Chapter 15: A minor digression: Elmore on capitalism and third options
We’ve been talking about capitalism as the polar opposite of communism, both being at opposite extremes of an ideological economic continuum. Like Elmore, let us think about these matters, let them sink in, discover what we really think – something we perhaps never did before. What are the implications of these two bipolar extremes?
Communism. Suppose communism had been enacted under a democratic process. But we can’t suppose that, for the only historic model we have is this: Russia in 1916 had the world’s most extreme maldistribution of wealth – at least as bad as France on the eve of its revolution, possibly worse. (Recall: both the Russian and French revolutions were economic revolts, distinctly different than America’s political revolution which at least alleged that economic motives were secondary to political liberty.) The Tsar and a coterie of nobles constituted the top one percent; the lower ninety-eight percent consisted of serfs in such abject poverty, so politically impotent, they were equivalent to slaves in the American Antebellum South. Russia’s “middle class” was surpassingly small and fragile. Peasants could not vote to choose their government, so democracy was impossible. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know if communism might be implemented democratically. Such a thing logically, and based on historical experience, seems most improbable.
In Russia as in France before it, the first estate would cede not an iota of power, so the only option was violent overthrow, which is of course what happened. Russia’s revolution began in an idealistic context, textbook according to Marx, wherein the abjectly-poor and illiterate masses would somehow “rule” and government would somehow wither away. This idealism in Marx’s theory was soon replaced by realism – the ideologue Lenin attained absolute power, and was followed by Stalin who cared only for total power to hell with ideology except insofar as it solidifies power. The Russian people had economic social security, of a sort, and universal health care, of a sort, but the price was their political liberty. It didn’t have to be that way, that’s just how it went in Russia – and then eastern Europe under Russia’s domination, then China, then… A seventy-year cold war between two opposed economic ideologies ensued, each side facing down the other side’s nuclear arms. That’s how history played out. With some good luck, we did not kill each other.
Capitalism. Suppose here also. Suppose the present trend prevails – and simply let it play out. Capitalism prevailed when communism finally collapsed of its own unreality, and reigns today as the world’s prime economic model. Unfortunately, it is the extreme form of that model which reigns – global mega-corporate free market capitalism. What formerly was a moderated form of capitalism, with many socialist benefits such as Social Security, Medicare and labor bargaining rights, has been dragged steadily toward the right until it no longer is moderate. It has become immoderate. New Deal regulatory constraints on corporate predatory greed and gluttony have been gutted, labor unions and the worker protections they represented have been steadily killed off, and the ideologues of the right are relentless in trying to take down Social Security and turn its big money over to the stock market.
True to form, corporations now keep growing ever bigger and bigger. They grow into multi-national super-giants with operations in many countries around the world, too big for any one mere national government to control, too big to fail, beholden to no nation, secretive and elusive, controlling far more money than the governments of many whole countries. They could secretly employ whole private armies and who would know? And had you heard that some do…?
Using the handy worldwide internet to shift very large monies here and there at the speed of light in their very real multi-national ability to evade taxes and accountability they are, in effect, more powerful even than the government of the United States. In their enlarged forms they have become unanswerable to anybody other than, allegedly, their stockholders – and indeed how informed are stockholders themselves these days, especially when both they and the corporations reside in many different countries, each with its different financial rules and controls? Inside the United States now, as in so many other nations, these worldwide behemoth corporations spend enough multi-millions on “political free speech” ads to control the reelection of dominant majorities in our Congress. How many of We The People do you suppose are aware of the extent of their political control, here in our own nation as in so many other nations around the world?
There are fabulously wealthy citizens among us today who think this a desirable scenario – because they control the corporations. Present-day trends are going their way. They are confident they have something big to look forward to. They are fast becoming modern America’s first estate and second estate combined. They fully understand the attitudes of the late Louie XVI, the late Tsar, the late French and Russian tax-exempt nobilities who held all of their nations’ wealth, and all of the political power. All of it – so tightly held by those late aristocrats and plutocrats.
Suppose time passes, as it will. Suppose capitalism’s contemporary trend continues. Rampant consumerism vigorously promoted – go shopping at Walmart, now! – leads to an ever more indebted U.S. population. The debt seems to be all on ubiquitous little plastic cards, who would really notice? At last, one sad day, the good-paying American jobs are all gone – shifted away overseas to low-wage countries. Not much left but slinging burgers and other low-pay menial “service” jobs.
What does it matter? the corporations say – we’re doing fine. We have a globalized financial system, we can order our just-in-time supplies from anywhere, especially China which is really good at it. We can do our banking in Bangkok or Lima as easily as the local branch of Farmers Bank. We are at last fully matured as a “service” economy. Costs are cut to the bone – yeah, to the bone. Real wages have not risen for years, decades. Most American wealth has been shifted to the already-rich. The middle class withers away. The lower class – poorer than Job’s turkey – becomes ever larger until, eventually, it contains almost everybody who is not super-rich. Even doctors and lawyers struggle to pay their bills, and even the plumbers aren’t allowed to charge what they used to. At long last the ninety-nine percent are poor; the other one percent are breathtakingly rich and powerful. Just like in Russia and France, just before their terrible revolutions.
You don’t think it could happen here? You don’t think it is happening here? This, in fact, is the implication of present trends in America the Beautiful: gross and growing maldistribution of wealth. You can read about it just everywhere these days, in every daily newspaper and in every magazine published weekly or monthly, not to mention all those new books. Even some economists bemoan our dreadful trend, write whole books about it…do you mean you actually have not noticed? Where has your mind been?
Russian and French peasants subsisted in a pre-industrial era when most of the population was rural and agrarian. Modern post-industrial American peasants-in-the-making subsist in an era when most of the population has become urban and dependent on a distant corporatized agriculture they aren’t even aware of. The trend hasn’t had time to fully play out yet, but rural America is showing up poorer in every new survey and census (have you not noticed?). Notwithstanding the overflowing Walmart shelves and fresh produce flown in from around the world, comparisons of trends in the twenty-first century’s second decade with earlier times are unsettling. Is your retirement secure? Have you really not noticed your personal income’s falling rate of increase relative to the rate of increase in American GDP and returns on corporate investment? Do you realize you are falling behind? My my, how could that be?
“Isn’t it tiresome?” Elmore would often say. “Don’t you ever wonder if there might be something else besides these wretched ideologies with all their flaws, their perpetually unrealized potential to foster the common good for the benefit of all the people? Russia, the birthplace of communism, has now adopted a version of capitalism that tolerates and even encourages the worst of its inherent abuses. With Mao flopping in his grave, China has adopted a hybrid economic capitalism – booming like three Wall Streets – which is governed by the same old political absolutism that characterized Maoist communism.
“In the two years 2014 and 2015 China used more concrete for new highways than the U.S. has put down for roads in our entire history. And do you have any idea how very much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere from every last pound of cement produced by pulverizing the limestone which kept it locked up in the earth? Every year now average worldwide temperatures grow hotter, every year the rate of increase grows a bit faster, and every year the weather everywhere grows a little worse, a bit more violent and extreme. Every year.
“Capitalism triumphant, virtually everywhere on earth – controlling more and more domestic and international markets, controlling ever more products from catsup to cars, controlling ever more domestic and international politics, ever more job transfers to whichever country pays the lowest wages this week, controlling more elections, more whole countries, more costs of living, more people’s lives – controlling ever more, more.
“In contemporary America, home base for capitalism, we have got ourselves into quite a state, politically speaking. An ever fractious Democratic Party, extolling “free” trade though they’re not sure why, favors using big government to – somehow – make our capitalist economy better serve all the people. A newly fractious Republican Party, worshiping capitalism and mistakenly believing it to be God’s Preference, favors abolishing all governmental controls so that a capitalist free-for-all free market can serve or not serve all the people as it damn well pleases, guided by that fictitious invisible hand, of God or whoever. This latter-day descendant of the respected Grand Old Party, which valued people above profit, ratchets ever farther to the right and is dying before our eyes under the onslaught of breakaway factions and farther-right billionaire extremists who make Tea Party fanatics look like Sunday school.
“Across the land of the free the national consensus to Help Others – as we did from 1932-1979 with the New Deal, Lend-Lease, the Marshall Plan, the Great Society, civil rights legislation – is being replaced by fractious Serving of Self. And the downgrade is accelerating – even as the poor increase before our eyes. Recall the sweet years of Significant Interlude, when widespread prosperity, declining poverty, and growth of the middle class were all ascendant under widespread governmental regulation of corporations. At all other times in U.S. history, such general prosperity was rendered descendant or impossible by the incessant recessions and economic crashes brought on by self serving speculators – spending their days and energies gambling and gaming the Holy Stock Market in their never-ending passion to get rich quick without working for it. I speak of those who had not yet experienced the healing incentives of Poverty School and Gambling School.”
It’s not about capitalism or communism, it’s about who has the money and wields the power. It’s not about big government or free market, it’s about who has the money and the power. It’s not about republicans or democrats, or liberty or tyranny, it’s all about who has the money and the power. All these other matters, like abortion, gun control, gay rights, flag burning – side issues, distractions for little minds – are secondary, to dupe voters, strictly subordinate to getting their hands on the money and the power. These super-rich controllers know the difference between means and ends, and they unabashedly serve self over helping others. They Do Not Care whether anything trickles down. Do you get it yet? – Elmore Bland
“What to do about all this?” Elmore would ask again and again. And invariably he had his answer close at hand, ready to dump all over me. I learned his fervent lessons well.
“Find a third option. There’s always at least a third option, usually twenty or more options if you have the sense to look for them. Change the incentives. They worship the almighty dollar? Change the incentives so that instead of top dogs and stockholders accumulating and hoarding outrageous piles of dollars, you reinvest in American jobs and American-made products truly valued by American employees and American customers, all right here in America. They want to control everything? Make it impossible to exceed a modest level of control – say, five percent – and give control of that modest level to the employees who actually make things. What do stockholders make besides free gain from somebody else’s hands-on labor? These ideologues claim to worship competition? Make them taste some true competition for a change. Confront them with a real incentive to truly compete in ways that are constructive for all concerned, and make uncontrolled monopolies impossible. They want never-ending increases in worker productivity? Take the incentive away from the gambling investors and gambling speculators, and place it in the hard-working employees who actually know how to produce real things.
“Communists, capitalists, democrats, republicans, Tea Partyers, Luddites and worse,” Elmore would rant, “make them all obsolete! No, make them irrelevant! Change the context! Revise the background! Piss on their shoes! Re-make the big picture so totally, so ingeniously, that their ludicrous extreme ologies and isms have no meaning! Yank the rug. Stop their incessant manufactured downturns and recessions! Make it impossible for them to keep on forever making trouble where – dammit! – there was no trouble!”
That Elmore, he was something, I tell you.
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