Living for a Wage: An Overview of the Capitalism K by Sean Fahey

The capitalism kritik has become one of the most popular critical arguments run in both Policy and progressive LD debate. This article seeks to explore the many strategies one can employ with the Cap K that, I believe, is so strong on the Jan/Feb topic. I hold that the Cap K is the core of critical ground on the Jan/Feb topic, and is incredibly strategic due to its versatility.

The link argument for a cap K on this topic should generally center itself on the concept that the Affirmative advocacy is a system of wage labor, this definitionally constitutes capitalism. Therefore, any of their claims that they help workers or bring seemingly permanent ends to the struggle of workers are lip service to the real harms suffered. This is what Marx originally marketed (no puns intended). Alternatives to the critique can range from a simple rejection of all instances of capitalism to more nuanced alternatives. Ultimately the alt is flexible and depends on how invested you are in the alternative debate as a strategic asset. With this in mind, we’ll pursue different options for impacting capitalism.

Commodification and Deontology

A variant of the Cap K, which I find works especially well in LD, centers on the Marx’s arguments about commodification and uses modern authors like Clayton Morgareidge to support it. Clayton Morgareidge describes the position in brief:

Under capitalism, Marx writes, everything in nature and everything that human beings are and can do becomes an object: a resource for, or an obstacle, to the expansion of production, the development of technology, the growth of markets, and the circulation of money. For those who manage and live from capital, nothing has value of its own. Mountain streams, clean air, human lives — all mean nothing in themselves, but are valuable only if they can be used to turn a profit.

A critique centered on this argument would contend that the wage-labour system assigns a market value to individuals which reduces them to commodities. This violates the basic deontological tenet “Do not use rational beings merely as a means to an end” by viewing workers as just a form of tool. This serves as a way to turn deontology ACs but also generate offense. It goes beyond just deontology though; this also sets up preclusive arguments for most ethical positions given that most ethical frameworks hold that the drive to do any moral action comes out of a priori valuing of human worth, this makes the K not just unique offense for the negative but it presents a major link turn on most affirmative strategies.

Util? Easy.

While the commodification arguments are a framework preempt, the K can also square up specifically with utilitarian affirmatives. The Cap K originated in policy as a way to beat opponents on the utilitarian-based extinction debate which is rising in LD given the growing popularity of plan-style debate. I like the way John Bellamy Foster explains the ecological impacts of capitalism with major implications to extinction:

Capital’s endless pursuit of new outlets for class-based accumulation requires for its continuation the destruction of both pre-existing natural conditions and previous social relations. Class exploitation, imperialism, war, and ecological devastation are not mere unrelated accidents of history but interrelated, intrinsic features of capitalist development. There has always been the danger, moreover, that this destructive creativity would turn into what István Mészáros has called the “destructive uncontrollability” that is capital’s ultimate destiny. The destruction built into the logic of profit would then take over and predominate, undermining not only the conditions of production but also those of life itself. Today it is clear that such destructive uncontrollability has come to characterize the entire capitalist world economy, encompassing the planet as a whole.

This halts the extinction debate and allows you to hijack weighing mechanisms like Bostrom that many utilitarian debaters will attempt to hide behind and also win the timeframe debate by showing that you address the root cause.

Fiat Strategy

While the critique obviously functions post-fiat as a turn to most ethical frameworks, the Cap K goes pre-fiat if you want to set up some leverage against 1AR theory or policy-making good arguments. The commodification arguments frame Capitalism as ethically impossible, so one can argue a judge’s ethical obligations to reject Capitalism come before their judging obligations. Slajov Zizek and Glyn Daly explain this politicization of ethics:

For Zizek, a confrontation with the obscenities of abundance capitalism also requires a transformation of the ethico-political imagination. It is no longer a question of developing ethical guidelines within the existing political framework (the various institutional and corporate ‘ethical committees’) but of developing a politicization of ethics; an ethics of the Real. The starting point here is an insistence on the unconditional autonomy of the subject; of accepting that as human beings we are ultimately responsible for our actions and being-in-the-world up to and including the constructions of the capitalist system itself.

Framed correctly, this would demand that your judge has an a priori obligation to reject Capitalism before a judge’s posteriori obligation to be a fair adjudicator or a promoter of policy-making role play.

The Cap K doesn’t stop here; these are just a few options. Again, this article mainly concerns itself with the nature of Cap K impact debate and there’s much more to be explored in the alternative debate especially. I personally really like this kritik and hope that this article helps in your own experiences with this topic and Cap K’s in general.


John Bellamy,  “The Ecology of Destruction,” MONTHLY REVIEW, February 2007.

Clayton Morgareidge, Professor  Emeritus of Philosophy at Lewis & Clark College. August 22, 1998

Slavoj Zizek and Glyn Daly, “Conversations with Zizek”.  pgs. 18-19. 2004.

  • bunnyofsweeeetsugar

    stunning! please reply to me im lonely kik me @sugarbunny2953

  • Josh Roberts

    good analysis on the link debate. my biggest question is “what’s the alt?” if cap is inevitable, it’s just a matter of timeframe. if cap isn’t inevitable, what does the world of the k look like? if you can’t answer that question, I’m not sure how you solve anything.

    • Sean Fahey

      Good question, as mentioned in the article I think the alt is really flexible hence why I don’t attempt to give any single end-all-be-all alternative and instead focused on impact versatility. That said, I think the role of the ballot arguments from Zizek and Daly help frame what an appropriate alternative could be given the nature of capitalism. Once capitalism is framed as an ethically absolute bad then the ground for alternatives becomes how we would treat any ethical wrong doing. With this in mind, simple rejection alts seem somewhat acceptable (albeit probably don’t meet your criteria for shaping a world without capitalism) because the affirmative’s in-round advocacy of capitalist action is then framed as an ethical wrong and thus, assumedly, should be rejected on those grounds. This would seem to be a pragmatic alt even within a world where cap is inevitable too because it doesn’t require any major reshaping of society, instead it only calls on the judge to reject cap in pedagogical spaces (like debate) they can control like debate to maintain their own ethicality as well as promoting an anti-capitalist ethic. As far as more method-oriented alts go, there’s tons of lit that gives different plans for rejecting cap/establishing new modes of thought. For example, Rosenberg and Villarejo write about reorienting ourselves against capitalism through the lens of queer theory, they also argue that the idea that cap is inevitable is part of the “death drive” mentality that many K’s critique. That’s just one example, and while I would have loved to write about all of the alts that I think are worthwhile, I think the nature of that argument is very dependent on where debaters feel comfortable and thus left it up in the air. I hope that satisfies.

      • Connor Davis

        Do you think there are any viable policy implementable alts? Specifically, I think if the dehumanization of workers comes from the fact that they have to work and not always where they want, then it seems a universal basic income would solve that.

        • Sean Fahey

          This is a pretty hard question to answer simply because “policy-implementable” is fairly vague and the broad nature of the questions directs me to say that there’s always a possibility that there is one – I just can’t think of one. If by policy-implementable you mean anything done through government, then I suppose it’s feasible that a bunch of communists could hijack the government and use it as a power apparatus in reshaping society against capitalism. That said, that’s pretty unfeasible which makes for a bad alt story. The purpose of this however is to demonstrate that it would take unlikely internal political upheaval to reach what you’re asking. UBI in my mind wouldn’t solve because then you open yourself up to another Marxian link chain of commodity fetishism which impacts in same way, more or less. Also from the POV of anti-cap lit, I think it’s safe to say the vast majority of authors (excluding Herod, as far as big names go) hold that leftist reformism is just not sufficient and, if anything, masks the harms of capitalism. Also I think you misunderstand the entirety of the idea about dehumanization, it’s not just a matter of not working where you want to, it’s moreover a matter of the Master-Slave relationship between the capitalist and the worker in capitalist society that is problematic to Marx.

        • Connor Davis

          I don’t necessarily understand the “Marxian link chain of commodity fetishism” for UBI. People don’t have to work, so they’re not really commodities, as now they really do have a choice. As for if the whole capitalist mechanism is really raging on still, I think the problem that Jrob brings up is that there’s really no good alt. Even if UBI still acts as a capitalistic ruse, I think it’s plausibly better enough for the workers that the opportunity cost of not rejecting capitalism as much as you’d like we do in this one instance is outweighed by the benefits of the UBI.

          That pretty much expresses my biggest complaint with CapKs, besides the flowery language and dearth of warrants–that there’s really no good alt, and that the privileged we in the name of rejecting cap have to let workers to keep suffering because if we acted it’d be a ruse.

        • Sean Fahey

          No Connor you misunderstand, however I gave you a fairly vague response. The idea of commodity fetishism is the same idea from Fight Club. The idea that “we let our things own us” is borrowed from this Marxian concept. The semi-religious dedication to owning seemingly arbitrary commodities is another path to dehumanization for Marx. As far as the alt goes, I suppose we have a disconnect here because I don’t have a hard time giving validity to a reject alt when established through the grounds of fiat with a role of the ballot.

        • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

          So is the neg’s position that the judge can just fiat a hypothetical world in which capitalism disappears, but people somehow aren’t dehumanized by an all-encompassing state, as in actual history? If so, why not just run a neg that says, “Scarcity is the root of all evil. Fiat a world where there is no economic scarcity, rather than one where there is a living wage”?

        • krawfy

          Harvey, the last thing that Sean says is crucial. This sort of utopian fiat is good “when established through the grounds of fiat with a role of the ballot.” What this translates to is if there is some external impact that necessitates endorsing positions that take a stance against capitalism from within debate/academia, then there is no theoretical reason (or no strong theoretical reason) to preclude access to the ground to make this argument.

          If there was some warrant that a debate about scarcity is bad because it presents some narrative of consumption (very terribly worded on my part but the idea comes from Bataille’s Accursed Share) and there was an internal link to some real world impact about the way we discuss consumption, scarcity, and plenty in academic spaces, then the judge would have a theoretical obligation as an educator or pedagogue to endorse this rejection of scarcity.

          The idea is that the alt, no matter how absurd or unimaginable, would be justified through some pre-fiat argument – in the same way that we grant or deny any other argument legitimacy based on some theory argument.

          This is precisely the reason debater’s read cards with tags like “policy-making good” and “engaging the state key,” because there is some debate to be had about whether or not it is legitimate to fiat these sorts of alts and debaters need to make sure that they justify why that ground is (il)legitimate.

          As a disclaimer: I am not a fan of reject alts, I just see why it’s legitimate to allow debater’s utopian fiat ground if they’re winning the argument that they deserve it. Also, maybe using the phrase utopian fiat carries some different baggage with it. I just mean rejection alts or other vague or inconceivable alternatives.

        • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

          I’m just a humble lawyer/volunteer coach, so I want to be sure I follow you.

          You are saying that debaters can read cards that say, “Reject X and don’t worry about the practical consequences.” In a pre-fiat world where we are acting as debaters/academics, this makes sense to me. You can rationally say to yourself, “I –a debate judge– am not going to make market economies disappear no matter what I write on the ballot, so I don’t have moral responsibility for that. But I can walk away and refuse to listen to any discussion of capitalism, and document as much on the ballot, which might lead to some small positive change.” Fair enough.

          But reading the last sentence you referred to, Sean mentioned “the grounds of fiat.” Which led me to believe he was talking about a post-fiat argument. And my understanding of fiat is “The judge makes the resolution/plan come true.” So my question is, where did the judge get the power to enact utopia — or, indeed, the power to enact any scenario other than (1) the resolution as worded; or (2) a topical plan?

          Does it come from some particular card or theory argument? When Sean says “grounds of fiat with a role of the ballot” is he saying, “Utopian alternatives are okay if you read a card that says utopian alternatives are okay”? If not, what is he saying? If so, what does that card/argument look like? Does it answer the stock criticisms of utopian argumentation? Does it address the general question whether judges can fiat non-topical plans/counterplans?

          I’m genuinely trying to understand this stuff to enable my students to do the same. So thanks in advance for any thoughts.

        • Sean Fahey

          If I may swoop in here, when I say “the grounds of fiat” I was referring to pre-fiat argumentation that you refer to in your first thought. My alternative arguments do refer to the mentality of the judge rejecting advocacies of capitalism because of their ethical impossibility.

          But on your second thought, a lot of anti-capitalist authors, Zizek writes on this a bit, bring up the possible usefulness of adopting a utopian alternative to capitalism. The general warrant behind it is the same as the “try-or-die” scenario, if capitalism is pitting us towards certain extinction and ethical destruction, then an alternative, no matter how utopian, should be pursued. That said, I find this argument unappealing for a few reasons and think there are much better, non-utopian alts, like the “deconstructing capitalism through the lens of queer theory” alt I referred to earlier that specifically answers the “cap is inevitable” issues.

        • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

          Gotcha, with respect to pre-fiat. Thanks for clarifying.

          As for the second point, I also get try or die. Never liked it, but I understand it. Is the queer theory argument pre- or post-fiat? If the latter, what is the judge fiating?

          But my real question is this. If we are talking post-fiat, judge-can-create-the-alternate-world scenarios, what is the source of that power in debate theory? Forget “try or die,” just tell the judge to fiat a world where pure socialism (or whatever) works perfectly with no dehumanizing, econ collapse, etc. If the power of fiat is not limited to the resolution or a topical plan (and the consensus when and where I debated was, “it is”), why go half way? In other words, in current HS circuit LD, what limits the judge’s fiat power if not the resolution?

          I realize this wasn’t the point of your article, but the post-fiat part seems to assume this power exists. Limits on fiat was a pretty common response to CPs of all kinds when I debated, so I’m just wondering how it’s handled now. Thanks again.

        • Sean Fahey

          I’d say that fiating an alternative to capitalism is topical in the context of the affirmative advocacy. If the affirmative reads a topical plan, but that topical plan works within a capitalist system it’s probably theoretically sound to say that a non-capitalist system is a topical neg advocacy. So to answer your question, I think the alt on the cap K can still be considered within the bounds of resolution and thus not a huge leap in fiat.

        • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

          Yikes. That sounds pretty attenuated and arbitrary. But if that’s what people are buying now, then I guess that’s what we have to wrestle with. Better to know than not. Thanks.

    • James McElwain

      This is a classic debate between radicals and liberals, but it’s worth noting, that there’s a lot of Marxian literature that specifically criticizes the idea of “envisioning the future” of the alt—particularly indicting this utopian impulse as a huge problem of 20th c. Marxist movements and post-Hegelian historiography that reads everything as the teleological progression of class struggle (this also being the origin of class essentialism). From the perspective of ideology critique, the demand for commitment to an alternative to the status quo has the potential to lead the critic to believe themselves to be outside of ideology by virtue of having realized “the path forward.”

      While I’m not sure whether these nuanced differences in Hegelian vs Spinozan interpretations of Marx can be implemented on the HS level, there definitely is a third path between liberal reform and naïve or vulgar Marxist commitments to the inevitability of collapse (and I would put Nick Land’s garbage reading of both Marx and Deleuze in this second category).

      • Josh Roberts

        so basically demand for an alt is bad because it recreates the same problems you’re trying to solve. why can’t a search for an alternative keep this in mind while moving forward?

        • James McElwain

          Yes, but that’s just a question of what one considers an alternative–the point being that one should not say “I know a political/economic system that can succeed cap.” Reject alts are terrible because they don’t focus on some kind of positive action. The point is not to frame positive action from the perspective of grand theories (i.e. the view from nowhere) but from the embodied perspective of someone living within cap who *doesn’t* have all the solutions:

          liberation is not a manipulation of reality by subjects who would situate themselves somehow outside of the arrangement they impose on it: [liberation] is the expression, the exertion of the ontological force that constitutes subjects themselves, not as independent individuals, but as the [most] versatile elements of the collective system within whose network of interrelations their action is inscribed. (Pierre Macherey)

  • Anonymous