The Occupy Movement seemed to put much of the blame for today’s rampant inequality on capitalism. And with good reason. But today’s capitalism is a corporate endeavour that has emerged since WW2 along with U.S. military and economic supremacy.
Communism never stood much of a chance. The war in Vietnam was a waste of 3 million innocent lives and environmental destruction, as we see with East Asia’s embracement of the market system. If we trace the history of capitalism it leads, like all roads, to Rome. The Roman empire flourished because of global trade, a professional army and slaves. The empire may have only extended to Parthia in the east, but trade routes followed the Silk Road through India all the way to China.
Feudalism ended up based on the cheap labour of serfs, who were under the control of the local lord. If that lord wanted soldiers to fight in the Crusades, or any war, the serfs had no choice but to serve. If a serf killed a deer, his life was forfeit. A serf was little different than a slave, except in name.
When mercantile capitalism began in northern Europe it inherited an economic system that had always been hierarchical, with the majority living close to subsistence levels, and the elites living in luxury and abundance. Economic recessions and depressions affected mainly the poor. Capitalism, in effect, is a continuation of the economic system started back in Greece and Rome 2500 years ago. Obviously it has changed with stock markets, futures exchanges and today’s large financial sector, but the social-economic system remains. A few very rich, a diminishing middle class and the majority of the world as poor as slaves. In fact, slaves ate a lot better than the poor do now.
Why capitalism has survived so well is because of the dreams it offers. Anyone can be a millionaire. Anyone with a guitar can be a star, any pretty girl can be famous in the movies. Anyone can start a business and be rich.
But these are dreams. Only one in several million make it to be a star. Only one business in ten lasts for more than a few years before bankruptcy. Only one in 500 ever makes more money than the person would working in a factory. Very few self-employed people ever get wealthy. It’s all a dream, as fantastic as Hollywood movies. Propaganda at its absolute best.
Yet, even knowing all that, communism is worse. Will a form of socialism work? Only if it incorporates private enterprise; otherwise it tends to lead to one-party states.
It has been the merchant class, those traders of antiquity from China, India, Palestine and Rome who created the wealth, and they were considered crass in all of those places, including northern Europe. Certain coastal and trading states like Venice were exceptions – bringing not just tea from China, but ideas influencing the Enlightenment. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the trading class began to get their status. Both the American and French revolutions were supported, if not fermented, by the intellectuals and the merchant class, or those desiring recognition such as George Washington, whose aristocratic ancestors had come on hard times in England and emigrated to America. Looking for new real estate in Indian lands.
While the merchant class used the peasants and workers as allies in their quest for status, they quickly abandoned them once the aristocratic elites were defeated. England and France soon returned to monarchism, albeit diminished in power. The bastion of liberty and democracy, America, quickly disenfranchised many of the soldiers who fought in their revolution. The U.S. constitution only allowed white males owning property to vote, because the founding fathers were afraid of mob rule. Nor did they do anything to stop the rising trade in slavery, which resurfaced in the West in the Americas.
Both Theodore and Franklin D Roosevelt tried to curb the excesses of capitalism. Teddy with the anti-trust laws and FDR with the New Deal. But most of those gains for the common good, for the majority of Americans, have disappeared with a new onslaught of corporate capitalism (and PR) which fund politicians of both parties. So we’re back almost to the same place as America was in the 1900s – a country run for, and mostly by, a small minority of white filthy-rich males.
However, the greatest danger of capitalism today is also the reason for its longevity. Growth. Capitalism requires constant growth, or we end up with recessions and depressions. Yet we can see all over the planet that the world is being devastated by that very growth. Not just the pollution being caused by oil extraction, mining, or our reliance on fossil fuels is causing global warming; but overfishing is leading to the extinctions of many ocean species. And oil lobbyists and the scientists they have been paying to deny global warming have set us back decades in dealing with global warming, just as other corporations have been denying that sugar causes obesity and diabetes, or that tobacco causes lung cancer.
Capitalism is a European invention. If we follow the growth pattern of Europe, by 1492 most of their lakes and rivers were barren of fish due to logging, dams and over-fishing. The forests were depleted: used for building ships, cathedrals; and the use of wood exclusively for cooking, heating and smelting. Without the New World, European ascension would have likely never happened. Yet here we are still following European traditions in the treatment of our wilderness. The indigenous Americans of 1491, some 80 million of them, practised a much different approach to the land. They were farmers of a much different sort. Not the hunter/gatherers of popular myth. We Europeans conquered this country because of the diseases we carried that we got from our domestic animals. Why we call it ‘Chicken’ pox, “a pox on your houses” and ironically ‘smallpox,’ which turned out to be the biggest serial murderer of humans since Genghis Khan.
The other damage the lobbyists for corporations have caused North Americans is the propaganda that has been spreading since Reagan’s reign: that government should stay out of the way of private enterprise. That governments can’t tie their own shoe laces, let alone run a business. Yet it has been proven time and again that unregulated capitalism will always get greedy, corrupt and eventually fail. As they did in the 1880s. As they did in 1929. As they did again in 2008, with several recessions in between.
Nonetheless, the Occupy Movement’s desire to rid ourselves of capitalism is a pipe-dream. It might have happened in the 1930s. If the Allies had not invaded Europe, Russia might have controlled the entire continent. But today we have giant corporations with more assets than many nations. Our only real hope is to tame it. To make democracy work. To change elections laws and forbid corporate political donations. To demand of our media what they once did and that was to have free election forums in the press and on television. Lobbying has to be illegal, and politicians receiving bribes must face the same punishment as any common criminal. Ditto for Wall Street crooks. Send the bastards to Attica, not country club prisons.
To keep electing right-wing governments whose only allegiance is to corporations is insane. They will continue to dilute environmental protection, social programs, education funding, and stall on major issues like over-population and global warming. Short-term profits trump even survival in these madmen’s minds.
Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Roosevelts highlights a great deal of this argument. Theodore and Franklin were the real heroes of American politics, and of the environment. A must see film.