What Impels Modern Society Toward Ever More Massive Waste

By Nevin Siders

In a review of Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition by István Mészáros, I briefly mentioned his insights into why capitalism is so extremely wasteful is worthy of separate treatment. The present article probes into that issue.

Mészáros’s study points out that an integral part of capital’s incessant drive to expand involves overcoming two interlocking contradictions. On the one hand, income and the profit within it only come to fruition at the moment of sale. On the other hand, a purchase is only made when there is a need to fill (and the customer has the money to make the purchase, it should be added). After reviewing how supply and demand cause sales across the centuries of capitalism’s history, his conclusion in a nutshell is that capital has “stumbled upon” the most efficient means to date to collapse one purchase into a renewed need to make another purchase by destroying that merchandise at that same moment.

This is the simple reason why products are not made for the purpose of satisfying any human need. Let’s go through the reasoning step by step.

Capital is Inanimate

The author repeatedly underlines the necessary distinction between capitalist, capitalism, and capital. The former with the ending –ist is that caricature of a greedy boss we all love to hate, while the one with the suffix –ism is the complicated society we live in. Stripped bare, the root word is the money itself which drives the people and the economy’s complex machinery.

In school they teach us that the U.S.’s system is “democracy,” “freedom,” “free market,” and so on. The term capitalism is rarely used, and on the rare occasion it is trotted out it’s portrayed as just another academic word for “free market,” where everybody makes and buys whatever they damn well please. I’ll concede that’s damn good propaganda, because who wouldn’t say “I love freedom!”?

The label is employed to make us think it’s a philosophy, theory, or religion because that ending –ism is also used for ways of thought, like in the religions of Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism, or for academic currents like the scientific philosophy Positivism, the psychological theory Associationism, or a theory of learning in my own profession of education such as Constructivism. It can likewise indicate a person’s ideals, like in socialism, fascism, and communism.

However, the term capitalism is a description of a society that is driven by capital, something which isn’t alive — it’s inanimate, which means it has no morals or ethics. So capitalism can not be, nor has it ever been, a theory or philosophy that someone holds. It’s a mistake to think that capitalism is or ever was a way of thought.

And, being inanimate, capital at all moments follows the pathof least resistance because it can only blindly follow economic laws — in the same way the laws of physics and chemistry impel water to run downhill and dynamite to explode Relentless pressure to expand where it encounters least resistance is what gives it that appearance of desiring to eliminate humans from that eternal cycle of produce-sell-produce more-sell more… Mészáros tours us through the last two centuries, reminding us of how capitalists at one time stood up for manufacturing high quality products. Chapter 15 opens with the example of economist Charles Babbage who expounded in the early 1800s on how manufacturing can transform raw materials and used objects of little value into new useful products.

Advancements in productivity transform patterns of consumption, as well as the nature of productivity itself. The very machinery which is used to streamline fabrication becomes just another target for enhancement, making it less expensive and more disposable — its life span being so short that factory workers sometimes see new machinery set aside before its even unpacked because a newer model has already outmoded it. Averaged across society, the implication is that the proportion of so-called “consumer durables” or “durable goods” gradually but implacably recedes relative to the proportion of “consumable goods” or “non-durable goods.” The perverse extreme in today’s disposable society extends to where whole farms and factories become mere playthings, shuttering even before producing a single item.

This is the point where a further complication sets in, one so deep as to create a contradiction. In any other manner of production, when a skilled or unskilled person sets aside one tool in favor of another, the person continues in action to create something useful or valuable. A tool under capitalism, conversely, must be put into action continuously — which by the way leads to segmenting complicated processes into their smallest steps along assembly lines where the individuals are dispossessed of their labor power (which is a nice way to say that neither their tools nor the products they create are their own).

Section 2 of the 15th chapter steps into the phenomenon of relative luxury, where yesterday’s indulgence is today’s necessity. What we learn is how this is not merely a Madison Avenue adventure of “manufactured demand,” but rather is an intrinsic characteristic of pervasive capital. It must find ever expanding markets to sell the products of its ever increasing productive capacity. The author takes an extensive detour into centuries-old moral debates on thrift and frugality redeemed in an afterlife — or healthier people on a greener planet, we might add — versus plenty thanks to mass production where the first world’s poor live better than the third world’s wealthy. The upshot is to point out that these are two sides of a coin, neither morally above the other, given it is an “objective tendency” of development, “theoretical expressions (and rationalizations) of contradictions inherent in the tendency itself.”

The third section of the chapter reviews the central guidelines capital sets for itself, always in paired opposites: competition versus monopoly, centralization versus fragmentation, globalization versus local regulation, equilibrium versus crisis, and so on. Each tension plays out uniquely in each country and industry, leading up to the conclusion that the general principle of uneven and combined development must likewise be applied in the case of decreasing rate of utilization: in some places it develops rapidly while in other times glacially.

The following two sections analyze why bourgeois economists are unable to define objective limits, despite themselves. Although the entirety of their science is designed to measure and delineate to comprehend events and set goals, they are left empty-handed for anything beyond the most elemental measurement: the barest minimal needs for bodily survival. Anything further can be labeled unproductive, and therefore must be “put to work,” in just the same way as people must be.

Thus, by default the only real metric economists possess is growth, growth for its own sake, interpreted as productivity. “Value” has come to be defined as growth in a “conveniently self-sustaining tautology,” one which is blind to any distinction “between the growth of a child versus the growth of a cancer,” (p. 565) given that both are multiplications of cells. “Useful” becomes synonymous with “saleable,” or exchange value, which is to say how much someone is willing to pay in today’s market.

We can all identify with his real-life example of that divorce between use and exchange values in his “photographic camera which I may only use once a year, on holiday, if at all,” like all those kitchen appliances and exercise equipment clogging up our homes. “Capital defines ‘useful’ and ‘utility’ in terms of saleability: an imperative that can be realized under the hegemony and within the domain of exchange-value itself.” “Once the commercial transaction has taken place, self-evidently demonstrating the ‘usefulness’ of the commodity on question through its actual sale, there is nothing more to be worried about from capital’s point of view. Indeed, the less a given commodity is really used and re-used… the better this is from capital’s standpoint: in that such under-utilization produces the saleability of another piece of commodity.” “What is truly advantageous to capital-expansion is not the increase in the rate at which… a commodity — for instance a shirt — is utilized, but, on the contrary, the decrease in the hours of its daily use. For so long as such decrease is accompanied by a suitable expansion in society’s purchasing power, it creates the demand for another shirt.” (p. 567)

The consequence is that, regardless of how “economizing” a business might be in its own interest of survival in the marketplace, “the system as a whole is utterly wasteful; and it must continue to be so in ever-escalating proportions.” (p. 568) Capital is impelled to expand or perish, consummating the antagonistic divorce of use value from exchange value, simultaneous with the disconnect of production from human needs which mutated into “supply-led demand” in the service of expanding capital. Science, too, has been enslaved to enhancing the interests of the system of capital.

The decreasing rate of utilization in the same manner impels capital to turn labor’s gains to its own use. Although the author gives no examples, several come to mind: roads, hospitals, water and drainage, schools, housing, transportation, and so on. Each and every one of these began as labor’s gains in its struggle against capital, but each has been stripped of any socially redeeming value and has been perverted into a profitable enterprise. In The New Jim Crow, M. Alexander famously scandalized the U.S. prison system for long ago failing at being either one of its contradictory goals of punishment or recovery, but rather degenerated into profit centers with the business of providing the proverbial warehouses for the reserve army of labor.

In other words, the life cycle of social gains is limited by the decreasing rate of utilization — unemployment “for living labor itself — to the over-production/under-utilization of commodities, and ever-more-wasteful utilization of productive machinery.” (p. 573) The chapter closes warning how capital drives to reduce the time between investment and profit-taking, (its cycle of amortization, p. 577).

About half a century ago, in the wake of the Second World War, capital came to implement on an ever-broader scale a formula that bypasses the consumer: the moment of sale can nearly eliminate that cycle by compounding production with its own destruction. Today oligopoly and near monopoly dominate most sectors of the economy under the iron rule of planned obsolescence .

Combined sale-destruction explains why we have everything from useless excessive wrapping on candy, ever more “bangs and whistles” built into appliances and electronics, and products that are cheaper to replace than fix. All of these we have to buy even when we don’t want them because they stop manufacturing the stripped-down versions. The supreme case of wastefulness is so destructive it takes up the entirety of chapter 16: governments need to acquire nuclear weapons despite being worse than useless in any real military conflict. Billions are wasted purchasing, installing, maintaining, and upgrading these “products” that can only serve to instantly destroy the very capital and persons involved in the perverse cycle of produce-sell-produce more-sell more-produce still more-sell still more.1

Although capital succeeds in many cases in cutting humans out of its wicked self-reproduction cycle, human labor remains its sole mechanism for realizing sales. Even though factories are full of robots and financial magazines tout how thousands of computer-driven stock and bond trades are made per second, only humans are capable of engineering the software and deploying these mechatronic tools. Purchases can only be automated to some extent; those ever-more-devious ploys and feints to outflank competition require human ingenuity.

“I’m just a consumer”

The analysis the author presents may be strengthened if we confront everyday propaganda. People buy merchandise with income from their employment. However, that paycheck or deposit makes us feel like “I’m just a consumer” — a phrase I heard on shopfloors during my youth in the U.S.. And then, news speak calls the “producer” that person who in fact doesn’t work, compounding the confusion and blurring the class line.

Making matters yet more mystifying is the fact that everyone is in debt. Debt is that driving force everyone faces, whether it be to pay for housing by rent or mortgage, credit cards or personal loans, monthly utility bills, and so on. But how it works is something very different for debt slaves than for corporations. The latter start out with debt because the initial capital to get it started must come from somewhere. But from then on, they can deduct the interest paid on that loan from their taxes — it’s a “tax write off!”

We should keep in mind that money is just paper, coin, or digits on a computer screen which, in the end, are no more than social conventions — which is why Marx and Marxists say that time-worn phrase: “capital is a social relationship.”

Something Special in My Factory or My Office

This fiction of the free market blinds us into seeing others as less-than-people. Almost everywhere I’ve ever worked, coworkers say something along the lines of “but, there’s something special about this place.” They decry about how the products aren’t made for any reason than to sell, regardless of what the purchaser might do with it. In restaurants they don’t care whether the customer eats it, or even whether the food is edible, in factories they aren’t concerned if the manufactured item is useful. So long as it’s sold, the bosses are happy.

Yet when I respond that this is a perfect example of the critique of capital — products aren’t made for human need — it rarely works as an eye-opener. Most people see it as something peculiar to their own bosses or workplace.

Then these coworkers go on to detail the lack of consciousness among their fellow employees. “I saw when so-and-so took vacation leave when others had more seniority!” “I was there when that department in the other building kept quiet when we needed backing up!” “I’ll never forget how she stole her spouse!” These commonplace, even trifling, rivalries keep us from solidarity with our coworkers.

It seems so odd that it’s easier to make a collection or make a solidarity statement with those far away, but damn near impossible for those who are close, even in the same workplace. But it’s explicable if we consider that it’s another example of the bosses doing their job: preventing camaraderie among coworkers with petty jealousies — especially when they know each other.

Solidarity with strangers becomes easier than with real people — just the opposite of what our common sense tells us. “If they would only sit down at the same table and talk, they’d find some common ground” is the frequent lament we’re inculcated with for conflicts large and small. Yet it’s contrary to practice. It’s so much harder to find solidarity with those we know, a phenomenon we could call the real-life Babelfish (after that imaginary animal in Adams’s farce The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that evolved to facilitate communication and consequently caused more and crueler wars than ever before).

What rebels need to find is a way to inspire solidarity among workers, despite knowing each other. Our coworkers are not more waste! And freedom isn’t a laissez faire you-go-your-way-and-I’ll-go-mine, but rather an ability to choose wisely and responsibly.


In sum, capital is inanimate and so follows the path of least resistance. In the 1950s, it generalized throughout the economy the most efficient manner of creating new need at the very moment of sale, by selling useless products. At worst,there are those that are worse than useless— products that are self-destructive: nukes. Fighting the war drive may have been an integral part of socialism since its founding, as Rosa Luxemburg illuminated. But this struggle has now become synonymous with the fight against mindless waste of people and resources. It concentrates all types of struggle into one item: an immediate demand, a democratic demand, and a transitional demand.

Most of Mészáros’s analysis turns on the very real difference between use value and exchange value. Marx explained that the former is an intrinsic worthiness a product has, while the latter is its current price on the market. Inanimate capital only functions to increase the latter, blithely unaware of how its products are appreciated by us humans: which is another way of putting that age-old maxim: capital doesn’t produce to satisfy human needs.

1 As an aside, a balanced review must point out that Mészáros unfortunately overlooked praiseworthy Latin America for conscientiously resisting this black hole. The Treaty of Tlatelolco banned nuclear weapons from all of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean since 1967. Even the most atrocious dictatorships have abided by it — despite one of its principal authors and promoters having been the hemisphere’s first socialist country, as a consequence of the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis. The text of the Treaty of Tlatelolco is at www.un.org/nwfz/content/treaty-tlatelolco (accessed April 27, 2024).

Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition
István Mészáros
Monthly Review Press

Moving Beyond Capitalism
Nevin Siders
The Columbus Worker
September 19, 2023

What to Do the Day after the Revolution
Nevin Siders
Columbus Free Press
October 10, 2023

Previous Post Next Post

About the author

Nevin Siders


Nevin is a friend of CORS.