All are welcome to join the April 13th, 6 pm conversation with Hadas Thier hosted by Maine DSA’s Political Education Committee. RSVP here for the Zoom details.

Hadas Thier frames her popular book, A People’s Guide to Capitalism (Haymarket, 2021), by asking a series of perplexing questions:

  • Why are resources so easily marshaled for war yet so impossible to rally toward stopping a pandemic from tearing through our communities?
  • Why do profits always trump human lives and ecological sustainability?
  • How can there be a housing glut, when millions are homeless?
  • How could hunger be the leading cause of death among young children around the world, while current global food production supplies enough to feed more than one and a half times the world’s population?

Thier’s questions point to the contradictions of the capitalist system that creates so much for so few. She proceeds to answer these questions, not with moralistic or psychological explanations such as greed or laziness, nor with technical explanations like market inefficiencies and excesses.  Rather, Thier answers these questions by illuminating the source of our contemporary social ills in the structure of capitalism itself.  

While Thier’s work is firmly grounded in the work of Karl Marx, she applies classical Marxist theory to the 21st century context of US-dominated neoliberal capitalism, environmental devastation, housing bubbles, and soaring levels of corporate and consumer debt. She updates the picture of the working class to include the gendered, racialized, and precarious forms of labor that many experience today, in contrast to the manufacturing jobs historically presumed to make up a white, male working-class. And Thier explains how the labor of social reproduction, performed mostly by women, often unpaid, is a precondition to capital’s ability to extract value from workers.

Wednesday’s discussion with Thier will focus on both the nature of capitalism and how we can respond to its crises to build power and fight for a better system. The event is open to the public and reading the book is not required. Participants may benefit from the chapter by chapter summary below.

  • Chapter 1, The Birth of Capital  Capitalism arose from violently dispossessing people of their land to create a class of people owning nothing but their labor-power, the working class, who could then be forced to work in industrial factories.
  • Chapter 2, The Labor Theory of Value  The value of commodities (which are goods or services produced for exchange) is determined by the amount of socially necessary labor-time required to produce them.
  • Chapter 3, Money  Money does not create value.  It is merely a convenient way to represent value (which is created by labor).
  • Chapter 4, Where Do Profits Come From?  Workers’ wages are only enough to, more or less, cover their cost of living, but they are required to keep working beyond the point of creating enough value to cover their cost of living. Capitalists take the surplus value created by workers in the form of profit.
  • Chapter 5, The Accumulation of Capital  Capitalists must continually cut costs by investing in labor-saving technology, lest their prices be undercut by competitors. Therefore, they must accumulate and reinvest surplus value (profits) continually, in order to accumulate more and more value in a growth cycle with no purpose but to constantly expand value.
  • Chapter 6, Capitalist Crisis  The constant imperative to expand accumulation set up the conditions for crisis.  Rising profits in a particular industry attract capitalist investment. Capitalists competing for their piece of a booming market leads to the industry producing too many commodities, beyond the level of demand, causing profits to fall. Capitalists disinvest from the industry, causing ripple effects upstream in the production process (the other sectors that had supplied the booming industry) and downstream to workers whose jobs are cut. The working class’s ability to consume commodities is thus undermined, deepening the crisis. And, even though profitability may be restored and boom times return, capitalism’s overall rate of profit tends to decline over time. This tendency can be understood by connecting various pieces of the book together:  competition for market share requires capitalists to constantly re-invest in labor-saving technology in order to cut costs, but the less they invest in labor, the less value is created in the production process – because labor is the source of value.
  • Chapter 7, Credit and Financialization   Finance intensifies capitalism’s cycles of overproduction, first by extending credit to capitalists and consumers to create bigger booms and then, by withdrawing credit at the first sign of downturn. Capitalists depend on credit to fuel the constant growth that competitive markets demand, and the working class depends on credit to bridge the gap meet inadequate wages and rising costs of living. However, credit is itself a commodity, and its exchange value is speculative; expectations of repayment plus interest are based on the assumption of constant growth. Finance does not create capitalist crises but exaggerates them.  As in the Great Recession, neoliberal policy protects capitalists from these risks through bailouts while turning a blind eye to the working class’s suffering.

Returning to the perplexing questions above, we can begin to understand why capitalism creates so much for so few, why “profits always trump human lives and ecological sustainability.” As Marx wrote (and Thier quotes):  “In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that in all earlier epochs would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of overproduction.” The irony of capitalism is that it develops the productive forces that are necessary to meet humanity’s needs – yet it directs the production process not toward meeting human needs, but toward expanding profit, regardless of the consequences for humanity and the planet. It socializes the production process throughout the entire working class, but it privatizes ownership over the socially created surplus. Paradoxically, it creates the potential for socialism while actualizing the brutal contradictions of capitalism. For these reasons, Thier asserts that capitalism’s crisis “show the possibility and the necessity, certainly of class struggle, and ultimately of revolution.”


RSVP here for Zoom details of the April 13th, 6 pm conversation with Hadas Thier hosted by the Maine DSA’s Political Education Committee.

Carin Dunay

Andrew Milne is co-chair of Maine DSA’s Political Education Committee and a poverty lawyer for seniors in the Lewiston-Auburn area.