Marx understood capitalism as a system of commodity production, or production for the market, through the use of wage labour. Marx wrote that all economic systems are also social systems. Each mode of production consists of particular relations of production, which in turn give rise to a specific class structure. He emphasised that the economy does not consist of things (goods circulating in the market), but is made up of relations between people who are connected to one another through the process of production. Under the capitalist mode of production, labour itself becomes a commodity, because workers must sell their labour power in the market to earn a wage. This gives rise to two basic classes – capitalists, who own the means of production (such as the factories), and workers, who sell their labour to the capitalists. The capitalist class is able to profit from this system by paying the workers less than the value of what they actually produce, and so extracting surplus value from their labour. Thus profit is earned by exploiting the labour.
The economic activities of the Nakarattars represented a kind of indigenous capitalism. In this form of capitalism, the structures of caste, kinship, and family were oriented towards commercial activity, and business activity was carried out within these social structures. As in most ‘traditional’ merchant communities, Nakarattar banks were basically joint family firms, so that the structure of the business firm was the same as that of the family. Similarly, trading and banking activities were organised through caste and kinship relationships. For instance, their extensive caste-based social networks allowed Chettiar merchants to expand their activities into Southeast Asia and Ceylon. Businessmen are more likely to trust others of their own community or kin group; they tend to do business within such networks rather than with others outside. Thus, these traditional business communities earn profits without exploiting labour or creating unequal class structures.