Articles of interest
24th November 2023
Book in Focus
A Treatise on the Capitalist Society
By Xing Yu
Xing Yu is a political scientist. He was an associate professor who taught political science in one university in China in the 1990s. Since his immigration to Canada, he has been writing manuscripts in the field of political science. One of these manuscripts is entitled A Treatise on the Capitalist Society: Critiquing Marx’s Economic and Political Theory, which was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in November, 2023.
In this book, the author describes the formation and evolution of the capitalist society from the perspective of language and media. He argues that since humans began to use language, they have been able to use and develop media. Media extends the distance of linguistic communication and hence expands the interaction of humans. Humans form a large community. In the pre-capitalist society, spoken language played a primary role in the formation of such a society, whereas in the capitalist society, written language plays an increasingly important role in the formation of such a society. As humans interact on an increasingly large scale, more media appear in support of their mutual interaction, particularly in economic life. Currency is a medium; the market is a medium; commodities are media and capital is also a medium. Language, together with media, plays a crucial role in the formation and development of capitalist society, from the beginning to the end.
In the beginning, humans made laws to protect their private property rights. This symbolizes the formation of the capitalist society. In pre-capitalist society, some people kept their property; however, no law was made to protect private property rights. Some people plundered the property from other people. If some people were rich, this was because they had used force. After the law was made to protect private property rights, people were motivated to engage in production, and the economy grew. Some philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx argued that private property rights help the rich to keep their wealth because private property rights are meaningless for the poor and such private property rights result in social inequality. The author of this book holds a different view, arguing that private property rights are established to encourage people to engage in labor and to prohibit some people from plundering. As plundering is banned under private property law, the property owned by people is the result of their labor. Private property rights only mean that each person has the right to protect his property – they do not determine who is rich and who is poor. If common property rights are established, those who do not work may have access to the property jointly owned by a collective group or the public. This is another form of plundering. This is why common property rights do not encourage people to work. The society in which common property rights are established stagnates in economic growth.
Private property rights further serve as a foundation for the exchange of goods and services on the market. People can only exchange what they own with others on the market according to law. When humans can exchange goods and services on the market, they can gain what is offered by others whom they do not know personally. Suppose that each person is able to work so as to make a product to be consumed by himself; he provides a value contained by that product to himself. The author calls this value the basic value created by this person. If this person makes a product and gives this product to another person in exchange for another product, he provides a value to that person. The author calls the value contained by this product surplus value. As each person offers a surplus value to the other person through exchange, the exchange of goods and services bolsters economic growth because people gain a surplus value they cannot create by themselves. This is the reason for the development of the division of labor. As each laborer specializes in producing a product or providing a service, people enhance efficiency in production. As people weigh up the revenue and cost of a deal made on the market in the form of an exchange, laborers are compelled to enhance efficiency in production. Market exchange underpins production.
This contrasts plunder. Though plundering also means the redistribution of the existing social wealth, plunder is a forced exchange. When the plunderer plunders property from a villager, the plunderer warns the villager: if you do not give up your property, we will kill you. The two parties make a deal. They reach an agreement that the villager gives up his property and the plunderer allows the villager to live. As such an exchange is forced, the villager cannot weigh up the revenue and cost of the exchange effectively, so such an exchange is non-productive. Plundering does not encourage production, whereas market exchange encourages production. However, when humans engage in market exchange, they need to use language, whereas when the plunderer plunders, he does not necessarily use language because he always uses force.
Market exchange serves as a basis for the formation of the mode of capitalist production. The laborer sells his labor-power on the market and the entrepreneur or the capitalist employs him. This laborer becomes the worker of the factory operated by this entrepreneur. Does the entrepreneur exploit the worker? Karl Marx, the author of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, emphasizes that the entrepreneur exploits the worker. He argues that the entrepreneur lets the worker work more hours than normal a day. The labor provided during the normal hours is the necessary labor. The labor provided during the period of additional hours is the surplus labor and the value created because of such surplus labor is the absolute surplus value; when a machine is installed in the factory to increase the efficiency of production, the hours of the necessary labor provided by the worker are shortened and the additional hours of labor are increased. The value created by the labor of additional hours provided by the worker is the relative surplus value.
The author of this book holds a different view. He argues that the labor-power provided by the worker is a commodity and its price is determined by the two sides, the worker and the entrepreneur, on the market. The price of the labor-power is affected by the relationship of demand and supply just like the price of any other kind of commodity. Since a process of linguistic presentation is established to determine the price of the labor power and the so-called surplus value does not exist in this process of linguistic presentation, such surplus value does not exist. The entrepreneur does not recognize the existence of such surplus value, nor does the worker. If the worker claims the existence of such surplus value, the two sides will bargain again. If the entrepreneur agrees to raise the price of the labor-power as expected by the worker, such surplus value will disappear; if the entrepreneur does not agree to raise the price of the labor-power and does not agree to employ the worker, the two sides will not make a labor contract and no surplus value will be provided by the worker. Thus, such surplus value claimed by Marx does not exist.
Then why does the entrepreneur get rich while the worker does not, since this so-called exploitation does not exist? The author explains that when the two sides make a labor contract, they engage in exchange. Each side provides a surplus value to the other side. The worker provides the surplus value in the form of labor while the entrepreneur provides the surplus value in the form of wages. But the entrepreneur not only engages in exchange with the worker but also engages in exchange with the buyers of the products made by the entrepreneur on the market. While the worker engages in the one-to-one transaction with the entrepreneur, the entrepreneur engages in one-to-many transactions with the buyers or consumers. As each transaction yields a small amount of surplus value, multiple transactions yield a large amount of surplus value. Though all people engage in exchange on the market many times during their lives, the entrepreneur engages in one-to-many transactions while the worker only engages in one-to-one transactions. A difference in the structure of exchange leads to the appearance of the income gap between the entrepreneur and the worker.
Since the structure of the body of the worker in capitalist society is no different from the structure of the body of the peasant or surf in feudalist society, and humans especially enhance efficiency in production in capitalist society, what drives production comes from some other sources of power rather than the labor-power given by the muscles of the worker. Such sources of power come from nature. When humans invented the first machine, such as a machine powered by steam in a process of burning coal, machinery drove production substantially. As humans began to use machinery, they increased the scale of production and they put out many products. The contribution given by the worker in production dwindled proportionately and the contribution given by the energy from the Earth increased dramatically. Since then, the entrepreneur has been expanding the scale of production so as to get more profits, while the worker cannot increase his work load. The entrepreneur gets richer and richer and the worker does not, though the worker may not get poorer and poorer.
As large-scale production prevails, small-scale production or petty commodity production disappears. Many workers enter the factory. Urbanization begins. The industrial society takes shape. Do the worker and the entrepreneur confront each other? Though capital and labor are in conflict from time to time, the relationship between the entrepreneur and the worker is the relationship between a medium and the user of that medium. The author means that the entrepreneur organizes large-scale production or socialized production and he is also a medium used by the worker to realize large-scale production because large-scale production displays the economies of scale. As large-scale production enhances the productivity of the factory, the unit prices of goods and services are lowered and this is beneficial to all in the society, including the working class. As more technologies are injected into the process of production, many workers become technicians and engineers and managers of the factory. The middle class grows. As a great portion of people enhance their social status, people see a decrease in the tensions between different social classes. This situation differs from the forecast given by Marx in the nineteenth century.
Is the capitalist society dominated by the bourgeoisie over the proletariat? As democracy is put into practice in the contemporary capitalist society, is such democracy a democracy for the bourgeoisie?
Mark, Frederick Engels and V.I. Lenin held this view. They insisted that democracy put into practice in the capitalist society is a bourgeois democracy. They insisted that after the proletariat gains the state power in future, the proletariat should establish a dictatorship and this dictatorship should be exercised against the bourgeoisie under the condition that democracy is only enjoyed by the proletariat. The author of this book does not believe that it is possible. He argues that if a democracy is only enjoyed by a portion of the people, such democracy is actually a dictatorship of another portion of people and if a democracy is real, such democracy must be enjoyed by all citizens or qualified voters. The reason is that the social background of each person cannot determine his political inclination, since people very often think against their social background. The theory of social classes is a theory of sociology other than a theory of politics. Many social conditions influence the thinking of a person. A person may have multiple social identities. If a person is a worker, he may also be a member of the minority. If a person is a member of the minority, this person may also be a female. If a person is a female, she may also be the believer of a certain religion, so on and so forth. People may view politics from multiple perspectives. The background or social class of a certain person may not determine that he or she will hold a certain political view or support a certain political party. Real democracy is the democracy enjoyed by all, not by a certain social class.
If democracy can only be established by all people, rather than a certain social class, the state should also be established by all people, rather than a certain social class. Marx and Engels asserted that the state is only built by the dominating social class in order to hold down the dominated social class in society, because the antagonism of social classes dominates the formation of the state. The author of this book argues that the state was formed gradually throughout history. In the beginning, humans formed a cultural community upon the dissolution of the primitive society. Writers, artists, theologians, historians, and philosophers, among others, play a role as media in the formation of a cultural community. Those sharing the same culture form a society. As this society grows in size, monogamous families take shape. As humans need the protection of their private property, a regime is established and a state takes form. The power holders of the government function as media in the formation of the political community. In the transition from a pre-capitalist society to a capitalist society, an economic community also takes shape gradually. Merchants, entrepreneurs, bankers among others act as media in the formation of the economic community. As media always act in the formation of these functional communities, honor gained by cultural workers such as writers, artists and so on, and power gained by power holders and wealth gained by merchants, entrepreneurs, bankers and so on, cannot be evenly distributed in the society. But since all these functional communities underpin the formation of the state, the state will not wither away. In particular, the cultural community and the political community underpin the growth of the nation-state in modern times. Language together with media plays a role in the formation and growth of the state. Class struggle does not underlie the formation of the state. If class struggle disappears in the future, the state will remain.
The author portrays the capitalist society in a different way than has been seen before. His argument will help the book’s readership to deepen their understanding of capitalism.
Xing Yu is a political scientist. He obtained a Bachelor’s Degree of Arts from Sichuan Foreign Languages Institute in Chongqing, China in 1982 and obtained a Master’s Degree of Law from Fudan University in Shanghai, China in 1985. He worked as an assistant professor at Hangzhou University, China, from 1985 to 1990, and as an assistant professor from 1990 to 1993 and as an associate professor from 1993 to 1996 at Nanjing University, China. He is also the author of Language and State: An Inquiry into the Progress of Civilization, Second Edition (2021), and Language and State: A Theory of the Progress of Civilization, Second Edition (2022).