Capitalism and Political Economy

Capitalism & Political Economy

Political Economy Newsletter 

George Hewison                                   Volume II, Number 2                                        February 2014

Most of us are born, live, work and play, love, have families, struggle with life’s contradictions and ultimately die without ever seriously questioning the nature of the society that frames the entirety of our very existence.

That society operates according to its own logic (or lack thereof) and most often operates at odds with our own basic values and aspirations. For example, as a species, humans are not inherently greedy. But a dog-eat-dog system premised on greed and insecurity in turn breeds greed and insecurity. Our human historical track record[1] of looking after one another’s collective welfare is emasculated by a private-profit system whose foundations celebrate the individual and material acquisition at the expense of the collective.

The majority of us don’t challenge this system (as yet) because it’s the only system we know. It appears to be eternal. And for those who have concluded that it’s not eternal and the end-all and be-all system of organizing human society, then the apologists for capitalism suggest that it is still the best system yet devised. And it is true that capitalism has historically allowed us to create wealth unheard of in previous social orders. But to conclude that capitalism is the end of human history is not only misleading, but also, in its current iteration, dangerous to our future as a species.

We haven’t yet arrived at a challenge to capitalism because the lessons of society are not automatically transferred from generation to generation. If we are lucky, we may live to the ripe old average age of 75.  Thus, whatever existential crisis of capitalism happened in the past, be it a world war, a Great Depression, a general strike or mass poverty leading to the building of mass unions, the lessons are not passed like DNA to the next generation. So many of the lessons have to be learned and relearned. That is the importance of studying history and especially not a history told by winners.

Another reason we don’t challenge capitalism: it appears the complexities of its inner workings and interconnections are just too hard to master. And if you followed the elite snooze fest at Davos, Switzerland last month, we might be tempted to leave it at that…just too complicated!

But, probably there is another compelling reason for the majority not to challenge capitalism. Not enough of us yet have sufficient urge to deal with a decrepit system that still has enough resources to piece us off and enough reserve power to inflict serious pain on anyone or nation challenging the existing order. Edward Snowden and Cuba are not the exception. Even more important, even if we feel the urge (and more and more of us are feeling this way), we haven’t yet found that acceptable alternative. A serious challenge to any system must involve an alternative superior model. Finding that model must start with comprehending the basic political economy and contradictions of the existing system.

So we limit our activities to taking the rough edges off the system or fight like Hell to prevent the system from reasserting those rough edges and we spend little time examining the system itself. But increasingly, the struggle for reforming the system demands that we also look squarely at the system itself and see its limitations and its CONTRADICTIONS! It’s not easy.

As brilliant as he was, Adam Smith, the father of modern political economy, spent 27 years writing his Magnus Opus, “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, (and while he left a rich investigative legacy from a time when capitalism was much simpler than today) his conclusions were limited by history and personal prejudice on the role of race, empire and war. In fact his conclusions on British taxation policy may be cited as one of the major causes of the American Revolution that broke out the very year that “Wealth of Nations” was published in1776.

Later, Karl Marx began the most serious critique of capitalism to date and between his work on the science of political economy, and in building a resilient working class movement, he and his colleague, Fredrich Engels, began laying the ground work for an alternative to capitalism. Modern social democracy and communism both had their genesis with these two gentlemen. It began as the marriage between working class theory and practice. Years later, activists would sloganize that marriage by saying “practice without theory is blind, while theory without practice is barren”.

Unfortunately for us, the theory wasn’t practised and the practice wasn’t theorized (at least properly) and we’re currently coping with some pretty disastrous results. The marriage of theory and practice came undone as many well-meaning (and some not so well meaning) theorists, or practitioners (without theory) attempted to ram square pegs into round historical holes and we’ve ended up with the current results and Davos slumber parties. We will live with those consequences until theory and practice are properly united again.

Among the many contributions that Marx made to the science of political economy, the role of the working class as the social force capable of remaking society towards its ultimate egalitarian and humanitarian destiny is central. Because of its position both as necessary to, and in opposition within, the capital accumulation process, the working class is the one force with sufficient potential clout to take on the seemingly endless power of capital. We no longer talk just about the “industrial proletariat” of  Marx’ day 150 years ago, but about a diverse and complex working class involved in every aspect of the global capital accumulation process. Once we grasp that process and our place in it, organization is everything.

The political economy of capitalism is one important (though not the only) aspect of theory, while working class struggle remains the living social laboratory in which that theory must be tested, and it is the working class in all of its diversity that will ultimately decide the fate of this system and hopefully set humanity on course for the next highest stage of human existence.

Today the study of the political economy of capitalism launched by Marx more than a century ago is resurgent. Liberal, Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, author of “End This Depression Now”, said this in a New York Times op ed piece:


“Wait — are we really back to talking about capital versus labor? Isn’t that an old-fashioned, almost Marxist sort of discussion, out of date in our modern information economy? Well, that’s what many people thought….”  December 9, 2012






It is noteworthy that sales of Marx’ “Capital” are again significantly increasing.


Professor David Harvey who has been lecturing for many years from a Marxist perspective has developed this amazingly clever, if a tad simplistic, explanation of capitalist crisis. But it is well worth the watch.



Okay! We should all expect academia to be in the forefront of the battle of ideas. That is what universities are, or should be, all about. Correct?

The problem is how to bring that struggle of ideas, and particularly the battle around ideology and political economy, into the mainstream of a frustrated society and especially a working class movement that is beset with tasks and trying to maintain its tenuous toehold on gains made over previous decades. In such a climate, it is little wonder that the working class has any time to self-identify or recognize the bigger tasks given to it by history.

Part of a successful strategy to move forward in these perilous times is to do what organized labour has been attempting to do…reach out to potential and growing community partners. But as important as this growing practice is, regrettably, it is still not enough.

Millions upon millions are engaging daily in a struggle ranging from stepping into the breach to provide baked goods for childcare or playground equipment; to opposing fracking that contaminates drinking water (or oppose commoditization of water); from raising minimum wages to preventing plant shutdowns; from halting the attack on unions to preventing big box stores from ruining Main Street; from preventing the destruction of existing pension plans to improving the Canada Pension Plan; from fighting the assault on universal health care to the struggle to providing justice for First Nations; to coping with student debt to democratizing government and protecting civil liberties; from fighting for tax relief to a beleaguered population to ending male violence against women; to providing solidarity to peoples in other countries and so on. The tiny shoots of struggle have their own individual logic and destiny. But they also have that invisible common thread in that all are objectively responding to the injustice and logic of a system that victimizes and disempowers them.

Thus, the other necessary part of a successful strategy is the mass reintroduction of theory (especially the political economy of capitalism) into the struggle. Capitalist illusions smuggled into our ranks on a constant and daily basis must be immunized against if we are to have success in building the kind of movement necessary to defeat this iteration (or the next) of capitalism. On one level, we have had some success in the battle with the ideology of white, male and heterosexual supremacy as a tool of capital to divide. But in the thousands of tiny organized struggles, most can be easily derailed. The Rob Ford phenomenon, the Tea Party, the Golden Dawn in Greece or other fascist movements, where millions of people feel aggrieved by a system, but end up lashing out, not at the system, but against potential allies such as immigrants, unions, welfare recipients, civic employees, etc. Immunizing against the ideology of capitalism is, therefore, part of the job.

Within the best democratic organization in Canada (our trade unions) the job of immunizing against the idea that labour and capital have a common interest is still most important. To date, we are still largely limited by our “instincts”, albeit increasingly healthy instincts fostered by predatory capitalism. But understanding the basic laws of capitalism is not yet seen as a necessary subject matter for workers on a wide enough scale. As an early labour organizer once told a group of woodworkers on Vancouver Island “immunization of our ranks cannot be done with a hypodermic needle”. It is a long and constant struggle to build up the class immune system; and must be done from within and as part of the struggle. It is a painstaking, lifelong process. It means taking on the ideology of the boss at every level and on every front.

Perhaps, the best early example of Canadian working class educational and theoretical work was that done by the Canadian Seamen’s Union (CSU) in the 1940s. That education was done aboard ship often thousands of miles away from any assistance of the nearest union official. The CSU became a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, with the Cold War and McCarthyism and a conspiracy of shipping corporations, the state and thug “unionists”, the CSU was not only destroyed, but also Canada’s merchant marine along with it.[2] But as the title of Jim Green’s book “Against the Tide” suggests, history’s tide was ebbing at that time for militant unionism. It is noteworthy that many other militant unions had fine programs to develop rank and file understanding of the nature of the capitalist beast as they went about organizing the unorganized. Again, the Cold War and McCarthyism, along with a “business unionist” mentality put an end to much of this. Tool courses necessary to administering unionism under the Rand Formula and research necessary to the next contract received the lion’s share of precious educational and theoretical resources in the ensuing years of ebbing tide. Critique of the system we live and work under received scant attention while capital’s think tanks mushroomed and gave capital the strategic edge.  Labour’s battles, as a result, have been constantly defensive. Today any reading of current history, including the outcome of Davos, suggests that the tide is turning to the flood and new opportunities for organized labour.

A fine example of outstanding work in the recent period has been done by the Canadian Autoworkers’ Union (now UNIFOR) at its Paid Educational Leave (PEL) program at Port Elgin, and especially work done by its former Director of the program, Ken Luckhardt, who injected working class political economy as an absolutely indispensible tool in every worker’s toolbox. Analyzing capital, surplus value, profit and class have given many PEL students their life’s “AHA! moment!”  Access to a different way of viewing the world is possible.


George Hewison is a lifelong union organizer and former officer of his union, the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union on Canada’s west coast. He embraces political and social activism in the interests of social justice and fundamental social change.

Hewison believes in the power of working people, who, if given the proper tools, can change the world. One of those tools is a deepening understanding of how our society is put together. He has been the recipient of many important lessons, both positive and negative, from veterans of Labour’s struggles stretching back decades. He has spent most of his adult life sharing those lessons with others.

For a number of years, he has also engaged in a study of the political economy of capitalism, including its current iteration, and conducts discussion groups with interested folks who share his desire to understand and explain the complexities of the social, economic and political world around us.

He continues a tradition of combining working class activism with the power of song and continues to tour and perform extensively. He may be reached at .


Giving workers such tools is necessary to maintaining their unions. It is also necessary to cementing the bonds with the community and finding the alternatives that elude the global aristocracy at Davos. It will guarantee labour’s success in the 21rst Century by enabling it to take advantage of history’s flooding tide.




[1] At least 150,000 years according to paleoanthropologists.

[2] The late Jim Green’s book, “Against the Tide” is an excellent historical portrayal of that fine union; and members of that union, beneficiaries of the Union’s exemplary work, played important roles in other unions across the country after their own union was smashed.