[Published in the Morning Call, November 5, 2018: https://www.mcall.com/opinion/national/mc-opi-democratic-socialism-capitalism-20181105-story.html ]
My former Lehigh University colleague, Anthony Patrick O’Brien, recently traced the evolution of the iPhone back to Adam Smith and the origins of capitalism in The Morning Call. There’s some truth in that.
However, along the way, his argument reinforced two oft-repeated ideological myths that have long crippled the American polity’s ability to deal with the profound problems we face.
In O’Brien’s account, the Industrial Revolution in England produced “economic growth capable of improving the life of the average person … . Capitalism had arrived!”
Yet what improved the lives of average people? According to this free-market mythology, rising productivity meant that “for the first time in human history, the average family was well clothed, well fed, and well housed.” In other words, left to its own devices, the market takes care of average people.
The reality is radically different. Anyone who has read Smith knows he made no such claim, but instead maintained that state intervention was necessary to level the playing field for a market system to work. Left to its own devices, industrial capitalism produced — and continues to produce — massive inequality and the horrific exploitation of working people, all reinforced by violent repression by the state and private goons. The unfettered market also produces a tendency toward giant monopolies.
So, what did improve the lives of average people?
Against the resistance of capitalists, laborers organized and became a political force via their ability to strike and demand concessions. In part, worried about the danger of mass uprising, the state intervened in the economy and produced a wide range of social reforms — minimum wage and overtime protection, collective bargaining guarantees, a graduated income tax, efforts to equalize educational opportunity, and a public safety net for the elderly.
Later interventions began to safeguard us all from the ravages of industrial capitalism, protecting both our rights as consumers and the environment we all share.
Of course, the state has also consistently intervened to protect capitalism from its own built-in destructiveness — through anti-trust laws, subsidies, insurance against bank failures, and bailouts, among many other actions. Government in the modern state is inextricably involved in the market economy, one reason the free market is itself a mythical concept.
The idea of government being used to help the average person be “well clothed, well fed, and well housed” (and well educated) is precisely what has been under attack for decades, going back to the rise of neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and we have been paying a deep price for that attack for a long time.
Along with deregulation, privatization, a campaign to destroy organized labor, and attacks on public education and social welfare policies, tax “reforms” have produced obscene wealth in the hands of relatively few.
Because of the significance of money in politics, neoliberalism means that the average person is increasingly at risk while the state is dominated by the interests of capital.
How can this be sustained where there is supposed to be one person, one vote (although that, too, is under attack)? One thread running through our entire history has been the use of race to create a threatening “other” that allegedly endangers our well-being. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration has hyped up the alleged threat to our way of life of Muslim and brown-skinned immigrants. Divide and rule goes back a long way.
But the other ideological device echoed in O’Brien’s piece, to say nothing of the leaders of both political parties, is the alleged threat to our freedom of something called socialism. In conventional usage, socialism now means any effort to use government to address the needs of average people or to protect our commons.
Yet lurking in that distortion is the implied connection with the long-discredited state socialist model we used to call communism. As O’Brien puts it, socialism would bring a “stagnation in living standards and the loss of freedom.” Sounds like the old USSR, doesn’t it?
It’s certainly radically different from the poorly understood idea of democratic socialism — a democratic ideal, really, in which we, an aware, civically educated and engaged people, work together to figure out the constraints that need to be put on how markets operate so as to ensure the well-being of all, including future generations.
In other words, markets subservient to democratically generated aims of the people, not the aims of
the people subservient to imperatives of capitalism.
Average people have endured a stagnation in living standards for some time now; democratic socialism would obviously begin to redress that. If there is to be some loss of freedom, it is most likely to revolve around the ability of the very wealthy to expropriate and horde wealth and the ability of private enterprise to endanger the prospects for human survival.