Capitalism is back! After decades in which the term could scarcely be found outside the writings of Marxian thinkers, commentators of varying stripes now worry openly about its sustainability, scholars from every school scramble to systematize criticisms of it and activists throughout the world mobilize in opposition to its practices.footnote Certainly, the return of ‘capitalism’ is a welcome development, a crystal-clear marker, if any were needed, of the depth of the present crisis—and of the pervasive hunger for a systematic account of it. What all the talk about capitalism indicates, symptomatically, is a growing intuition that the heterogeneous ills—financial, economic, ecological, political, social—that surround us can be traced to a common root; and that reforms which fail to engage with the deep structural underpinnings of these ills are doomed to fail. Equally, the term’s renaissance signals the wish in many quarters for an analysis that could clarify the relations among the disparate social struggles of our time, an analysis that could foster the close cooperation, if not the full unification, of their most advanced, progressive currents in a counter-systemic bloc. The hunch that capitalism could supply the central category of such an analysis is on the mark.

Nevertheless, the current boom in capitalism talk remains largely rhetorical—more a symptom of the desire for systematic critique than a substantive contribution to it. Thanks to decades of social amnesia, whole generations of younger activists and scholars have become sophisticated practitioners of discourse analysis while remaining utterly innocent of the traditions of Kapitalkritik. They are only now beginning to ask how it could be practised today to clarify the current conjuncture. Their ‘elders’, veterans of previous eras of anti-capitalist ferment who might have provided some guidance, are burdened with blinders of their own. They have largely failed, despite professed good intentions, to incorporate the insights of feminism, postcolonialism and ecological thought systematically into their understandings of capitalism.

The upshot is that we are living through a capitalist crisis of great severity without a critical theory that could adequately clarify it. Certainly, today’s crisis does not fit the standard models that we have inherited: it is multi-dimensional, encompassing not only the official economy, including finance, but also such ‘non-economic’ phenomena as global warming, ‘care deficits’ and the hollowing out of public power at every scale. Yet our received models of crisis tend to focus exclusively on the economic aspects, which they isolate from, and privilege over, the other factors. Equally important, today’s crisis is generating novel political configurations and grammars of social conflict. Struggles over nature, social reproduction and public power are central to this constellation, implicating multiple axes of inequality, including nationality/race-ethnicity, religion, sexuality and class. In this respect, too, however, our received theoretical models fail us, as they continue to privilege struggles over labour at the point of production.

In general, then, we lack conceptions of capitalism and capitalist crisis that are adequate to our time. My objective in this essay is to suggest a path that could remedy this lacuna. The path leads through the thought of Karl Marx, whose understanding of capitalism I propose to re-examine with that aim in mind. Marx’s thought has much to offer in the way of general conceptual resources; and it is in principle open to these broader concerns. Yet it fails to reckon systematically with gender, ecology and political power as structuring principles and axes of inequality in capitalist societies—let alone as stakes and premises of social struggle. Thus its best insights need to be reconstructed from these perspectives. In the present essay, then, my strategy is to look first at Marx, and then behind him, in the hope of shedding some new light on some old questions: what exactly is capitalism—how is it best conceptualized? Should we think of it as an economic system, a form of ethical life, or an institutionalized social order? How should we characterize its ‘crisis tendencies’, and where should we locate them?

To address these questions, I shall begin by recalling what Marx took to be capitalism’s four core features. Thus, my approach will appear at first sight to be very orthodox, but I intend to ‘de-orthodoxize’ it by showing how these presuppose other features, which in fact constitute their background conditions of possibility. While Marx looked behind the sphere of exchange, into the ‘hidden abode’ of production, in order to discover capitalism’s secrets, I shall seek production’s conditions of possibility behind that sphere, in realms that are more hidden still. For Marx, the first defining feature of capitalism is private property in the means of production, which presupposes a class division between the owners and the producers. This division arises as a result of the break-up of a previous social world in which most people, however differently situated, had access to the means of subsistence and means of production; access, in other words, to food, shelter and clothing, and to tools, land and work, without having to go through labour markets. Capitalism decisively overturned such arrangements. It enclosed the commons, abrogated the customary use rights of the majority and transformed shared resources into the private property of a small minority.

This leads directly to Marx’s second core feature, the free labour market, because the others—that is, the vast majority—now have to go through a very peculiar song and dance, in order to work and get what they need to continue living and to raise their children. It is worth stressing just how bizarre, how ‘unnatural’, how historically anomalous and specific this free-labour market institution is. Labour is ‘free’ here in a double sense: first, in terms of legal status—not enslaved, enserfed, entailed or otherwise bound to a given place or particular master—hence mobile and able to enter into a labour contract. But second, ‘free’ from access to means of subsistence and means of production, including from customary use rights in land and tools—and hence bereft of the resources and entitlements that could permit one to abstain from the labour market.

Next is the equally strange song and dance of self-expanding value, which is Marx’s third core feature. Capitalism is peculiar in having an objective systemic thrust or directionality: namely, the accumulation of capital. In principle, accordingly, everything the owners do qua capitalists is aimed at expanding their capital. Like the producers, they too stand under a peculiar systemic compulsion. And everyone’s efforts to satisfy their needs are indirect, harnessed to something else that assumes priority—an overriding imperative inscribed in an impersonal system, capital’s own drive to unending self-expansion. Marx is brilliant on this point. In a capitalist society, he says, capital itself becomes the Subject. Human beings are its pawns, reduced to figuring out how they can get what they need in the interstices, by feeding the beast.