We live in an economic system called capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system where a group of people (the workers) have only their labor to sell to another group of people (the capitalists/bourgeoisie) who own all the businesses, factories, land, transportation, buildings, etc. These are the two main classes in capitalism. Other classes include small business owners who work in their own enterprises, as well as a small class of managers, administrators, and police, who discipline the working class. But the two largest and most powerful classes are the workers and the capitalists.
Capitalism is also a social system. The activities and interactions of millions of people keep capitalism running, day after day, creating oppression and exploitation in the process. By understanding how this system works, we can figure out how to break free from it and create something new.
In the capitalist social system, the vast majority of people experience alienation. “Alienation” is the act of separating something from oneself. When you work for a boss, you alienate your abilities for the length of your shift. Your ability to lift boxes, do mental math, or coordinate an office, are all properties of your body and mind. But for a few hours they become a tool for someone else, who orders us around for their benefit. Your qualities are alienated from your self in order to serve someone else. This relationship may seem simple, but it has huge consequences when it happens to millions of people every day.
The overwhelming majority of people alienate their labor, their time, their whole lives in order to get some money and survive. This class, the proletariat, or the working class, includes the workers who have to alienate their labor, as well as unemployed people who have to go back to work eventually, or who survive off of state assistance or fellow workers. The working-class also includes those who do unpaid housework, taking care of relatives or spouses, and who raise kids—by doing this, they are working for the capitalist system, because they ensure that the people they take care of can work for the capitalists.
The bourgeois/capitalist class takes control over the alienated skills of the workers, and the alienated products they make. Capitalists exploit the labor of workers because they do not pay us the full value of what we produce through our labor. They only pay us enough to reproduce our ability to work (in other words, just barely enough to cover the food, clothing, shelter, etc. that we need in order to go back to work the next day). Meanwhile, our work actually produces a lot more value than what we’re paid. The capitalists keep the difference between the amount of wealth we create and the amount we receive in our paycheck; they call this “profit.” This process of unequal exchange between employers and workers is the main form of exploitation under capitalism.
Thus the bourgeoisie makes money from the skills and products of the workers. The workers who do the alienated labor get a fraction of the money back in the form of a paycheck. But the overwhelming majority of the money goes to the bosses, who then use it to make more money. Money that is used to make more money is called capital. Capital is our everyday labor, alienated from us, and reified into a thing that dominates us.
Reification happens when a relation between people starts to seem like a separate force, imposing itself on the people taking part in the relation. We’ve all experienced reification at some point. When we’ve bowed down to our boss so often that bosses seem to have some innate authority, that’s reification. When we’ve been stuck in an unhealthy relationship for so long that the relationship seem normal, that’s reification. When we view exploitation and oppression as natural, and when we come to think of our selves as isolated individuals, that’s reification. When the things made by millions of alienated workers appear to dominate over the workers themselves, that’s reification.
We manufacture products on assembly lines, but when they come out of the factory they don’t belong to us. We transport stacks of goods in trucks to warehouses that don’t belong to us. We prepare and sell products that aren’t ours in restaurants and retail shops. Even when we’re unemployed we’re surrounded by buildings, clothes, and food that don’t belong to us, which were alienated from people just like us when they were made. We can’t take food, clothing, and shelter if we need them, or share them if we make them. Everything belongs to somebody else: usually a corporation. Everything we make (or transport, assemble, cook, sell, etc.) is taken by capitalists, who ultimately sell it back to other alienated people. Instead of relating to other people by freely sharing the fruits of our labor, we have to relate to things we have to buy, and don’t see the working people behind them. We become alienated from each-other.
We produce and reproduce the capitalist system every day through our practical activity. Capital lives only by sucking our labor. It can do nothing without us: our bodies are its arms, its legs, its reproductive organs, and its brains. Therefore we have the power to end it. Countless times through history oppressed and exploited people have struggled to overthrow capital. Many people think they can escape the cycle of alienation, exploitation and oppression without revolution. Some think they can escape the rat race if they work hard enough, but the reality is that most people never can. Others think they can reform capitalism. But these are all failed routes out of exploitation and oppression.
As long as relations of exploitation stay in place, the bourgeoisie will keep gaining more wealth and power by using the alienated labor of the proletariat, and keep strengthening the system that keeps this relationship going. To end this situation, we will have to do more than work harder or struggle to reorganize capitalism. We will have to attack the relations of exploitation and oppression that recreate capitalism as a whole. To do this, we will have to abolish the social relations between classes, the system of alienated labor, and ultimately the very existence of classes. We will have to kick the bourgeoisie out of power, and create a new society where labor isn’t alienated, where workers control their work, and where ordinary people control their own lives and communities.
Capitalism isn’t eternal and it wasn’t decreed by god. Like any social system, it can be created and destroyed. We can destroy capitalism by organizing with each other to stop the process of exploitation, by defeating the forces that stand in our way, by creating new ways of running society, and by living together with dignity, peace and with all of our needs met. In a truly free society, everyone will labor for the common good, without being forced to work for a ruling class, and without being forced to pay for the goods produced by their fellow human beings. Through the history of capitalism, the struggle for this free society has been called anarchism or communism.
Communism is the movement of people to overthrow the capitalist system and build a free society. For hundreds of years now, poor people have been trying to end capitalism, racism, male domination, nationalism, homophobia, and imperialism. This history has produced a long list of organizations, movements, experiences and ideas that we can learn from. Communism is also the theory draw from the struggles of the oppressed to break their own chains. This theory is continually changing and growing with every new struggle that emerges.
Unfortunately, many who called themselves communists through history, like those who call themselves Christians, Muslims or Jews, ended up practicing something very different from what they preached. Instead of fighting for a free society where everyone makes what they can and shares what they need, many communists created dictatorships run by elites, with the same alienation and exploitation as under capitalism. After the twentieth century, the names Lenin, Stalin and Mao are more associated with mass murder and oppression than anything else. We agree with this assessment. At the same time, we know that communism isn’t limited to these tragedies. Many communists and anarchists through history fought against top-down state socialism, and tried to find a different path to liberation. Like them, we believe we can learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century, and create a genuinely free society.
At many points through history, whether in 1791, 1848, 1871, 1917, 1921, 1956, or in 1968, movements have gone beyond winning small reforms, higher wages, or new presidents. They grew so powerful that the entire capitalist system was thrown into question. Millions of people felt that a free, communist society was possible, and they tried to create it. Each time that a revolutionary movement has almost taken down capitalism, the capitalist system has transformed itself and emerged stronger. But the outcome of the next battle is still undecided. We can also emerge stronger, by learning from these past successes and failures.
Every time capitalism transforms, it creates new conditions for its own destruction. Even now, there are movements going on in Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Spain, in U.S. prisons and on the streets of poor neighborhoods, where oppressed people are learning that they can struggle together and win. In the course of revolutionary struggle, everyday people dramatically change their personalities and ways of interacting.
Consciousness is changed by great historical events such as the U.S. Civil War, the Russian revolution of 1917, World War I and II, the Vietnam War, the economic crisis of 2008, or the murder of Trayvon Martin. Consciousness is changed when poor and working people struggle for their own freedom, and in the process clear their heads and develop new ideas. There is no magic trick to changing consciousness, no perfect conversation technique that will finally “enlighten” everyone at once. The study of how consciousness changes is ultimately the study of history, class struggle, and the ideas that are born in them.
It might seem impossible today to think that people in can cooperate to run their communities themselves. One of the great victories of capitalism has been to make people distrust each other, to be alienated from each other, to think everyone is stupid. A communist society will involve everyone taking part in it, and exercising control over their own lives. When we fight a revolutionary struggle, our consciousness changes, and makes this kind of world possible.
Communism is a society in which broad masses of people control the conditions of their lives. Under communism, every person produces goods, services and ideas according to their abilities, and takes resources from the wealth of society according to their needs. Communism is not possible without the total destruction of capitalism, racism, women’s oppression, lesbian/ gay/ transgender oppression, imperialism, ecological catastrophe, and much more. Billions of people will accomplish communism through strikes, riots, armed battles, and mass meetings. It will not be done by a small group of “enlightened” people. It will happen—like every revolution in the past—through a mass movement.
People who understand this can become revolutionaries. They can find places where working-class people are cooperating and struggling. They can participate in these struggles, and learn from them. Then they can help people struggle more effectively, and help them understand the road ahead more clearly. Revolutionary confrontations don’t come very often, but when they do, they require millions of people to break their own chains. Those of us who want a free society need to prepare.
–From How to Overthrow the Illuminati, by Will, Chino, Saudade, and Mamos