From Capitalism to Community: Individual Freedom is a Group Activity

In Capital, Karl Marx predicted that the fall of capitalism would come by the assembly of the large class of proletariat workers who would overthrow the bourgeoisie that became wealthier due to their hard work (22). However, this has not come to pass. In this paper I will show that capitalism relies on individualism in order to prevent an uprising of the proletariat class, and that any form of resistance against capitalism must not only assert that each citizen has the right to basic means of subsistence but must also include community driven projects that work to make those rights a reality through concerted action. Despite the individualism proliferated within capitalism, it is within each individual’s best interest to care about the fate of others. I will first show how this individualism is created and maintained before discussing the infringements that this places on the ability to live a life worthy of human dignity. I will then differentiate between resistance that plays within the class dynamic of capitalism and resistance that attempts to disrupt that dynamic. Finally I will conclude with a discussion of how one can assert their rights while living within a class that is given very little power and autonomy.

Resistance among groups within the proletariat class exists under capitalism, however it fails to create mass resistance of the entire class, despite fighting for changes that would benefit all. I argue that this is due to the individualism proliferated under capitalism. In order to highlight how prevalent this individualism is, we can look at prolific civil rights movements, which sought to assert the right to a life free of violence regardless of race. Following his arrest in the non-violent protests in Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, in which he argued that his non-violent method of resistance would stir the sense of justice of the white moderate when they witnessed the police force violently acting against non-violent protesters. While his campaign had successes, it failed to create a unity among the white moderate who King saw as valuing order over justice (1121). This justice that King sought to assert was that each person has a right to life free of racial injustice (1118). Therefore, those who did not support the movement implicitly supported the idea that there is a group in existence that values social order over the idea that all people  deserve a life free of injustice. How does one come to believe that there are people who are less deserving of life? I argue that this is due to the nature of capitalism which creates an overwhelming concern for one’s own survival which then outwardly manifests as a lack of concern for the wellbeing of others. 

        I argue that Capitalism directly degrades this concern for others, as it forces people to perform socially harmful behaviours in the interest of their own survival. The force I describe is in the sense of Cohen’s understanding that there is no reasonable alternative but to participate in capitalism if one lives in a capitalist country (4). Without earning a wage, one cannot purchase food or shelter and therefore the alternative is destitution. Many entry level jobs are inherently harmful to society, either through pollution created to make and transport goods or through the direct use of customers as a means in themselves; such as the selling of predatory loans that are designed to keep customers in debt. When we consider the values upheld by performing these jobs, they are ones that no person who cared for the wellbeing of others would hold. The consequence of this is an alienation of the worker from themselves and their community, as the worker is forced to use their time and energy to uphold a system that is inherently harmful. Coupling this alienation from the community and personal values with the forced participation in capitalism to purchase the means of subsistence, capitalism creates a proletariat class of individuals. Each individual is both isolated from their community and responsible for their own survival. In order to survive, proletariats are in competition with one another for jobs, furthering the focus on oneself being separate from others in a hostile environment, leading to fear and mistrust of those around them. This attitude is responsible for the lack of cohesive action among the proletariat class to assert their rights to subsistence, as well as the oppression of groups within the proletariat class such as the racism Dr. King fought against. 

        While I have discussed the value of individualism that upholds capitalism, I will now turn to why it is important to consider the values that one holds. Within the framework of capitalism, one must value their individual wellbeing above that of others, which allows for the competition and exploitation that leads to ‘success’. A bourgeoisie could not justify the labour conditions in overseas factories or the mass destruction of the environment without a reason-and that reason is the accumulation of capital. However, this capital does not only benefit the individual capitalist, but the entire class. Marx spoke of the capitalists as a “warring band of brothers” that defends each other as a class instead of as individuals. The gain that one capitalist makes benefits their shareholders, corporation members and government, as the wealth is distributed among them. We can contrast this community among the capitalists with the class of the proletariat that survives by selling their labour power and only benefits themselves by doing so. The community aspect of the capitalist class is disguised under the structure of capitalism through stories of ‘self-made millionaires’ which encourages each individual proletariat to ‘apply themselves’ in order to move up, ignoring the fact that the odds are against them. 

        In order for Marx’s prediction of the fall of capitalism to come true, a mental shift must occur within the proletariat class where each person begins to care about the fate of others, which will allow for an actualization of each person’s right to survival. The transition between a focus on the self to others is unlikely to happen through non-violent protests, as a concern for one’s own survival leads one to uphold the status quo. However, I now turn to why it is within each person’s personal interest to become concerned with the fate of others. 

In Women and Human Development, Martha Nussbaum outlines components of a life that she finds worthy of human dignity (71-72). She highlights that an important component of dignified human life is being able to shape one’s life in association with others in contrast to being moved through life as a ‘herd’ animal. Within capitalism, the proletariat has no other option but to work to survive, and are analogous to an animal being herded throughout their day.

As well, a proletariat worker can be seen as being used by the capitalist as a means to an end-the end being the creation of more wealth for the capitalist (73). This is especially apparent when we consider that the worker’s job allows them to purchase their means of subsistence, and any time taken away from work (due to illness/personal life events) likely puts their survival in danger. 

Instead, Nussbaum finds that there are a set of universal values, among them being bodily health: being adequately nourished and sheltered (78). Within Affiliation, Nussbaum writes that each person must be treated with dignity and as equal to others (79). It is also important to note that these rights are not dependant on one’s wealth but instead are allotted to each person because they exist. 

A proletariat worker does not have these rights and cannot exercise their full freedoms of a life worthy of human dignity, instead they are treated as means to the capitalist’s end. It is difficult to defend the capitalist system that does not afford a life worthy of dignity to the vast majority of people. 

In order to create a society where each person is able to achieve fulfilment instead of merely survival, they must be able to have their basic needs met. Marx’s prediction for the fall of capitalism begins with the proletariat class seizing the means of production and transitioning to communism where the state is responsible for meeting the basic needs of all citizens (22). With basic needs met, work can then become a means of gaining fulfilment in life. Making this a reality involves actualizing the assertion that each person has a right to have their basic needs met, seizing and redistributing food, shelter and other means of subsistence.  If one is within the proletariat class, one is unlikely to live a fulfilling life, therefore it is within each individual’s best interest to work toward the end of capitalism, which involves becoming concerned with the fate of others (Cohen 12).

In order to assert the right that all people have to subsistence, various forms of resistance have emerged, as communities become concerned with the fate of those around them. While this can be seen in large-scale organization such as King’s Birmingham protests, pushback can also be seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. Community run organizations such as the People’s Pantry delivers meals and groceries to vulnerable members of the population. This is a form of resistance that asserts the right that all people are entitled to food, regardless of their ability to pay for it, which challenges the capitalist notion of each individual being responsible for purchasing their means of subsistence. This particular form of resistance can be compared with Arendt’s concept of power, as it is volunteer run, meaning that its existence and effectiveness is determined by the amount of people who support the idea that no one should go without food (4).

While this is an act of community and generosity it is also one that is an absurd necessity in a country where 58% of edible food (equivalent to 2.2 million tonnes) is discarded each year (Urciuoli). Community generosity is a form of resistance that is important for the immediate survival of many and fosters a sense of community and care. However, it operates within the structure of capitalism as the food to be distributed among the community members is still purchased, upholding the capitalist notion that wealth must be exchanged for subsistence. This shifts the care of the most vulnerable on those who are often only slightly less vulnerable instead of onto those who have more than enough – the modern bourgeoisie. The pushback that community run solutions provide profess the right that citizens have to the food that is available but still involves the purchasing of the food to be distributed, thereby upholding the idea that money is required in order to access basic necessities. 

Judith Butler wrote in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly that those without power (such as the proletariat class within capitalism) can claim power through acting as though they have it (58). This type of resistance is shown through the ‘food rescuing’ performed by Second Harvest, which takes perishable food from distributors that is deemed unsellable due to packaging flaws and redistributes it among a network of social services. This directly takes food that would be discarded and gives it to those who need it, asserting the right that those people have to the food. Butler would recognize the difference between the missions of the two organizations as a profession of the right to the food that is available and an actualization of that right (49). This actualization can be applied to many of the rights that Nussbaum claims to be universal. For example, in her text, Butler draws upon the example of people asserting their right to shelter by squatting in abandoned homes in order to establish residential rights (58). As well, the overall dynamic of community-run support systems such as the People’s Pantry asserts the right to community in a capitalist regime that draws strength from the proletariat class’s ingrained individualism. 

I have shown that Capitalism infringes on human dignity as the proletariat worker is treated with little regard for their health and wellbeing, with the only purpose of generating capital. As well, one cannot find fulfilment in life that is lived for the purpose of survival. In order to find this fulfilment, proletariat workers must rebel against the ingrained individualism and begin to recognize one another as equals, worthy of human dignity. This recognition will lead to asserting the right each person has to subsistence, regardless of their ability to purchase it.  This assertion of power is impossible as an individual, which is why capitalism encourages individualism. Only as a community of people concerned with the fate of those around them, Marx’s prediction of a proletariat uprising can come to pass. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win (IV).” This world will be one where each person is able to spend their time finding fulfilment instead of working for the capitalist’s benefit. This world can only be actualized through a concerted class effort of the proletariats. 

Texts Cited

Arendt, Hannah. 1969. ‘Reflections on Violence’ The New York Review. 4

Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cohen, G.A., 1983. ‘The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom’. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 12: 4,12.

Harman, C. (1991). ‘The state and capitalism today’, International Socialism, 51:8

King, Martin Luther. 1994. Letter from a Birmingham City Jail. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2000. Women and Human Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1967. Capital. New York: International Publishers. 22

Urciuoli, Anthony. 2020. ‘2.2 million tonnes of food is thrown away; should Canada legislate food waste?’ InHalton

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