Why capitalism causes oppression

16 September 2016
Louise O'Shea

Attempting to explain and understand the many forms of oppression that exist in society without reference to the nature of the capitalist system is a sure path to answers that don’t answer and explanations that don’t explain.

Individual prejudice, lack of education or ill-advised public policy cannot adequately account for complex social phenomena. Nor can the circular argument that discrete power structures exist to perpetuate oppression and prejudice for its own sake, without any necessary connection to each other or to other social structures. Likewise, the argument that oppression is no more than a racket to protect the privileges of large and highly differentiated social groups such as men, whites or straight people is both analytically far-fetched and lacking in historical credibility, however much it might resonate with individual subjective experience.

These explanations cannot point a path towards liberation, and as such only end up reinforcing the status quo.

By contrast, Marxists argue that all forms of oppression have roots in the economic organisation of capitalist society, and the structures of power and control that accompany and reinforce it. This approach is frequently derided as “reducing” oppression to class relations or downplaying its importance. But far from simplifying the problem, a Marxist approach best acknowledges its complexity, taking into account both the deep-rooted nature of oppression and the complex interaction of economics, social conditions and ideology that perpetuate it.

The competitive drive to accumulate wealth through the exploitation of human labour is the starting point for understanding capitalism and oppression.


Human beings are the most important resource on the planet for the capitalist class. They are more important than all the oil, coal, military weaponry, gold and steel put together.

Without people working, nothing is produced. Even the most high-tech robot has to be designed, produced, serviced, powered and, presumably, switched on at some point by a person working somewhere. This is also the case with oil, gas and gold, which are only of value if there are human beings available to extract them from the ground, and others to build transport networks, engines and other infrastructure that make them useful.

So the vast wealth accumulated by powerful capitalists, multinational corporations and governments depends entirely on the existence of compliant producers willing to work to create wealth for someone else, while receiving only a small proportion for themselves in the form of wages. It depends, in other words, on the exploitation of the majority by a minority.

But because workers are not just lumps of coal or bundles of copper wires, they do not necessarily accept their subordinate position. Social conditions that naturalise and reinforce this inequality must therefore be imposed. Workers must be “pressed down on” as the word oppression implies.

This starts with the workplace, where workers are subject to the tyranny of a boss or manager whose primary concern is productivity and the bottom line – even those who profess to care about work-life balance. Workers enjoy no democratic rights at work, neither to elect their managers nor to decide the hours or nature of their work. Rather, working hours and pay are highly regulated and policed, through law, the courts and human resource departments. This lack of control underpins the sense that workers’ lives really become their own, and they become themselves, only outside of work hours.

But oppression doesn’t end outside of working hours. The social conditions workers are subject to – from health care, housing and education to culture and recreation – act to reinforce class inequality. They tend to be underfunded and inferior to those of the wealthy and privileged. Schools teach obedience and respect for authority, while competition is ingrained and naturalised through competitive assessment and competition for employment and housing. Working class communities are targeted for harassment by the police and other government agencies.

On this social reality is built an ideology – promoted by the mass media, politicians and authorities – to justify it: that social advance reflects merit and hard work, that those who are rich or successful therefore are naturally superior to the rest of us and that any inability on the part of workers to meet society’s expectations must be a result of personal failing, not structural discrimination.

It creates the conditions in which stereotypes about the natural inferiority of workers can be accepted and perpetuated, such as the trope of the backward, lazy masses who, without bosses, would have no incentive or inclination to work, or who, without police to harass them, would be on a never-ending crime spree.

Divide and rule

The economic relationship between bosses and workers creates a social tension that gives rise to a variety of other forms of oppression.

The interests of bosses – to pay workers as little as possible in order to maximise their profits and outdo their competitors – and of workers – who want a larger proportion of the wealth they produce and better conditions – are directly counterposed.

The capitalists have an interest in eroding workers’ wages. They do this through a variety of legal and industrial mechanisms, but also importantly by fomenting divisions and sectionalism within the working class, which help to both drive down wages and undermine the collective strength workers are able to draw on to improve their conditions. Oppression is central to this.

Whether it is recently arrived migrants, women, international students or young workers, sections of the working class that are distinctive or somehow vulnerable are subject to discrimination, low pay, undesirable jobs and sometimes exclusion from the workforce as a means to forge division and maximise the bosses’ bottom lines.

International students being employed on wages as low as $7 an hour in 7-11 stores are only the most recent example of bosses taking advantage of such racist divisions. Similarly, the practice of bosses bringing workers in on special visas in order to undermine union organisation and cut their wages bill, pits local workers against foreign ones and weakens the working class as a whole. Historically, women have also been used and specially exploited in this way.

Insofar as the mass of workers focus their discontent towards particular sections of workers, those who are actually responsible for unemployment, poor working conditions or inadequate services – the bosses – escape scrutiny. This is an important function of oppression.

A complex system

Capitalism is more than a collection of workplaces and a balance sheet. It is a complex social system in which wealth accumulation is the prerogative that underpins not just the experience of working life but also the conditions that characterise every aspect of society, including access to services, the enjoyment of culture and even our personal lives.

This is evident everywhere. Remote Aboriginal communities that don’t generate wealth or contribute to economic growth are treated as a burden – deprived of services and infrastructure and continually under threat of forced closure. The right to maintain traditional culture simply does not rate in a society in which land is seen purely as a commodity, to be used for mining, farming or tourism and little else.

Social groups that don’t contribute to capital accumulation, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, injured workers or traditional Aboriginal communities, are neglected or forced to rely on minimal services or charity. The wellbeing of people is a secondary concern for capitalism, and oppression the necessary corollary.

And those who transgress or refuse to respect the institutions of capitalism are subject to particularly vicious oppression.

Refugees, for example, are horribly brutalised for the “crime” of failing to respect the arbitrary national borders within which governments and the capitalist class are organised. The underlying message is that borders matter more than people, and refusal to comply invites and justifies the harshest punishment.

This in turn legitimises state repression against various other oppressed groups that refuse to submit to the dictates of the powerful, including workers and non-refugee immigrant groups. And it promotes racist attitudes towards people from outside the country, by bolstering nationalism and encouraging the view that vulnerable people from other countries represent a threat.

This encourages workers to hate the most powerless rather than the most powerful, and strengthens the authoritarian hand of the capitalist class to impose its will on society and entrench its political dominance.

Imperialism, racism and war

The competitive nature of the system, whereby companies that don’t continually grow and expand their operations at an adequate rate are forced out of business, leads to yet other forms of oppression.

It frequently leads to military conflict and war, as capitalist interests compete for control of markets, trade routes and natural resources both inside and outside their national borders.

This can’t be done without the oppression of people who stand in the way: whether it is people unlucky enough to live in a country targeted for war, people who live in an area of lucrative natural resources or people forced to accept poverty wages because their social conditions are desperate and borders prevent them from leaving.

Today, Muslims bear the brunt of this oppression, as it has been predominantly Muslim countries that have been invaded and destroyed as part of the “war on terror”. The motivation of the West has been to gain control of an area of geostrategic importance for energy supplies and trade, and to ensure competing imperialist blocs remain beholden to US interests for their energy supplies. To win support for this adventure domestically, Western governments have relied on whipping up hysteria about terrorism, and vilifying and demonising Muslims.

And they have used this campaign as cover to usher in a host of repressive authoritarian measures that can be used to intimidate and control the whole population, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Previous wars and colonial occupations brought with them similar racist measures and ideology, from that towards Germans in World War I to the white invasion of Australia in 1788. Prior to the “war on terror”, Muslims were a relatively low profile social group, with Asians bearing the brunt of mainstream racist bile. The ease with which the media, politicians and ideologues can shift the focus reflects both the evolving imperialist ambitions of the Western powers, but also the relatively shallow nature of racist sentiment, and therefore the strong potential that exists for it to be overcome.

Gender and sex

The high level of social control that characterises capitalism extends into the most personal areas of life.

Exploitation would not function effectively if workers were free to move around, to live without financial responsibilities and carry out their personal lives according to their own whims. Rather, bosses have an interest in workers remaining reliably in paid employment for decades on end, being socialised to accept working life and the authority of managers and providing new generations to replace them when they retire.

The nuclear family is the social institution that best ensures this. That’s why family values, and the gender roles and sexual mores that accompany them, are such a pervasive and enduring part of modern capitalism.

The family is a contradictory institution. On the one hand, it provides a sense of meaning and personal fulfilment in a society that offers very little otherwise. But it is also a source of misery and oppression for many, in particular women and LGBTI people.

Indeed, the gender roles, inequalities and expectations that accord with the family structure, and the unequal position women occupy in the workforce that reinforces them, are the basis of women’s oppression in capitalist society. This results in a situation in which women bear the primary responsibility for child care and domestic labour as well as facing severe economic disadvantage in the workplace and throughout life. Indeed, in Australia today, 40 years after the achievement of formal equality, women can expect to earn over their lifetime about half of what their male counterparts will.

The oppression of LGBTI people is also rooted in the family, the normalisation of which serves to stigmatise sexual practices and gender expression that fall outside of the officially sanctioned heterosexual “norm”. Gendered division and an assumption of heterosexuality are structured into almost every aspect of our lives, from children’s toys to the sorts of life milestones we are expected to reach. The lack of control people accordingly feel over even their most intimate concerns helps reinforce the broader lack of control and authoritarian nature of the system.

And while it is the case that modern capitalism is gradually adapting to non-traditional forms of the family, this is within strict limits. Acceptance extends to household forms that perform the same basic social and economic function as the nuclear family – that is, which ensure workers are healthy and have an incentive to hold down a job and return to work each day, and that new generations are raised to accept the status quo.

Real sexual freedom thus remains incompatible with capitalism.

Resistance and liberation

Fortunately, oppression does not only breed misery and suffering, but also gives rise to resistance. The campaigns for land rights, equal pay and the decriminalisation of homosexuality are just some examples. Socialists want to strengthen, broaden and escalate such struggles.

But while challenging individual manifestations of oppression can win important gains and greater rights and freedoms for the oppressed, alone they cannot end oppression.

Ultimately, oppression is a product of capitalism. It is a product of a system that relies on repressing the vast majority of people’s dreams and desires, and forcing them to accommodate to the needs of capital. The system generates a political and ideological justification for the atrocities it commits against people and the natural environment and seizes on every source of division within the working class to undermine a sense of collective interest and purpose.

It follows that only by overthrowing capitalism can full liberation be won. Struggles for reforms can help build the confidence, organisation and consciousness of the oppressed. But our ultimate goal has to be to bring together these various struggles into a movement with the goal of destroying exploitative capitalist society. This is the only real path to liberation from oppression.

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