Capitalism is an economic and social system, the main attributes of which are: dominance of commodity-money relations and private property in the means of production; developed social division of labour; increasing socialization of production; and transformation of labour power into a commodity. The shaping of the globe into a single, coherent system built on exploitation is the direct consequence of the pursuit of the valorization of capital. The current catastrophic state of the world system is a product of both the exigencies of the valorization of capital and the degrees of resistance to it encountered or engendered in the course of the history of the modern period. Since its inception, the capitalist system has combined the pursuit of valorization with unrestrained geographical expansion. It is this physical, and where necessary militarily aggressive, conquest which has given capitalism its world-wide systemic character.
In its process of development, monopoly capitalism evolves into state monopoly capitalism, which is characterized by the interlocking of the financial oligarchy with the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, the increased role of the state in all spheres of social life, the growth of the state sector in the economy, and increasingly active policies aimed at mitigating the socioeconomic contradictions of capitalism. When associated with imperialism, this engenders a profound crisis in bourgeois democracy, an intensification of reactionary tendencies, and the increased role of force in domestic and foreign policy. It is inseparable from the growth of militarism and military expenditures, the arms race, and tendencies towards the unleashing of aggressive wars.
Advanced capitalism is characterized by contradictions, namely the emergence of conditions, through the very success of capitalism, which are fundamentally antagonistic to capitalism itself, intensify with time, and cannot be resolved within the capitalist framework. The development of capitalism produces changes that call into question the social desirability of the drive for profits. It becomes incompatible with the further development of human potential and capacities. Such contradictions include: (a) Capitalism promises to meet basic needs but is increasingly unable to meet that promise, especially in developing countries. By its very nature is creates unequal development and is unable to institute economic reforms that would coopt burgeoning anti-imperialist struggles for liberation. (b) With continued economic growth, especially in the industrialized world, consumption fades in comparison to other dimensions of well-being, such as the availability of creative and socially useful work and meaningful individual development. But because capitalism must continually expand, the realization of these needs is incompatible with capitalist relations of production. (c) Capitalist economic growth becomes increasingly predicated on irrationality and production of waste (eg military expenditure and planned obsolescence of consumer goods), thus exhausting natural resources and threatening the ecological balance. (d) The expansion of capitalist production draws an ever-increasing share of the population within a country into alienating wage and salary work, sensitizing them to the oppressive conditions under which they are being called upon to function. (e) The internationalization of capitalism creates a corresponding world-wide proletariat which becomes progressively sensitized to the way in which the capitalist mode reinforces exploitative relations between countries. (f) Through its increasing need for a more educated labour force, workers become increasingly capable of grasping the essential irrationality of the system, the inequitable distribution of power within it and the associated social division of labour.
At the national level, the tendency of competitive capitalism to reduce competition has been countered by anti-trust laws. The tendency to exploit labour has been constrained by regulation of working conditions. The tendency to exclude has been constrained by social welfare programmes. The tendency to deceive has been constrained by advertising laws and consumer protection legislation. The tendency to externalize environmental costs has been constrained by environmental protection regulations. But these achievements at the national level are increasingly undermined by the globalization of of competitive capitalism through which these same problems are now bypassing national constraints and re-emerging at the global level.
The capitalist world-system is not confined to those parts of the globe which can formally be designated as the capitalist countries. Some observers see the existing socialist countries as part of the capitalist world-system to the extent either that their internal organization follows capitalist criteria of efficiency and/or they participate in the world economy on terms set by capitalist competition and the law of value. In this sense they are not only victims of those ominous military, ecological and social developments and threats propelled by the dictates of capitalist accumulation, but they also bear their due proportion of responsibility for hampering social transformation. The deterioration of the conditions under which the mass of the population has to live in many areas of the world, the increase in conflicts between and within countries, the intensification of the world economic crisis, are demonstrating that unequal and uneven development, with all the forms of immiseration and alienation which it creates, cannot be surmounted within the capitalist world-system. The extent of the problem has been highlighted within the USA itself by a report from a conference of Catholic bishops stating that the distribution of income and wealth in the USA is so inequitable that it violates minimum standards of distributive justice. In 1982 the richest 20% of Americans received more income than the bottom 70% combined.
Capitalism emphasizes limitless increases in consumption and waste, disregard for the poor, and indifference to any concept of appropriate development. The capitalist system is under severe attack from victims of inequality, alienation, racism, sexism, irrationality, and imperialism, who are struggling to free themselves from oppression and are learning that capitalism is one of their main enemies. The very existence of such challenges proves that capitalism is neither a smoothly operating system nor a system unsusceptible to change. The histories of capitalist systems give numerous instances of resistance from those whom capitalism has sought to subordinate. Often this resistance has been overcome only through the use of violence and coercion. The apparent vitality of capitalist economies is illusory in that it obscures recognition of the progressive devitalization of those sectors and countries on which that vitality depends for its resources.
Capitalism is intended to serve the unique goals and needs of individuals. Throughout the history of capitalism, that individual goal has usually been upward social mobility. Essential to the achievement of all the different personal goals is the individual freedom that capitalism provides in greater measure than any other system of economic organization.