The Nature and Logic of Capitalism
by Robert L. Heilbroner
© 1985

Published in New York by W. W. Norton & Company.
ISBN 0-393-02227-7

The following excerpt appears on pages 75-79.

The Drive to Amass Capital

The attribute of wealth that distinguishes it from prestige goods is that its possession confers on its owners the ability to direct and mobilize the activities of society, although it does not necessarily also confer the repute or authority of distinction.  Capital calls the tune, even though an individual capitalist may be an object of contempt.  Wealth therefore implies rights of a kind that prestige objects do not have, in particular those we have previously discussed with respect to the domination of capital – namely, the right of denying to others access to the goods that constitute wealth.  These goods may enjoy no symbolic importance, but they have material importance, so that control over access to them invests their owner with an attribute that goes beyond prestige and preeminence.  This is power.  The grain in the lord's granary is not an object of prestige, as is the splinter of the Cross in his chapel, but it is the means by which he is able to command the labor of his slaves, which the splinter of the Cross may not.

Wealth is therefore a social category inseparable from power.  In simple egalitarian societies, where all have access to the resources needed for the maintenance of a conventional way of life, wealth cannot exist, although prestige objects can.  Per contra, wealth can only come into existence when the right of access of all members of society to an independent livelihood no longer prevails, so that control over this access becomes of life-giving importance.  The corollary is that wealth cannot exist unless there also exists a condition of scarcity – not insufficiency of resources themselves, but insufficiency of means of access to resources.  As Adam Smith put it, "Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality.  For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the rich supposes the indigence of the many."

Unlike the simpler category of prestige goods, wealth therefore rests on considerations of power, and the drive to accumulate wealth requires some exploration of the drive to accumulate power.

Power is not a well-understood aspect of human society.  Essentially it refers to the ability to command or control the behavior of others; but this general definition passes lightly over the great range of relationships expressed in the power of the despot, the religious leader, or in the disembodied "power" of ideas.  The power of capital, as we have seen, has the remarkable attribute of being devoid of direct punitive rights, which seems virtually a contradiction of the very meaning of power; but none would deny that capital has the power to enlist command and obedience on a vast scale.

Power is not only protean in its aspects but obscure in its psychic roots.  The "pleasures" of power are usually assumed to exist but are not explained; and the interrelation between the exercise of will as power and the acceptance of that will as obedience is similarly left unexplored.  Here, as with prestige, it seems necessary to find some anchorage in those psychosocial capacities of the species to which we give the name "human nature."  It is tempting to suggest that at some elemental level this anchorage links that phenomenon of "domination" in human society with that found in many animal species.  On second look, however, we see that the word refers to entirely different aspects of the two worlds.  Domination among animals is largely sexual in nature, probably associated with survival changes for the herd or troop or flock, and completely divorced from any division of tasks or general subservience to the "will" of a hegemonic individual.  Domination in human society, on the other hand, is of minor evolutionary significance, and largely devoted to the division of the social product or to the fulfillment of the prestige-laden achievements of rulers for which the organized labor of large numbers is necessary.  Domination in human society, in a word, entails a structured inequality of life conditions that has no parallel in the animal world.

The only reason that filiation with animal "domination" continues to attract attention is the need to explain why this inequality, which grossly disadvantages the majority, has appeared in every quarter of the globe, displacing the egalitarian social structures of communal bands that anthropologists assume to have been the original social formation.  If the prevalence of domination in human societies cannot without gross anthropomorphism be ascribed to residual "animal" tendencies, we must account for this all-important historical state of affairs by resort to purely human characteristic.  Here, of course, is where human nature enters, in the role of the generally acknowledged significance of prolonged infantile dependency, the uniquely and universally human experience out of which social behavior is formed.

In this experience the individual personage goes through successive rites of passage that gradually and painfully separate it from an original psychic fusion with its mother and immediate environment.  Through these inescapable trials the potentialities of independent behavior are created, but so also are the encapsulizations of infantile emotional requirements and sadomasochistic drives that recede, but are never extinguished, within the adult person.  Some individuals emerge from this childhood experience with unappeased and unappeasable needs for affect; others with a submissiveness acquired in coping with adult wills; and all with enough residue of both to give rise to a widespread empathetic understanding of domination itself, and of the needs it satisfies from above and from below.

Infancy is thus the great readying experience that prepares us for the adult condition of sub- and superordination – an experience that appears so 'natural' that few inquire as to the origin or nature of the desire to impose one's will, or the pleasure that is derived from its imposition, or the obverse, the impulse to acquiesce in, or even to identify sympathetically with, the imposition of another's will over oneself.  Infancy is the condition from which we must all escape, and as such, the source of the emancipatory thrust that is also part of the human drama; but it is a condition to which we all to some degree wish to return, the prototype of the existential security that we also see.

These roots of the power relation in human infancy do not, however, explain a crucial aspect of domination as an historic fact.  It is that organized power is not a universal aspect of human history but a condition that only appeared when the first states arose from the aboriginal social formation of humankind.  Thus the elements of the unconscious from which the act of domination draws its attraction, both for those who seek it and for those who yield to it, supply a necessary basis for understanding the psychological functions of power, but they do not sufficiently explain why humankind throughout the world took the extraordinary step of abandoning an equality of access to resources to enter into a condition in which the great majority of individuals became more or less dependent on a small minority.

Only conjecture can fill this gap in our knowledge.  Given the weakness of the power accorded prestigious individuals in primitive societies, and the tendency of these groups to fragment into smaller bands once the threshold of a dangerous infringement on independence is reached, it seems reasonable to assume that external pressures of some kind – limitations (or unusual concentrations) or resources, or the gradual forces of population growth, or the perceived advantages of a social division of labor – may have pushed self-sufficient communities into social differentiations, distinctions of rank, stratification, and finally differential access to resources.  That this process must at some stage have required force rather than drift is evidenced by the universal "legitimation" of property rights by military power.

Whatever its origins, the organized state, once established, had little difficulty in extending its dominion over unorganized communities.  The advantages of a superior class or group that could marshall the labor of the underlying population were quickly apparent in the pursuit of war and in the accumulation of surplus.  Following a theme of German historiography, the historian Alexander Rustow offers this plausible, if perhaps fanciful, reconstruction of a Neolithic push of horsed nomads into the territories of sedentary cultivators, perhaps as a consequence of climatic displacement:

The rider appears on the stage of history like a new breed of man, marked by a powerful superiority; he is over two meters in height and moves several times faster than a pedestrian.  The enormous impact that the first of such riders must have made on peaceful stockbreeders is depicted in the legendary form of the centaur....

Superincumbency brought victors and vanquished, as upper and lower strata, into opposing social situations that would eventually produce equally diverse effects in selection, breeding, and hereditary character traits.  The upper stratum was trained to cultivate lust for power, arrogance, pride, a sense of superiority, toughness, cruelty, and sadism, for the more it possessed and practiced these characteristic, the more solidly it sat in the saddle of superstratification.  The corresponding characteristics of the lower stratum were subservience, flexibility, submissiveness, servility, spinelessness, masochism – for the more it possessed and practiced these characteristics the better it adapted itself to the role assigned by fate.

Thus there is no difficulty in explaining how power, once set into place, could expand its domain and reinforce its own structure.  The aspect of domination that requires elucidation, we repeat, appears so self-evident as to be in danger of being left unexplained.  This is the characteristic of human nature that opens the possibility of a structure of domination in the first place, the aggressive and passive elements in the unconscious without which the exercise or sufferance of power could not originally appear.

As we shall see in our next chapter, there are important considerations introduced into the mechanism of power once it is exercised through the accumulation of capital, including the quality of insatiability that is an inherent aspect of the drive to amass power-as-capital, whereas an insatiable drive after power in other guises appears only as a pathology.  As Marx was to say in a somewhat different context, "while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser."  Indeed we will see that the very absence of direct coercion in the social relationship of capital introduces an element of necessitous expansion that is largely missing from the exercise of power in other ways.

At the moment, however, it is enough to recognize that the drive to amass wealth is inextricable from power, and incomprehensible except as a form of power.  The social formation of capitalism must therefore be seen in the first instance as a regime comparable to regimes of military force, religious conviction, imperial beliefs, and the life.  Capitalism is the regime of capital, the form of rulership we find when power takes the remarkable aspect of the domination, by those who control access to the means of production, of the great majority who must gain "employment" – the capitalist substitute for the traditional entitlement of the peasant to consume some portion of his own crop.

Take me home.