost.

EMW: Right. One way of looking at it is to say that precapitalist commerce depends on fragmented markets. In other words, you buy in one market and sell in another and that's why long-distance trade was the most wealth-creating form of commerce. Whereas an economy driven by truly capitalist imperatives is in effect an integrated market, ideally, in which all producers are subjected to the same competitive imperatives and have to adopt productive strategies to meet those imperatives.

In the case of the Dutch, for example, it's certainly a case of dependence on commerce, in the sense that even Dutch farmers were obliged to enter the market for some of their basic inputs like grain. But the way they achieved their success was to command, for example, the Baltic grain trade and to import cheap grain from relatively low-cost producing areas, while the Dutch farmers themselves were able to move onto semi-luxury goods like dairy products and meat and so on. It was never a question of their competing with cheap low-cost producers. They actually benefited from low-cost production elsewhere. They were able to keep their output prices high and keep their costs low simply by their command of this vast trading system.

Let's turn to the British Empire, which you regard as the first emerging instance of capitalist imperialism. How did capitalism emerge in England? What happened to production and agriculture there?

EMW: It wasn't some single revolutionary moment that brought about capitalism, but what emerged in the English countryside was a distinctive network of agrarian relations in which tenants increasingly held their property on economic leases, not rents fixed by custom, for instance, but rents that varied according to the movements of economic forces. And you had landlords who became increasingly dependent for their wealth on the competitive productiveness of their tenant, rather than on their own superior force, their own coercive power to extract more surpluses. So you had a system in which both appropriators and producers had an interest in increasing the labor productivity, at first by innovative land use and then by technical means, and embarked on this project of what they called "improvement" to increase the productivity of agriculture.

Improvement, the idea of improving uncultivated or poorly cultivated land, was used to justify seizing the land of others, whether in England or Ireland or elsewhere. How did the philosopher John Locke, perhaps the most influential proponent of the concept of improvement, shape Western ideology about the value of property?

EMW: European imperialism was often justified by claiming that unoccupied land was available for appropriation — the so-called res nullius principle. This wasn't an uncommon defense of colonial appropriation. But what happens with capitalism, which is absolutely distinctive, and what you get with the capitalist ideology to which Locke contributed so much, is that it isn't simply a question of unoccupied land being available for appropriation. The argument now was that anything which was not being fruitfully and productively used, by the standards of English commercial agriculture, was itself subject to justifiable appropriation. So that applied, for example, to indigenous lands in the Americas where the indigenous people did not improve their land by the standards of English commercial agriculture and did not increase the exchange value of what they produced.

And that's critical: the notion of exchange value is the really essential point. Locke is very explicit about this. He indulges in these calculations about how much of the land's value derives from nature and how much from human labor, and in an improved economy, the value created by labor is maybe 99 percent or something like that. But it soon becomes clear that the essential point isn't labor — the expenditure of effort — but the creation of exchange value; and the point then is that, no matter how much effort may have been expended by the indigenous peoples in America, they weren't actually doing what needs to be done to establish their rights of property, because, in the absence of a well developed commercial economy, they weren't creating value.

And so the production of exchange value becomes effectively the basis of property both domestically and abroad. Now this doesn't mean that once somebody seizes a piece of land and renders it productive, somebody else can come along and claim it on the grounds that they're going to be even more productive. Locke says that we establish a right to property when we mix our labor with something. But you have to follow the argument a bit further than that, because it isn't just a question of our mixing our labor with something that gives us a right to property. What establishes property is adding to its commercial value by rendering it more productive.


Excerpted from Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult by Sasha Lilley. Copyright © 2011 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Meet the Author

Sasha Lilley is a writer, broadcaster, and host of Against the Grain on KPFA Radio, the flagship station of the Pacifica Network. She is the series editor of Spectre, the PM Press political economy imprint. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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