This December, The Bias Magazine begins a 15-part series, “The Invisible Feet of the Market,” that will constitute a primer on how capitalism works from an intersectional, socialist standpoint. There is a great need for in-depth, but non-technical, analyses of capitalism that captures the relationship of class oppression to other forms of social oppression and struggles.
With “The Invisible Feet of the Market,” we hope to fill a gap in leftist literature by providing a clear, useable resource for those who want to better understand, organize against, and transcend capitalism.
This is Part 1 of our series.
Capitalism is one of the primary engines of injustice in our world. It creates massive inequality, condemns billions to brutal living conditions, and causes environmental devastation on a planetary and epochal scale. Moreover, it is what keeps other structures of injustice in business today: capitalism is the ‑ism that funds all the other ‑isms.
But what, exactly, is capitalism? How is it most accurately defined, and what are its basic operations? Can we find a language for talking about capitalism that recognizes how racism and patriarchy are indispensable to it, without simplistically subsuming it within one of them? These are the questions I aim to answer in monthly installments over the next year. This series, titled “The Invisible Feet of the Market,” will offer a primer on capitalism from a critical standpoint — one that integrates feminist-queer, anti-racist, and ecological critiques of capitalism — but written in a non-technical style.
The series title points to how it will be different from most accounts of capitalism. Usually the focus is on the “free” market, the goods and services traded on it, and the supply-and-demand dynamics of such trade. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the market simply exists, ex nihilo, as a neutral fact of social life just waiting to be put to use. And it assumes that the market is actually free, in any substantial sense, in the first place. In reality, markets are made (and re-made) by people, not given by God — and the market in capitalism is made by domination and coercion, the very opposite of freedom. This is intrinsic to capitalism itself, not an aberration from it.
So rather than presuming the existence of the supposedly free market, this series will look at the various processes of unfreedom whose continuous operation secures much freedom, but only for the few who control the global flow of capital.* Such processes are the invisible feet of the market, upon which it relies and without which it would collapse; they bear the weight not only of the market, but of its visible hand (the technically sovereign power of the state) and its invisible head (which I define in Part 3 as capitalism’s “wealth-system”).
Noticing the Invisible Feet
The invisible feet of the market are necessary for capitalism to succeed in its overriding goal: the endless expansion, for its own sake, of wealth that is privately owned by a small fraction of humankind. (At the end of 2019, 11% of the world’s adults owned more than 80% of the world’s total individual wealth.) The invisible feet maintain capitalism as a structure that is near-impossible for any individual to opt out of. Yet despite capitalism’s complete dependence on these feet, they remain invisible feet because capitalism pursues this goal by constantly denying that they are necessary and diminishing any value they generate — material, emotional, moral, ecological — that isn’t connected to the expansion of privately owned wealth.
This drive to accumulate wealth has been one of capitalism’s defining features from its beginning. Nearly all of the invisible feet have also been part of capitalism from the start. And while they have taken various forms in different eras and have operated differently in capitalism’s core and periphery, capitalism has repeatedly utilized them throughout the process of coming to dominate the entire planet. In this series I focus on the invisible feet as overarching themes of capitalism’s development rather than on the details of their various historical manifestations, because my approach to analyzing capitalism will, in general, be that of a “lumper” more than a “splitter.”
Indeed, many of the feet lump together practices or concepts that are usually analyzed separately. Too often in recent decades, this disaggregation has obscured the major movements of capitalism, allowing it to prey on vulnerable communities even more stealthily. I am committed to a more integrative view, because I think it is more useful for strategizing towards a more just society. Thus, for some of the feet I have coined a new label, while I apply to others an existing concept in an expanded sense. Although the dynamics of capitalism that I group within each foot have been extensively expounded by others, this way of grouping and explaining them is new.
In describing the invisible feet, I don’t begin from an assumption that capitalism, in itself, is a non-moral or morally neutral system and that only the goals pursued through this system, rather than the system itself, can be judged as good or bad. Capitalism cannot accurately be understood as morally neutral because human-caused inequality, poverty, and ecological degradation are not morally neutral, and — as this series will discuss — these things too are intrinsic to capitalism, not aberrations from it. Not only has capitalism perpetuated (if not increased) inequality, poverty, and ecological degradation wherever it has expanded: these are, in fact, written directly into capitalism’s governing principles.
After all, the capitalist imperative to endlessly expand wealth cannot, on a planet containing a fixed amount of matter and subject to the laws of thermodynamics, avoid disrupting the balanced flows of matter and energy that sustain whole ecosystems. Moreover, the unequal possession and control of wealth is a fundamental, unquestionable premise of capitalism. For those who do not possess significant wealth, the only way to avoid poverty is to somehow contribute to expanding the wealth of those who do.
Recognizing Capitalism’s Confederates
Along with the inequality, poverty, and ecological degradation built into capitalism, other mechanisms of injustice have been major partners in capitalism’s ascent to power, especially colonialism, patriarchy (including norms of binary gender and heterosexuality), and racism. I do not consider these other mechanisms to themselves be invisible feet, because they operate across multiple feet. But this brings us to the question of how capitalism relates to them, a topic often referred to as intersectionality.
Colonialism, patriarchy, and racism existed long before capitalism, so we can never treat them as sub-functions of capitalism. At the same time, capitalism is distinct from them as a method of oppression, with its own operating logic, so we likewise cannot treat it as simply the continuation of one of them by other means. Yet colonialism, patriarchy, and racism were necessary for the establishment (and remain necessary for the maintenance) of capitalist domination; capitalism cannot achieve its goals without them. Furthermore, as capitalism becomes the dominant way of organizing access to the things people need for survival, it re-configures how these and other mechanisms of injustice can even function in the first place.
Thus, capitalism simultaneously relies on and transforms every other mechanism of injustice it comes into contact with. The most useful, non-reductive metaphor I know to accurately convey this enmeshed-yet-distinguishable complexity is physicist John Wheeler’s famous gloss on Einstein’s general theory of relativity (“Space-time tells matter how to move [while] matter tells space-time how to curve”). So in this series, I proceed from the assumption that colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and related forces tell capitalism how (and where) to move while capitalism tells them how to curve. In other words, I reject any chicken-and-egg framing of the relationship between capitalism and other mechanisms of injustice, instead interpreting this relationship as a mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing confederacy.
Before each foot is described in its own monthly installment, next month there will be two that set out some basic concepts that guide my analysis. In Part 2, I will explain the particular, “eco-social” way I define capitalism in terms of the relationship between the human web of care and the planetary web of life, of which the web of care is just one component and from which it is inseparable. Then, in Part 3, I will delineate the two-fold basic structure of capitalism, a “wealth-system” that colonizes the web of life by means of its “work-system.”
As the Institute for Christian Socialism launches its regional book groups in 2021, these articles will serve as an orientation for those who want to learn more about capitalism and Christian politics. And I encourage you to discuss each month’s installment with those you care about, tracking where the invisible feet stomp or sneak through your own lives. My ultimate hope is that by the end of this series, readers will have both a savvy understanding and an incisive critique of how capitalism works. Meanwhile, my fellow authors here at The Bias Magazine will help us figure out what we should do about it.
*This approach of focusing on processes that are necessary conditions for capitalism’s existence and operations is inspired by feminist social theorist Nancy Fraser’s recent work (see here, here, and the deep dive below).
Some further reading:
Even capitalism is bound by the planet’s ecological limits (and no, the problem isn’t human overpopulation!).
Deep dive: Nancy Fraser & Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (Polity, 2018; link)
Dr. Jeremy Posadas, a queer social ethicist, is the Director of Gender Studies and holds the John F. Anderson Chair of Christian Thought at Austin College (which is located nowhere near Austin but on the rural Texas-Oklahoma border). He previously worked in both congregation-based and labor organizing and is the creator of the United Regions of America map.