The history of capitalism is also, inevitably, the history of radical movements that have resisted the exploitation and conflict upon which the system rests. Working people, men and women, have always felt the inequality and oppressiveness of capitalism’s class ownership and class power. They experienced at first hand the lack of freedom of the propertyless labourer, forced to work in another’s man’s fields and factories, in his warehouses and offices, and they understood more-or- less clearly how their lives were being used up for the benefit of others. From that experience and understanding they repeatedly challenged capitalism’s institutions of privilege and power. They called for justice and for democratic accountability. They cited scripture, natural law and the universal declaration of human rights in support of their cause. They fought and are still fighting for their dignity as human beings in the streets, on public platforms and on the internet, often summoning resources of great courage and determination. They have left behind them a record of frustration, indignation and anger.
Working class history records these individuals and movements: Gerald Winstanley who in 1649 led his Diggers onto St Georges Hill in Surrey, seeking to turn the world into “a common treasury for all”; the London crowds of the 1770s, roaring for, ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ and denouncing the monarchical government of George III; the Luddites of the early 1800s smashing machinery to protect their livelihoods, and thirty years later, the massed meetings of Chartists attentive to speakers like firebrand, Feargus O’Connor, and voicing their demand for parliamentary representation. In the 20th century, innumerable radical movements have emerged:suffragists; liberationists; anti-war and anti-nuclear groups; environmentalists; and ‘anti-capitalists’ among them, and already in the new century, we hear, unmistakably, that same frustration, indignation and anger from Occupy as it searches for an adequate response to the banking crisis of 2008 and the current recession.
A few of these movements, like the Diggers, were truly radical and visionary. They attempted to create a new way for human beings to relate to each other, a way that was not based on property and exploitation. The Diggers failed, because they were few, and the forks and hoes they used to cultivate St George’s Hill belonged to a technology that could not yet feed or free the world. In later centuries, most radical movements, like the Chartists and much of Occupy, have searched for ways to make capitalism work on behalf of the working class. They failed, or will fail, too, because social conflict and exploitation of workers is built into the body of capitalism itself – it’s part of the system’s DNA - and cannot be eliminated by modifying institutions or changing a few governments or laws. But technology has moved on, and what was beyond the grasp of the 17th-century Diggers is well within ours. Our message then to fellow members of the working class is to act together in a genuinely radical movement, not to prune back the system of exploitation, but to grub it up wholesale by its roots and turn the world’s resources into a common treasury for all.