Jason Hickel Profile picture
Apr 18 16 tweets 3 min read
People often assume that capitalism is defined by "markets and trade". But markets and trade existed for thousands of years before capitalism. Capitalism is only 500 years old. So what is distinctive about this economic system? Three things (well, more, but three for now):
1. First, and most importantly, it is defined by enclosure and artificial scarcity. The origins of capitalism lie in a systematic effort by elites to restrict people's access to commons and independent subsistence, in order to render them reliant on wage labour for survival.
Over the past 500 years, this has taken the form of privatization of commons, forced dispossession, destruction of subsistence economies and - particularly in the colonies - taxing people in a currency they do not have in order to induce them to seek wages in that currency.
This continues today, with attempts to ensure an artificial scarcity of access to essential goods such as housing, healthcare, education, transit, and so on - goods that could very easily be provided, at high quality, on a universal public basis.
Where universal public goods do exist, these have usually been won by longstanding struggles by labour movements and other progressive forces (including the anti-colonial movement).
2. Second, capitalism is organized around - and dependent on - perpetual expansion, meaning ever-increasing production of commodified goods. It is the only intrinsically expansionary economic system in history (meaning it basically has a crisis if it doesn't continually expand).
Crucially, under capitalism the purpose of increasing production is *not* primarily to meet human needs, but rather to extract and accumulate profit. That is the overriding objective. (It is also the main objective of innovation).
It's important to distinguish here between small businesses, which quite often operate with a steady-state, use-value logic (and which obviously preceded capitalism), and corporations whose main objective is expansion and accumulation (which define the capitalist era).
To sustain the process of perpetually increasing surplus accumulation, capital requires an ever-rising quantity of inputs (labour and nature), and requires that these inputs be obtained as cheaply as possible.
This introduces a constant pressure to depress real wages and attack environmental protections wherever possible (in the absence of countervailing political forces). The result is a system that, left to itself, automatically generates inequality and ecological breakdown.
3. Finally, capitalism is notable for precluding democratic decision-making. Even in countries that prize political democracy, democratic principles are rarely allowed to operate in the sphere of production, where decisions are made overwhelmingly by those who control capital.
The result is that decisions about what to produce, for what purposes, for whose benefit, and under what conditions are generally made in the narrow interests of the capitalist class (workers, the people actually *doing* the production, rarely get a voice at all).
It is worth pondering how our production priorities (and our treatment of labour and nature) might be different under conditions of economic democracy. Existing evidence suggests that democratic conditions lead to less exploitation, more equality, and more care for ecology.
In sum, the tendency to equate capitalism with "markets and trade" naturalizes a system that is not natural, and prevents us from having a clear-eyed view of how it operates and how we might want to do things differently.
(The "more" I referred to involves exploitative relations of race, gender and imperial power, which are effects of the tendencies described here, and which sustain them, but this deserves a thread unto itself - coming soon).
We can have a democratic economy organized around meeting human needs at a high standard, where production is socially just and ecologically regenerative. Such a system is possible, but it will require a political movement to bring it into being.

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More from @jasonhickel

Dec 2
Stopping climate breakdown is likely going to require constraints on energy use. Will the constraints be imposed on working classes and the poor (the default under capitalism), or on the rich and corporations (ecosocialism)? This question will define politics in the 21st century.
"But all we need to do is scale up renewables": yes, we must, but we also face a question of speed. To cut emissions in half by 2030 while maintaining current levels of energy use among the rich will require a rate of renewable rollout so rapid as to be probably unfeasible.
Here is a key principle: the more energy we use, the more difficult it is to achieve rapid decarbonization (and vice versa). For a good read on the distributional dynamics of energy use in climate mitigation, this is worthwhile: nature.com/articles/s4146…
Read 5 tweets
Nov 23
The core mechanism of capital accumulation is that the majority of humanity must be made to consume less than they produce (or made to produce more than they are permitted to consume). And this constraint is imposed most violently on the people of the global South.
Poverty is not a natural condition, it is an effect of this arrangement.
And of course it bears noting that their labour is overwhelmingly mobilized *not* to produce for human needs (food, housing, healthcare, education), but for corporate growth, such that even if their purchasing power is increased there remain critical shortages of necessary goods.
Read 4 tweets
Nov 22
This new report by Oxfam marks a critically important step in climate discourse. It is not just personal consumption that matters, it's who controls finance, investment and production. And those folks have us on a death march. A thread: policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/carb…
The role of investments in causing climate breakdown cannot be emphasized enough. Oxfam's study focuses on billionaires' investments, but the principle can be extended to the 1%, who hold around half of the world's investment assets. That's more than $100 trillion of capital.
Whoever controls finance controls production. Remember, production under capitalism is not democratic. Decisions about what to produce, how to use labour and energy, how to distribute the yields of production: all of this is controlled overwhelmingly by the 1%.
Read 7 tweets
Nov 20
The richest 1% have already blown their fair share of the 1.5°C carbon budget six times over. They are literally devouring our planet.
In addition to economy-wide decarbonization efforts, there is an urgent, existential need to cut the purchasing power of the rich. Wealth taxes, maximum income ceilings, all of this should be on the table.
If we count the emissions associated with investments, the emissions of the 1% are even higher. They control around half of all invested assets. We need to bring this capital into democratic control and reallocate it toward necessary social and ecological goals.
Read 4 tweets
Oct 22
In October we remember the assassination of Thomas Sankara in a Western-backed coup. But there are several others that occurred in this month:

1. Sukarno, president of Indonesia
2. Che Guevara
3. Samora Machel, president of Mozambique

Beginning in October 1965, the US collaborated in a coup that deposed Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, and installed a right-wing dictatorship. US and British officials conspired with the dictatorship to destroy the socialist movement, massacring up to a million people.
The anti-colonial revolutionary Che Guevara was captured and executed by a CIA-assisted mission in Bolivia on October 9, 1967. They cut off his hands and appropriated several of his personal belongings, which were kept as trophies by the CIA.
Read 5 tweets
Oct 15
35 years ago today, Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, was assassinated in a French-backed coup. He aspired to an egalitarian, feminist society, and an economy built on self-sufficiency, ecological regeneration, and independence from Western powers. Image
Sankara saw debt as neocolonialism. "It is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa. Each one of us becomes a financial slave. We are told to repay. We are told it is a moral issue. But it is not... If we don't repay, the lenders will not die. But if we do repay, we will die."
Speaking to African leaders at the OAU, he said: "I would like this conference to declare that we will not repay the debt; we must do it together, to avoid being assassinated individually... If Burkina Faso is the only one to refuse, I will not be here at the next conference."
Read 5 tweets

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