Toward the end of this book Graeber gets so damn quotable it is hard to summarize him. I just want to make you read the entire section, but I will restrain myself to this block quote where Graeber defines capitalism by describing its early manifestations in the 1700’s:
…modern capitalism is a gigantic financial apparatus of credit and debt that operates – in practical effect – to pump more and more labor out of just about everyone with whom it comes into contact, and as a result produces and endlessly expanding volume of material goods. It does so not just by moral compulsion, but above all by using moral compulsion to mobilize sheer physical force. At every point, the familiar but peculiarly European entanglement of war and commerce reappears – often in startling new forms. The first stock markets in Holland and Britain were based mainly in trading shares of the East and West India companies, which were both military and trading ventures. For a century, one private, profit-seeking corporation governed India. The national debts of England, France, and the others were based in money borrowed not to dig canals and erect bridges, but to acquire gunpowder needed to bombard cities and to construct camps required for the holding of prisoners and the training of recruits. Almost all of the bubbles of the eighteenth century involved some fantastic scheme to use the proceeds of colonial ventures to pay for European wars. Paper money was debt money, and debt money was war money, and this has always remained the case. Those who financed Europe’s endless military conflicts also employed the government’s police and prisons to extract ever-increasing productivity from the rest of the population.
This is a perfect description of 20th and 21st century America.
Capitalism is a system designed to extract labor and resources from many people for the benefit of a few people. Its proponents see capitalism as connected with freedom, but the irony of capitalism is that it has never, at any point in history, been organized primarily around free labor. The vast majority of people under capitalism have always been enslaved. It is a small minority of people who are what we call “wage laborers” and it is highly debatable if even they can be considered free. After all a person who is reduced to a condition that the only thing they have to sell is their own body can’t be considered genuinely free.
That the majority of people under capitalism today are enslaved is easy to see when you look at labor globally. Even in the United States though the use of prison labor (slavery by another name), the depression of wages, rising inequality, and indebtedness of the young and the poor the so-called freedom of most labor is at best severely compromised.
It is socialism that is usually derided as utopian, but the version of capitalism that has captured our cultural imagination is even more utopian. It has simply never been the case and never could be the case that the kind of constant productivity and endless growth demanded by capitalism would be based on free labor. Capitalism requires slavery.