Feb 20, 2008

On Free Markets, Presidential Candidates, and What Happens After Capitalism

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Do you see it? Do you believe?

I watched with more than passing interest the rousing speech that Barack Obama gave after winning the Wisconsin primary last night. I must admit that the senator from Illinois is one of the best public speakers I have ever watched, and his appeal owes much to his ability to inspire a crowd.

The rhetoric was typical of the Obama-isms to which we have become accustomed, filled with references to "change" and "hope," as well as hip phrases like "in the house" and "shout out." About halfway through the speech I heard Obama tell the audience of Texans: "I believe in the free market."

Now, I am sure that Obama planned this bit of rhetoric, and that this was no slip of the tongue. This no doubt reflects his worldview, though I suspect that free market afficianados on the right would chortle at the idea of Obama as a stalwart capitalist devotee.

I, however, do not believe in the Gospel of the Free Markets. I am a product of a capitalist society, and I am a cog in the great machine of American capitalism, and I gladly grab the cash that comes my way on the merry-go-round of the working world, but I do not delude myself with the trappings of the quasi-religion of the disciples of Adam Smith.

Lest casual readers dismiss me as some sort of doctrinaire Marxist, let me state that I never possessed illusions about Soviet-style communism, nor do I believe that Fidel Castro or Kim Jong Il are poster children for an earthly paradise. As far as I am concerned, Karl Marx did not adequately account for such variables as greed, selfishness, and cartel-like behavior in his attempt to develop a scientific model of a socialist utopia.

Yet many of Marx's critiques of capitalism resonate just as forcefully as they did 150 years ago. We live in a world in which sudden capital flight can destroy the economies of entire nations, a world in which faithful workers can be tossed aside in favor of cheaper labor overseas, and a world in which such quintessential public resources as water and parks are increasingly becoming privatized.

All of this is occurring as presidential candidates like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain bow at the altar of free markets, offering prayers to the Cult of the Invisible Hand so fervently described by capitalism's Holy Prophet, Adam Smith. All promise some version of "change," but I have my doubts that these well-dressed folks plan anything more than minor tweaks of the system.

I have been thinking over the past few months about what a post-capitalist world might look like. Again, I am chucking Das Kapital as a blueprint for change, and rather trying to envision a world economy in which socially-necessary labor is valued more than socially-predatory behavior. In my mind, the most necessary labor for the survival of the human species is raising children, yet people who choose to stay home and care for children are often derided as lazy or old-fashioned.

Those who grow food have traditionally been among the poorest members of human societies, yet the rest of us would quickly starve without their labors. The same can also be said about the people who perform any number of necessary-but-underpaid positions.

I know that I possess a few trump cards that have allowed me to hold a privileged niche in the modern world. I came from a middle class, two-parent household that prized education; I was born in the United States; I was born white, male, tall, and drop-dead handsome.

Ahem.

However, had I drawn my first breath in a zone of widespread poverty, like Calcutta or Ouagadougou or Mexico City, there would be no way that you would be reading this post. In fact, it is doubtful that I would even have access to the Internet as a means of conveying my thoughts about a post-capitalist world.

Those of you who are also true believers in the Gospel of the Free Markets will resist the idea that a system will evolve to replace capitalism. That is perfectly understandable, as I, too, was conditioned to believe that free markets are the highest form of socioeconomic organization.

Just remember that those who lived under pre-capitalist systems typically believed their way of life to be the ultimate form of living, if they even could conceive of other ways of living. This is a logical fallacy sometimes known as triumphalism, and though capitalism appears to be in an ascendant phase, there is no guarantee that humanity will be as enamorated with capitalism in 50 or 100 years as we seem to be in 2008.

So be sure to vote for the candidate who convinces you that he or she will fit your definition of "best." At the same time, though, I ask you to take a minute and consider alternatives to the religion of privatization being foisted upon us as the unsurpassed answer to every human problem, and that you try to visualize a world in which profit is not the path to salvation.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love Obama, my god I love him.

Every photo of him published in the papers makes my heart jump.

He's gorgeous!

*sigh*

Tim Higgins said...

Michael,

To paraphrase, we may be forced to concede that capitalism, like democracy, is the worst way to perform its function ... with the exception of every other one. I do get concerned though when a presidential candidate talks about us being "our brother's keepers".

Our Republican form of government, and our form of capitalism are both continuing to evolve. I only worry that each might be a dead end branch.

Anonymous said...

From Engineer of Knowledge

Hello Mike,

"We live in a world in which sudden capital flight can destroy the economies of entire nations, a world in which faithful workers can be tossed aside in favor of cheaper labor overseas, and a world in which such quintessential public resources as water and parks are increasingly becoming privatized."

(For the last seven years we in the U.S. have given tax breaks to corporations under the pretext of purchasing new production equipment, modernizing our production capability so the U.S. to compete better in the world markets. The problem is, these new modern production machines have been sent to China displacing the U.S. working citizen who in essence subsidized their own job losses.) Don't love the company, the company doen't love you!

"Those who grow food have traditionally been among the poorest members of human societies, yet the rest of us would quickly starve without their labors. The same can also be said about the people who perform any number of necessary-but-underpaid positions."

(A very good point and one only has to look at the Irish famines of 1850’s or the U.S. migrant workers of the 1950’s, and Mexican field labors to see the ever evolving examples proving of this statement.)

"I know that I possess a few trump cards that have allowed me to hold a privileged niche in the modern world. I came from a middle class, two-parent household that prized education; I was born in the United States; I was born white, male, tall, and drop-dead handsome."

(I too was born middle class school teacher’s son, two-parent household, U.S. citizen. But best of all I too am DROP-DEAD HANDSOME!! I know, right?)

:-)
Great Posting

microdot said...

Obvioulsy, anonymous is trying to convince us that Obamarama is a dangerous cult. The Republicans are being confronted with real enthusiasm and excitement, something they don't have a clue as to how to deal with..
It freaks them out, it's weird, it isn't right...
There hasn't been a Republican candidate since Reagan who has been able to elicit more than two tired finger snaps and soggy cracker.

Mike, even eluding that there could be another economic reality beyond "free market capitalism" to a brtaindead segment of America is asking to be labeled, "gasp" as a socialist....a Communist....

You are not alone in the world, everything that happens to people in the society you live in affects the overall quality and health of that society.
By being responsible for the most unfortunate, you only enoble your self.

kooz said...

I find it amazing that every single person I talk to that is voting for Obama cannot tell me where he stands on one single issue.

John Edwards had the same message as Obama in 2004 only he couldn't sell it. They share the same speech writer by the way.

If someone wants to vote for Obama because they believe in his issues and how he will implement solutions then fine...but voting for him because he speaks well, is good looking or black...is just plain stupid.

And by the way...no matter who wins...we are going to get change.

Mad Jack said...

I was born white, male, tall, and drop-dead handsome.

Braggart.

Nice post, Mike. I don't agree with Kooz (so new?) about the US getting any kind of change in the next election. I doubt that I'll see a substantial change in the US economy in my lifetime, especially given the financial success of the wealthy and the amount of money being spent on the Presidential campaign.

The Screaming Nutcase said...

While there may be something out there more enlightened than capitalism (or should I say, less worse?), I think it's pretty obvious that it's NOT going to be brought to us by any government entity.

Anonymous said...

From Engineer of Knowledge

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, November 21, 1864

Barb said...

The change, Kooz, will come in the court system --which is already a mess of people making law from the bench --denying the people's right to determine laws through elected reps.

Restraint on greed at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum in the U.S. is needed if we are to continue to be a great and prosperous nation. No one likes to hear that these corporations have all this money to invest in every candidate --while failing to employ all our citizens, providing benefits.

Private and corporate employment should be the national goal --not socialism.

I hate to hear candidates say they are going to solve everyone's problems with the federal gov't (higher taxes.) Considering that so many of our problems are our own fault --the choices we make.