Reflective self-criticism is, I would argue, an important value and practice to anyone ascribing to intellectual honesty. Confronting the most powerful criticisms of your own position available is the way to test the strength of your own beliefs. This, at least, is my opinion, and, perhaps it is arrogant, but I wager many others share comparable views, irrespective of the extent to which they may live them. If capitalism is the dominant mode of production, the dominant ideology, the dominant economic system of the world, then, do we not owe it to ourselves, as citizens in a capitalist country, to engage in reflective self-criticism of our own society? And, continuing from the principle outlined above, should we not seek out the most potent criticisms we can find in order to test capitalism’s justifications of itself?
Thus begins Ellen Meiksins Wood’s devastating critique of those who would tear down the Marxist legacy as overly determinist, overly structural, or simply outdated. Wood presents Marx’s theory of history–Historical Materialism–as an historiographical method that takes into account the specificity of each mode of production. This is an important contrast to make in response to capitalism’s account of itself, which is as a naturally emerging state of affairs based on the human need to trade and barter. Wood, noting Marx’s observation that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” simply calls the capitalist account of itself what it is: unreflective, un-self critical, and unhistorical nonsense.
I think that describing the history behind the enclosure acts of the 17th and 18th century in England is enough to rob most people of the illusion of capitalist “naturalness.” Because the enclosures were acts of government to rob the peasantry of the land they and their forefathers had lived on for generations and give it to small groups of mercantilists for “development,” it is easy to illustrate the fallacy of “free market” capitalism. I know of no meaningful answer to merely revealing this history. Wood, however, takes an entire chapter defending E.P. Thompson’s work The Origins of the English Working Class, which primarily details with the proletarianization of those dispossessed by enclosure (which was most people).
One of the most interesting points Wood makes is how streamlined the means of surplus value appropriation have become under capitalism. Under previous systems, it was obvious that the working class was exploited by owners who had greater power. So, for example, a farmer under Feudalism could yield a certain amount of crop, and their Feudal lord would then show up and physically take most of it. So it was clearly a form of legalized robbery, and it was easy to see the exploitative nature of the arrangement. However, in capitalism, the working class never sees the surplus value. The appropriation of their surplus value is a precondition for employment in the first place. Thus, when we are employed, all we see of the wealth we help create is the value in our checks. This is a huge advantage for capitalism ideologically speaking, because it is harder to see exploitation when it is incorporated into standard institutional affairs.
Wood also makes a significant contribution to understanding what she called the dialectic of freedom and slavery. A large part of human history can be seen as the struggle(s) between those who want domination and those who wish to be left to their own devices. In the traditional dialectical formulation, these two forces are in constant opposition and are the driving force behind history. Each side has found ways of subverting the others’ new tactics and strategies, and the struggle continues today. Wood argues that what we call “representative democracy” (or constitutional republic) is actually a synthesis of an advanced anti democratic state of affairs (capitalism) and the demand for democracy inspired by the Ancient Greek polis. By creating a system of “representation,” where the representatives were almost exclusively members of the economic aristocracy, the American Founding Fathers brilliantly allowed for formal democracy while undermining real democracy. Wood identifies this as the major event of the dialectic of freedom and slavery in the United States.
I think this is relevant because she helps to destroy the myth of American democracy from its very roots. Pointing to voter suppression, the Citizens United Supreme Court Act, or a host of other things that undermine democratic values today is valuable, but to show that the country was never truly democratic even in theory is immensely powerful.