What are anti-capitalist politics?

imagesby Philip Ferguson

The number of people in this country who see themselves as being against capitalism goes far beyond the organised left.  But someone saying they are anti-capitalist begs the question, What does that mean?  In reality it means very little because, although the number of people who see themselves as opposed to capitalism, most of these people support whole chunks of the existing order.

To build an actual anti-capitalist movement, some first principles need stating.  It seems odd to be doing this in 2015, almost 170 years after a foundational document like the Communist Manifesto.  However, this is because the vast bulk of what identifies as left has retreated a long, long way, even from early twentieth century social democracy let alone any kind of principled anti-capitalism.

So let’s restate some foundational points.

Anti-capitalism means being against the capitalist system, not simply droning on about how awful the National Party is.

Anti-capitalism means being against the capitalist system, not simply droning on about how awful ‘foreign’ capital is.

Anti-capitalism means being against the capitalist system, not simply private capital.  It means also being against businesses which are owned by the state and run as capitalist enterprises – they are not “our assets”.

Anti-capitalism means being against all the parties that manage and defend the capitalist system – that includes all the parties currently living it up in the parliament which manages the political affairs of the ruling class.

Anti-capitalism means the main enemy is at home – it’s our ruling class which organises, oversees and is responsible for the exploitation of the working class of this country.

Anti-capitalism means the starting point for analysing the system we live under is the capital/wage-labour relationship.  Everything else is negotiable, even eradicable – as Marx and Engels put it, under capitalism “all that is solid melts into air” – but the maintenance of the wage-labour/capital relation.

Anti-capitalism means understanding that the working class is the universal class – ie the class whose interests are the interests of all humanity.  The working class cannot emancipate itself without opening the way to the emancipation of all the oppressed and exploited, the liberation of the whole of humanity.  This means championing the interests of all the oppressed throughout the struggle for a new society and in the new society itself.

Anti-capitalism means anti-imperialism.  The working class cannot free itself without seeing itself as part of a global class and fighting as part of this global class.  In the imperialist heartlands, like New Zealand, this means opposing every manifestation of national chauvinism, no matter which ‘foreigners’ it is directed against.  It means championing the right of workers to free movement around the world and opposing immigration controls.

Anti-capitalism means fighting all the chains that tie the working class to our exploiters, both at the organisational and ideological level.  It means the working class has to be politically independent of the capitalist class whether on foreign policy or domestic policy.

Anti-capitalism means opposition to the capitalist state in all its forms, from the obviously repressive (‘the bodies of armed men’ and, these days, women too; anti-union laws etc) to the deceptively ‘user-friendly’ elements (the ‘soft state’ elements which are, in this country, often more important for mediating and preventing potential conflicts and incorporating into the state sections of the social movements – eg the Treaty industry, race relations and human rights commission/ers, etc).

Anti-capitalism means embracing rationalism and science, which are crucial to the emancipation of humanity.

Anti-capitalism means the starting point is the advancement of the material interests of the working class and oppressed, not subordinating them to any other force – not to any capitalist political party like Labour or anyone else; not to the state; not to any union bureaucracies which hold back struggles.  It means standing for a fighting labour movement, one which schools the working class in the politics of class struggle rather than class conciliation and class peace.

Further reading:

Class, class consciousness and left political practice

When is it time for revolutionary politics?


  1. Cheers.

    We should all have a chat about facebook. . .

    I’ll be back at the start of September for a few days, so see you then.


  2. Interesting, a timely piece actually.

    I do find the idea of anti-capitalism is all too frequently mixed-up with relatively moderate social democracy, and sometimes even neo-liberal Green politics! A central part of this confusion is that socialism/anti-capitalism is automatically associated with statism, and thus only the State can deliver a society that is not capitalist. This of course confuses entirely the role of the State in managing the capitalist system.

    Of course, it is overly simplistic to paint the State as solely an instrument of the governing capitalist class. Some elements of the Leviathan perform importance functions that would not likely be replaced under a socialist society (though perhaps managed differently, with greater democratic accountability). Some other functions might be altered eventually, but to do so before any wider social change would be disastrous and only increase suffering in the immediate term, while potentially damaging the emergence of a radical alternative in the longer-term. Noam Chomsky refers to State power as, sometimes, a ‘necessary cage’:

    ‘I’m not in favour of people being in cages. On the other hand I think people ought to be in cages if there’s a sabre-toothed tiger wandering around outside and if they go out of the cage the sabre-toothed tiger will kill them. So sometimes there’s a justification for cages. That doesn’t mean cages are good things. State power is a good example of a necessary cage. There are sabre-toothed tigers outside; they are called transnational corporations which are among the most tyrannical totalitarian institutions that human society has devised. And there is a cage, namely the state, which to some extent is under popular control. The cage is protecting people from predatory tyrannies so there is a temporary need to maintain the cage, and even to extend the cage’

    Now we can dispute his specific example, but I think the concept he is raising has some value in considering (he actually took the idea from some Brazilian farm workers, so there you go). Our goal could be conceived as ‘widening the floors of the cage’ until the bars ultimately break, coinciding with the destruction of the tigers. So State capture can be a legitimate goal of an anti-capitalist, as long as the process of State capture is also one that in doing so, reconstructs it in a way that serves the popular struggle. This isn’t a tidy linear process, but is preferably to the sudden disappearance of the cage.

  3. In terms of going beyond capitalism, the form is building bodies of workers’ power within the existing system to the point where there is a situation of dual power and then overthrowing the existing capitalist state.

    We are very far indeed from any such situation in this country, but dual power is crucial. That is a massive problem in Greece. Syriza ‘captured’ the government but the system captured Syriza. And the system is stronger than any particular government.

    Bodies of dual power simply don’t exist in Greece apart from in the most marginal sense. The Vio.me factory occupation has been an example, which is why we gave it so much coverage with articles, an interview, a video etc etc. But outside the building of real sources of dual power, the outcome in Greece was always on the cards.

    And it wasn’t a matter of Greek workers not being militant – they had a couple of dozen general strikes. But in general strikes the workers stay away from the workplaces, rather than taking them over. And the ruling class in Greece has long since learned how to manage a general strike and don’t feel threatened by them.

    I remember back in 1977 there was a bus drivers’ strike in Christchurch and I tried to chat with a few bus workers about the idea that a more effective form of industrial action, and class unity-building, might be keeping the buses on the road but not collecting fares. All I got was blank faces. It was just so far removed from their understanding of ‘industrial action’.


    • Hi Phil,

      What are your thoughts on how to establish dual power when the workplace in the developed world is becoming less and less a site of struggle?

      The high concentration of workers at a single mine or factory during the 19th century helped contribute to the awakening of political consciousness. Workers knew their power to disrupt the system and this power taken to its extreme could be used by workers to destroy the system.

      Do workers in our own society have the same power, when they are less concentrated and have less control over the means of production?

  4. Important points.

    At present, I don’t see such institutions on the agenda, although every now and then there are little examples: the Vio.me occupation in Thessaloniki seems to be one and we ran a iece on one in Buenos Aires recently too.

    But in the absence of even strike action, it seems quite abstract to talk about dual power. However, it seems to me that this remains the road to workers’ power. In its absence, the result is situations like Greece and the ability of Tsipras and co to do an awful deal with the troika.

    In Venezuela, the situation seems to have stalled and, eventually, I think the capitalist opposition will wear down the Chavistas. Unless the workers take power, the capitalists will get fully back on top. And, again, what is missing in Venezuela is the *generalisation* of institutions of workers power. It all still remains within the bounds of capitalist property relations and bourgeois democracy.

    In New Zealand, we don’t have the kinds of industries and workplaces that were once sites of class consciousness and struggle – the mines, freezing works, car plants, rubber mills and so on (my old man was a rubber mill worker and his workplace was quite militant). But it’s not like factories have disappeared either; plus we have new work sites. We have a new working class, too, one that hasn’t yet learned to see itself as a class and to struggle collectively very much. It’s like we’re in a (long) transitional period.

    But if you look at growth areas like services, including fast food. Workers are still there, operating the means of production and they can shut down those places if they choose to in the future.

    I think what we’re also seeing is that businesses and workers are becoming more connected globally, so potentially the power of the working class as a global class is greater than ever. But there is a massive lag in consciousness.

    I have no idea how to overcome that contradiction. I don’t think anyone has – well, not beyond the level of rhetoric anyway. Without *some motion* in the class itself, as we keep saying, there’s no much hope for any perspective. We know what doesn’t work – it’s what a lot of the left keeps doing over and over again – and we have a few ideas about what could work, and what is necessary, but making that real for workers today is the missing link.


    • I’m curious if you saw ‘Sunday’ last night?

      They had an interesting story about the rise of robotics in New Zealand and its potential impact on employment. For instance they interviewed the owners of a fully automatic diary farm, where the cows have been taught to milk themselves. They showed only one worker at the milking site, sitting behind a computer, making sure there was no glitches in the system. With future advancements in AI this worker will no longer be needed. They also showed that robotic technology is now being developed for the fast-food industry and cafes.

      The issue of robotics and AI obviously brings up the issue of intensifying the falling rate of profit, but the report also got me thinking about what this means for workers power.

      It seems to me that these developments could make strike action increasingly redundant and potentially result in workers lashing out in luddite style acts of sabotage in frustration. On the other hand it got me thinking about the growing potential of hacktivist acts of resistance, where small networks of people could potentially cause massive havoc to the system.

  5. These kinds of developments are potentially incredibly liberating for the working class. They show that we could have a working week of 20 hours and produce everything we need to have a good life.

    Of course, under crazy capitalism, these developments just mean more unemployment for workers.

    However, it also means workers are faced, at least potentially, with a stark choice, Be done to, or start doing some stuff for themselves, like taking power.

    I’m wary about how far robotics can go. I am old enough to remember back in the early 1970s when we were told that technology would take over almost everything done by human labour and we’d only need to work a few hours a week and the big problem would be how on earth we’d find things to do in all the leisure time we’d have.

    But what such projections failed to see was that this wasn’t simply technological development; it was technological development within the context of capitalism. And, indeed, what happened was that capitalism placed significant limitations on technological development. The biggest limitation is that, as you mention, it depresses the rate of profit.

    I recall reading a piece in an issue of the Economist back in 1994 about robots in Japanese car factories. At one point they were the big new thing, but by 1994 factories started to shift away from robots and back to human workers. The reason was that profit rates had dropped. Of course, they couldn’t really figure out why – they were just confronted with the reality.

    The problem is that robots involved a substantial increase in the organic composition of capital – the ratio of constant (especially fixed) capital to variable capital. But only the variable capital creates expanded, new value; the constant capital simply reproduces its own value. So a company that robotises first may gain an initial advantage, but once the process is generalised across each sector, that advantage ends and the rate of profit falls.

    A Green friend of mine ensures me that contemporary robotics and AI are of a different order to the 1960s view of technological takeover, which didn’t materialise. He insists that robotics and AI will actually take over, but I remain sceptical.

    I guess, yes, there is the potential for hacktivists to cause all sorts of mayhem to such a system. But to what end? Isn’t that similar to workers engaging in luddism, in the sense that it targets technology rather than the social system? The technology is brilliant – we want it to be as good as possible so that the working class can take it over.

    There is also a core of workplaces that are still fairly ‘conventional’: transport, like bus workers; supermarkets; a chunk of factories; educational institutions; and others. Plus there are new industries which require factory-style production. And of course, there is all the traditional work that is required to build the robots – from mining the minerals that are used in making computers and robots to plastics factories to assembly lines for the robots and computers.

    I also wonder about concentrations of workers in places like Silicon Valley. Those workers may look different and their workplaces may look different, from old smokestack industry, but surely there are quite large concentrations of workers in workplaces in Silicone Valley?


  6. For quite some time myself and a few friends and comrades have been rethinking the term ‘the left’. What does it mean these days to say you are on the ‘left’ when in so many people’s minds the left is thoroughly compromised and intertwined with liberal elitism – political correctness, identity politics, Labourism, histrionics, new forms of social control and so on. We don’t support any of the things that most people probably see as being ‘left’ or as being the *main things* that constitute the left – and they’re seen in a negative way (and rightly so) by most ‘ordinary people’.

    A few days ago I was talking to an electrician who was doing some work at my place. He’s middle-aged and him and his wife migrated here recently from England. He said they left England for two main reasons – they couldn’t stand the English class system and they couldn’t stand the political correctness from the EU. (I did tell him he’d come to the wrong country as PC is dominant here.)

    I think his attitude is very common among workers. They’re not reactionary, they are aware that they’re workers, although their class consciousness is very weak and has little practical reflection, and they understand there is something deeply alien (and elitist) about identity politics and political correctness, but they haven’t thought through any of it, let alone come to anti-capitalist conclusions.

    One long-time leftie friend of mine said to me recently that he has stopped describing himself as ‘left’, preferring the term ‘anti-establishment’. I guess my favoured term is ‘anti-capitalist’ rather than left-wing. All kinds of pro-capitalist people – eg even in the capitalist Labour Party – call themselves left-wing. I have no desire to be identified with them, they are supporters and enablers of the system that exploits and oppresses the vast majority of humanity and their leftism is fraudulent.


    • I think one maybe obvious reason to retain the term ‘left’ is exactly because elements of the Labour Party like the label. We shouldnt give them free rein to set the terms of any debate or give them an easy victory by leaving the field of battle and that goes for the basics of political terminology too.

      As an anarchist i sometimes get told it would be better to drop the label in preference to something more euphemistic or vague like ‘left libertarian’. However, every time i hear the capitalist media use ‘state of anarchy’ as a synonym for chaos it just makes me dig in my heals and want to defend the real deal definition. Getting heard amid the noise the superstructure throws up, is far from easy but whatever victories can be won are all the more sweeter for that. We have to win on our own terms (in more than one sense) or it becomes a case of “Whoever takes the revolution half way, digs their own grave.”

      As for the nature of modern workplaces. Its true there has been a shift away from primary industries in the ‘advanced’ capitalist economies. However, workers as workers still retain potentially immense social power in ways identity politics cant fully tap. Workers as cleaners, food producers, drivers, electricians etc have the power to shut down the whole system regardless of sexuality or gender. The difficulty of course is getting the class to act in its own interests as a class. As youve noted, theres a lag between potential and current consciousness.

      One positive aspect of the way the current economy is structured is that capitalism has created the objective conditions for its own downfall. By decentralising the places of work (e.g 90% of NZ workplaces have 20 workers or less) this provides the pre-figurative basis for democratic control and ownership of workplaces. The use of IT technology allows workers to build links with each other or sabotage of the workplace at critical times. The absence of unions means new generations can be introduced to ideas of militant workers organisations as if these are fresh ideas, unencumbered by numbing experiences of being in tame, top down unions as of old.

      We have to start from what is, but use it to our own advantage. That applies to both terminology and the economic landscape we have to operate in. What our masters think works in their favour can cut both ways if we are prepared to fight for it.

      • Not giving the phonies free rein was always a big consideration for me. Recently, not so much.

        I agree with most of your points. One thing I’m not so sure about is smaller workplaces. Developing class consciousness in such small workplaces is extremely hard. A smart boss plays a parent-figure role, it’s all one little family. The big factories of the 1970s – car plants, freezing works etc – along with other big workplaces like the wharves – were the key sites of struggle. In the past 20 years there hasn’t been much sign of struggle in the workplaces with 10-20 workers.

        Also a huge mass of small workplaces are a nightmare when it comes to organising an economic plan for the whole of society.

    • This has been a topic of conversation for me and others for a while as well. The left is a nebulous and almost meaningless term. Much of it exists as a partner to capitalism in order to maintain it. What is the communist orientation to the left, with these things in mind? Actually, this has been discussed by anarchists for about a century I believe. We sneer at the Greens being ‘Neither left nor right’ but perhaps they have a point – not that we adopt centrist garbage. But that the left is a camp which is wholly subsumed into capital.

      The ‘anti-politics’ articulated by some anarchists/leftcoms and so on is perhaps useful to consider. The knee jerk rejection of this analysis which sees communism as, in fact, *against* much of the left is that it leaves us isolated and alone – which is bullshit, to be frank. Rank and file members of all sorts of capitalist parties and bureaucratic organisations can absolutely be worked with, and often have infinitely better politics than the groups they belong to – to declare a break with ‘the left’ as a break with all the people in those institutions is obviously utter nonsense. And I think the people who try to say that *is* what a break from the left would mean know that they are bullshitting too. There’s just a lack of courage or confidence to break from what’s known. Navigating an orientation to the labour party, to the unions etc, this seems to be the bread and butter or Marxist discussion far too often when – to me – they aren’t the pressing questions *at all*.


      • Yes, there are all kinds of people in a range of organisations that can be worked with. Earlier this year I was invited to give a talk to a Labour Party branch. I told the person who invited me that in my view Labour is an institution of the class enemy, but I had no interest in going along and denouncing them in their own house so-to-speak. He said that was fine and that most of the branch were very critical of the LP and, as it turned out, most of them didn’t even vote Labour in the previous election.

        I made the argument that they should get out of the LP. If they want a left social-democratic party then they should form one, because Labour will never be that. And that by staying in it they were, regardless of their intentions, propping up an anti-working class institution. We had a kind of interesting discussion and I’m on reasonably friendly terms with a couple of them, but they are absolutely wasting their time. I also feel it’s kinda dishonest to belong to the LP when you don’t even vote for it. (I think they do, however, leaflet for it at election time, which I think is truly appalling.)

        I have no problem, however, working with individual LP members. The problem is that most of the left works with such people on *their* terms, instead of developing campaigns which actually have a real anti-capitalist dynamic. I’ve made this point numerous times – although the far left in NZ is in a formal organisation sense independent form the LP and reformism it is not politically independent. The far left much more typically does leg work for reformist campaigns and the people who are stronger at the end of these are the reformists. That’s a crucial element as to why the far left in this country is so minuscule and irrelevant.

        You say that navigating an orientation to the LP isn’t an issue for you. However, unfortunately, it is still an issue for a significant number of workers. A couple of small, left unions are affiliated (MUNZ, RMT) and although only a minority of workers vote Labour these days, it is a significant minority. You have to be able to address those folks if you have any intention to try to become a mass political movement in and of the working class, regardless of any subjective feelings about it not being a pressing question at all.

        However, I think a break with (most of) the existing left is the logical consequence of any sort of serious revolutionary orientation in this country. The radical left is both minuscule and politically quite soft. And, over a long period of time, shown itself to be perpetually so. Breaking with them is not breaking with anyone or thing that has any base in the working class. It is simply the logical reflection of the fact that that left has failed, and failed miserably, and it is time for something different.

        In my experience this is recognised by the comrades of AWSM (my main political friends in this country outside this blog), by the people involved in Redline and a very tiny number of non-affiliated people, some of whom write occasionally for Redline and some of whom contribute to the blog in other ways .

        Long experience has taught me that you can’t build on a swamp – any doubts, ask the people of Bexley! – you need to find secure ground.

  7. Its true historically (from the late industrial revolution to say 40 years ago?) that class conscious action entailed the organisation of workers in large scale consolidated sites. Perhaps that was inherently easier to do by the very nature of that consolidation, though im not sure. Co-relation is not causation. Whatever the case, we are in a different environment now. Yes, smaller workplaces do permit easier paternalistic atttitudes to develop, but it only takes a very small number of people who wont play ball, to actually disrupt that, as opposed to the greater numbers required in the days of large factories. Its also true as you say, that over the past 10-20 years the rate of industrial action has declined. I wonder if that has as much to do with the dominance (until recently) of neo-liberalism and all that has come with it (the smashing of unions, privatisation, casualization, precarious work, underemployment, an ethos of individualism etc) rather than the nature of decentralised workplaces in and of themselves? Im not sure smaller workplaces necessarily mean its always harder to organise resistance, In part I think its down to the continued hegemony of reformist top-down unions, to the limited extent they exist at all. Call me biased, but rank and file controlled, federated organising and not just in the form of unions (im not a syndicalist) has a greater chance of succeeding in the current environment. Not that we see much sign of it actually happening, ill grant you but we have to start from what is.

    As for the future, yes a plan for an entire society based on “a huge mass of small workplaces” would not be easy. Theres obviously a degree of speculation involved in this, but I think if you look at historical examples and compare what has been tried, this more sophisticated form of organising has a better chance of getting it right if external circumstances are in its favour too. Also, realistically there would still be some large scale economic units in existence. I would imagine that the future society would come about through a combination of a long-term amount of theoretical preparation combined with practical trial and error over perhaps an extended period. Undoubtedly its a fluid not static situation but again,i think a democratic, de-centralised and federated economy would have the flexibility to adapt better than clunky top-down systems.

  8. Thanks Timur. I’ve noticed that we’ve had a little bunch of hits on Redline coming from the work-way site.

    There are an increasing number of such sites that reblog our stuff and link to us in various ways now. It’s encouraging. Especially since the class struggle in NZ is at an all-time low.

    • The Russian proletariat keens to know what is going on outside the Russia with regards to the class struggle. We’ll continue translating/reposting your materials on our site.

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