Capitalism’s cycles and waves

Capitalism’s cycles and waves

This article is from the blog buildingarevolutionarymovement.

This post will look at the long-term cycles of the geographical centre of the capitalist economy (during capitalisms existence over the last 600 years), capitalism’s economic waves and cycles and the 10-year capitalist business cycle.

There are several theories of historical cycles that relate to societies or civilisations, these are beyond the scope of this post

Understanding capitalism’s cycles and waves are important to understanding capitalism better to be able to beat it. Also, there looks to be a relationship between capitalism’s cycles and waves, and cycles of worker and social movement expansion, and also related to the gains and concessions these movements get from capitalists.

Long-term cycles of the geographic centre of the capitalist economy

This builds on the phases of capitalism described in a previous post: Mercantile Capitalism, 14th-18th centuries; Classical/Industrial Capitalism, 19th century; Keynesianism or New Deal Capitalism, 20th century; and Finance Capitalism/Neoliberalism, late 20th century.

These ideas were likely first developed by Fernand Braudel, who described the movement of centres of capitalism, initially cities then nation-states. Braudel described them starting in Venice from 1250-1510, then Antwerp from 1500-1569, Genoa from 1557-1627, Amsterdam from 1627-1733, and London/England 1733-1896.

Immanuel Wallerstein describes as part of his ‘world-system theory’ that there have been three countries that have dominated the world system: the Netherlands in the 17th century, Britain in the 19th century and the US after World War I.

Giovanni Arrighi identifies four ‘systemic cycles of accumulation’ in his book The Long Twentieth Century. He describes a ‘structuralist model’ of capitalist world-system development over the last 600 years of four ‘long centuries’, with a different economic centre. Arrighi’s systemic cycles of accumulation were centred around: the Italian city-states in the 16th century, the Netherlands in the 17th century, Britain in the 19th century and the United States after 1945. [1] It looks like the centre is moving Eastwards in the twenty-first century. [2]

George Modelski identified long cycles that connect war cycles, economic dominance, and the political aspects of world leadership, in his 1987 book Long Cycles in World Politics. He argues that war and other destabilising events are a normal part of long cycles. Modelski describes several long cycles since 1500, each lasting from 87 to 122 years: starting with Portugal in the 16th century, the Netherlands in the 17th century, Britain in the 18th and 19th century and the US since 1945.

Capitalism’s economic waves and cycles

Several waves and cycles have been identified in the capitalist economy that relate to periods of economic growth and decline.

Kondratiev waves (also known as Kondratieff waves or K-waves) are 40 to 60-year cycles of capitalism’s economic growth and decline. This is a controversial theory and most academic economists do not recognise it. But then most academic economists think that capitalism is a good idea!

Kondratiev/Kondratieff identified the first wave starting with the factory system in Britain in the 1780s, ending about 1849. The second wave starts in 1849, connected to the global development of the telegraph, steamships and railways. The second waves’ downward phase starts about 1873 and ends in the 1890s. In the 1920s, he believed a third wave was taking place, that had already reached its peak and started its downswing between 1914 and 1920. He predicted a small recovery before a depression a few years later. This was an accurate prediction. [3]

Paul Mason in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future describes the phases of the K-waves:

“The first, up, phase typically begins with a frenetic decade of expansion, accompanied by wars and revolutions, in which new technologies that were invented in the previous downturn are suddenly standardized and rolled out. Next, a slowdown begins, caused by the reduction of capital investment, the rise of savings and the hoarding of capital by banks and industry; it is made worse by the destructive impact of wars and the growth of non-productive military expenditure.

“However, this slowdown is still part of the up phase: recessions remain short and shallow, while growth periods are frequent and strong.

Finally, a down phase starts, in which commodity prices and interest rates on capital both fall. There is more capital accumulated than can be invested in productive industries, so it tends to get stored inside the finance sector, depressing interest rates because the ample supply of credit depresses the price of borrowing. Recessions get worse and become more frequent. Wages and prices collapse, and finally a depression sets in.

In all this, there is no claim as to the exact timing of events, and no claim that the waves are regular.” [4]

Mason describes his theory of a fourth wave starting in 1945 and peaking in 1973 when oil-exporting Arab countries introduced an oil embargo on the USA and reduced oil output. The global oil price quadrupled, resulting in several nations going into recession. Mason argues that the fourth wave did not end but was extended and is still ongoing. The downswing of the previous three cycles ended by capitalists innovating their way out of the crisis using technology. This was not the case in the current fourth cycle because the defeat of organised labour (trade unions) by neoliberal governments in the 1980s, has resulted in little or no wage growth and atomization of the working class. [5]

In On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War Kim Moody used data from three sources (Mandel, Kelly, Shaikh) to identify his theory of a third (1893-1945), fourth (1945-1982) and fifth (1982-present) long waves. The third upswing from 1893-1914, then downswings from 1914-1940. The fourth upswing from 1945-1975, downswings from 1975-1982. The fifth upswing from 1982-2007, downswings from 2007-?. [6]

Joseph Schumpeter identified several smaller cycles have been combined to form a ‘composite waveform’ that sit under the K-waves.

The Kuznets swing is a 15-25 year cycle related to infrastructure investment, construction, land and property values.

The Juglar cycle is a 7-11 year cycle related to the fluctuations in the investment in fixed capital. Fixed capital are real, physical things used in the production of goods, such as buildings or machinery.

The Kitchin cycle is a 3-5 year cycle caused by the delay it takes the management of businesses to decide to increase or decrease the production of goods based on information from the marketplaces where they sell their goods.

Business cycle

This is the roughly 10-year boom and slump cycle of the global capitalist economy. It is also known as the (economic cycle, boom-slump cycle, industrial cycle). Mainstream economics view shocks to the economy as random and therefore not cycles. There are several theories of what causes business cycles and economic crises that I will look at in a future post. Theories about the business cycle have been developed by Karl MarxClément JuglarKnut WicksellJoseph SchumpeterMichał KaleckiJohn Maynard KeynesSchumpeter identified four stages of the business cycle: expansion crisis, recession, recovery.

So what are the dates of the business cycle? I’ll go through the information on business cycles in the US and UK since 1945 and there is no clear agreement on the number. Something to come back to.

Howard J. Sherman in The Business Cycle Growth and Crisis under Capitalism argues that the best dates are those provided by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). He explains that they’re not ideal but the best available and they go back a long way. Since 1945, the US has had recession in the years 1949, 1954, 1958, 1961, 1970, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1991, 2001, 2009. That is ten business cycles, eleven if you include the one that started in the last ten years. The Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) uses these dates as well.

Sam Williams at the blog Critique of Crisis Theory is critical of the NBER dates and argues that there have only been five business cycles since 1945. He measures them based on the point they peaked rather than a recession: 1948-1957, 1957-1968, 1982-1990, 1990-2000, 2000-2007. He describes the period from 1968-1982 as one long crisis. A sixth business cycle could be added from 2007-2020.

D fisher identified 9 cycles from 1945-1991.

For the UK, I found three different sets of information of when the business cycles have been. Each indicates a different number of business cycles since 1945.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research list UK business cycles since 1945 as peak 1951, trough 1952; peak 1955, trough 1958; peak 1961, trough 1963; peak 1964, trough 1967; peak 1968, trough 1971, peak 1973, trough 1975; peak 1979, trough 1982; peak 1984, trough 1984; peak 1988, trough 1992. So that’s nine business cycles from 1945-1992.

The Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) identifies UK business cycles since 1945 to be: trough 1952; peak 1974, trough 1975; peak 1979, trough 1981; peak 1990, trough 1992; peak 2008, trough 2010. The ECRI chart does not list anything for the current crisis but I think it it’s safe to assume that 2020 was the peak. That is five business cycles from 1945-2020.

Wikipedia lists recession in the UK since 1945 taking place in: 1956, 1961, 1973, 1975, 1980-1, 1990-1, 2008-9 and 2020-? That is seven business cycles from 1945-2020.


  1. Giovanni Arrighi: Systemic Cycles of Accumulation, Hegemonic Transitions, and the Rise of China, William I. Robinson, 2011, page 6/7,
  2. Giovanni Arrighi: Systemic Cycles of Accumulation, Hegemonic Transitions, and the Rise of China, page 10
  3. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason, 2015, page 35/6
  4. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, page 36
  5. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, CH4
  6. On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, Kim Moody, 2018, page 72
Totalitarianism of Today

Totalitarianism of Today

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” – Aldous Huxley

By Matej Kudláčik

Part two of this essay can be found here.

Many people stand with a torch and a sword defending against The Beast feasting on freedom – freedom in its truest sense. Against The Beast eating away kindness and love, putting great trenches between us. Enslaving us with constant entertainment, fleeting meaningless joys and pathetic pleasures. These are the revolutionaries, who can see through the veil or at least through some parts of it.

Socrates was hated and sentenced to death because of his revolutionary thinking. Galileo was imprisoned. The Middle Ages were a period when the Church established a brutal form of dictatorship – anyone disagreeing with the dictator, even with proof or undeniable truth, indicated that the dictator’s thought system has some flaws, which could not be tolerated. And in any age, anyone going against those who enslave or control the population is an enemy. Attacked even by those who are enslaved.

“No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth.” – Plato

And because of the hatred and violence that he will inevitably experience, a revolutionary should be defended at all costs. Just as a genius, a true revolutionary is as the rarest wonderful diamond hidden in a pile of rocks, thus should be protected and belongs to the whole world, destined to saving it. He who performs the art of a revolutionary should be guarded from forces crafted to steal our freedom away.

Not only are we in need of revolution in order to maintain freedom but we also find ourselves in the most dangerous form of totalitarianism. Dangerous mainly because we proudly call it democracy.

But what is freedom? No one explained this concept better than Immanuel Kant did, saying: “Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another.

Are we truly independent? If yes, why is mindless consumerism imposed on us exactly at a time when we’re most sensitive and influenceable, during our early childhood? Why are we being taught to depend on cheap entertainment, disarming us and erasing our ability to truly entertain ourselves with our own intellect? Why is it so rare to find a professor who teaches you how to think and helps you to strive towards critical thinking, rather than what to think? The freedom that every country is so foolishly proud of is truly apparent and false. We are dependent on senseless consumption. We are becoming tied to cheap dopamine we receive from technology, advertisement, plasticized food and drinks.

The importance of discussing and resisting against this dynamic is that without revolution, the capitalist totalitarianism and greed will most likely lead into dystopia and absence of the natural world. With constant pleasures and technology, just as Huxley predicted it in his Brave New World and later admitted that his prophecy is coming true much sooner than he initially thought.

And if mankind is lucky enough, perhaps this will lead to the extinction of our species, so that the coming generations will be spared of the unimaginable period of capitalist enslavement.

If we would travel from the past to the present without knowing anything about it, it’s very likely that we would not believe the terrible, isolating dystopia we see. Dystopia where soothing blindness is the norm. Where following the system means to be chained. And where being chained means to love one’s chains.

Everything about this suits the capitalists, because it distracts us. We are being led to hate by the mainstream media. We’re too busy fighting each other, rather than joining each other in solidarity and fighting against the real enemy. War on drugs is a great example of a capitalist tool because it’s clearly a complete failure that only supports drug use. Yet there’s nothing being done about it because it’s convenient for the capitalists: an addict won’t resist against the treacherous social, political, economical and environmental catastrophe.

We tend to blame ourselves, yet we should blame the ones who chained us. Freedom does not mean individual plenitude, freedom does not mean that you can travel around the world. We are being led to thinking this, and on top of that, we are being led to not see. To not see the women’s dreadful pain during rape and violence. Knowing that their rapists do not receive punishment is agonizing. We do not see the beautiful organizations of ecosystems, trees that hold bird nests with babies in safety being murdered to make space for human progress. Too many species will not see the light of tomorrow, for they went extinct today. We do not see the hospitals filled with dying mothers and children, who are not ready yet to disappear from this world.

Pleasure and convenience is available and far more accessible than in any time. It blinds us, we seek to feel better immediately, we seek comfort, creating an illusion of luxury and well-being of the world. We lose the ability to think with the help of our intellect. We lose the ability to love just with the help of our hearts. Yet we’re being told that it’s okay, so we’re smiling.

It is almost as if a person places a special fantoccini in front of a child, whilst others murder the parents and rob the house. The child remains enchanted, unaware of the screams of his parents. The plight is a well-constructed theatre, the director laughs with the screenwriter yet the actors do not know they’re in a play. That’s why their suffering is genuine. A revolutionary strives to see through the veil and dismantle the whole set, burn it down.

The enslaving dominant culture must fall.

Capitalist totalitarianism is the enemy, for it exploits our freedom.

Robbing the Soil, 1: Commons and classes before capitalism

Robbing the Soil, 1: Commons and classes before capitalism

This article originally appeared in Climate & Capitalism.
Featured image: Harvesting grain in the 1400s

Editor’s note: We are no Marxists, but we find it important to look at history from the perspective of the usual people, the peasants, and the poor, since liberal historians tend to follow the narrative of endless progress and neglect all the violence and injustice this “progress” was and is based on. Garrett Hardin’s annoying but very influential essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” is a good example, and we are thankful to the author for debunking it.

“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.” (Karl Marx)

Articles in this series:

Commons and classes before capitalism
‘Systematic theft of communal property’
Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men
Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class
Against Enclosure: The Commoners Fight Back

by Ian Angus

To live, humans must eat, and more than 90% of our food comes directly or indirectly from soil. As philosopher Wendell Berry says, “The soil is the great connector of lives…. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”[1]

Preventing soil degradation and preserving soil fertility ought to be a global priority, but it isn’t. According to the United Nations, a third of the world’s land is now severely degraded, and we lose 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil every year. More than 1.3 billion people depend on food from degraded or degrading agricultural land.[2] Even in the richest countries, almost all food production depends on massive applications of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that further degrade the soil and poison the environment.

In Karl Marx’s words, “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system.”[3] To understand why that is, we need to understand how capitalist agriculture emerged from a very different system.


For almost all of human history, almost all of us lived and worked on the land. Today, most of us live in cities.

It is hard to overstate how radical that change is, or how quickly it happened. Two hundred years ago, 90% of the world’s population was rural. Britain became the world’s first majority-urban country in 1851. As recently as 1960, two-thirds of the world’s people still lived in rural areas. Now it’s less than half, and only half of those are farmers.

Between the decline of feudalism and the rise of industrial capitalism, rural society was transformed by the complex of processes that are collectively known as enclosure. The separation of most people from the land, and the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a tiny minority, were revolutionary changes in the ways that humans lived and work. It happened in different ways and at different times in different parts of the world, and is still going on today.

Our starting point is England, where what Marx labelled “so-called primitive accumulation” first occurred.

Common Fields, Common Rights

In medieval and early-modern England, most people were poor, but they were also self-provisioning — they obtained their essential needs directly from the land, which was a common resource, not private property as we understand the concept.

No one actually knows when or how English common farming systems began. Most likely they were brought to England by Anglo-Saxon settlers after Roman rule ended. What we know for sure is that common field agriculture was widespread, in various forms, when English feudalism was at its peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The land itself was held by landlords, directly or indirectly from the king. A minor gentry family might hold and live on just one manor — roughly equivalent to a township — while a top aristocrat, bishop or monastery could hold dozens. The people who actually worked the land, often including a mix of unfree serfs and free peasants, paid rent and other fees in labor, produce or (later) cash, and had, in addition to the use of arable land, a variety of legal and traditional rights to use the manor’s resources, such as  grazing animals on common pasture, gathering firewood, berries and nuts in the manor forest, and collecting (gleaning) grain that remained in the fields after harvest.

“Common rights were managed, divided, and redivided by the communities. These rights were predicated on maintaining relations and activities that contributed to the collective reproduction. No feudal lord had rights to the land exclusive of such customary rights of the commoners. Nor did they have the right to seize or engross the common fields as their own domain.”[4]

Field systems varied a great deal, but usually a manor or township included both the landlord’s farm (demesne) and land that was farmed by tenants who had life-long rights to use it. Most accounts only discuss open field systems, in which each tenant cultivated multiple strips of land that were scattered through the arable fields so no one family had all the best soil, but there were other arrangements. In parts of southwestern England and Scotland, for example, farms on common arable land were often compact, not in strips, and were periodically redistributed among members of the commons community. This was called runrig; a similar arrangement in Ireland was called rundale.

Most manors also had shared pasture for feeding cattle, sheep and other animals, and in some cases forest, wetlands and waterways.

Though cooperative, these were not communities of equals. Originally, all of the holdings may have been about the same size but in time considerable economic differentiation took place.[5] A few well-to-do tenants held land that produced enough to sell in local markets; others (probably a majority in most villages) had enough land to sustain their families with a small surplus in good years; others with much less land probably worked part-time for their better-off neighbors or for the landlord. “We can see this stratification right across the English counties in Domesday Book of 1086, where at least one-third of the peasant population were smallholders. By the end of the thirteenth century this proportion, in parts of southeastern England, was over a half.”[6]

As Marxist historian Rodney Hilton explains, the economic differences among medieval peasants were not yet class differences. “Poor smallholders and richer peasants were, in spite of the differences in their incomes, still part of the same social group, with a similar style of life, and differed from one to the other in the abundance rather than the quality of their possessions.”[7] It wasn’t until after the dissolution of feudalism in the fifteenth century that a layer of capitalist farmers developed.


If we were to believe an influential article published in 1968, commons-based agriculture ought to have disappeared shortly after it was born. In “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin argued that commoners would inevitably overuse resources, causing ecological collapse. In particular, in order to maximize his income, “each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons,” until overgrazing destroys the pasture, and it supports no animals at all. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”[8]

Since its publication in 1968, Hardin’s account has been widely adopted by academics and policy makers, and used to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations ‘tradable permits’ to pollute the air and water, and more. Remarkably, few of those who have accepted Hardin’s views as authoritative notice that he provided no evidence to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that “tragedy” was inevitable, but he didn’t show that it had happened even once.[9]

Scholars who have actually studied commons-based agriculture have drawn very different conclusions. “What existed in fact was not a ‘tragedy of the commons’ but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years — and perhaps thousands, although written records do not exist to prove the longer era — land was managed successfully by communities.”[10]

The most important account of how common-field agriculture in England actually worked is Jeanette Neeson’s award-winning book, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Her study of surviving manorial records from the 1700s showed that the common-field villagers, who met two or three times a year to decide matters of common interest, were fully aware of the need to regulate the metabolism between livestock, crops and soil.

“The effective regulation of common pasture was as significant for productivity levels as the introduction of fodder crops and the turning of tilled land back to pasture, perhaps more significant. Careful control allowed livestock numbers to grow, and, with them, the production of manure. … Field orders make it very clear that common-field villagers tried both to maintain the value of common of pasture and also to feed the land.”[11]

Village meetings selected “juries” of experienced farmers to investigate problems, and introduce permanent or temporary by-laws. Particular attention was paid to “stints” — limits on the number of animals allowed on the pasture, waste, and other common land. “Introducing a stint protected the common by ensuring that it remained large enough to accommodate the number of beasts the tenants were entitled to. It also protected lesser commoners from the commercial activities of graziers and butchers.”[12]

Juries also set rules for moving sheep around to ensure even distribution of manure, and organized the planting of turnips and other fodder plants in fallow fields, so that more animals could be fed and more manure produced. The jury in one of the manors that Neeson studied allowed tenants to pasture additional sheep if they sowed clover on their arable land — long before scientists discovered nitrogen and nitrogen-fixing, these farmers knew that clover enriched the soil.[13]

And, given present-day concerns about the spread of disease in large animal feeding facilities, it is instructive to learn that eighteenth century commoners adopted regulations to isolate sick animals, stop hogs from fouling horse ponds, and prevent outside horses and cows from mixing with the villagers’ herds. There were also strict controls on when bulls and rams could enter the commons for breeding, and juries “carefully regulated or forbade entry to the commons of inferior animals capable of inseminating sheep, cows or horses.”[14]

Neeson concludes, “the common-field system was an effective, flexible and proven way to organize village agriculture. The common pastures were well governed, the value of a common right was well maintained.”[15]

Commons-based agriculture survived for centuries precisely because it was organized and managed democratically by people who were intimately involved with the land, the crops and the community. Although it was not an egalitarian society, in some ways it prefigured what Karl Marx, referring to a socialist future, described as “the associated producers, govern[ing] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way.”[16]

Class Struggles

That’s not to say that agrarian society was tension free. There were almost constant struggles over how the wealth that peasants produced was distributed in the social hierarchy. The nobility and other landlords sought higher rents, lower taxes and limits on the king’s powers, while peasants resisted landlord encroachments on their rights, and fought for lower rents. Most such conflicts were resolved by negotiation or appeals to courts, but some led to pitched battles, as they did in 1215 when the barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta, and in 1381 when thousands of peasants marched on London to demand an end to serfdom and the execution of unpopular officials.

Historians have long debated the causes of feudalism’s decline: I won’t attempt to resolve or even summarize those complex discussions here.[17] Suffice it to say that by the early 1400s in England, the feudal aristocracy was much weakened. Peasant resistance had effectively ended hereditary serfdom and forced landlords to replace labor-service with fixed rents, while leaving common field agriculture and many common rights in place. Marx described the 1400s and early 1500s, when peasants in England were winning greater freedom and lower rents, as “a golden age for labor in the process of becoming emancipated.”[18]

But that was also a period when longstanding economic divisions within the peasantry were increasing. W.G. Hoskins described the process in his classic history of life in a Midland village.

“During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there emerged at Wigston what may be called a peasant aristocracy, or, if this is too strong a phrase as yet, a class of capitalist peasants who owned substantially larger farms and capital resources than the general run of village farmers. This process was going on all over the Midlands during these years …”[19]

Capitalist peasants were a small minority. Agricultural historian Mark Overton estimates that “in the early sixteenth century, around 80 per cent of farmers were only growing enough food for the needs of their family household.” Of the remaining 20%, only a few were actual capitalists who employed laborers and accumulated ever more land and wealth. Nevertheless, by the 1500s two very different approaches to the land co-existed in many commons communities.

“The attitudes and behavior of farmers producing exclusively for their own needs were very different from those farmers trying to make a profit. They valued their produce in terms of what use it was to them rather than for its value for exchange in the market. … Larger, profit orientated, farmers were still constrained by soils and climate, and by local customs and traditions, but also had an eye to the market as to which crop and livestock combinations would make them most money.”[20]

As we’ll see, that division eventually led to the overthrow of the commons.

Primitive Accumulation

For Marx, the key to understanding the long transition from agrarian feudalism to industrial capitalism was “the process which divorces the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his own labor,” which itself involved “two transformations … the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-laborers.”[21]

“Nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labor-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.”[22]

A decade before Capital was published, Marx summarized that historical development in an early draft.

“It is … precisely in the development of landed property that the gradual victory and formation of capital can be studied. … The history of landed property, which would demonstrate the gradual transformation of the feudal landlord into the landowner, of the hereditary, semi-tributary and often unfree tenant for life into the modern farmer, and of the resident serfs, bondsmen and villeins who belonged to the property into agricultural day laborers, would indeed be the history of the formation of modern capital.”[23]

In Section VIII of Capital Volume 1, titled “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation of Capital,” he expanded that paragraph into a powerful and moving account of the historical process by which the dispossession of peasants created the working class, while the land they had worked for millennia became the capitalist wealth that exploited them. It is the most explicitly historical part of Capital, and by far the most readable. No one before Marx had researched the subject so thoroughly — Harry Magdoff once commented that on re-reading it, he was immediately impressed by the depth of Marx’s scholarship, by “the amount of sheer digging, hard work, and enormous energy in the accumulated facts that show up in his sentences.”[24]

Since Marx wrote Capital, historians have published a vast amount of research on the history of English agriculture and land tenure — so much that a few decades ago, it was fashionable for academic historians to claim that Marx got it all wrong, that the privatization of common land was a beneficial process for all concerned. That view has little support today. Of course it would be very surprising if subsequent research didn’t contradict Marx in some ways, but while his account requires some modification, especially in regard to regional differences and the tempo of change, Marx’s history and analysis of the commons remains essential reading.[25]


The next installments in this series will discuss how, in two great waves of social change, landlords and capitalist farmers “conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians.”[26]

To be continued ….

[1] Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry: Essays 1969-1990, ed. Jack Shoemaker (Library of America, 2019), 317.


[3] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. David Fernbach, vol. 3, (Penguin Books, 1981), 216

[4] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Hannah Holleman, “Marx and the Commons,” Social Research (Spring 2021), 2-3.

[5] See “Reasons for Inequality Among Medieval Peasants,” in Rodney Hilton, Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Hambledon Press, 1985), 139-151.

[6] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (Routledge, 2003 [1973]), 32.

[7] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, 34.

[8] Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the CommonsScience, December 13, 1968.

[9] Ian Angus, The Myth of the Tragedy of the CommonsClimate & Capitalism, August 25, 2008; Ian Angus, Once Again: ‘The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons’Climate & Capitalism, November 3, 2008.

[10] Susan Jane Buck Cox, No Tragedy of the CommonsEnvironmental Ethics 7, no. 1 (1985), 60.

[11] J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 113.

[12] J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 117.

[13] J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 118-20.

[14] J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 132.

[15] J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 157.

[16] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, trans. David Fernbach, (Penguin Books, 1981), 959.

[17] For an insightful summary and critique of the major positions in those debates, see Henry Heller, The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First Century Perspective (Pluto Press, 2011).

[18] Karl Marx, Grundrissetrans. Martin Nicolaus (Penguin Books, 1973), 510.

[19] W. G. Hoskins, The Midland Peasant: The Economic and Social History of a Leicestershire Village (Macmillan., 1965), 141.

[20] Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy, 1500-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 8, 21.

[21] Karl Marx, Capital Volume, 1, 874.

[22] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 273.

[23] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 252-3.

[24] Harry Magdoff, “Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism,” Monthly Review (October 2013), 14.

[25] “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation” — Chapters 26 through 33 of Capital Volume 1 — can be read on the Marxist Internet Archive, beginning here. The somewhat better translation by Ben Fowkes occupies pages 873 to 940 of the Penguin edition.

[26] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1895.

What is Neoliberalism?

What is Neoliberalism?

This article is from the blog buildingarevolutionarymovement.

This post provides a brief introduction to the current form of capitalism: neoliberalism. It includes sections on: neoliberal ideology; Governmentality – how neoliberalism governs, neoliberal government policies; how neoliberalism is a capitalist class project of domination; the history of neoliberalism in the twentieth century; and the three phase of neoliberalism in government since the 1980s.

Neoliberalism is a form of capitalism and liberalism. Neoliberalism is the most aggressive form of liberalism ever formulated. Liberals generally assume that being a “self-interested, competitive entrepreneur is the natural state for human beings, neoliberals know that it isn’t.” But the neoliberals still want people to behave that way. They achieve this by using the state and corporate power to make us act in that way, regardless of what most people want. [1]

Neoliberal ideology

Ideology can be defined as a set of assumptions about how society does and should work, it structures both what we think and how we act. Our world has competing truths, values, and theories, ideologies aim to favour some values over others and to legitimise certain theories or sets of meanings. Ideologies provide intellectual maps of the social world that establish relationships between individuals and groups versus the larger structure of power. They therefore play an essential role in maintaining the current power structure as fair and natural, or in challenging it by highlighting its injustices and pointing out the benefits of alternative power structures. [2] An ideology is most effectively when it denies its own existence and can pass itself off as the normal state of things or ‘common sense’ [3]

Jeremy Gilbert describes how it is difficult to differentiate between capitalism and neoliberalism:

“because neoliberalism is the most fanatically pro-capitalist ideology ever, and because it has become the default ideology of almost all actual capitalists, and certainly of almost all pro-capitalist political is important to differentiate between capitalism and neoliberalism because they are not the same thing – they are not the same KIND of thing. Capitalism is an economic practice. Neoliberalism is a philosophy about how societies in which that practice prevails should be managed, and a programme which is at least nominally informed that philosophy, or looks like it is.” [4]

Neoliberal ideology can be summarised as “a single global marketplace to the public, they portray globalizing markets in a positive light as an indispensable tool for the realization of a better world. Such market visions of globalization pervade public opinion and political choices in many parts of the world. Indeed, neoliberal decision-makers function as expert designers of an attractive ideological container for their market-friendly political agenda. Their ideological claims are laced with references to global economic interdependence rooted in the principles of free-market capitalism: global trade and financial markets, worldwide flows of goods, services, and labour, transnational corporations, offshore financial centres, and so on.” [5]

George Monbiot describes the ideology of neoliberalism as:

“Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning. Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.” [6]

Meritocracy is a key feature of neoliberal ideology. This promotes a “hierarchical and highly unequal set of social relations while claiming to offer individuals from all backgrounds an equal chance to compete for elite status.” [7] This is good propaganda for neoliberalism, but in fact social equality and social mobility have decreased since the 1970s. [8]

Mark Fisher describes the ‘capitalist realism’ of neoliberalism as: “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism…the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” [9]


A second dimension on neoliberalism is what the French philosopher Michel Foucault called ‘Governmentality’:

“certain modes of governance based on particular premises, logics, and power relations. A neoliberal governmentality is rooted in entrepreneurial values such as competitiveness, self-interest, and decentralization. It celebrates individual empowerment and the devolution of central state power to smaller localized units. Such a neoliberal mode of governance adopts the self-regulating free market as the model for proper government. Rather than operating along more traditional lines of pursuing the public good (rather than profits) by enhancing civil society and social justice, neoliberals call for the employment of governmental technologies that are taken from the world of business and commerce: mandatory development of ‘strategic plans’ and ‘risk-management’ schemes oriented toward the creation of ‘surpluses’; cost–benefit analyses and other efficiency calculations; the shrinking of political governance (so-called ‘best-practice governance’); the setting of quantitative targets; the close monitoring of outcomes; the creation of highly individualized, performance-based work plans; and the introduction of ‘rational choice’ models that internalize and thus normalize market-oriented behaviour. Neoliberal modes of governance encourage the transformation of bureaucratic mentalities into entrepreneurial identities where government workers see themselves no longer as public servants and guardians of a qualitatively defined ‘public good’ but as self-interested actors responsible to the market and contributing to the monetary success of slimmed-down state ‘enterprises’. In the early 1980s, a novel model of public administration known as ‘new public management’ took the world’s state bureaucracies by storm. Operationalizing the neoliberal mode of governance for public servants, it redefined citizens as ‘customers’ or ‘clients’ and encouraged administrators to cultivate an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’. If private enterprises must nurture innovation and enhance productivity in order to survive in the competitive marketplace, why shouldn’t government workers embrace neoliberal ideals to improve the public sector?” [10]

Cultural theorist Mark Fisher describes the ‘bureaucratic managerialism’ of neoliberalism. Bureaucracy has been decentralised so that we actively produce it ourselves through “continuing professional development, performance reviews, log books, not to mention the whole machine of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).” Workers are encouraged to be highly self critical, but are assured that there will not be any consequences from this self criticism. The demonising nature of having to self criticise, that will then be ignored. Assessments at work have changed from periodic to continuous: “Our status is never fully ratified; it is always up for review.” [11]

A set of government policies

Jeremy Gilbert describes the main aim of neoliberal government programmes as being the promotion of the interests of finance capital and the processes of financialisation  above all other interests. [12] He lists neoliberalism’s policy agenda or ‘actually existing neoliberal’ as:

  • privatising public services
  • deregulating labour markets so workers have fewer rights and protections
  • attacking labour unions
  • cutting taxes on the rich
  • reducing public spending and welfare entitlements
  • forcing services in the public sector to behave, as much as possible, like competitive, profit-seeking business. [13]

Capitalist class project

Neoliberalism can be described as a project of the capitalist class to restore their own class power, following their loss of power through the middle of the twentieth century, during the Keynesian period of high public spending and a strong welfare state. There has also been a recomposition of the capitalist class, with finance capital now dominating over all other sectors. [14]

Neoliberalism can also be seen as a reaction by capitalist elites to the increase in democratic demands in the 1960s. This was followed by a crisis in the 1970s between the capitalists and labour movement. The neoliberal response to was to offer increased private consumption and easily accessible credit, which “re-asserted the supremacy of finance capital over both industrial capital and the rest of the population for the first time since the great crash of 1929”. [15]

At this point of crisis in the 1970s, the neoliberals had two ‘revolutionary goals’ to restore the profitability of capitalism. The first was to “re-organize capitalism on a universal, transnational scale and thus place global markets out of reach of the influence of national governments, making markets less subject to national-scale popular democratic demands and freeing corporations to exploit labor and the environment at will.” The second was to “apply global economics in a ‘race to the bottom’ competition between nations, creating ‘austerity societies’ of disempowered consumers at the expense of social groups and their ‘market-distorting’ demands. The formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 capped-off this revolutionary process of transferring economic power from nations—which ostensibly could be controlled democratically—to the much-less accountable global level.” [16]

A key function of neoliberal ideology is to “secure consent and generate political inertia precisely by enabling the experience of precarity and individualised impotence to be experienced as normal and inevitable.” Only a small number of people support neoliberal policies, namely the core neoliberal elite. For everyone else, neoliberal ideology aims “to console us that the sense of insecurity, of perpetual competition and individual isolation produced by neoliberal government is natural, because ‘that’s what life is really like’.” [17] Most people do not support neoliberalism, but as long as there is no viable alternative that wins broad popular support, then this results in a general ‘disaffected consent’ with the current system. [18]

In neoliberalism, capitalists have worked out the sweet spot to stop any serious challenge to their dominance: “as long as feeding one’s children (still the principal preoccupation of most adult humans, as it has been throughout history and before) remains an achievable but difficult task, then energies are likely to be devoted to the accomplishment of that goal: energies which cannot then be channelled into political activity of any kind. Where this objective becomes unachievable, populations are likely to resort to desperate, perhaps revolutionary, measures. Where it becomes too easily realised – as it did for the generation which came to maturity in the post-war years of social-democratic ascendancy – then capitalism is also likely to find itself subject to challenge by constituencies no longer intimidated by the immediate threat of destitution. Much of the neoliberal programme can be understood in terms of the efficacy and precision with which it engineers precisely the outcome of an economy and a society within which feeding their children and keeping them out of relative poverty remains an achievable but highly demanding task for most actors: actively producing insecurity and ‘precarity’ across the working population, without allowing the level of widespread desperation to pass critical thresholds. [19]

The making of neoliberalism

George Monbiot provides a good summary of the history of neoliberalism:

“The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism. In 1944 Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations. They created a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.

As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way – among American apostles such as Milton Friedman – to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency. The neolibers stopped using the name for their ideology ‘neoliberalism’ in the 1950s.

In the post war period neoliberalism remained at the margins, despite its lavish funding. The postwar consensus was almost universal: John Maynard Keynes’s economic prescriptions were widely applied, full employment and the relief of poverty were common goals in the US and much of western Europe, top rates of tax were high, and governments sought social outcomes without embarrassment, developing new public services and safety nets. But in the 1970s, when Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up”. With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain. After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world.” [20]

Phases of neoliberalism

There are a number of different perspectives on the phases of neoliberalism. [21] I believe there have been three phases of neoliberalism in government:

  1. First-wave neoliberalism in the 1980s: Reaganomics and Thatcherism

The ‘New Right’ of Thatcher and Reagan in the US and UK implemented a basic neoliberal economic programme with a range of conservative social policies such as restoring traditional family values, increased military spending, a tough law and order agenda, and limiting multiculturalism. [22]

  1. Second-wave neoliberalism in the 1990s: Clinton’s and Blair’s Third Way

The Blair and Clinton governments in the 1990s took a more centrist approach, that included the majority of neoliberalism combined with socially progressive policies. The governments supported private-sector-led economic growth, combined with the government providing a consistent level of social services to citizens. They also promoted equality for gay people and supported women in the labour market. [22]

  1. The third phase of neoliberalism began with bailing out the banks following the 2008 financial crisis. This was followed by austerity – massive cuts to public services. Inequality has increased, life expectancy has declined or stagnated, living standards have dropped. All this has polarised politics with the election of authoritarian, right-wing, isolationist politicians.


  1. Twenty-First Century Socialism, Jeremy Gilbert, 2020, page 27-8
  3. What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’? in New Formations, Jeremy Gilbert, 2013, page 12,
  5. Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, Manfred B. Steger, 2010, page 11-12
  7. What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’? Page 15. Also see Meritocracy as Plutocracy: the Marketising of Equality under Neoliberalism, Jo Littler, 2013 And Against Meritocracy, Jo Littler, 2017
  8. What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’? Page 22
  9. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative Mark Fisher, 2009, page 2 and a summary Also see Capitalist Realism, Neoliberal Hegemony: A Dialogue, in New Formations, Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert, 2013,
  10. Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, page 12-14
  11. Capitalist Realism, Neoliberal Hegemony: A Dialogue, in New Formations page 91
  12. What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’? Page 17
  13. Twenty-First Century Socialism page 28-9. Also see A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey, 2007
  14. What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’? Page 16. Also see A Brief History of Neoliberalism
  15. Neoliberal Europe section of
  17. What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’? Page 15
  18. What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’? Page 18-19
  19. What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’? Page 14. Also 28 minutes into
  21.; A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Neoliberalism; A Very Short Introduction chapters 2 and 3; The Handbook of Neoliberalism, Simon Springer , Kean Birch , et al., 2016;; Neoliberalism in Context: Governance, Subjectivity and Knowledge, Simon Dawes (Editor), Marc Lenormand (Editor), 2020; Third-Wave Neoliberalism in Theory and Practice: A Case Study of the Halifax Centre Plan, Sandy Mackay, 2016,
What is Marxism Part 1: Marx’s Marxism

What is Marxism Part 1: Marx’s Marxism

This article is from the blog buildingarevolutionarymovement.

This post will cover the key ideas of the philosopher Karl Marx. In part 2, I will list the Marxist traditions after Marx.

David Harvey, who has written many books on Marxism, describes Marxism as a mode of analysis and a critical way of thinking. He explains that when you want to understand what is happening in a situation, then if you use a Marxist approach you will not be deceived by surface appearances and ‘ideological bluster’. You can use it to do an analysis for yourself and come up with an understanding of what is really going on in a situation. If you really understand what is going on, then you can act against what is really happening in a deeper way rather than deal with surface symptoms.[1]

Marxism is also important because Karl Marx was the first great critic of capitalism. This critique was continued in the many Marxist traditions. Capitalism is the problem, and we need a new system for organising society. [2]

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist and socialist revolutionary [3]. He lived from 1818 to 1883 and spent most of his life in London. He collaborated with his friend and supporter, Frederic Engels on much of this work. There is much written about Karl Marx so I don’t plan to repeat it all here except to list his key contributions and some resources to find out more.

I’m going to use the framework from Sociological Theory by George Ritzer and N. Stepnisky Jeffrey as I’ve found it the best summary of Marx’s work [3]. There are several summaries of Marx’s work [4]. Marx was heavily influenced by G.W.F. Hegal, a German philosopher who lived from 1770 to 1831.
The Dialectic

Dialectical philosophy accepts that contradictions are part of reality and the best way to understand the real world is to study the development of contradictions. Hegal understood historical change through the concept of contradictions. Marx also believed that contradictions drove historical change. Where Hegal thought that contradictions could be worked out in our minds, Marx thought that contradictions were resolved by the “life-and-death struggle that changes the social world.” For Marx this meant the study of social relations based on the material world. “The dialectic leads to an interest in the conflicts and contradictions between various levels of social reality.”

An example of a contradiction is between workers and capitalists, who own the factories or buildings where work is done. The capitalists exploit workers to make a profit and workers want to keep as much of the profits for themselves as possible. Both are not possible and Marx believed that the contradictions would grow worse and more people would be workers as small businesses would be forced out of business and competition between capitalists would force them to exploit workers more. This could only be resolved by social change when the levels of exploitation reach a point where workers resist their exploitation. This resistance would result in more exploitation and oppression and escalate the class conflict. [5]

Dialectical Method 

The dialectical method came from Marx’s focus on contradictions in the real world.

Fact and Value

In dialectical thinking, social values and social facts are inseparable. Social values are our judgments about society. The dialectical thinker believes it is impossible and undesirable to keep them separate because it would result in a disconnected study of society.

Reciprocal Relations

A dialectical thinker does not see social processes flowing in one direction, such as cause-and-effect. They see one activity or actor having an effect on another, but that second activity or actor will likely affect the first.

Pass, Present, Future

Dialectical analysts are interested in the relationship between social processes in the present, past and future. They, therefore, study the “historical roots of the contemporary world.” They also study social trends to help understand the potential directions of society.

No Inevitabilities

Marx did not view the future to be determined by the present. Marx believed the direction the future went in is dependent on individual choices and struggles. Marx was interested in the dynamics of real relationships so he rejected Hegel’s approach of ‘grand abstractions’.

Actors and Structures

Marx was focused on the relationship between people and the large-scale structures they produce, such as community organisations, institutions, governments, states. For Marx, these structures help people meet the needs of their lives and also present a serious threat to general well being if controlled by the ruling class that are only interested in the well being of their class. [6]

Human Potential

Before considering Marx’s analysis of the macrostructures of capitalism, it’s important to describe his thoughts on the micro-sociological area of social reality. Marx “built his critical analysis of the contradictions of capitalist society on his premises about human potential, its relation to labor, and its potential for alienation under capitalism. He believed that there was a real contradiction between our human potential and the way we must work in capitalist society.”

Marx argued that human potential is directly influenced by our specific “social relations and our institutional context. Therefore, human nature is not a static thing but varies historically and socially. To understand human potential, we need to understand social history, because human nature is shaped by the same dialectical contradictions that Marx believed shapes this history of society.” He also argued that there is a general human potential, which is called ‘species being’. This is made up of the potentials and powers that only human share.


The relationship between labour and human nature was important to Marx. Human labour creates something in reality that was only is people’s imaginations. What we produce reflects our purpose. For Marx this process of creating external objects in the real world from our internal thoughts is called objectification. It is also a material process of using nature to provide items to meet our material needs. As well as changing the material world, this labour also “transforms us, our needs, our consciousness, and our human nature.”

The term ‘labour’ for Marx was not only related to economic activities, it includes the act of transforming materials in the natural world into items we need or want. Capitalism has changed the process of labour so it is generally only associated with economic activities.

Marx believed that labour is a response to a need. The labour process results in a transformation that creates new needs, which for Marx was the “engine of human history”. It transforms the individual and society. [7]


Marx believed that the relationship between labour and human nature was perverted by capitalism. He called this alienation. Under capitalism, we no longer labour under our own purpose but under the purpose of the capitalist who hires and pays us. Labour is just about earning money. This labour no longer transforms us as we are not doing it for ourselves so we are alienated from our labour and human nature. Marx described how the structures of capitalism cause alienation through the division of labour. The capitalists own the workers’ time, the means of production, and the products.

Marx’s concept of alienation works in four ways:

  1. workers under capitalism are alienated from their productive activity. The labour they do is not to produce objects based on their own ideas.
  2. Workers are alienated from the products they produce. The products they produce are owned by the capitalist and not the workers.
  3. Workers are alienated from their fellow workers. The production process isolated workers from one another. Workers are also forced to compete with other workers in workplaces and to obtain jobs.
  4. Workers under capitalism are alienated from their human potential. Instead of labour being transformational and satisfying our human nature, people feel least human in workplaces, and more like machines.

Alienation is an example of the contradictions that Marx’s dialectical approach uncovered. “There is a real contradiction between human nature, which is defined and transformed by labor, and the actual social conditions of labor under capitalism.” Identifying with our place of employment, or the things we buy with our wages, are symptoms of our alienation. Marx believed that alienation can only be resolved by real social change. [8]

The Structures of Capitalist Society 

Marx witnessed in the 19th century rapid capitalist industrialisation across Europe with the significant changes it cause – “poverty, dislocation, and alienation”. Marx identified that capitalism was the main cause of alienation. He focused on critiquing capitalist society and developed a political program to go beyond capitalism.

Marx saw capitalism as an economic system where a large number of workers that own nothing, work to produce commodities so a small number capitalists can profit and who own: “the commodities, the means of producing the commodities, and the labor time of the workers, which they purchase through wages.” Marx understood capitalism to be an economic system and a system of power. Capitalism has transformed political powers into economic relations. Instead of using violence, capitalists are generally able to control workers by sacking them or closing workplaces. So capitalism is an economic and political system, a way of exercising power and a process for exploiting workers.

The capitalist system presents the economy as natural. People lose their jobs, wages are cut and workplaces are closed as part of the normal functioning of the economy. In fact, these outcomes happen because of social and political decisions. Attempts to connect human suffering and the economic structures are ignored or seen as irrelevant. Marx attempted to clarify the social and political structures of the economy by exposing ‘the economic law of motion of modern society’ and capitalisms’ internal contradictions.


For Marx, commodities are “products of labor intended primarily for exchange.” Marx identified a commodities ‘use value’ – “objects produced for personal use or for use by others in the immediate environment.” When workers produce something for the capitalist that is then exchanged in the market for money, this is called the ‘exchange value’.

Fetishism of Commodities

Exchange values in capitalism become separate from the actual commodity so that the objects and the market for them become independent existences. Marx called this the ‘fetishism of commodities’. This separation is the second source of alienation listed above.

The economy takes on the function of producing value. “For Marx, the true value of a thing comes from the fact that labor produces it and someone needs it. A commodity’s true value represents human social relations.” Any object or commodity that we buy has hidden behind it several social relations.

The fetishism of commodities presents the economy as a natural reality. This relates to the concept of ‘reification’ – “the process of coming to believe that humanly created social forms are natural, universal, and absolute things.” This idea results in people believing that “social structures are beyond their control and unchangeable.” Marx viewed the economy as a form of domination, where political decisions related to the economy benefit the capitalists. People ‘reify’ (naturalise) social relationships, social structures, commodities, economic phenomena such as the division of labour, religion, political and organisational structures and the state.

Capital, Capitalists, and the Proletariat

Marx identified several categories of people in capitalist societies. He identified two broad categories in opposition with each other – the proletariat and the capitalist.

The proletariat are workers that do not own any means of production so sell their labour. Marx believed workers would become less skilled as more machines were introduced. The proletariat are also consumers because they use their wages to buy what they need. They are therefore dependent on their wages to survive and those that pay their wages.

Capitalists own the means of production and aim to produce more capital. “Capital is money that produces more money, capital is money that is invested rather than being used to satisfy human needs or desires.” A capitalist uses his money to buy commodities to then sell to make more money or profit. Non-capitalists obtain a commodity that they sell for money to then buy a commodity that they need to survive.

Marx describes capital as more than money that produces more money. It is also a social relation between “the proletariat, which does the work and must purchase the produce, and…those that have invested the money.” Marx sees capital as a relation of power. To increase it, capitalists must exploit the workers through a system that is produced by the workers’ own labour. “The capitalist system is the social structure that emerges from that exploitative relationship.” Capitalists live off the profit of their capital from the exploitation of the proletariat.


Workers are exploited by the “impersonal and ‘objective’ economic system.” Workers are controlled by capitalists because they need to engage in wage labour to meet their basic needs to survive, so the capitalists do not need to use force. It may appear that workers are free to choose what work they do but to survive, workers have to accept the work they are offered by capitalists. Marx describes the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ – workers know that if they do not take the job someone from the reserve army of the unemployed will.

Capitalists pay the workers less than the value of what the worker produces and keep the rest as profits. Marx called this “surplus value’ – this is defined as, “the difference between the value of the produce when it is sold and the value of the elements consumed in the formation of the product (including the worker’s labor).” Capitalists then use this profit to grow their businesses to generate more surplus value. Marx saw surplus value as an economic concept, and like capital, as a social relation and form of domination, because labour is the real source of surplus value.

Marx also describes capital as being driven by non-stop competition. Although capitalists may seem in control, they are in fact driven by constant competition between themselves. Capitalists are driven to generate more profit to invest their capital in expanding their enterprise. Those that do not are outcompeted. Marx called this the ‘general law of capitalist accumulation’. “The structure and the ethos of capitalism push capitalists in the direction of the accumulation of more and more capital”. As Marx saw labour as the source of value, then the exploitation by capitalists of the proletariat led to class conflict.

Class Conflict

Marx used the term ‘class’ in his work but did not clearly define it. It is generally understood to mean “a group of people in similar situations concerning their control of the means of production.” Marx also viewed class in terms of its potential for conflict – “individuals form a class insofar as they are in a common conflict with others over the surplus value.” Capitalism contains a conflict of interest between workers and the capitalists who turn their labour into surplus value. It is this conflict that produces classes. This means that class is a theoretically and historically variable concept. To identify a class, first, you need to understand the potential conflicts that exist in a society.

Marx argued that a class only really exists when “people become aware of their conflicting relation to other classes. Without this awareness, they only constitute what Marx called a class ‘in itself’. When they become aware of the conflict, they become a true class, a class ‘for itself’.

Marx identified two classes in capitalism, the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marx called the capitalists in the modern economy, the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie owns the means of production and employs the workers. Marx saw the conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie as a real material contradiction, that would only get worse until society is changed. Until that change, society would continue to be polarised between these two classes. Some capitalists will lose out and be forced into the ranks of the proletariat. Marx called this ‘proletarianization’.

Marx saw the increase in mechanisation as decreasing the skills of the proletariat and putting many out of work. The capitalists will create the masses that will organise and overthrow the system. He saw that the international linking of factories and markets are raising the awareness of workers, which will lead to revolution.

The capitalists look to avoid revolution by exploiting workers abroad through colonisation and imperialism, to reduce exploitation of workers in the home countries. Marx only saw this as delaying the inevitable end of capitalism, as the laws of the capitalist economy required the reduction of labour costs by increasing exploitation and therefore class conflict. “Marx did not blame individual members of the bourgeoisie for their actions, he saw these actions as largely determined by the logic of the capitalist system.”

Marx predicted at the economic level, “a series of booms and depressions, as capitalists overproduced or laid-off workers in their attempts to increase their profits.” In the political arena, he predicted the inability of civil society to discuss and fix social problems. Marx believed instead the state will increasingly protect the capitalists’ private property, and, when needed, to step in with force when the capitalists’ economic control of workers fails. [9]

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

Marx described ‘class consciousness’ as an awareness of your social and economic position in society and in relation to others. Class consciousness is also an understanding of the social and economic aspects of your class, and its collective interests within the structures of capitalist society.

For Marx, workers lived with ‘false consciousness’ before they could develop class consciousness. Marx did not use the term ‘false consciousness,’ but developed the ideas. The term was first used by Engels. False consciousness and class consciousness are opposites. False consciousness is individualistic rather than collective. Individuals compete with each other in society, instead of working to collectivise their needs, struggles and interests. Marx saw that false consciousness was caused by the inequality of capitalist society, controlled by the ruling class. It stops workers from seeing their collective power and interests. It relates to Marx’s ideas around ideology, described below.

“Marx cited the phenomenon of commodity fetishism—the way capitalist production frames relationships between people (workers and owners) as relationships between things (money and products)—with playing a key role in producing false consciousness among workers. He believed that commodity fetishism served to obscure the fact that relations concerning production within a capitalist system are relationships between people, and that as such, they are changeable.” [10]

Capitalism as a Good Thing

Although Marx was critical of capitalism in terms of the dynamic of domination and exploitation, and its regular crises, he believed capitalism to be a good thing. He did not want to return to feudalism, before capitalism. In comparison, capitalism offered new possibilities and more freedom for workers. The workers are not free yet, but it gives hope and a path to great freedom. Also, as capitalism is the most powerful economic system ever created, there is the potential to end hunger and material deprivation.

Marx believed that capitalism was the primary cause of the significant characteristics of the modern age – constant change and the trend of challenging all accepted traditions. These came from the innate competitive nature of capitalism, which drives capitalists to constantly transform the means of production to change society. He believed capitalism to be a truly revolutionary force – it created a global society, constant technological change, and overthrew the traditional feudal society. Marx also believed it needed to be overthrown, as its role in the world was over and the next stage of communism needs to begin. [9]

Materialist Conceptions of History

Marx critiqued capitalism and its future because he believed that history would follow a predictable course. He has a materialist conception of history, also known as ‘historical materialism’. For Marx, this meant that how people provide for their material need determines or influences the relationships people have between each other, their social institutions, and their common ideas.

Marx called the way people provide for their material needs and the following economic relations, the ‘base’. Non-economic relations, such as social institutions and the important ideas in society, are referred to as the ‘superstructure’. Marx did not view the superstructure as simply “coming in line with the base.” He argued that human history was driven by trying to satisfy needs that are constantly changing. The satisfaction of needs resulted in more needs so that “human needs are both the motivating foundation and the result of the economic base.”

Marx describes the ‘material forces of production’ as the tools, machinery, and factories to meet human needs. The ‘relations of production’ are the relationships between people to satisfy their needs.

Marx had a dynamic view of history, so he thought that the forces of production (tools, machinery etc) will constantly change to produce for people’s material needs. Capitalism caused technological changes that resulted in factories. But for capitalism to happen, society changed due to a change in the relations of production (relationships between people to satisfy their needs). “Factories, capitalists, and wage labourers were not compatible with feudal relations.” Feudal lords obtained their wealth from their land and felt responsible for their serfs. Capitalists get their wealth from capital and feel no obligation to workers. Serfs felt loyal to the lords, whereas the proletariat must sell their labour where they can get work. “The old relations of production were in conflict with the new forces of production.” [11]

Cultural Aspects of Capitalist Society

Marx had several theories about the culture of capitalist society.


Marx called the prevalent ideas of society that held back progressive change, ‘ideology’. Marx used the term ideology to refer to two related ideas.

Marx’s first understanding of ideology, “refers to ideas that naturally emerge out of everyday life in capitalism but, because of the nature of capitalism, reflect reality in an inverted manner.” An example is money. We know that money is only pieces of paper, but in daily life, we treat it as having an inherent value. Instead of believing that we give money its value, money is seen to give us our value. This understanding of ideology is open to disruption due to its unseen material contradictions. People come to understand that the economy is not objective and is politically controlled, resulting in workers alienation.

Marx’s second understanding of ideology refers to, “systems of ruling ideas that attempt once again to hide the contradictions that are at the heart of the capitalist system. In most cases, they do this in one of three ways: (1) they lead to the creation of subsystems of ideas – a religion, a philosophy, a literature, a legal system – that makes the contradictions appear to be coherent; (2) they explain away those experiences that reveal the contradictions, usually as personal problems or individual idiosyncrasies; or (3) they present the capitalist contradiction as really being a contradiction in human nature and, there, one that cannot be fixed by social change.”

Marx described how anyone can create this second type of ideology, whether they are from the ruling class, bourgeois economics, philosophers or even the proletariat if they have given up hope of changing society. Regardless of who constructs these ideologies, the ruling class always benefits.

Freedom, Equality, and Ideology

Marx argued that under capitalism, it appears that people are free and equal. In fact, it is capital that is free and the workers that are enslaved. For Marx, “freedom is the ability to have control over your own labor and its products.” Under capitalism, “people are dominated by capitalist relations that seem objective and natural and therefore are not perceived as a form of domination.”

The ideas of freedom and equality are the most dangerous to capitalism. Therefore, it needs to use the two forms of ideology to reduce freedom and equality.


Marx believed that religion was an ideology that was used to distract people who could not see their “distress and oppression” as produced by the capitalist system. He was not against all religion but when it “requires the illusions of religion”, meaning not real, and used to hide things in society. Religion is open to disruption and can result in religious movements opposing capitalism. Religion is also open to the second form of ideology by “portraying the injustice of capitalism as a test for the faithful and pushing any revolutionary change off into the afterlife.” [12]

Marx’s Economics: A Case Study

Marx understood ‘use value’ as items produced for personal use or use by others and ‘exchange value’ as something produced for capitalists for exchange in the market. Use values related to natural human expression and exchange values result in a distortion of humanity. Capitalism is based on exchange values.

Marx developed the ‘labor theory of value’ – “the basic source of any value was the amount of socially necessary labor time needed to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity of the time.” The capitalist “pays the workers less than the value the workers produce and keeps the rest for themselves. The workers are not aware of this exploitation, and often, neither are the capitalists. The capitalists believe that this extra value is derived from their own cleverness, their capital investment, their manipulation of the market, and so on.”

This led Marx concept of ‘surplus value’ – “the difference between the value of the product when it is sold and value of the elements consumed in the formation of that product. Although means of production (raw materials and tools, the value of which comes from the labor involved in extracting or producing them) are consumed in the production process, it is labor that is the real source of surplus value.”

Capitalists use the surplus value to pay for land or building rent, bank interest, private consumption, and to expand their enterprise. Marx calls the capitalist desire to increase profit and surplus value the ‘general law of capitalist accumulation’. Capitalists are driven to constantly exploit workers. As this continues, exploitation achieves less and less gains, until an upper limit is reached. At this point, the working class will put pressure on governments to protect them from the capitalists, through limits to the working day or week. Capitalists respond by developing labour saving machines so they need less workers. “This shift to capital-intensive production is, paradoxically, a cause of the declining rate of profit since it is labor (not machines) that is the ultimate source of profit.”

The increase is the use of machines results in more and more unemployment. Increased competition results in less capitalists. This leads to a very small number of capitalists and a huge number of proletariat. At this point, capitalism is vulnerable to revolution. Capitalists look to avoid this by moving production and exploitation abroad to colonies. Marx believed this would only delay the inevitable failure of capitalism.

For Marx, the general law of capitalist accumulation meant that both the capitalists and proletariat had a fixed role to play set by the logic of the capitalist system. He did not blame individual capitalists. (Sociological Theory, p68-70)

Economic Crisis

In Marx’s time, there were two schools of thought about what caused an economic crisis. Some thought that crises were caused by a “lack of proportion between output of some sectors” – production not meeting the demand of items in some sectors and too many items in other sectors. This was known as ‘disproportionality theory’. Others thought that crises were caused by an “excess of total output” – overproduction. This is known as ‘underconsumptionist theory’ Marx and Engels were in the first school of thought.

Marx and Engels described individual economic crisis and also the recurring pattern of economic crises over the years. They predicted that crises would expand across sectors in society as capitalism spread around the world, rather than deepen in severity. They described a regularity in the time between crises but did not decide on a fixed period. [13]


For Marx, historical materialism helped “identify some predictable trends and to use these trends to discover the points where political action could be more effective.” Rather than focus on historical predictions, Marx believed that the way we meet our material needs was the best way to identify the “opportunities for effective political interventions.”

Marx thought that “capitalism had developed its productive powers so that it was ready to enter a new mode of production, which he called ‘communism’.” Marx wrote little about what a communist society would look like. He was against “recipes for the kitchens of the future.” Marx focused on critically analysing capitalist society and believed that “there would be time to construct communist society once capitalism was overcome.” In general, he wanted decision making taken away from the capitalists and economy, and replaced by “social decision making that would allow the needs of the many to be taken into account.” [14]


  1. 12m
  3. Sociological Theory, George Ritzer and N. Stepnisky Jeffrey, 2017, CH2
  4. The Thought Of Karl Marx: An Introduction by David McLellan 1995. The Marx-Engels Reader By Robert C. Tucker; Karl Marx; Friedrich Engels, 1978. Marx and Marxism, Gregory Claeys, 2018. Marxism and Social Theory, Jonathan Joseph, 2006.
  5. Sociological Theory, page 45
  6. Sociological Theory, page 46-48
  7. Sociological Theory, page 46-48
  8. Sociological Theory, page 53-55
  9. Sociological Theory, page 55-63
  11. Sociological Theory, page 63-65
  12. Sociological Theory, page 65-68
  13. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, Thomas Sowell, 2012, page 96
  14. Sociological Theory, page 70-41
India’s Farmers’ Protests Are About More Than Reform — They Are Resisting The Corporate Takeover Of Agriculture

India’s Farmers’ Protests Are About More Than Reform — They Are Resisting The Corporate Takeover Of Agriculture

Written by Manu MoudgilIndia’s historic farmers movement has overcome regional, religious, gender and ideological differences to challenge corporate influence on government.

By Manu Moudgil/Waging Non Violence

On Feb. 6, protesters blocked roads at an estimated 10,000 spots across India as part of the ongoing movement against the new farm laws enacted by the national government last year. For over two months, the most populous democracy in the world has witnessed what is being called one of the biggest protests in human history.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been rallying against three new laws that have thrown open the agriculture sector to private players. Protesters feel the legislation will allow a corporate takeover of crop production and trading, which would eventually impact their earnings and land ownership. They are camping on the roads connecting the national capital with major north Indian cities, braving harsh winters and smear campaigns from the mainstream media and ruling party supporters. Over 224 protesters have already lost their lives for various reasons, chief among them camping outdoors in the frigid weather.

The movement has overcome regional, religious, gender and ideological differences to build pressure.

Leftist farm unions, religious organizations and traditional caste-based brotherhoods called khaps, which make pronouncements on social issues, are working in tandem through resolute sit-ins and an aggressive boycott of politicians.

“We believe the laws have been framed at the direction of the private sector to directly benefit them. So, the protests have to target big businesses along with the government,”

said Jagmohan Singh, president of one of the farm unions representing protesting farmers. India’s right-wing government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, pushed the laws through the parliament in September, despite lacking a majority in the upper house and agriculture being in the jurisdiction of state governments. The protest is a response to the lack of respect for parliamentary democracy and federalism, but its main focus is the pervasive corporate influence on governance.

After limits on corporate contributions were removed and allowed to be made anonymously, $8.2 billion was spent on Indian parliamentary elections in 2019, which exceeded how much was spent on the U.S. election in 2016 by 26 percent. Most of this money came from corporations and the BJP was the primary recipient.

The political-corporate influence is also jeopardizing media’s independence in the country. India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Mainstream TV news channels often eulogize the government and Hindu right-wing ideology and smear voices of dissent and minorities. Farmers and their supporters have responded by boycotting media outlets, starting their own newsletters and promoting independent journalism. The movement has already received global attention on social media, with climate activist Greta Thunberg and pop star Rihana recently extending support to the protesters.

Farm crisis is the fuel

Farmers are a large electoral block in India, with half the population being engaged in agriculture. No political party can afford to offend them publicly even though policy makers have done little to increase farm incomes and address their indebtedness. Around 300,000 farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2013, mostly due to financial stress. In 2019, another 10,281 farmers took their lives.

The Modi government came to power in 2014 on the promise of doubling farmer’s income. It claims the new laws will help fulfill that pledge by allowing for the sale of produce and contract farming outside the purview of state governments and remove of cap on stockholding of food items. Farmers, however, are not buying these arguments.

“The laws are tilted against the farmers and give a free hand to private companies by removing the safeguard of state market committees, which usually intervene in case of disputes with traders,” said Gurtej Singh, a farmer from Punjab. “The committee members are easily accessible even to small farmers, compared to the courts or district officials, which the new laws propose as regulatory authorities.”

Indian farms are mostly family-owned and land is a source of subsistence for millions. Around 86 percent of farmers, however, till less than five acres while the other 14 percent, mostly upper castes, own over half of the country’s 388 million acres of arable land.

Now they fear that the new laws will dismantle the government support system as well and further push them into poverty. “Laws are just the imminent trigger. The protest is actually a manifestation of anger about the constant decline in farming as a profitable occupation over the last few decades,” Singh said. “We have mostly been handed short term relief around election times.”Farmers in a few north Indian states were able to consolidate their holdings through increased incomes with the introduction of irrigation, modern seeds, fertilizers, machines, market infrastructure and guaranteed price support from the government during the Green Revolution in the 1960s. But rising input costs and climate crisis have adversely impacted the profits there as well. In Punjab, the most agriculturally-developed state, for instance, the input costs of electric motors, labor, fertilizer and fuel rose by 100 to 290 percent from 2000 to 2013, but the support price of wheat and rice rose by only 122 to 137 percent in the same period, according to a government report. Heavy use of chemicals, mono-cropping and farm mechanization have damaged the soil, affecting productivity and forcing farmers into debt.

The new farm laws were enacted at a time when India had yet to recover from one of the most punitive lockdowns in the world imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented large gatherings. However, the government lost the battle of perceptions from the very start. Since farming is the largest avenue of self-employment and subsistence in India, throwing the sector open to private players was bound to kindle fears that owners would lose autonomy over their lands.

Strength and strategy

Punjab saw widespread protests as soon as the laws were enacted. Farmers occupied railway tracks and toll plazas on major roads besides corporate-owned thermal plants, gas stations and shopping malls. Scores of subscribers left Jio, the telecom service owned by the top Indian businessman perceived to be close to Prime Minister Modi.

Farm unions also held regular sit-ins in front of the houses of prominent political leaders forcing an important regional party to leave the national government alliance. Several state leaders of the ruling party resigned from their posts as well. Similar scenes played out in the neighboring state of Haryana, where leaders were publicly shamed and the helicopter of the elected head of the government was prevented from landing for a public meeting after farmers dug up the helipad area.

In November, thousands of farmers drove their tractor trolleys towards the national capital as they played protest songs by celebrity singers. Stocked with rations, clothing, water and wood for months, they braved tear gas shells and water cannons used by the police along the way. Powerful tractors pushed heavy transport vehicles, concrete slabs and barbed wires that the administration had placed en route out of their way.

Stopping at the northern and western borders of New Delhi, the long cavalcades of tractor trolleys turned into encampments, and numerous community kitchens sprang up. Residents of nearby villages and towns chipped in by supplying milk and vegetables, and offering bathrooms in their houses, shops, gas stations and offices for use by protesters.

Open libraries and medical camps were set up and volunteers offered their skills, ranging from tailoring to tutoring children. Besides speeches by the farm leaders, cultural performances, film screenings and wrestling bouts became a regular feature. More farmers poured in with each passing day. Indians in the diaspora gave donations to farm unions and village councils, which offered money for fuel and other expenses to villagers who could not afford to visit the protest sites on their own. The resistance to the corporatization of agriculture has penetrated deep.

“These occupations are not just a reaction of wronged citizens who have set out to reform the Indian parliament or assert dissent. Rather, they form an important stage in a still-unfolding narrative of militant anti-capitalist struggle,”

wrote Aditya Bahl, a doctoral scholar at the John Hopkins University who is archiving the peasants’ revolts that took place in Punjab in the 1960s and ’70s.

The protests are not only targeting domestic companies and political figures.

Farmers have also burnt effigies of Uncle Sam, the World Trade Organization and IMF, signifying the influence of global trade over domestic agricultural policies. Developed countries have been pressuring India for last three decades to open up its agriculture sector to multinational players by slashing subsidies and reducing public procurement and distribution of food grains to the poor.The Indian Supreme Court suspended the implementation of laws and formed a four-member expert committee on Jan. 13 to look into the issue. Farmers have, however, refused to meet the committee members, alleging that many of them have already written or spoken in favor of the laws.

“Agricultural reforms and free markets have failed to help American farmers who are dying by suicide due to heavy debts,” explained food and trade policy expert Devinder Sharma. “Their farm incomes are in the negative, even though they have big landholdings and billions of dollars of income support from the government. How can the same model work for India, especially when it’s not even designed for our domestic conditions?”

Protesters are also seeking a legal right to sell their produce at a guaranteed price. The Indian government usually declares a minimum support price on various crops based on costs of their production, but only a fraction of the produce is procured at that rate. In the absence of government procurement facilities in their areas, most farmers have to settle for a lower price offered by private traders. A law would make it mandatory for private players to buy the produce at a declared price.

“If Indian farmers are able to get the law on guaranteed price passed through their current agitation, they will become a role model for farmers across the world living under heavy debts,” Sharma continued. “India should put its foot down at the WTO and create much-needed disruption in the world food trade policy for the benefit of the global agriculture sector.”

The movement grows

The BJP-led national government has faced numerous protests over the last six years of its rule, including by university students, workers and caste and religious minorities. With the help of media and security agencies, however, the government has always been able to frame dissent as being unpatriotic. The country has dropped 26 places in the Democracy Index’s global ranking since 2014 due to “erosion of civil liberties.”

This is the first time peasants have been galvanized in such large numbers against the government. The government has already held 11 rounds of negotiations with farmers’ representatives and offered to suspend the laws for one and a half years on Jan. 20. But farmers are not budging from their demand of the complete repeal of the laws and legal cover for the selling of their crops at a guaranteed price. The movement, initiated by Punjab’s farmers, has taken on a national character. On Jan. 26, which marks India’s Republic Day, 19 out of 28 states witnessed protests against the farm laws.

In Delhi, however, a plan to organize a farmers’ tractor march parallel to the official Republic Day function, went awry. A group of protesters clashed with police at multiple spots and stormed the iconic Red Fort, a traditional seat of power for the Mughals, where the colonial British and independent India’s prime ministers have also raised their flags.

The rural-urban divide became starker on the night of Jan. 27. While TV anchors and their captive urban audience smirked at visuals of a leader of the farmers’ movement crying as he faced imminent arrest, villages erupted in anger. Temple priests gave calls over public address systems, nightly meetings were arranged and thousands drove hundreds of miles through a foggy winter night to reach the protest site on eastern fringe of national capital New Delhi, compelling the administration to pull the police back and restart the water and power supply to the protest site.The protesters unfurled banners of the farm unions and Sikhs — one of the minority religious groups and the most prominent face of the protests. Mainstream media and ruling party supporters used the opportunity to blame the movement for desecration and religious terrorism. Security forces charged sleeping farmers with batons at one location, filed cases against movement leaders, allowed opponents to pelt campaigners with stones, arrested journalists and shut down the Internet.

The attacks, therefore, ended up lifting the flagging morale of the farmers and helped the movement gain even more supporters, who shunned the government and media narrative. Massive community gatherings of khaps were organized at multiple places over next few days, extending their support to the protests and issuing a boycott call for the BJP and its political allies.

Smear campaigns to depict Sikh farmers as terrorists, a reference to an armed movement in the 1980s and ’90s for a separate homeland, found no resonance beyond the right-wing echo chamber. Sikh protesters draw inspiration from the religious tenets of community service, equality and the fight against injustice. Community kitchens run by Sikh organizations have served through many humanitarian crisis, like the ongoing civil war in Syria and movements like Black Lives Matter. Sikhs in India have remained steadfastly egalitarian, ready to support other religious minorities in times of need.

Mending fault lines

The movement has also been able to overcome regional and gender divisions, and is trying to address caste divides. The states of Haryana and Punjab are often at loggerheads on the issue of sharing of river waters. Haryana was carved out of Punjab on linguistic lines in 1966, but most of the rivers flow through the current Punjab state. Haryana has been seeking a greater amount of water for use by its farmers, while Punjab’s farmers oppose the demand, citing reduced water flow in the rivers over the years. The current protests have united farmers for a common cause, helping them understand each other even though opponents have made attempts revive the water issue.

Women have also been participating in the protests in large numbers. They are either occupying roads on Delhi’s borders or managing homes and farms in the absence of men, while taking part in protest marches in villages.

“Earlier, we were able to rally only 8,000-10,000 women for a protest. Today that number has swelled to 25,000-30,000, as they recognized the threats posed by the new laws to the livelihoods of their families,” said Harinder Bindu, who leads the women’s wing of the largest farm union in Punjab. “For many women this is the first time they are participating in a protest, which is a big change because they were earlier confined to household work. Men are getting used to seeing women participate and recognizing the value they bring to a movement.”

The union first encouraged the male leaders to include the women in their families with the cause to set an example for other members as well. “This helped inculcate the habit of sharing responsibilities,” Bindu said. “When women members participate in sit-ins, men manage the house. I feel this movement will bring greater focus on women’s issues within the farming community — one of which is the need to support widows of farmers who died by suicide due to financial constraints.”

In Punjab, less than four percent of private farm land belongs to Dalits, the lowest caste in the traditional social hierarchy of India, even though they constitute 32 percent of the state’s population. They often earn their livelihoods through farm work or daily wage labor. Even though Dalits have a legal right to till village common land, attempts to assert that right often lead to violent clashes with upper caste landlords who want to keep it for themselves.

“It’s not easy to overcome caste barriers. The acceptance and understanding evident in the leaders of the farmers’ unions is yet to percolate among their cadre.”

Dalits are waging similar battles across India. Researchers recorded 31 land conflicts involving 92,000 Dalits in 2019. A few of the farmers’ unions have supported and raised funds for Dalit agitations in the past. This has ensured the participation of farm workers in the current movement, but it has largely remained a farmers’ campaign.

“Dalits do understand that the new laws will impact them. Initially some of the workers did join the protests but they can’t afford to lose daily wages and also lack resources to travel long distance,” said Gurmukh Singh, a social activist working with Dalits to claim their right to cultivate village common land in Punjab. “But it’s not easy to overcome caste barriers. The acceptance and understanding evident in the leaders of the farmers’ unions is yet to percolate among their cadre.”

The movement is gradually encompassing other rural issues beyond the farm laws. In the state of Maharashtra, for instance, thousands of tribal people traveled to the capital Mumbai on Jan. 23 to extend support to the farmers. They also asserted their own long pending demand for land titles under the Forest Rights Act, which recognizes traditional rights of scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers on the use of land and other forest resources.

Starting from Punjab, the epicenter of protests has now extended to Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, and leaders are planning to muster more support from central India.

The persistent protests also forced the government to hold an extensive debate on the issue in the parliament at the beginning of February, even though it did not lead to any resolution. The UK parliament may also consider debating the farmers’ protests and press freedom in India after an online petition on its website gathered the required number of signatures. Farmers’ leaders, meanwhile, have reaffirmed their stand to stay put on the roads for the long haul and have now decided to block railway tracks across the country for four hours on Feb. 18.

This article was first published in on February 16, 2021, you can read the original here

Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist based in India. He tweets at @manumoudgil