Recently I finally got around to Cracking open Wallerstein's "Historical Capitalism". I was let down from nearly the first page. Capitalism according to Wallerstein is distinguished from all past social systems by the drive towards expansion becoming the “primary objective” of capitalists (capitalism itself? It’s not clear whether he means this as an objective claim about the system or the motivations of each individual). This is supposedly the “overriding goal”.I think this is completely wrong and that it is a painfully common mistake of leftists to parrot these kinds of ideas from neoclassical microecnomics textbooks..
The capitalist mode of production isn’t “the endless accumulation of capital for its own sake”. It is the endless accumulation of capital for the sake of reproducing on an expanded scale the social position of the elites in control of the production process. It is true that different types of elites (financiers, landlords, CEOs, stockholders, boards of directors, family owners etc) jockey for the dominant position but the essential point is that profit is an intermediate goal to accomplish other things. Making the intermediate goal the end in itself is arbitrary. Further it leans into economists prejudices regarding the lack of social embeddedness of economic decision making. Of course it is true that the capitalist mode of production does involve the circuit M-C-P-C’-M’ but the circuit is a production schema, not actually a theory. Keynes adopts the schema too. Now the choice of starting and ending point is theoretically informed (monetary production economy) but it is not indistinguishable from the theory.
In short, I think it's valid to say that capitalists are profit seeking, but not to say they seek profit “for profit’s sake”. Capitalists are not midas. The defense that the “abstract capitalist” is midas comes to nothing. There is no abstract capitalist. There is only the monetary circuit which includes production. This circuit has no agency in it, no causal mechanisms; as I said, it is just a schema. I just see no validity in projecting onto this schema the “final goal” of profit seeking and then when dealing with capitalism as a historical system erase that and pencil in the actual “final goals” of all actually existing capitalists. The abstract schema adds a lot, the abstract assumption of profit seeking as a final goal adds nothing and is completely unneeded and invalid.
Now of course, the idea that capitalists “maximize profits” in an asocial way is very influential. Understanding that ideological claim is important. But we must separate the empirical reality we see around us from this ideology.
What Wallerstein seems to mean is that in concrete situations encountered in the production process, capitalists encounter situations where some social obligation (say, the local environment) is subordinated to profit seeking. But this defense of profit seeking as a “final objective” is completely invalid! Just because the elite in control of a capitalist business enterprise disregard some social relations, doesn’t mean they are asocial! They are just dismissing social relations and environments they don’t value. They may not care about detroit or the indigenous, but they care about their family, peers, boards etc. They may destroy some social relations, but create others. Hell, they care about having sex with their secretaries sometimes too That’s just to say that “social relations” aren’t necessarily positive. Their goal might even be “beating” another CEO in salary, perhaps one they went to business school with. Having sex with their secretary and beating Rick in salary may be all they think about.
The point is, in the sphere of the firm they may seem to act asocially in many situations, but that is because they don’t care about their subordinates and “losers”! When it comes to their hierarchy of final goals (access to the provisioning process, fame, political power, social climbing daughters, meeting obligations to their social or legal creditors etc.) whichever one they value most will prevail. If dumping toxic waste in the local river will ruin the dominant capitalist’s child’s wedding, they won’t do it. If it destroys a poor African American community, they often will. Socially Embed! Socially Embed! That is Moses and the prophets!