With the Democratic Socialists of America now counting 48,000 people within its membership and socialist candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pushing for free universities and Medicare for All, Americans are once again discussing capitalism versus socialism. Fortunately, they are not doing so in the old Cold War manner of uncritically celebrating one while demonizing the other. Rather, it’s a debate over the choice Americans must make now between keeping capitalism or changing the system to some form of socialism. As debates often do, this debate awakens us to problems and differences in how we understand its basic terms. For clarity and to make progress in this important debate, we need to stop conflating “capitalism” with the market. This is done far too often and on all sides of the debate.
Markets are a means of distributing resources and products, goods and services. Quid pro quo exchange defines markets: one person offers to sell to another who offers to buy at a mutually agreed ratio that may or may not be mediated by money. To say that a market exists means that such an exchange system is what accomplishes distribution. To say that a market exists says nothing about how production is accomplished or how resources are converted into products. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a description of how the production of goods and services is organized, and how the participants relate to one another in the process of production. Thus conflating “capitalism” with “the market system” loses sight of the fact that markets can exist in relation to different systems of production.
We can get at this in other words. Markets were mechanisms of distribution in societies with very different production systems. For example, in economies based on the enslavement of people, resulting in a production system involving masters and slaves, “inputs” and “outputs” — including enslaved people — were often bought and sold in markets. We might then speak of slave markets: when a slave production system coexisted with a market distribution system.
To take another example, feudal manors were production systems that juxtaposed lords and serfs. Since serfs were not slaves, no market in serfs existed. They were distributed via other, non-market systems. However, their non-human inputs and outputs could be distributed via markets, and in European feudalism often were distributed via market exchanges. Capitalist production systems – organized around the employer-employee (rather than the master-slave or lord-serf) relationship – could likewise coexist with market systems of distribution. Under capitalism, non-human inputs, labor power (the capacity to do labor), and outputs are all often distributed via market exchanges.
Thus it is confused to refer to capitalism as a “market system.” Market distribution systems vary in their specific qualities according to the different production systems and systems of exploitation with which they co-exist. Capitalist markets differ from slave markets, and both differ from feudal markets, but they are all markets. Moreover, markets usually coexist and interact with state apparatuses. Those interactions are marked with greater or lesser degrees of state interventions: from rigid regulation of exchanges all the way over to “free” trade or markets where regulation is minimized or absent. The state apparatus can also abolish the market system and replace it with an alternative system of distribution.
In that event, however, capitalism is not abolished because the market has been abolished. If productive enterprises remain structured around the employer-employee relationship, they remain capitalist with or without a coexisting market system. For the state to replace markets with some administrative (e.g., planned) system of distribution says nothing about the production system. The resources and products of a capitalist system of production can be distributed via more or less state-regulated markets or via non-market distribution systems. The same applies to the resources and products of slave and feudal production systems.
Why does it matter to differentiate markets and other distribution systems from production systems? The answer emerges from the recognition that most economic systems combine one or more production systems with one or more distribution systems. For a long time, the observers of such combinations – both celebrants and critics – have tended to conflate the two systems combined, as if they were one. Indeed, defining capitalism as “the market” or the “free market” system is precisely such a conflation.
Karl Marx went to considerable lengths to differentiate critiques of market exchange from his critique of capitalist production. He believed that major social problems of his time – inequality, cyclical instability, etc. – emerged from the capitalist production system as much or more than from the market system. He was a critic of both, but he kept the criticisms separate for basic reasons of analytical clarity and revolutionary strategy.
From capitalism’s beginnings, reformers have sought to soften its hard edges often by means of state interventions in markets. Minimum wages, maximum interest rates, progressive taxation, and so on are among their chosen mechanisms. More generally, reformers responded to capitalism’s profit-driven distribution of wealth by having the state redistribute that wealth according to non-capitalist (non-profit) criteria.
A more extreme criticism of markets displaced them in favor of other mechanisms of distributing resources and products such as centralized or decentralized state institutions charged with distribution, private institutions similarly charged, etc. However, if and when the production system continued to juxtapose employers and employees, all the different distribution systems discussed above – “free” market, regulated market, and non-market – coexist and interact with a capitalist production system.
To the extent that capitalism’s problems – inequality, instability (cycles/crises), etc. – stem in part from its production relationships, reforms focused exclusively on regulating or supplanting markets will not succeed in solving them. For example, Keynesian monetary policies (focused on raising or lowering the quantity of money in circulation and, correspondingly, interest rates) do not touch the employer-employee relationship, however much their variations redistribute wealth, regulate markets, or displace markets in favor of state-administered investment decisions. Likewise, Keynesian fiscal policies (raising or lowering taxes and government spending) do not address the employer-employee relationship.
Keynesian policies also never ended the cyclical instability of capitalism. The New Deal and European social democracy left capitalism in place in both state and private units (enterprises) of production notwithstanding their massive reform agendas and programs. They thereby left capitalist employers facing the incentives and receiving the resources (profits) to evade, weaken and eventually dissolve most of those programs.
It is far better not to distribute wealth unequally in the first place than to re-distribute it after to undo the inequality. For example, FDR proposed in 1944 that the government establish a maximum income alongside a minimum wage; that is one among the various ways inequality could be limited and thereby redistribution avoided. Efforts to redistribute encounter evasions, oppositions, and failures that compound the effects of unequal distribution itself. Social peace and cohesion are the victims of redistribution sooner or later. Reforming markets while leaving the relations/organization of capitalist production unchanged is like redistribution. Just as redistribution schemes fail to solve the problems rooted in distribution, market-focused reforms fail to solve the problems rooted in production.
Since 2008, capitalism has showed us all yet again its deep and unsolved problems of cyclical instability, deepening inequality and the injustices they both entail. Their persistence mirrors that of the capitalist organization of production. To successfully confront and solve the problems of economic cycles, income and wealth inequality, and so on, we need to go beyond the capitalist employer-employee system of production. The democratization of enterprises – transitioning from employer-employee hierarchies to worker cooperatives – is a key way available here and now to realize the change we need.
Worker coops democratically decide the distribution of income (wages, bonuses, benefits, profit shares, etc.) among their members. No small group of owners and the boards of directors they choose would, as in capitalist corporations, make such decisions. Thus, for example, it would be far less likely that a few individuals in a worker coop would earn millions while most others could not afford to send children to college. A democratic worker coop decision on the distribution of enterprise income would be far less unequal than what typifies capitalist enterprises. A socialism for the 21st century could and should include the transition from a capitalist to a worker-coop-based economic system as central to its commitments to less inequality and less social conflict over redistribution.