by Victor Wallis
A short introduction to key terms in political theory by the author of Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism
A capitalist society is one in which the major decisions about what is produced (and how, and how much, and for whom) are made by the capital-owning class and/or its representatives. Capital differs from earlier forms of wealth in that it is liquid, i.e., it can be bought and sold on the market. Capitalist wealth includes machinery (what Marx called “means of production,” or capital in the narrow sense), but it also includes land and financial instruments (money, stocks & bonds, etc.).
Most of this wealth is concentrated in large corporations or financial institutions, whose goal is to maximize their own profits. To do this, they must sell as much as possible and pay out as little as possible. Sales are maximized by responding not simply to needs but rather to market-demand (i.e., needs or wants backed by purchasing power). Market-demand is in turn shaped partly by public policy (e.g., if there’s no mass transit, more people will have to buy cars) and partly by a whole culture of advertising and public relations. At the same time, costs are minimized by paying workers as little as possible (including moving production to low-wage areas) and by skimping on such matters as waste-disposal and workplace safety & health.