This interview was conducted by Javier Toro.
Simon Tormey is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Anti-Capitalism: A Beginner’s Guide.
I don’t think capitalism is a particularly disputed term, and it is therefore uncontentious to cite Karl Marx here as an aid when he summarises capitalism in terms of the emergence of wage labour, as opposed to forms of labour which involve subordination to a feudal master. So capitalism is a system of wage labour whose primary goal is the maximisation of profit for property owners. From here the other facets of capitalism follow, which is the emphasis on continual expansion, the harnessing of new technology to aid productivity, and the development of new products as well as new markets. Previous forms of social formation were more preoccupied with subsistence and generating modest surpluses than in the quest for ever greater wealth and productivity of a kind that characterises capitalism. Capitalism is a peculiarly frantic kind of system, and it’s this aspect of capitalism which in turn drives it into a competition with nature itself and with forms of life that have been built on a respect for and a nurturing of the natural environment, in particular indigenous societies that have learned over thousands of years to live in harmony with their surroundings rather than to see them as resources to be exploited.
So capitalism has been in existence since the early modern period, and can be dated in Europe from the 16th and 17th centuries onwards. Neoliberalism, by contrast, is a phase of capitalism that we associate with the last three or four decades of the twentieth century. The story here is well-known, and can be summarised in terms of the production of a sense of crisis of the post-War welfare model by those who sought to rein back workers rights, trade unions, environmental protections and so on. The link between neoliberalism and capitalism is that neoliberalism represents a return to the mercantilist vision of capitalism as something that must not be constrained by state intervention, by extraneous considerations of welfare, or by anything that interferes with the market —except the development of monopolies. Hence the “neo” in neoliberalism.
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