Is the wealth of the rich in contemporary capitalist societies legitimate? Of course not. But the rich have a vested interest in making sure that the majority of the population --who aren't rich-- think that their wealth is legitimate. It hardly matters whether it's aristocratic privilege, family lineage, racial or sexual supremacy that makes a group dominant. It remains true that dominant groups almost always try to preserve the basis of their own dominance.
Dominant groups typically have two (analytically distinct, but in practice interwoven) means of maintaining dominance. The first is obvious. Dominant groups typically monopolize control of the means of exerting physical repression. If you push too hard against the status quo, dominant groups will always (if possible) push back with physical repression in order to protect their dominant status.
But dominant groups never maintain their dominance through naked violence alone. They have another means at their disposal: ideology. That is, dominant groups stabilize their rule by telling stories about why their rule is legitimate. Think of the "divine right" of Kings, the "positive good" doctrine that purported to justify the dominance of Slave owners, the so-called "civilizing mission" that Colonization attempted to carry out, the supposedly "scientific", technical expertise of bureaucrats. The stories the rich tell about the supposed legitimacy of their wealth are a key part of this long tradition of lying to the masses to protect privilege and power.
What are those stories? The most common one is that the rich deserve their wealth because they work hard to produce it. Because the wealthy (the "job creators"!) make such important productive contributions to society, the story goes, they deserve every cent they earn. Another story is that the rich deserve their wealth because they undertake a great deal of risk when they invest it. Yet another story that is told, perhaps the least plausible of all of them, is that the rich deserve their wealth because they sacrifice more than others (by saving and foregoing consumption). Finally, there is the claim that the wealth of the rich is legitimate because they are legally entitled to it in a regime of private property where ownership titles are distributed by way of voluntary exchanges.
Now, in practice these legitimating narratives are often run together and interwoven. The war of ideas is never as clear cut and organized as academic discourse aims to be. But for our purposes --that is, for the purpose of showing that all of these stories are pure fiction-- we'll examine them each separately in a series of blog posts (of which this is the first). In examining each, I'll follow closely along the lines of the arguments put forward in David Schweickart's excellent book Against Capitalism. Anyone interested in seeing a detailed, rigorous refutation of every familiar argument in favor of capitalism would do well to pick up a copy. In what follows, we'll just examine the first. The other stories will be taken up in subsequent blog posts.
The first story says that the wealth of the rich is legitimate because it is their reward for making productive contributions to society. A more technical way to say this would be the following: in a "purely competitive free market" what the wealthy earn directly corresponds to their marginal productive contribution in the economy. In neoclassical economic theory --which is little more than an elaborate way of cheerleading for (rather than critically analyzing) capitalism-- this is called the "marginal productivity theory of distribution." As an early defender of this view puts it, "the natural effect of capitalist competition is... to give each producer the amount of wealth that he specifically brings into existence."
Before we show why capitalism is not a system in which each receives according to what each produces, we need to do a bit of table setting. In order to produce anything at all, two things are required: labor and means of production (e.g. factory equipment, instruments, technical knowledge, land, space, etc.). It is a fact about capitalist societies that the vast majority of those who labor for a living do not own the means of production they use at work. The owners of the means of production are usually distinct from the group uses those means. Up to this point we've been talking about "the rich" or "the wealthy" --but to be more precise we're actually interested in capitalists (i.e. that group who earns a living by owning, rather than using, the means of production).
Now, everyone knows that those who labor (by using means of production) to produce goods make productive contributions to society. Auto workers, for example, use their own two hands to build cars that wouldn't have existed if they hadn't built them. Their productive contribution is clear, and so it is with all workers in society. But what we want to know is whether capitalists actually make any productive contributions to society in order to receive their income. If they did, and if capitalism rewarded their productive contributions proportionately, it would look like their wealth was pretty legitimate.
But what is the productive contribution of capitalists in our economy? Notice that we can't just define their productive contribution in terms of what they receive from the market, since that is circular. We want to know whether the market actually gives each what they deserve. So we can't very well say that what people deserve is what the market gives them --that begs the question. What we're trying to figure out is whether the market actually distributes according to productive contribution.
Some will say that the contribution capitalists is their entrepreneurial spirit and innovating attitude. Others will say that capitalists do a lot of work co-ordinating and managing the productive process. No doubt ingenuity and creativity are required to make a capitalist firm successful. Even a socialist society would require ingenuity, innovation and "entrepreneurial" spirit of some kind or other. Likewise, co-ordination and workplace organization are essential. But notice that capitalists can simply pay someone else to do all of the innovating, all of the managing, and all of the co-ordinating. And they often do. If I'm a capitalist, I can hire a management consultant, an industrial engineer, and a research and development team to do all of the managing, organizing and innovating. But I'm still a capitalist --and I'll still earn handsome sums of cash for myself (indeed, I'm in a position to earn far more than anyone else in the entire firm even though I don't do any real work). So in this case, where's the productive contribution that supposedly legitimizes my massive sums of wealth?
Some will say that what I'm doing is "providing capital". After all, we said that two things --means of production and labor-- were needed to produce goods. We know that workers make contributions by laboring to produce things. But it is, of course, true that the means of production (e.g. capital, the factory space, instruments, etc.) add value to the final product. And capitalists, by definition, own and control the means of production. So aren't they performing an essential productive function by providing it? Couldn't we say, then, that this is productive contribution that justifies capitalist wealth?
But let's think about this for a moment. What exactly is going on when a capitalist provides capital? They are doing nothing more than "allowing it to be used". They are doing no more than granting permission to make use of an already existing material thing --e.g. factory equipment, raw materials, etc. But, as Schweickart points out:
...an act of granting permission, in and of itself, is not a productive activity. If laborers cease to labor, production ceases in any society. But if owners cease to grant permission, production is affected only if their authority over the means of production is respected. If it is not, then production need not diminish at all. Workers can continue doing exactly what they were doing before --producing corn and bread and steel and machine tools and all the other commodities required by their society. Whatever the owners are doing when they grant permission for their assets to be used, it should not be called 'productive activity'.To drive the point home, consider the following example.
Suppose a government suddenly nationalizes the means of production, then does nothing else but charge workers a tax to make use of it. We wouldn't say, would we, that the government is engaging in productive activity, or that the tax is a return for the government's productive contribution? Not even if the tax rate is exactly equal to the marginal product of the productive labor.But some will reply here that there's a difference between providing physical means of production (e.g. raw materials, tools, factory equipment, etc.) and providing capital investment funds to finance a productive endeavor. Surely providing an already existing material thing --whether it be factory tools, land, etc.-- is not a productive activity. It is no more than granting permission. But isn't financing production by lending capital a productive activity that takes a great deal of skill? Schweickart gives us an excellent example here: "Consider a person with a chest full of cash, eager to invest. How he acquired it need not concern us. We want to understand how his disposal of it will increase production. To produce something, there must be brought together equipment, raw materials, and laborers. Let our investor lend his money to an entrepreneur who purchases these necessaries. The laborers are set to work with the machinery and raw materials, and soon goods are produced. It is all quite simple. But notice, this is also a matter of granting permission. The workers, the raw materials, and the machinery already exist. The workers could begin production themselves, except that property rights intervene. They cannot gain access to the machinery and raw materials, for these things are the property of others. To use them, one must have permission, which the entrepreneur secures by means of her borrowed capital." But permission is only needed if one respects the authority of the legal titles to ownership of the things needed to produce. So the workers could produce just as well without permission if they didn't respect that authority. It follows, then, that permission is in no way a productive contribution.
Take another of Schweickart's examples:
Suppose, instead of relying on our friend with the chest full of money, the government simply rolled out its presses to produce the same quantity of crisp bills and gave them to our entrepreneur. Exactly the same production would result. But would we want to call the printing of the money a productive activity? That would surely be misleading, perhaps dangerously so, tempting officials to believe that rolling the presses longer and longer would miraculously generate wealth.The point of all of this is that "providing capital" is not a productive activity. But if that's true, then we are forced to conclude that capitalists, qua capitalists, make zero productive contributions even though the market gives them the lion's share of the surplus created by society. As even John Kenneth Galbraith put it,
No grant of feudal privilege has ever equaled, for effortless return, that of the grandparent who bought and endowed his descendent's with a thousand shares of General Motors or General Electric. The beneficiaries of this foresight have become and remain rich by no exercise or intelligence beyond the decision to do nothing, embracing as it did the decision not to sell.Or, if you'd like another example, examine a graph showing real wages for workers and worker productivity from 1973 to the present. What you'll notice is that productivity goes way up whereas wages stagnate. Someone reaped all of the difference and got filthy rich, but it wasn't the workers who were producing more and more each year. Again, we see that market distributions don't reflect productive contributions.
So what explains the fact that capitalists own the vast majority of wealth in our society? They don't receive this wealth as a result of any productive contribution they make. When they earn interest or dividends on their invested wealth, they need not do anything productive at all. When they make millions from arbitrage, they haven't done anything productive whatsoever. So in virtue of what do they earn such vast sums of wealth? In virtue of their ownership. Whereas the vast majority of us have no choice but to earn a living from the work that we do, capitalists earn their riches merely by owning things. But if the vast majority --the 99%-- does 100% of the productive activities in society, how could be legitimate that the unproductive 1% owns and controls the lion's share of the wealth produced? Good question.
So, what I've shown is that a certain argument, i.e. that capitalism distributes wealth according to productive contributions, is false. In a series of upcoming posts, we'll look at other fairy tales told by the rich to protect their wealth and power.