What Was Capitalism?

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In 1888, in Edward Bellamy’s best-selling novel Looking Backward, a time-trav- eler wakes in the year 2000 to a social- ist utopia. A recently discovered manu- script—this one from the future—de- scribes for people of the year 2176 what life was like in the 2000s. Written by the Earth History Collective, it was retrieved by Sanjiv Gupta of the DSA National Po- litical Education Committee. —Eds

Capitalism was dominant for several centuries. Today, it seems alien, even abhorrent: How could people have lived like that? Yet capitalism trained millions of people to work together to do amazing things, like doubling the average human lifespan. But only a few people reaped most of its benefits. This created a vast gap between its promises and its realities, reflected in everyday experiences with money, work, time, and freedom.

Money: Today, money is a convenient tool for keeping track of our resources and wealth and for planning for future needs. Under capitalism, money was the ultimate measure of the value of all things, even of people. Most people did not have enough because a few had too much.

Work: Today, we understand work to be the use of our bodies and minds to satisfy our natural curiosity, create beauty, and nurture our children. We like being pleasantly depleted by work and then returning to it after rest and renewal. Under capitalism, most people “worked for money” in order to live. And by working, they

made the already wealthy even richer. They also did “unpaid” work, such as caring for their young, old, and sick. Today, we understand most work to be about caring for something or someone.

Time: Today, we understand time as the marker of change in all things. That includes ourselves: We exist for a finite time. During this time we work to increase our own, and others’, health and happiness and to enjoy our existence. Under capitalism, most people’s time was structured by their need to work for money. They could only spend time on other things— even caring for their young—during their “time off” from this work.

Freedom: Today, we understand freedom as our ability to choose what we do with our finite time, to choose our work and our pleasures. Under capitalism, most people’s freedom was limited by where and to whom they were born. Only a few escaped this tyranny of chance. Today, we understand that for any of us to be free, all of us must be free. This requires us to decide together how we use our resources and the fruits of our collective labor.

It’s hard to believe that our practices and conceptions of money, work, time, and freedom were considered revolutionary during capitalism. Yet capitalism itself was once revolutionary. It destroyed earlier, seemingly permanent ways of life, such as caste and slavery. But it concentrated the means of producing wealth in the hands of a few. When the vast majority took over these resources, it cleared the way for everyone to decide the content of their existence. It made it possible for all of us, today, to be free.