Sunday, March 6, 2011

Capitalism

Okay, I get it. I finally get it. 
I’ve been on the wrong side for over forty years. I suppose it’s because I came of age during the Viet Nam war and the Civil Rights movement at the zenith of what was the “Left” in American politics before the Ohio National Guard and Mississippi State Police opened fire and we fled the scene scattering off to business school. I was an impressionable kid and I believed in what we’ll just call the “JFK/Peace Corps” version of America. Like most sad, pathetic middle-aged men I’ve been desperately clinging to that fleeting pristine vision like the memory of my first girlfriend’s chubby thighs coyly disappearing under that little plaid Catholic school skirt.

But in the last few days, with the events in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana it finally sank in. Our system is called Capitalism. Capital • ism. Duh. Sometime in the last year or so of his life, George Carlin made an appearance on the panel of Bill Maher’s Real Time program (and I cannot find a clip of this particular performance anywhere on the web). He dumbed down the origins of the political terms “left” and “right” so that even I was able to understand them: In France before the revolution, the landed aristocracy sat at the king’s right hand while the populace, the rabble, sat at his left. Hence, our government’s shift to the right over the past thirty years has been a shift toward a government that protects the ownership of property — capital — rather than the protection of the rights of individuals. In actual fact, I realize it’s been a shift back to the protection of property.

Ours has been, since its inception, a capitalist society. It’s made up of those who own the capital, the revenue-producing property, the factories and industries, and the financial assets that grease those mechanisms. In a capitalist society individuals who don’t own – people who work -- are a natural resource not unlike bananas, mineral deposits or oil and gas reserves. And like all natural resources people reach the point of diminishing returns: They get sick, old, educated, organized or otherwise too costly to be useful. So capital has to be withdrawn and reinvested in newer, underdeveloped places where fresher, unspoiled reserves of lumber, iron ore, sorghum and human beings can be found and exploited. It makes perfect sense and I admit I’ve been an intolerant ideologue to have willfully chosen not to understand that all these years.

In fact as today’s GOP leaders go on Tea Bagging the rest of us, they are more than likely correct in their insistence that the Founding Fathers would find them much more in line with their vision of America than their left, left-of-center, centrist and right-of-center counterparts. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned large, productive plantations that generated enormous wealth derived from tobacco and cotton produced by the labor of more than two hundred literally enslaved human beings. John Adams was a highly successful, affluent, self-made lawyer with a thriving practice that included getting British soldiers off on all charges after they'd shot some fellow American activists dead in the streets. His cousin Samuel was a tax collector for the British government who used his knowledge of the tax codes to help Boston area entrepreneurs “hold onto” their capital. But the personal wealth of the Founding Fathers aside, the biggest indicator of their vision for America – the elephant in the room, as it were – is the fact that only property owning males could actually vote in the land of the free. Tea Party Nation president, Judson Phillips, has already gone on record calling for a return to that fundamentalist practice. Perhaps he’s right.

I suppose I actually have been anti-American in thinking of the events in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana as a struggle for working families’ rights. They are, rather, simply part of the necessary stage of owners and investors withdrawing their capital from one over-mined market in order to invest it in other, fresher venues. And it’s actually the duty of our government to either protect these capitalists exercising that right or just get the hell out of the way. Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie are simply doing their jobs. A unionized workforce is a resource that has become too expensive for our capitalists to continue tapping.

But unlike whatever his name was in Orwell’s 1984, my I-love-Big-Brother moment has not been a sublime epiphany. I don’t feel any sense of relief or release flooding through me. Maybe I just don’t like to admit I’m wrong, that Im on the losing side. Maybe I’m too old to leave everything and everyone behind and move to France. And I guess because I’m not that smart instead of feeling enlightened, I actually feel more confused.

For instance I understand  and actually agree that capitalism, being the freedom to exercise one’s right to acquire property and wealth, is how the smartest and the best of us rise to the top and realize their fullest potential. I now acknowledge, as I’ve heard it described before, that ethics and morality don’t enter into it: Capitalism is the human equivalent to that natural selective process in the animal kingdom, the survival of the fittest. But doesn’t “survival of the fittest” call to mind a kind of bluntly unthinking, blindly amoral drive for self-preservation that reduces every other living, sentient being on the planet to either an obstacle, a tool or a source of protein? Doesn’t the very phrase conjure up one of those National Geographic high-res video clips: The gray opaque sheen on a crocodile’s eyeball clamping its jaw indiscriminately down on what could as easily be a domestic pet or a small child as a wild bird? (I had been saving this particular metaphor for a post on marriage and ex-wives but I just couldn't wait.) Couldn’t it just as truthfully be called survival of the meanest? In fact isnt the Animal Kingdom really just a kinder, gentler euphemism for “Christ, they live like animals, the biggest and baddest eat all the littler ones, they piss in their drinking water, shit where they eat and when theres nothing left, they move on to despoil the next puddle on the savanna?

Yes, capitalism is our version of survival of the fittest, just like in the Animal Kingdom. But when expressed toward other people, aren’t the phrases “you live like animals” and “you’re an animal” loaded with loathing and visceral disgust, meant to be the worst insults we can hurl at one another? Right there on a par with “you’re left-of-center?”

How do you say “I surrender” in French?

4 comments:

  1. One of life's GREAT many ironies is that right-wingers primarily use their so-called "reptilian brains" because they are less evolved than the rest of us (hence their social Darwinism approach to civilization). Incidentally, this is why they are unable to wrap their minds around complex issues. . . such as evolution.

    "The Big Guy" really must be laughing it up, up there. ;)

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  2. He has a sense of humor, alright.

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  3. Great essay, really tied it all up for this 50-something fellow traveler. Kind regards Friend.

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