“just a means to that end”

Dirty Jobs and Macro Questions
by Patrick Watson, Mauldin Economics

“Serving others is always honorable work. Every major religion teaches this. If the work itself is honorable, why don’t we honor those who do it?

That sounds nice. The only problem is it’s total bullshit. I doubt he wants an honest answer to his question.

Our society does not value serving others and never has. If you are working some crap job serving others, our society makes it very clear that you are a loser in the game of capitalism and Social Darwinism. This is supposedly a meritocracy and so those on the bottom of society are assumed to be those without merit. That is the entire justification for our society, the story we have to believe in to maintain the social order.

“Answer: Because we would rather spend our money in other ways. When we consumers take our demand signals elsewhere, the market efficiently reduces restaurant wages to match what we’ll pay. It’s the invisible hand at work.”

There is no invisible hand, as if divine intervention were determining the Elect. No more than there is a Santa Claus. If there is a hand manipulating the system, it is most definitely visible and all too human. Get up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and I guarantee you’ll see that it isn’t Santa who is stuffing money into the pockets of the plutocrats.

We don’t have a free market, as is obvious to anyone who pays attention. What we have is a corporatist system where big government colludes with and to some degree is controlled by big business. Some go so far as to call it inverted totalitarianism.

“Jobs don’t disappear because greedy capitalists replace people with robots. Businesses turn to robots because consumers want lower prices than can be achieved with human workers.

“The robots are just a means to that end.”

Yeah, well…

The feudal rights of the commons didn’t disappear because greedy aristocrats privatized and enclosed land by having replaced serfs with slaves. Plantations turned to slaves because consumers wanted lower prices than could be achieved with free citizens.

The slaves are just a means to that end.

Okay. So, I guess that means everything is perfectly fine and morally justified. Quit your complaining. It’s the invisible hand responding to market forces that stole your job. It’s no one’s fault that, as surplus labor, you are now a worthless human and a useless eater. Progress marches on, with or without you.

This attitude is strange. It’s a fatalism built on capitalist realism, which is no better than communist realism. The attitude is that we are helpless before forces greater than us. All we can hope to do is adapt to the inevitable. But if failing that, then we better get out of the way or else get run over as we deserve.

Oddly, after all the clueless blather, the author almost comes to a decent conclusion.

“I think our twisted ideas about money, work, and education are the real problems. They’re distorting supply and demand. The root causes aren’t so much economic as cultural and psychological.”

Sort of. The problem is that people like this author hold such ideas and will defend them, no matter the costs. He isn’t suggesting we fundamentally change our thinking, just maybe tinker a bit around the edges.

Otherwise, the system itself is just fine. The real problem is the people, which is to say all those poor people complaining. Sure, the root causes are cultural and psychological. I’d add that indeed they are also economic, as all of it is inseparable. Improving the bad attitudes of poor people isn’t going to solve the systemic failure.

“This year’s US election, contentious though it was, brought important issues to the surface. Ditto events around the world, like Brexit. The economy isn’t working like we think it should. People are tired of asking questions and getting no good answers.”

That is to put it lightly. Important issues were brought to the surface, in the way that magma is brought to the surface when a volcano erupts. Just wait until that volcano really blows its top, turns the sky black with smoke, blocks out the sun, covers the land in ash, and sends the population fleeing in all directions. Then questions and answers will be moot.

“I don’t have all the answers. I suspect no one person does. But the answers are out there, and we won’t find them unless we look for them.”

At least, he is admitting this much. After writing all that, he states he doesn’t actually have all the answers. Yet, as an economic analyst writing for a investment newsletter, it’s his job to have answers or else pretend he has answers. He belongs to the upper class intellectual elite who are supposed to be telling the rest of us losers what we should be doing.

“That awkward, uncomfortable search will be the global macro story in 2017 and probably beyond.”

Well, it will surely be continuing into the coming generations, assuming mass catastrophe and collapse doesn’t happen before then. What is up ahead on the road might not be a pothole to easily drive around. That very well might be a sinkhole that could swallow us whole. Society continues to move forward. Some think this means progress. But what are we moving towards?

Maybe we should slow down a bit and get our bearings.

Brazil’s Hayekian Neo-Serfdom

Neoliberalism is a disease, a force of destruction. And Latin America has been one of the main workshops of the neoliberal ruling elite, a site of experimentation.

They first implement their agendas in weaker countries before trying them out in the West. Countries like Brazil are the canary in the coal mine. This will be soon coming to a country near you.

We are seeing the future form before our very eyes. Or as William Gibson put it, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Don’t worry. The distribution will come our way.

They promised you trickle down. What they didn’t tell you was what exactly would be trickling down on your head. I can tell you this much. It won’t be manna from heaven.

* * *

Is the US Behind the Brazilian Coup?
by Ted Snider, Antiwar.com

There can no longer be a defense of the removal of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff from office. The political maneuvering by the opposition PSDB has been uncloaked and revealed for what it clearly was all along: a quiet coup dressed in the disguise of democracy.

The recent release of a recording of a phone call has done for Brazil what Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland’s phone call to American ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt did for Ukraine: it has provided incontrovertible proof that the removal of the elected President was a coup.

The published transcript of the call between Romero Jucá, who was a senator at the time of the call and is currently the planning minister in the new Michael Temer government, and former oil executive, Sergio Machado, lays bare “a national pact” to remove Dilma and install Temer as President. Jucá reveals that, not only opposition politicians, but also the military and the Supreme Court are conspirators in the coup. Regarding the military’s role, Jucá says, “I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it.” And, as for the Supreme Court, Glenn Greenwald reports that Jucá admits that he “spoke with and secured the involvement of numerous justices on Brazil’s Supreme Court.” Jucá further boasted that “there are only a small number” of Supreme Court justices that he had not spoken to.

Safe with ‘Oligarchs and Imperialists’ in US, Brazil’s New President Admits Coup Plot
by Andrea Germanos, Common Dreams

Proponents of her ouster argued that former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was targeted and ultimately booted from office for budgetary wrongdoing or, ironically, corruption.

But fresh comments by new, unelected president Michel Temer himself back up claims that her impeachment was politically motivated, specifically, that Rousseff wouldn’t enact the austerity-promoting, welfare-slashing economic platform Temer unveiled from his party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), in October when he was vice president. […]

Vieira concludes that the impeachment “was for an agenda of impunity, profit, and power that would never be ratified democratically by the Brazilian voting population at the ballot box, and was thus imposed on them under the guise of upholding the law.”

Public Radio International also reported this week: “A mere two days after impeaching Rousseff, the same senators voted to legalize the very budget tricks they accused her of playing.”

In his speech Wednesday, Fox News Latino adds, “Temer made a pointed appeal to United States investors that his country is open for business.”

Brazil’s President Michel Temer Says Rousseff Was Impeached For Refusing His Economic Agenda
by Inacio Vieira, Intercept

In his remarks, Temer clearly stated what impeachment opponents have long maintained: that he and his party began to agitate for Rousseff’s impeachment when she refused to implement the pro-business economic plan of Temer’s party. That economic plan which Rousseff refused to implement called for widespread cuts to social programs and privatization, an agenda radically different from the one approved by Brazilians through the ballot box in 2014, when Dilma’s Workers’ Party won its fourth straight presidential election. The comments were delivered on Wednesday to an audience at the New York headquarters of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA). […]

The program “Bridge to the Future” – proposed by Temer’s party – prescribes cuts to health and education spending, reduced welfare benefits, a raised retirement age, new private sector partnerships and decreased market regulations. These ideas were the ones Temer advocated in his speech yesterday at AS/COA, which emphasized his government’s push for privatization and foreign investment. The newly installed President listed the multiple benefits and guarantees that his government intends to offer foreign investors. Those benefits including guaranteeing the profit margins of the business leaders who watched him speak while consuming their meals.

The AS/COA groups which Temer addressed is composed of members of multinational corporations and the U.S. foreign policy establishment focused on Latin America. Both were founded by the American industrialist David Rockefeller and have as its President Emeritus John Negroponte: the former Reagan and Bush administration ambassador and neoconservative hawk influential in the CIA’s dirty war in Honduras and the 2003 invasion of Iraq who is now a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton. On its website, the Council of the Americas describes itself as an “international business organization whose members share a common commitment to economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

Temer’s sales pitch was chock full of standard neoliberal euphemisms and buzzwords, including the “universalization of the Brazilian market,” “reestablishing trust,” “extraordinary political stability,” public-private partnerships, and the implementation of “fundamental reforms” in areas like labor law, social security and public spending. “I come here to invite you to take part in the country’s new phase of growth,” he proclaimed.

Temer’s comments are yet more confirmation that Rousseff’s impeachment did not occur due to alleged budget tricks, as the Brazilian media and the country’s now-ruling faction regularly claims. Nor was it for the traditional Brazilian family, nor for God, or against corruption, as congresspeople claimed during their “yes” votes. It was conducted on behalf of the interests of business owners and to the detriment of workers. It was for an agenda of impunity, profit, and power that would never be ratified democratically by the Brazilian voting population at the ballot box, and was thus imposed on them under the guise of upholding the law. Anyone still doubting that should simply listen to what the prime beneficiary of impeachment, Michel Temer, just said to his most important constituency.

As Brazil’s New Ruler Admits Lie Behind Impeachment, US Press Closes Eyes
by Janine Jackson, FAIR

But Temer’s remarkable confession was not seen as newsworthy by virtually anyone in US corporate media—though the New York Times (9/19/16) did report on the speech by Temer to the United Nations a few days earlier in which he insisted in reference to the impeachment, “Everything happened with absolute respect for the constitutional order.”

A search of the Nexis news database turns up no stories that mention his more forthright AS/COA speech in any US newspaper, magazine, broadcast or cable outlet. The story was covered in alternative outlets like The Intercept (9/23/16, 9/23/16, 9/28/16), Common Dreams (9/23/16) and Mintpress (9/26/16).

The media silence on Temer’s admission is striking, especially considering that the Council of the Americas’ members include some of the biggest names in corporate media, including News Corp, Time Warner, Bloomberg and the Financial Times.

But as signaled by Vice President Joe Biden’s recent praise for Temer’s “commitment to maintaining Brazil’s regional and global leadership role during the recent period of political change,” the US government is quite pleased with the new pro-austerity regime in Brazil (for as long as it lasts; Temer has already been barred by an electoral court from political campaigning for eight years for violating campaign spending limits). Given this official friendliness, then, it’s not surprising that elite media are not eager to expose the shady origins of Washington’s new friends.

Still Selling Neoliberal Unicorns: The US Applauds the Coup in Brazil, Calls It Democracy
by Greg Grandin, The Nation

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s recently deposed president, calls it a coup. Many, perhaps most, of the countries in the Organization of American States call it is a coup. Even the men who helped carry out the coup admit, in a secretly recorded conversation, that what they were doing was effectively a coup, staged to provide them immunity from a corruption investigation.

But the United States doesn’t think that the blatantly naked power grab that just took place in Brazil—which ended the Workers’ Party’s 13-year control of the presidency, installed an all-white, all-male cabinet, diluted the definition of slavery, lest it tarnish the image of Brazil’s plantation sector (which relies on coerced, unfree labor), and began a draconian austerity program—is a coup.

It’s democracy at work, according to various Obama officials. […]

Still trying to sell neoliberal unicorns. Nothing of the sort is going to happen, now that the United States has compliant compradores in power in Argentina and Brazil, and perhaps soon in Venezuela.

Colombia’s “security turnaround” is built on a mountain of corpses, on paramilitary terror and massive land dispossession. Until recently, the military was killing civilians, dressing them as FARC guerrillas, and claiming these “false positives” as victories in its fight against the FARC. Colombia boasts one of the largest internal refugee populations in the world—about 4 million people, a large number of them Afro- and indigenous Colombians. That’s what the Times is prescribing for the rest of the region now that the “left” is “on the run.”

The United States isn’t going to “help its neighbors become more competitive and stable by promoting investment in technology, innovation and high-quality education.” Over the past 13 years, Brazil, more than any other country, has stood in the way of Washington-backed efforts to impose a punishing intellectual and corporate property-rights regime on Latin America. That, in effect, is one of the objectives of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty, which was offered as a successor to the failed FTAA and meant to work around Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela.

But now that friendly faces are installed in Brasília and Buenos Aires, the path is clearer. Monsanto and other agri-behemoths will be able to impose their seed monopoly on the regime (as the United States now does in Central America, to devastating effect); energy resources will once again be privatized (as Hillary, as secretary of state, pushed to do in Mexico).

If you want a more realistic view of what Washington might accomplish now that the “left” is “on the run” in Latin America, look beyond the Times opinion pages to its reporting, where just yesterday it was revealed that US military aid had turned the Mexican army into the most unaccountable killing machine operating in the Western Hemisphere. Look to Argentina in 2001–02, where strict adherence to the Washington Consensus led to one of the worst economic crises in recorded history. Look to El Salvador today, where the Obama administration is using the terms of a free-trade agreement to force the government to shut down a local seed-distribution project, since it violates corporate interests. Look to Ecuador, where Chevron has turned a good stretch of the Amazon into a toxic tar pit. Or Paraguay, which after its 2012 coup was taken over by an agro-gangster government.

Or look to the US-Mexican border, where refugees from US “security partnership” risk death in the desert for the privilege of living their lives in the shadows.

Wall Street’s New Man in Brazil: The Forces Behind Dilma Rousseff’s Impeachment
by José L. Flores

The manipulation of the national budget could be considered unorthodox; however, the funds were mostly used on covering the costs of popular social programs. Acting President Michel Temer is simultaneously being investigated for bribery and corruption; however, he is a great friend to Wall Street and is a U.S. intelligence informant, which arguably puts him beyond reproach when considering impeachment or indictment.

Due to huge protests and the highly corrupt culture in Brazilian government, it has been argued that these impeachment proceedings are well overdue. However, when one studies Michel Temer and his political apparatus, it has become apparent that a return to neoliberal economic policies, diverging from Rousseff’s center-left Workers Party, is the actual goal. Furthermore, these impeachment proceedings seem to have pernicious despots secretly guided by the U.S. State Department, Defense Department and U.S. business interests, all of which have been operating in the shadows of Brazilian politics since 1962.

According to recent internal documents, provided by WikiLeaks, on several occasions Michel Temer was an embassy informant for U.S. intelligence. Temer secretly shared information to the U.S. Southern Command concerning the 2006 election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the vitality of his center-left Workers’ Party. Temer assured the Defense Department that despite Lula’s clear path to reelection the president would have to negotiate with the opposition, the Brazilian Democratic Workers Party (PMDB), who had just won most governorships and the Senate. He also assured the U.S. that the PMDB would soon coalesce with Brazil’s right wing parties, therefore greatly minimizing the Workers’ Party platform. Additionally, Temer also criticized the social programs being implemented by Lula and the Workers’ Party, claiming Lula was too concerned the poor and not concerned enough about “economic growth.” In these communications a thin line was drawn between espionage and informant. Temer’s loyalty seemed to be with the United States and capital and not to Brazil and democracy.

For over a decade the Workers Party has implementing social programs in order to help the poor and disenfranchised. Discontented with this progress groups like the Free Brazil Movement and Students of Liberty were mobilizing in major Brazilian cities to demonstrate. It was revealed that these young Brazilians, mostly white and over-privileged college students, were being financed by the Koch brothers through the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

Capitalism as Social Control

Some people have talked about actual functioning communism. It was the understanding that we have to deal with what we have, rather than what we wish we had.

Soviet communism, for example, had nothing to do with what Marx wrote about. Nonetheless, Marx was irrelevant for someone living in the USSR. Someone could point to non-authoritarian examples of socialism and other left-wing politics, but that was besides the point. The Soviet citizen had to deal with the reality before them.

That is the situation we find ourselves right now with capitalism. Despite all the rhetoric, actual functioning capitalism doesn’t operate according to theory and ideal. It relates to what some have come to call capitalist realism—this is the belief that no matter how bad it is there is nothing better, that in some basic sense this is as good as it can get, and even that it is inevitable. Capitalism, in this view, is merely human nature. It’s pure cynicism and it shuts down imagination.

This is why it is all the more important to look at a social system for what it is. And, indeed, capitalism is first and foremost a social system. Economic ideology is window dressing.

This was made clear to me by recent data I was looking at.

There is one report from the UN. It looked major industries and specific externalized costs related to the environment. It was determined that many of these major industries either broke even or made a net loss. It was only because of externalization that they made any profit at all. To consider how massive is that externalization, all you have to is look at how wealthy and powerful are the corporations in these industries.

Those costs still are paid. Just not by the big biz. They are paid for by governments through subsidies, tax breaks, below market price resource extraction, public clean up of environmental destruction, etc. This is to say that all of this is paid for by the public taxpayer and by public natural resources.

Neoliberalism and corporatism also comes with many other costs that are harder to calculate: destruction of communities, loss of social capital, destruction of culture of trust, and similar things. Actual functioning capitalism puts immense pressure on every aspect of society. And it is very much personal. The biggest producer of pollution is big biz. That pollution is responsible for 40% of the deaths in the world. Not just deaths, but also shortened lives, disability, suffering, and healthcare costs.

The UN report was rather limited. It only took into account a few easily measured externalizations. They barely got at the reality of the situation which is much starker.

As a more specific example, consider Walmart. It has received a lot of attention and so its impact has been studied thoroughly. Walmart is the single largest employer in the United States. Their employees are the single largest group of welfare recipients in the country. And Walmart itself is the single largest beneficiary of the use of welfare such as food stamps. Walmart is the ultimate Welfare Queen.

It’s worse than only that. When a Walmart comes to a community, it is a net loss to the local economy. It forces out most of the local businesses. This leads to the death of downtowns which were the hearts of these communities. Walmart stores also decrease the number of employed, which is to say they either force more people into unemployment or to move out of town to look for work. For those who still are employed, Walmart drives down wages and so increases poverty even among the employed, which necessitates higher rates of welfare.

It occurred to me that Walmart isn’t being run as a normal for-profit business. It’s sole role is to externalize costs and redirect wealth upward while keeping the masses just barely comfortable enough with cheap food and cheap consumer crap, similar to the Roman plutocratic tactic of social control through bread and circus. But the only reason the masses need all that cheap stuff is because corporations like Walmart have put so many people into poverty. Their communities destroyed and their lives made desperate, consumerism becomes the new religion and Walmart the official state church.

As such, Walmart is the perfect expression of actual functioning capitalism, in the United States and increasingly around the world. But Walmart is far from alone. The UN report shows that many major industries aren’t being run like normal for-profit businesses, considering they aren’t really making profits when externalized costs are included. Capitalism is simply another name for corporatism. The reality has nothing to do with the rhetoric about competitive free markets.

Like the political system, the economic system is rigged. It’s social control by another means.

Can ‘capitalism’ be free and democratic, fair and inclusive?

I came across an article from Reclaim the American Dream: Issue Brief: Inclusive Capitalism. It offers a progressive critique of present capitalism and a progressive vision of what a fair market would look like. It’s not a deep analysis, but some good points are brought up.

Here is an issue brought up just yesterday by my business management, capitalist-loving, fiscal conservative father:

“In that era, CEOs of America’s corporations did not pay themselves vast sums of company stock, as they do today. That was frowned upon as unethical insider trading, because obviously top corporate executives have inside information on new products about to appear or other major moves on the horizon.”

This is about how and where companies invest their money. Obviously, CEOs have come to see one of the best ways to invest money is by paying CEOs more. That is problematic, even ignoring the charge of “unethical insider trading” and the related moral hazard my dad mentioned. The problem isn’t just that CEOs make more money than they are worth (i.e., more than the value they contribute to the company), but that money invested in CEO pay could have been invested elsewhere.

Companies used to invest more in workers, for example. Besides ensuring their workers were healthy and safe, they did on-the-job training. It wasn’t just a time when economic mobility was high in the larger society. Mobility within companies was also higher. It used to be much easier for someone to start with an entry level job and work their way up into management.

Companies used to see employees as long term investments and employees tended to stick around for that reason. As my dad has told me, some Japanese companies still have this attitude, looking to hire people who will be long term members where the company commits to the worker in expectation that the worker will commit to the company. It’s an ethos of social trust and responsibility, a company as a kind of community.

But it goes way beyond just about the value seen and invested in employees. There used to be a mentality that a company should go to great effort to reinvest back into the company itself. That has changed so now it is seen as a priority to ensure shareholders get profit, no matter the long term damage done to the company. There has been a loss of not just social responsibility but also long term vision.

“Trillions of dollars that could have been spent on innovation and job creation in the U.S. economy over the past three decades have instead been used to buy back (company) shares for what is effectively stock-price manipulation,” economist William Lazonick reported in the Harvard Business Review in late 2014.

“The contrast between what business does today and what it used to do is stunning. In a study of hundreds of major U.S. companies, Lazonick found that in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, major U.S. companies ploughed close to half of their profits into expanding their businesses, funding R&D, retraining workers and paying them more, and paid out the other half of profits to shareholders.

“But from 2003 to 2012, Lazonick found, shareholders got 91% of corporate profits and growth got only 9%. That is a disastrous ratio the American economy.”

The focus of companies used to be on making the best products possible. Now the emphasis is more on sales and profit, with little sense of pride in doing quality work that contributes to society.

Drug companies, for example, spend more on advertising than they do on R&D; and that doesn’t even count the money they spend on lobbying, campaign donations, and maybe some astroturf. As the above data shows, this shift from investing money back into companies has become the norm.

That reminds me of what made early Quaker businesses so distinct, as they put quality of product before all else and on religious grounds were against manipulative and deceptive advertising. For a Quaker, being a businessman was a divine calling, not just a way to make money. The good and the goods of a business couldn’t be separated from moral goodness of religion and the social goodness of community.

Then again, there is the left-wing perspective. My favorite voice from the left is Joe Bageant. His writing is always amusing and insightful. One of his pieces on capitalism is Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball. With his typical style, he begins by getting straight to the point:

“As an Anglo European white guy from a very long line of white guys, I want to thank all the brown, black, yellow and red people for a marvelous three-century joy ride. During the past 300 years of the industrial age, as Europeans, and later as Americans, we have managed to consume infinitely more than we ever produced, thanks to colonialism, crooked deals with despotic potentates and good old gunboats and grapeshot. Yes, we have lived, and still live, extravagant lifestyles far above the rest of you. And so, my sincere thanks to all of you folks around the world working in sweatshops, or living on two bucks a day, even though you sit on vast oil deposits. And to those outside my window here in Mexico this morning, the two guys pruning the retired gringo’s hedges with what look like pocket knives, I say, keep up the good work. It’s the world’s cheap labor guys like you — the black, brown and yellow folks who take it up the shorts — who make capitalism look like it actually works. So keep on humping. Remember: We’ve got predator drones.”

From that perspective, it is, always was and always will be a sham. I’m sympathetic with that. When the US economy was doing its best, the US military was being ruthless around the world and even back at home the police state was being ruthless toward minorities and the poor. The American Dream was never fully a thing of substance for so many.

I do think ‘capitalism’ has become a problematic word at this point. There is no way to separate it from its long history of imperialism and colonialism, exploitation and oppression. If we honestly care about being free people in a free society with free markets, whatever that might mean, we probably better drop the baggage of capitalism.

Looking back, the capitalism of generations past can seem like a wondrous thing, at least for those who weren’t one of the many being trampled upon. It is true that many benefited and the economy grew. No one doubts that. But at what cost? Maybe what we have become was an inevitable result of what we once were. We just couldn’t see it coming. The tide that raises boats also drowns, and when the tide goes back out as it always does we are left with a bunch of stranded boats and dead bodies.

Maybe we need to rethink the whole thing, not just pine for what used to be. Still, might we salvage some lessons learned from the past?

Capitalists Learning From Socialists

 

Even The Wall Street Journal Is Asking Questions About How Ownership Should Work in a Democracy
by Gar Alperovitz

The piece begins with the simple imperative: “If Western countries want to disprove the dire forecasts of Karl Marx, we must think creatively about how to make the middle class more prosperous and secure.“

Let that sink in for a minute. The threat, according to this featured piece in The Wall Street Journal, is not just Marxists and their ideas, but the possibility that they might be right about capitalism after all. The author strikes the same note in his conclusion:

[…] Marx did have an insight about the disproportionate power of the ownership of capital. The owner of capital decides where money goes, whereas the people who sell only their labor lack that power. This makes it hard for society to be shaped in their interests. In recent years, that disproportion has reached destructive levels, so if we don’t want to be a Marxist society, we need to put it right.

[…] the oddity of the WSJ, bastion of capitalism’s most defended ideological heights, running such a forceful indictment of the current system and its tendency to reproduce and deepen levels of inequality inimical to democracy cannot be ignored: The system question may not quite be on the table in the mainstream media in the way it ultimately needs to be, but it’s getting close.

Confession of Faith
Theodore Roosevelt
August 06, 1912

I am well aware that every upholder of privilege, every hired agent or beneficiary of the special interests, including many well-meaning parlor reformers, will denounce all this as “Socialism” or “anarchy”–the same terms they used in the past in denouncing the movements to control the rail-ways and to control public utilities. As a matter of fact, the propositions I make constitute neither anarchy nor Socialism, but on the contrary, a corrective to Socialism and an antidote to anarchy.

 

“Socialism, II — Where We Can Work with Socialists”
Outlook 27 March 1909
by Theodore Roosevelt

It is true that the doctrines of communistic Socialism, if consistently followed, mean the ultimate annihilation of civilization. Yet the converse is also true. Ruin faces us if we decline steadily to try to reshape our whole civilization in accordance with the law of service, and if we permit ourselves to be misled by any empirical or academic consideration into refusing to exert the common power of the community where only collective action can do what individualism has left undone, or can remedy the wrongs done by an unrestricted and ill-regulated individualism. There is any amount of evil in our social and industrial conditions of today, and unless we recognize this fact and try resolutely to do what we can to remedy the evil, we run great risk of seeing men in their misery turn to the false teachers whose doctrines would indeed lead them to greater misery, but who do at least recognize the fact that they are now miserable. At the present time there are scores of laws in the interest of labor — laws putting a stop to child labor, decreasing the hours of labor where they are excessive, putting a stop to unsanitary crowding and living, securing employers’ liability, doing away with unhealthy conditions in various trades, and the like — which should be passed by the National and the various State Legislatures; and those who wish to do effective work against Socialism would do well to turn their energies into securing the enactment of these laws.

Moreover, we should always remember that Socialism is both a wide and a loose term, and that the self-styled Socialists are of many and utterly different types. If we should study only the professed apostles of radical Socialism, of what these men themselves like to call “scientific Socialism,” or if we should study only what active leaders of Socialism in this country have usually done, or read only the papers in which they have usually expressed themselves, we would gain an utterly wrong impression of very many men who call themselves Socialists. There are many peculiarly high-minded men and women who like to speak of themselves as Socialists, whose attitude, conscious or unconscious, is really merely an indignant recognition of the evil of present conditions and an ardent wish to remedy it, and whose Socialism is really only an advanced form of liberalism. Many of these men and women in actual fact take a large part in the advancement of moral ideas […] The Socialists of this moral type may in practice be very good citizens indeed, with whom we can at many points co-operate.

Theodore Roosevelt, an Autobiography
by Theodore Roosevelt

many of the men who call themselves Socialists to-day are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens well afford to follow.

 

Teddy Roosevelt’s “Socialist” Party Platform
by Timothy Ashby

THE PROGRESSIVE ROOSEVELT.
by Amygdala

Bernie Sanders’s Presidential Bid Represents a Long Tradition of American Socialism
Long deployed by the right as an epithet, this form of left-wing populism is as American as apple pie.
by Peter Dreier

How Obama’s Embrace Turned Teddy Roosevelt Into a Socialist
After Obama cited Roosevelt in his Kansas speech, Fox News has decided that TR peddled “socialistic nationalism.”
by John Nichols

Sanders’s ‘socialist’ policies sound a lot like Teddy Roosevelt’s and Reagan’s
by H.A. Goodman

My Preoccupied Mind: Blogging and Research

I haven’t been posting as much to my blog lately. I wanted to explain my reasons, in case anyone cared to know.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some related things.

A while back, I started a post about the radicalism of the Enlightenment. Many people, especially conservatives, forget how violently the traditional social order was overturned, in order to create the world we know today. Modern capitalist society may be many things, but it has nothing to do with any traditional social order and the same goes for modern conservatism that aligns itself with capitalism.

That led me to other topics. I was reminded, among other things, to some of my earlier thinking on the Axial Age, Julian Jayne’s breakdown of the bicameral mind, etc. I’ve always sensed a hidden connection between that earlier era of transformation and the radicalism of the Enlightenment, the latter being a greater expression and fulfillment of what first emerged more than two millennia ago.

With all of that in mind, I was looking many different articles and books. My curiosity has been in full gear ever since. I’m in research mode, which for me can be quite an obsessive and time-consuming activity.

This was made worse because I got into a discussion about shame. While putting the radicalism post on the back burner, I looked into this other topic, as I had never explored it before. It turned out that shame is a lot more fascinating than I had considered.

My investigation into the meaning of shame once again led me back in the same direction that the issue of radicalism had brought me.

Julian Jaynes had written about the comparison of shame and guilt cultures. He was influenced in by E. R. Dodds (and Bruno Snell). Dodds in turn based some of his own thinking about the Greeks on the work of Ruth Benedict, who originated the shame and guilt culture comparison in her writings on Japan and the United States. Benedict, like Margaret Mead, had been taught by Franz Boas. Boas developed some of the early anthropological thinking that saw societies as distinct cultures.

Connected to these thinkers, I was reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes the World. I realized a connection to my own speculations about symbolic conflation, about which I recently wrote a post. I explored that in a fair amount of detail, but it only touched upon one area of my mind’s focus as of late.

As you can see, I was exploring the connections of scholarly thought, but also the connections of different time periods. The past speaks to the present, whether the past of centuries before or millennia before.

At the same time, I feel like I have a family obligation to finish up the genealogy research I started years ago. I got distracted by other things. I do enjoy genealogy, but it is difficult and requires total focus. I have barely even started on my father’s side of the family.

I have my hands full. I enjoy blogging and will continue to do so, but it might be sporadic in the immediate future. I’m not sure what I might blog about, when I do get around to it. I’m known for being easily distracted and writing about such distractions.

Ask A Cow What It Is To Be Free

Capitalism has its origins in a word meaning “head”. It is the same origin as for cattle and chattel.

Cattle was the earliest major form of movable property. This is the precedent for capital as fungible wealth, that which can be transferred elsewhere, removed and reinvested.

This is also why capitalism and chattel slavery have the same basic starting point. Feudal peasants in essence belonged to the land as part of the an unmovable property, whereas chattel slaves were like cattle that could be moved and/or sold independent of anything else.

In a capitalist society, the opposite of the capitalist is the slave. This is why the original offer in freeing slaves was supposed to be to give them forty acres and a mule. This simultaneously would have made them propertied citizens and capitalists. This is also why, in the end, it didn’t happen. It was one thing to end their overt slavery, but to make them genuine equals in this capitalist society was going too far.

Capitalism isn’t fundamentally about economics. It is about power. Cattle is a cow whose wild ancestors were once free to roam. The same goes for a chattel slave or a wage slave, workers whose ancestors were once free to roam, once free to work for themselves.

No one is free to roam in capitalism, though. And working for oneself is becoming ever more meaningless in an age of globalization. The Commons was privatized centuries ago. There is no where to be free for the system of control is now complete. There is no escape, no undiscovered and unclaimed place to seek out.

That was the first step in creating capitalism as we know it. Before capitalism, the Commons belonged to the People and the People belonged to the Commons. It isn’t accidental that the idea of privately owning land evolved as a legal concept in accordance with ownership of humans as slaves.

The US was founded on the ideal of an enlightened aristocracy and a paternalistic plutocracy, the expectation that the country would be literally be ruled by the owners, i.e., the propertied class. Those who own themselves and own the land they live on are entitled to own the government and hence to own all who are governed. To be a capitalist isn’t merely to have fungible wealth, for more importantly it means to be an owner and to play the role of owner.

We live in a world where everything is owned, where everything (and everyone) has a price to be sold. To be employed is to sell ourselves into indentured servitude, even if only temporarily during specified periods of time. While working as wage slaves, we don’t own ourselves while on the clock. It isn’t just a legal agreement of selling part of our life by selling our time and body for someone else’s purposes. It is a profound psychological transaction, a giving up of freedom, an act that becomes a mindless habit, until we forget what freedom ever meant.

Capitalism is a particular form of social control. Capitalists are those with the capital and so those with the power to control. We the People are those being controlled, the cattle, the chattel.

The system allows us to sell our freedom, but offers no way to buy it back. We are born citizen-consumers, never having been given a choice. We are property of the corporatist state. To demand our freedom would mean theft. If enough people made this demand, it would be a revolt. And if that revolt were successful, it would be called a revolution.

TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy

The most recent issue of my local alternative publication, Little Village, had two articles that caught my attention (Vol. 17, Issue 162, Sept. 17-30 20014). Taken together, they made an important point. I suspect that wasn’t an accident for they were printed close together as the first two articles presented.

The first article is, “The Truth About TIFs”. It is written by Matthew Byrd.

Like many other places, TIFs have been a big issue around here, as they should be since TIF funding comes from the money taken from the taxpaying public.  Here is how it has played out in this local area. A neighboring town, Coralville, has used TIFs to draw businesses away from the town I live in, Iowa City. A TIF has been used for the the large mall built in Coralville which had major impact on Iowa City’s downtown. Iowa Citians like to call it the Death Star. We used to have a nice downtown that had normal stores, but now it is filled with mostly bars, restaurants, art galleries, and expensive gift shops. The TIF-funded mall played a role in gentrifying Iowa City.

That said, Iowa City’s government has embraced this gentrification with its own TIFs. A highrise was built in downtown Iowa City using a TIF. It is a big fancy building that will add yet more expensive apartments to downtown and with room for yet one more expensive shop on the ground floor. In building this highrise, the city got rid of the benches in front of this new highrise. The area where those benches were used to be called the “People’s Park” and it was an important public space that has now been made into the front yard for the wealthy inhabitants of the highrise.

This wasn’t the original intent for TIF funding.

As the article explains, “the image of TIFs is considerably less rosy in execution than it appears in conception, particularly when it comes to the intellectual core of TIF law: the focus on blighted neighborhoods. T?he idea that TIF funds are supposed to be used to revitalize poor neighborhoods is paramount, to the point that it’s written into Iowa State Code. As the Iowa Department of Revenue explains, “Iowa code recognizes two primary purposes for [TIF funding]; namely, to eliminate slum or blight and to promote economic development.””

TIFs help blightned neighborhoods about as much as the war on poverty helped the poor. In the end, public money always seems to get redirected to the already well off. The poor get underfunded schools, unemployment, and mass incarceration while the rich get privatized education, outsourcing, and government contracts to build and operate the prisons. One of the purposes of TIFs was to create and maintain low-cost housing in neighborhoods where investors wouldn’t otherwise build or renovate.

This brings me to the article immediately following the above one, “High Rises and Higher Rents”. This article is by Shauna McKnight.

Basically, there is too little housing for too many people. Also, the housing available is simply too expensive. The article begins by pointing out that “[a]pproximately 30%” of Iowa City’s population lives below the poverty line, “compared to Iowa’s average of 12%”. On top of that, “55.6% of renters in Jonson Country are cost burdened” which is “the highest rate in all of Iowa”.

Affordable housing isn’t keeping up with the demand of population growth, specifically an increasingly impoverished population because of the recession and other factors: “the vacancy rate in Iowa City sits at half of one percent. In a normal, healthy market there is typically a five percent vacancy rate.” As the article continues a bit further on, “the problem is that the wages in the area haven’t kept up with the cost of living.” This forces many poor working class people to look for housing further away in the nearby rural areas and small towns. Cheaper housing just means more expensive travel costs. Also, where someone lives determines their opportunities such as the school their children will attend.

Many people can’t win for losing. This isn’t limited to Iowa City, that is for sure. Still, rural farming states like Iowa are being hit harder than the states in other regions. This is why the younger generation is fleeing which creates a death spiral for the local working class communities. A particularly disheartening piece of data is how, “one in five working families in Iowa have incomes that cannot meet their basic needs. This can lead to a cycle of poverty that persists across generations.”

This is where the TIF issue comes in. Why is the local government giving money to promote the building of housing and shopping for the wealthy?

“The issue of affordable housing has thrown a spotlight on The Chauncey building—which will hold both commercial spaces for area business and luxury housing units. The city plans to pay &1 million to set aside five units of affordable housing in the complex (the remaining units will be luxury condos and apartments).”

That is the official solution for the housing problem, really? We the public will pay a million dollars to get five more units of affordable housing in this town. We are being fleeced. I sometimes feel like this town has been taken over. If the local government isn’t serving most of the local population, then who is it serving?

Slavery and Capitalism

Slavery and capitalism. The twin pillars of American history. This pairing forces us to question exactly what we mean by capitalism.

Many argue that the South was originally pre-capitalist or at least had strong pre-capitalist traditions (see my post about the book The Mind of the Master Class). It is true that there were clear economic differences that led to regional conflicts. Also, it is true that pre-capitalist practices such as subsistence farming and bartering held out longer in many communities in the rural South. But all of this was contained in a larger capitalist system that dominated Anglo-American culture since the colonial era of the British Empire.

Here is something I wrote getting at some of this conflict within the US economy (Sin of the North, sin of the South):

The South had two agricultural traditions. They had the slave-based plantation model that came from Barbados and they had the yeoman subsistence model that came from the Scots-Irish. Both the plantation tobacco farming and the subsistence slash-and-burn ended up depleting the soil which wasn’t as rich to begin with.

This relates to an economic difference. Plantation farming and subsistence farming helped create an economy in the South that was less like modern capitalism. The plantation owners were so vastly wealthy that they didn’t build their own local industry, choosing instead to buy products shipped in from elsewhere. As an aside, the wealth of plantation owners wasn’t capitalist wealth (i.e., wasn’t fungible capital) because plantation owners tended to be heavily in debt as their wealth was invested in their land and their slaves. The subsistence farmers never harvested enough crops to make much in the way of profit, fungible or otherwise; and, as Joe Bageant points out, many of the small Southern farming communities were mostly cashless societies where people bartered and kept store tabs.

Modern industrialized capitalism was only strongly established in the South with Reconstruction following the Civil War. In being introduced, capitalism built upon the framework of the economic system already established in the South. This meant that capitalism incorporated the plantation mentality and the class-based rigidity. There were high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the Antebellum South and there are still high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the South today.

In one sense, you can blame the North for forcing modern industrialized capitalism onto the South. It’s possible that, if the South had successfully seceded, Southerners might have transitioned into a better kind of economic system… then again, maybe not. It’s not like capitalism wasn’t already beginning to gain footholds in the South prior to Reconstruction. It would be surprising if a Confederate South could have avoided capitalism’s ascent. Anyway, it wasn’t the North that forced onto the South a poverty-based, union-busting form of capitalism.

I just came across another book on this topic, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist. This author is making a stronger argument for the connection between slavery and capitalism. I’ve barely begun to read it, but I thought I’d present a passage from it that summarizes the case being made.

The following passage is from the introduction (Kindle Locations 173-220). It puts slavery not just in the context of classical liberal economics but also in the context of liberal society in general. It implicates liberalism, in the broad sense. Maybe this view would fit into Domenico Losurdo’s harsh criticism, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Of course, this ‘liberalism’ is pretty much a category including all post-Enlightenment ideologies, including American conservatism. It is liberalism as a pervasive social order, not a mere partisan ideology limited to a particular group.

Baptist questions about the true nature of freedom in a society with a long history of unfreedom. When we speak of free markets, what kind of freedom are we speaking of and whose freedom is it?

* * * *

The way that Americans remember slavery has changed dramatically since then. In tandem with widespread desegregation of public spaces and the assertion of black cultural power in the years between World War II and the 1990s came a new understanding of the experience of slavery. No longer did academic historians describe slavery as a school in which patient masters and mistresses trained irresponsible savages for futures of perpetual servitude. Slavery’s denial of rights now prefigured Jim Crow, while enslaved people’s resistance predicted the collective self-assertion that developed into first the civil rights movement and later, Black Power.

But perhaps the changes were not so great as they seemed on the surface. The focus on showing African Americans as assertive rebels, for instance, implied an uncomfortable corollary. If one should be impressed by those who rebelled, because they resisted, one should not be proud of those who did not. And there were very few rebellions in the history of slavery in the United States. Some scholars tried to backfill against this quandary by arguing that all African Americans together created a culture of resistance, especially in slave quarters and other spaces outside of white observation. Yet the insistence that assertive resistance undermined enslavers’ power, and a focus on the development of an independent black culture, led some to believe that enslaved people actually managed to prevent whites from successfully exploiting their labor. This idea, in turn, created a quasi-symmetry with post– Civil War plantation memoirs that portrayed gentle masters, who maintained slavery as a nonprofit endeavor aimed at civilizing Africans.

Thus, even after historians of the civil rights, Black Power, and multicultural eras rewrote segregationists ’ stories about gentlemen and belles and grateful darkies, historians were still telling the half that has ever been told. For some fundamental assumptions about the history of slavery and the history of the United States remain strangely unchanged. The first major assumption is that, as an economic system— a way of producing and trading commodities— American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor. This perspective implies not only that slavery didn’t change, but that slavery and enslaved African Americans had little long-term influence on the rise of the United States during the nineteenth century, a period in which the nation went from being a minor European trading partner to becoming the world’s largest economy— one of the central stories of American history.

The second major assumption is that slavery in the United States was fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic, and that inevitably that contradiction would be resolved in favor of the free-labor North. Sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces; thus, slavery is a story without suspense. And a story with a predetermined outcome isn’t a story at all.

Third, the worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history. But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived , it stole everything. Yet the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire— this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power. And once the violence of slavery was minimized, another voice could whisper, saying that African Americans, both before and after emancipation, were denied the rights of citizens because they would not fight for them.

All these assumptions lead to still more implications, ones that shape attitudes, identities, and debates about policy. If slavery was outside of US history, for instance—if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth —then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power, and wealth. Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasure piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans. Ideas about slavery’s history determine the ways in which Americans hope to resolve the long contradiction between the claims of the United States to be a nation of freedom and opportunity , on the one hand, and, on the other, the unfreedom, the unequal treatment, and the opportunity denied that for most of American history have been the reality faced by people of African descent. Surely, if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen— even elect one of them president— to make amends. Then the issue will be put to rest forever.

Slavery’s story gets told in ways that reinforce all these assumptions. Textbooks segregate twenty-five decades of enslavement into one chapter, painting a static picture. Millions of people each year visit plantation homes where guides blather on about furniture and silverware. As sites, such homes hide the real purpose of these places, which was to make African Americans toil under the hot sun for the profit of the rest of the world. All this is the “symbolic annihilation” of enslaved people, as two scholars of those weird places put it. 2 Meanwhile, at other points we tell slavery’s story by heaping praise on those who escaped it through flight or death in rebellion, leaving the listener to wonder if those who didn’t flee or die somehow “accepted” slavery. And everyone who teaches about slavery knows a little dirty secret that reveals historians’ collective failure: many African-American students struggle with a sense of shame that most of their ancestors could not escape the suffering they experienced.

Earthbound Capitalism and the Frontiers of Space

I was debating with a guy from more on the right end of the spectrum.

I personally know him and so it is a different kind of debate than I typically engage in while online. Knowing a person allows for a more civil interaction. It also helps that we can agree on many things. We are both principled defenders of our preferred political visions, and surprisingly those visions come close together. Beginning from two different points, we both wouldn’t mind our society ending up in the same place, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation.

As often is the case, we were debating the problems of society and how we move toward a better society. It actually began with the issue of campaign finance reform, but expanded more generally to big money in politics and the related issues of plutocracy.

He is more of a libertarian type. In line with that worldview, he has more hope for a technological salvation to be found in the future and in outer space. He sees the main obstacle of the Star Trek society is our presently being stuck on earth. To be free of earth, means to him to be free of all the problems of earth. In the freedom of space, there will be freedom to explore and innovate, freedom from prying big government and social oppression. A near endless supply of planets to be terraformed and settled by every social visionary or economic entrepreneur.

I’m a fan of technology in general. For example, I’m a big fan of written text, bound books, and the printing press. Such technologies have transformed civilization, in many ways for the good. I wouldn’t want to live in an alternative reality where these technologies had been successfully suppressed and the society itself accordingly oppressed. Even so, I can’t quite get on board with what what seems to me to be a near blind faith in technological salvation. Technology is just as likely to lead to more oppression than less, as technology simply opens up new possibilities, but doesn’t morally limit any possibility of its use and implementation.

As I said to this other guy,

Even with your vision of an ideal society beyond Earth, how do we get there? And how do we prevent re-creating in space yet more oppression and victimization, yet more plutocracy and corporatocracy? If we don’t solve our problems on Earth, what will stop us from spreading our problems like a disease throughout the galaxy?

If we don’t solve our problems on earth, I don’t see why we will do so in space or on some other planet. Maybe we should first prove that we aren’t complete self-destructive fuck-ups before we go venturing off into the great unknown. Just my opinion.

He spoke of space as a frontier where people could escape oppression and could opt-out from the dominant social order. And let a million flowers bloom. He used the example of Jefferson’s vision of the early American frontier, to help explain the vision of what we could hope for on the frontier of space.

I responded that, 

I do like the idea of a frontier where opting out is possible. But frontiers don’t tend to last long or always work out well for all involved.

North America was once a frontier that was created through genocide. And after genocide, it was long before Americans set about creating a new empire. I fear like the American founders, good intentions aren’t always good enough. Jefferson is a great example, as he helped set the foundations for American empire in many ways more than maybe any of the other founders.

A million new experiments in the vastness of space would be an interesting opportunity for humanity. But if those experiments simply are variations of what we’ve already been doing, we will simply create ever new forms of oppression, dysfunction, etc. A wealthy individual who terraforms their own planet will likely just become another tyrant of that planet and any other planets he gains control of. Many a tyrant began their career as private citizens.

Space could just end up another Wild West with the equivalent gunfighters, robbers, cattle rustlers, railroad tycoons, oil barons, and privatized goons like the Pinkertons. What ended the violence and social disorder on the frontier in the US was centralized government, after killing off and rounding up all the free-spirited types and other troublemakers. These frontier people who didn’t fit the government’s plan were put in nooses, in prisons, and on reservations.

What is important to keep in mind is those who wanted big government most were the big business types. The wealthy elite wanted law and order, wanted the Native American’s land, wanted to get rid of the land squatters who settled the frontier.

Before Lincoln was a politician, he was a lawyer who worked for the railroads, which were as big business as they came back then. Lincoln’s job was to find legal ways to kick people off their lands so that the railroads could be built. Many people living on the frontier didn’t have legal rights to their lands or their legal rights weren’t clear, as paper work wasn’t always kept well and property lines were at times vague. Before big gov, the Great Emancipator began his vision of progress by working for big biz.

A large part of the Civil War was a fight about the Northern vision of an industrial economy ruled by big biz, big factories, and big railroads. Many Southerners were wary of this capitalist vision and for good reason. Much of the Southern rhetoric was a criticism of wage labor just being another form of slave labor, but for white men. And they were right to make these criticisms, as the hardworking farmer who could support his own family would be destroyed by big biz agriculture. The American Dream of being able to own and to make a living on one’s own land would become a thing of the past.

The events of the frontier and the events of the Civil War were intertwined. Many of the Confederate veterans headed West to escape this vision of collusion between big gov and big biz. The famous gunfighters and train robbers were often Confederate veterans and Southerners in general. They lost the war, but they went on fighting for their vision of independence. The frontier ultimately isn’t an escape from empire, but simply the outer edge of empire. Frontiers as we’ve known them in this society have been products of empire, locations of the clashes and violence of empires.

The same old frontier drama is likely to play out all over again on the frontiers of space. It is a very old story that seems to never end. I just wonder sometime if an alternative is possible. Might it be possible for us to escape this repeating pattern and create an entirely new society? That is the vision of Star Trek: Next Generation. It offers the hope that we might one day end this millennia-long tragedy.

In a joking way, he offered this quote: 

“What makes wage slaves? Wages!”–Groucho Marx

I responded more seriously:

Actually, what makes both chattel slavery and wage slavery is the slavery part. I have no particular principled argument against either chattel or wages. Nor against wealth as property and capital.

For example, capital is basically just fungible wealth, which means it can be easily moved, transferred, and reinvested. Every society, even communist societies, include capital as part of their daily functioning.

Capitalism isn’t simply capital, but a particular kind of capital, a particular social order and class system revolving around capital, a particular emphasize and prioritizing of capital, and hence an economy and society centered around those who own, control, and influence the movements of capital (i.e., the capitalists).

In a capitalist society, everything is centered on and organized according to capital. The capitalists are those who run society. This is obvious to see with our society in how most politicians are people who have worked in or for big biz, big banks, investment firms, etc. It is easy for a lawyer to go from working for a corporation to working as a politician. American politics has become famous for its revolving door between big biz and big gov, and regulatory capture has become commonplace.

Those with the capital in the US aren’t just those with the wealth, but those with the power. It is a capitalist class of businessmen, CEOs, lobbyists, investors, government contractors, advisers, and the many people who move back and forth between the public and private spheres.

Capitalism isn’t the same thing as a free market. A society could have a free market capitalism, not that such a thing has yet existed in the world to any great extent, but it could in theory. However, capitalism as we’ve known it has never been all that close to an actual functioning free market. On the other hand, an actual functioning free market could be and maybe would more likely be centered on something other than capital.

There are many aspects of an economy that are necessary for it functioning well, specifically in terms of a free market. There is social ‘capital’, there are communities, there is land, there is labor, etc. Many people who have criticized capitalism do so not because it is a free market, but because as we’ve seen so far it isn’t a free market or not as free as its rhetoric claims. Yes, capitalism is relatively more free than oppressive economic systems of the past, but that is a very low bar to reach.

You asked me what my hang up is with wealth. I have no such hang up. My issue is with a limited understanding of wealth. There is a lot more to wealth than just capital. In fact, capital is the smallest part of wealth. The most tangible and fundamental forms of wealth are those that can’t be defined as capital, as fungible wealth.

I then added a thought about how capitalism relates to Star Trek:

Star Trek is a good alternative to capitalism. There are some capitalist markets for mostly non-essential goods. If you want some rare object or an original art piece, there are unofficial markets for such goods. But most of the economy has evolved past the need of capital as an intervening form of wealth.

Technology has become so abundant that the scarcity principle behind capitalism is nearly obsolete. No one is ever in need of any basic need, even if they do no work at all, for so much of traditional labor is also nearly obsolete.

Since capital is almost meaningless in such an economic system, the guiding principle of the economy has more to do with human capital and social capital, not capital as fungible wealth, not as we recognize it anyway. It is communities of people and social/political organizations that have primary values. It is knowledge and experience, not capital, that is the greatest personal wealth an individual can gain.

People work not out of need, but out of curiosity and aspiration, simply to live up to their potential and seeking the betterment of society. It is a much more optimistic vision of humanity than is found in contemporary capitalism that sees monetary reward as the only incentive to make people not be lazy.

As I always find interesting, he fundamentally agrees with me, even though technically we are coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum. I think it is the fact that at a more fundamental level we are both classical liberals.

However, our differences did show up in the worry he noted, which was that class warfare would derail and postpone the progress toward a better future. From his point of view, we have to be more tolerant of the failings of capitalism because capitalism is the only pathway to what is beyond capitalism. If we short-circuit capitalism in trying to fix the problems of capitalism, we will create even bigger problems.

From my perspective, I can’t help but repeating what many on the left have said. Many have argued that the capitalist class started the class warfare and they are winning it. The question we on the left always worry about is how do we stop the abuse of this class war of the plutocrats against the rest of us. Only those winning the class war care about continuing it, and most people in the world today, including those on the left, are on the losing end. If those on the right wish for the class war to end, they’d need to speak to the ruling elites in charge of the charade. Or else they can join us on the left and make sure it ends.

The problem is that our society was built on class war. There hasn’t been a moment in the history of the United States when a class war wasn’t a dominant force. It isn’t yet clear that we are even capable of envisioning a realistic and compelling alternative or have the capacity of making the needed changes. But to envision an alternative, we have to first acknowledge and understand the present reality.