Saturday 23 July 2016

So, Who is a Capitalist?

“By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour.

“By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.” (Manifesto of the Communist Party. Chapter I. Footnote 1, see also)

The quote above offers a clear answer to the question in the title. A careful reading suggests the key concept is that of private property of the means of production.

Shylock, Shakespeare’s 16th century moneylender, comes to mind to illustrate the quote. Money lending is both ancient and representative of interest-bearing capital. Shylock himself legally lent his own personal property, his money, to Antonio: 3,000 ducats. As a loan shark, he aims to increase his property: to make it grow from M to  M’. He didn't need a manager, or a board of directors, which suggests that they are not necessary for a capitalist to operate.


There are, however, better and earlier examples, particularly interesting to me for my own reasons. The Gospel of Matthew offers a paradigmatic one: the parable of the master who, before traveling to a far country, entrusts his three servants to manage his money on his behalf.

Upon his return, two of the servants wisely avoided personal comments and -- rather proudly, one might think -- went straight to business: both had doubled their master's endowment.

Their lord, pleased, praised and rewarded them.

It was the third servant’s turn:
“Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

“And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.” (Matthew 25:24-25)
The master’s reaction to his much more candid and less entrepreneurial servant was quick:
“His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

“Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.” (Matthew 25:26-27)
Just like Lord Vader, who proceeded to punish his subordinate -- Admiral Ozzel -- for his botched approach to the Hoth system (“You have failed me for the last time, Admiral”), the master, too, punished his servant.


Of course, just because that view of the identity “capitalist” = “legal owner of the means of production” (or shareholder, if you prefer) has been predominant (and can be traced directly to the thought of Marx and Engels) it does not mean Marxists must maintain it. It’s not like it’s holy writ.

In fact, there is a tradition among Marxists to disregard it (Claus Offe and particularly Nicos Poulantzas come to mind). The idea seems to be to privilege real “economic ownership” (as exercised by agents as delegates -- often CEOs and managers) from “legal ownership”; in few words: shareholders may own the company, but they no longer really run it.

Now Prof. David Ruccio adds a variant: capitalists are the members of the board of directors, neither the shareholders (as in the generally accepted view), nor managers (as Poulantzas would have it).

The question I haven’t seen Prof. Ruccio addressing is this: if managers -- paid employees exercising authority as the capitalists’ delegates -- are not capitalists, why board members  -- also paid employees exercising authority as the capitalists’ delegates -- are?


At any event, I think even if one is wrong in considering that legal owner is the same as capitalist, one may take comfort in Nobel laureate Milton Friedman’s opinion:
[T]he key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation or establish the eleemosynary institution, and his primary responsibility is to them.”
It is those views that inspired the “maximise shareholder value” mantra popular of late. Like the master in the Gospel of Matthew and Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back”, shareholders can get rid of their delegates and servants, whether they are CEOs or directors.

There's even an appropriately prosaic corporate expression Donald Trump loves: “You're fired”.

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