Capitalist Innovation


Punk Johnny Cash’s piece on innovation is a good reminder that the ability to create is not a historical trait unique to the capitalist system. While I agree with the conclusions–of the need for a reorganization of society around cooperation, a society where, as Marx wrote, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”–its worth taking a closer look at the individual points.

First, PJC insists that innovation occurs not because of capitalism, but despite it, as if innovation is held back by capitalism. While the rest of the piece supports this to a point (the idea that an egalitarian economy would allow the free time for all to create for the benefit of all), the notion that capitalism cannot be a genuine place for innovation falls short. This is not meant to be a defense of capitalism, but a critical examination of the system. Why has appeared to be so successful if that is not the case? I am not necessarily countering PJC’s main point when I argue that much of that “success” has been because of a kind of innovation that only capitalism can foster.

As Marx and others stressed, capitalist endeavors require growth in order to stay alive, and the development of new technologies is part of that growth. Capital, as a relation, functions such that a venture’s return must exceed its investment, Marx illustrates this relation as M-C-M. Money-Commodity-Money. The commodity should sell for more money than was invested in it. Generally, that excess money comes from the exploitation of labor, where the productive worker is paid for only a portion of the total time they spend in the firm. The excess may also come from the investment in fixed capital–machines, factory space, etc–that more efficiently use the worker’s time. By paying workers less for their time and their output, the firm is able to extract more excess value (closely related to, but different than, profit) out of the process. In this sense, capitalism relies on innovation in order to grow. In other words, innovation is central to capitalism.

The computer is a perfect example of this. Not only did the development of computers give firms advantages over their analog-using counterparts, firms that stayed ahead with the continually developing computer technology (especially the computer manufacturers themselves) are among the most profitable businesses in the world today. This continual innovation allows companies to extract more surplus value from their labor base, and in turn, pour that surplus into the development new technologies to stay ahead of their competitor (or in many cases buyout potential competitors before they grow too large–see Google, Microsoft and Facebook for examples).

Capitalism also has the ability to build a market around every product and exploit every type of labor. The example that PJC gives around open source software has, unfortunately, not been the case for some time. It is (sadly) not true that the open source community develops for the sake of the public. The amount of labor and time that developers pour into open source projects is very often contingent on decisions made in major corporations. For example, Adobe, one of the largest software manufacturers on the planet actually pays its employees to spend a portion of their time working on various open source projects. The result is two-fold. First, it allows their developers to serve as ambassadors to people who may be otherwise averse to a company so far embedded in the establishment. Providing some ideological cover for the company’s actual aim, which is the second result: it allows Adobe to control the direction of these project by anchoring the interests of the developers, many of which are paid very handsomely, back to the mothership. Thus, any innovation that can be packaged and marketed for top dollar is.

This follows the general trend of the closing off of public research and development. In agriculture, companies like Monsanto work in partnership with the top technical universities in the world to develop more efficient and resilient crops primarily for the benefit of their own bottom line–not for the benefit of the public. Medical research around some of the most devastating illnesses is no longer done with the aim of producing a healthy populace, like the polio vaccine, but is instead marketed on television and sold for thousands of dollars a year to patients who will need the drugs for the rest of their lives. Management before cures. Profit before health.

Still, Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto that Capitalism’s greatest contribution is the condition for its own demise: the working class. It is the new global masses–whose historical role is the destruction of capitalism, the deposing of the bosses, and the realization of their place as the ruling class in a new democratic world.

One last point. While Van Gogh may have been an unsuccessful artist in his own time, it certainly hasn’t affected his success in the long term. Is there any artist whose work has been more commodified? This commodification has acted as a vampire, sucking the meaning of Van Gogh’s work straight out of the picture. The Starry Night becomes less about an artist’s lens on the world, and more about a vehicle to create profit for manufacturers of knick knacks. Wheatfield with Crows has become less of a dark meditation on the place Van Gogh may have killed himself and more of a way to add a splash of color to a drab room. This is another area of capitalist innovation–the ability to suck and create a market around everything, to commodify everything.

The kind of innovation that capitalism fosters is not the kind that delivers for the benefit of all. On a large scale, capitalist expansion is the cause for contemporary war and plunder in the global south. Capitalism’s early development in America created slavery of a quality and quantity unlike any kind the world had ever seen. Capitalist innovation in communications tethers workers to their phones and computers well after working hours. Put simply,  we should recognize that capitalism can breed innovation but does so with some enormous caveats that illustrate the true nature of the system.