The five economic systems defined in the first part of an online course in Marxist economics are different in the way the surplus is extracted from those doing the work.
Let me begin by defining “surplus”. In exploitative systems there is always a class of people who do not have to work. The reason they do not have to work is because they are able to live off the surplus of the work of others. In modern day capitalism we think of surplus as money that company directors receive in what is commonly known as profit. Although profit accounts for a part of the surplus, the surplus is also any money that is invested back into the company. The point is that what the class of people who live off the labour of others do with the surplus is not as important as the fact that it is only they and not the workers who produce that surplus, who can decide what to do with it. What the worker takes home after a days work is always less than he or she has produced, this is true in any exploitative system.
- Slavery: In slavery all of the surplus is taken from the slave by the master. The master then gives the slave a portion of this back. We often think of this portion as just enough to survive. However if the slave’s work produces an abundance of wealth and the master is kind enough to give the slaves a generous portion that is over and above the slave’s basic needs, the system would still be slavery as by definition the slave has no right to any of the wealth that is produced by his or her hands. No matter how big or small the amount given back to the slave may be, the slave must accept this, the only alternative would be to leave or to take action in forming a new way of organising the surplus which would result in another system that could no longer be called slavery.
- Feudalism: In the feudal system the serfs get to keep some of what they produce. The traditional European feudal system was organised so that the serfs would work 3 days a week on the piece of land assigned to them and then for the remaining 3 days (Sunday being a day of rest) they were required to work on the land of the lord. This meant that they were robbed of 3 days labour but whatever they managed to produce on the 3 days where they worked on their own patch, they were able to keep.
- Capitalism: The worker is given a wage which is always lower than what the worker produces. It is different from slavery in that the worker is free to use the wage as he or she likes. However if the wage is just enough to cover basic survival, what is the real difference between the two systems? Capitalism is different to feudalism in that the worker is not required to do 3 days work without pay (although this has been known to happen). However the amount that the worker produces in a week is always more than what they earn in wages. What if their wages were the equivalent of 3 days of labour, or even less? What then would be the difference between feudalism and capitalism?
*Systems of exploitation are no more or less exploitative than one another. They are only different in the way the deal is done between the exploiter and the exploited. In all three systems the surplus is given to the master, lord or capitalist who can do what they like with it.
*It is true that workers who are organised in trade unions can demand an increase in wages, however no matter how high that increase may be, it will never be more or equal to what they are worth, otherwise it would not be capitalism. Company directors and managers do not produce a surplus, their entire earnings are directly taken from the employees.
Non-exploitative systems (according to Marx.)
- The ancient class structure: The work is done by individuals who are free to use the surplus as they see fit. Individual traders and self-employed people could fit into this category. This system has existed for centuries, alongside other systems.
- Communism: A community of workers, uses the surplus as they wish. Marx does not mention anything about the state taking and distributing the surplus (as was done in the USSR and the other so-called examples of communism). The very reason why communism is not an exploitative system is because the people who do the work are the ones who decide communally what should be done with the products that they themselves do not consume.http://rdwolff.com/content/marxian-class-analysis-theory-and-practice-online-courseFollow the link to see all 5 parts.
My introduction relates only to the first video
The American economist Richard Wolff brings Marxist ideas to life with clarity, simplicity and most importantly humour. He studied economics at some of the top universities in the US. He explains in his “occupy our future”talk how in all these years of studying economics the idea of questioning the capitalist system itself was unthinkable. He compares the taboo of not talking about the system to the way sex used to be taboo, concluding that we are better off now that we can talk about it.
Wolff praises the occupy movement, explaining that it has made a big impact on the way people think. The idea of the 99% and the 1% is now something that is being acknowledged. Although they may just be stating the obvious, it is one of those things that have gone unquestioned for many years. By exposing the inherent inequality that is generated by capitalism, we can begin to question the system itself and whether it is really the best that humanity can do it the 21st century.
In times of crisis, economists like Richard Wolff have found a new popularity among many who were previously hostile to his ideas. He now gets so many calls that he has to pick and choose where to speak and who to meet as it would be physically impossible to accept every invitation. According to Wolff the great depression of the 1930s (which was far worse than the current crisis) would not have been overcome if it wasn’t for the strength of the trade unions, socialist and communist ideas of the time. However he does not argue for another kind of new deal as such a deal is easily undone when the organisation of production remains unchanged.
The solution is in fact democracy. But democracy in the work place. It is almost absurd that many of us spend most of our lives in these places but we have very little control over what we produce, how we produce it and what happens to the money that doesn’t form a part of our wage packet.