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Socialism, Capitalism, and Other Fallen Stock

| May 9, 2010

Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads

John D. Rockefeller commissioned Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads Looking With High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future in 1933, but when his likeness of a labor leader looked too much like Lenin, Rockefeller ordered him to stop work. This is a different version Rivera painted at the National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Lenin appears. So does John D. Rockefeller, in close proximity to venereal microbes.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press just released a survey testing reactions to political rhetoric—whether people react positively or negatively to words like “progressive” or “socialism” or phrases like “states’ rights” or “civil liberties.” The results were not surprising in some regards. Say the phrases “civil rights,” “civil liberties” and “states’ rights,” and between 87 percent and 77 percent of people respond positively. Even the word “progressive,” which the right-wing machinery on Fox and friends is doing its best to turn into a slander, gets a 68 percent positive response, including 56 percent of Republicans.

Pierre Reads the Column, Accents and All
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Here’s where it does get interesting. The word “capitalism” gets barely a majority endorsement, with just 52 percent giving it a positive nod overall. It’s still better than the reaction to socialism, but not by much. Some 29 percent, or almost a third of Americans, view socialism positively, and a far larger proportion of younger Americans do so. A majority of young people 18 to 29 don’t see capitalism positively. Capitalism gets a 43 percent positive rating from those young Americans. So does socialism. Looking at reactions according to family income is even more telling. In households where income is $75,000 or less, which is to say in more than 70 percent of American households, just 47 percent have a positive reaction to capitalism.

It’s a long way from 1989, when the Berlin Wall was falling, the Soviet Union was disappearing, the first George Bush was advertising “a new world order” and the happy ideologues of the right were declaring the end of history. Capitalism, they told us then, had won. There was no other viable system. The Chinese must have been laughing then, as they have since Ronald Reagan first came to them, hat in hand, to help finance his colossal deficits. Their laugh has gotten only louder since as they’ve watched a capitalism system gorged on its own arrogance run up more debt than it will ever be willing to repay while inflating bubble after bubble to give itself the illusion that it was still a functioning system. In Reagan’s time it was the junk-bond bubble, which crashed in 1987. It was followed by the tech bubble of Clinton’s 1990s, which crashed in 2000, only to be rolled-over into the housing and junk-credit bubble of the Bush years. That one is still crashing, with reverberations all over the world, as last week’s mini-crash reminded us.

All along, the Chinese, whose economy and political system have more in common with fascism than communism anymore, have been lending us money in the shape of a noose — more than $1 trillion if you include what we owe Hong Kong, which the Chinese devoured in 1997. Incapable of living within our means or raising taxes to pay our own debts, we’ve been hanging ourselves with Chinese rope. And not just Chinese. We owe the Japanese $768 billion, and we owe oil producing Arab nations and Venezuela $218 billion.

Capitalism didn’t get us into this. Unbridled capitalism and self-indulgence did, beginning with the rise in the 1980s of the cult of the free market. To this day conservatives peddle the fallacy that Adam Smith, considered the father of capitalism, wouldn’t have had it any other way, just as we shouldn’t have it any other way as we move forward. But Smith was a great believer in trade unions and public works. Businessmen’s motives left him queasy, because he saw them as little more than bundles of self-interest who seldom gave a whit to the common good (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he wrote.) And Smith  was a great believer in taxes and wealth redistribution so that, in his words, “the indolence and vanity of the rich is made to contribute in a very easy manner to the relief of the poor.” In sum, he would have fit right in with the New Deal, or something like it if the Obama administration had the courage to enact it.

I find it particularly ironic that the group in the Pew survey that gives socialism the most negative marks is the elderly—the one group in America that benefit most from socialist programs: Medicare, Social Security, and the public schools that keep educating the workers who wait hand and foot on elderly lives and luxuries.

We can rail about socialism’s evil and worship capitalism all we like. It won’t get us out of the hole we spent the last 30 years digging. History and Adam Smith suggest that the way out is an intelligent, humane combination of the two. It’s not like we haven’t done it before. Ask anyone 65 or older, assuming they’re not too busy honing their selective memories at a tea party.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him here.

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4 Responses for “Socialism, Capitalism, and Other Fallen Stock”

  1. Kevin R says:

    “Capitalism didn’t get us into this. Unbridled capitalism and self-indulgence did…”

    Pierre, that is a particularly smart statement.

  2. Van says:

    Well, unbridled capitalism is what capitalism actually IS. Self-indulgence, too. Self-centeredness is at the heart of capitalism. Just read a little Ayn Rand. The bridles on capitalism exist mainly in the mind, in the idealist realm of non-experience. Today, it is impossible to separate capitalism from notions of the “free market.” And we’ve been around long enough to know that’s about 99% myth. What we have now is capitalism that has morphed into socialism for the rich and powerful, and dirt-eating capitalism for everyone else. Of course, Americans are divided down the middle on virtually everything. Half respond favorably to “capitalism,” half to “socialism”. Or something to that general effect. When all they’re really responding to is the WORDS. Almost none of them have the vaguest idea what socialism might even mean, and embrace the ultra-ambiguous tenets of capitalism because they’ve been trained like monkeys to. Polls like this only tell us what buzz words Americans react to, favorably or unfavorably. Most surveys have shown pretty conclusively that Americans LIKE what socialism actually is, in practice, they just don’t like the word or the horrible people (liberals) they associate with it. They think it means letting a transexual marry your daughter. Or letting the terrorists win. Most Americans are the drunk on the bar stool raving about communists, when it comes to the idea of socialism. They can’t discuss it rationally any more than fundamentalists can discuss evolution.

  3. Marc D says:

    I remember George Bernard Shaw, a famous socialist, saying that “A socialist is not a man who wants his daughter to marry a chimney sweep. A socialist is a man who wants all the chimneys swept and the chimneysweeps paid for the job.”

    I’m afraid that until we can discuss it rationally on a national level, all this label slinging is just making things more difficult. Label slinging is just another form of superstition. If you repeat a label it will protect you in some way. A careful study of the political upheavals at the end of the 19th century would help prepare us for the ones we are experiencing now. Study — what a radical idea!

  4. Pierre Tristam says:

    Superstition — a not-so distant cousin of bigotry — is right, Marc. I want my Shaw-sweep redemption.

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