Capital System

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= expanded notion of capitalism, (which can also include the former Soviet system)


"The critical framework underlying Mészáros’s system of thought is complex, extending the dialectical method of Hegel, Marx, and Lukács to our own age of “epochal transition.” It thus defies easy explanation. But three crucial elements in his dialectic stand out. First, it is necessary to focus on what he termed the capital system rather than capitalism, as a way of deepening the critique of capital, in line with Marx’s early formulation, while also extending this criticism to Soviet-type societies—where the capital system, in Mészáros’s interpretation, remained in many ways intact.

Second, the capital system is to be understood as a historically specific mode of social metabolic reproduction, whose various organic elements all serve to reinforce the power of capital as a whole, and thus cannot be approached piecemeal. The transition to socialism therefore requires the creation of an alternative, communal form of social metabolic reproduction, one that challenges the capital system at every point, and that is rooted in the struggle for substantive equality. (It was Mészáros’s analysis of communal production that inspired Chávez’s introduction of the communal councils and communes in Venezuela, while Mészáros’s treatment of social metabolic reproduction gave rise to Chávez’s notion of “the elementary triangle of socialism.”)" (


John Bellamy Foster:

"According to Mészáros’s interpretation of Marx’s theory of alienation and its relation to his overall critique of political economy, capital as a system perfects and universalizes what in previous class systems were mere partial tendencies. It seizes upon and alienates humanity’s distinctive role as the “self-mediating being of nature,” turning this essential human relation into a means of class oppression by removing workers from control of the means of production, thus severing their direct connection to nature and their own labor. On this basis, the logic of capital is extended to the reproduction of the social relations in their entirety and to the relation to the environment, creating a self-generating, self-reinforcing social order, unlike any that had preceded it. And as its history has shown, this social order exhibits remarkable social cohesion. But the capital system achieves this cohesion only by means of “antagonistic second-order mediations” (such as the nuclear family, alienated labor/production, civil society, and the state) generating various vicious circles. The result is the growth of social chasms and crises that the logic of the system carries to the nth degree, bringing to the fore at last its own absolute limitations.


In the first of these conceptual innovations Mészáros follows Marx in engaging in a critique of capital, rather than capitalism (a term that Marx hardly ever used). The crucial problem is then the logic of capital, and not primarily the institutional order of market capitalism. The rule of capital for Mészáros means the dominance of the capital-labor relation, or the systematic accumulation of surplus labor, and can only be understood in these terms. The capital system in general is thus a system based fundamentally on the alienation of labor, rooted in the systematic expropriation of human powers and the estrangement of human needs.

Viewing the capital system as the embodiment of the logic of capital emerging out of the capital-labor dialectic has three major implications for the theory of the transition to socialism (often lost if the focus is on capitalism as an institutional order):

(a) A revolution that overcomes some of the main institutional forms of capitalism, including the private ownership of the means of production and the nexus of state and market, is nonetheless incomplete, insofar as it does not supersede the capital relation itself. It thus continues to operate according to the fundamental logic of the capital system, even if property has been socialized and the state is given sole command of the society as in the Soviet Union.

(b) The struggle against the logic of capital can be fought and important battles (but not the war) won within the formal institutional domains of a capitalist society itself, making the actualization of revolutionary socialist politics—a genuine movement toward socialism—strategically viable within capitalist boundaries (without a “storming of the Winter Palace”) but only insofar as this means a wholesale struggle against all aspects of the capital relation and the progressive substitution of an alternative organic mode of social control within the pores of the existing society.

(c) In all cases of revolutionary struggle the goal must be to supersede the second order mediations and reified ideological structures that constitute the system’s alienated existence. The revolutionary object is never simply to displace one of these or seize merely a part of the system—the commanding heights of the state, for example—but to transcend the alienated capital-labor metabolism altogether, creating a society of substantive equality.

The last of these implications requires that the state, as the top-down mechanism for the enforcement of the capital relation, and the command center of the system, “wither away” to be replaced progressively by communal structures. A new horizontal division of labor needs to be accompanied by the self-organized coordination of labor in society as a whole, and by the collective determination of needs. This necessitates that the socialist system be rooted in its own organic microcosms. In the Soviet Union, in contrast, the state remained in charge, standing in for the collective capitalist. The Bolshevik Revolution was thus only partial and ultimately self-contradictory. In Mészáros’s terms the October 1917 revolution overthrew capitalism without going on to dislodge the capital system. Labor remained proletarianized. In the end Soviet-style post-revolutionary society did not so much “collapse” as simply recede back into a classical capitalist institutional pattern for which it retained a close affinity.


For Mészáros the capital system is a metabolic, or organic, order capable of its own reproduction, but only as long as the “command structure” of the state is intact. “Without the emergence of the modern state,” he writes, “capital’s spontaneous mode of metabolic control cannot turn itself into a system with clearly identifiable…socioeconomic microcosms. The particular socioeconomic reproductive units of capital taken separately are not only not capable of spontaneous coordination and totalization but diametrically opposed to it if allowed to follow their disruptive course.”28 Thus, while capital’s mode of social metabolic reproduction is based on alienated labor, a hierarchal class system, competition, and an unlimited accumulation imperative, it nevertheless requires for its internal cohesion the existence of a superstructural state apparatus. Altogether the capital system can be seen as a form of “self-reinforcing reciprocity” in which its various second order mediations, including the state, hold it together despite its alienating, destructive, and anarchic nature" (