Trashing capitalism now in vogue, but its generation of misery is nothing new

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As the economic crisis has worsened, confidence in capitalism seems to be sinkin’ like a stone.

I wrote about a month ago that The Nation–widely considered the most influential progressive publication in the country–started a series of stories in print and online on socialism and its relevance in the midst of havoc the unfettered free market has wreaked on the country and the planet. Others have followed suit: the cover of this month’s issue of In These Times magazine features the headline “The Meltdown Goes Global: It is time to rethink capitalism.” Hell, even the New York Times–certainly no bastion of anti-capitalist thought–ran a piece at the end of February whose tone mocked conservatives’ obsession with using “socialist” and “socialism” as dirty words, entitled Socialism! Boo, Hiss, Repeat.” And shockingly, some of their coverage of the G-20 actually treated protestors who identified as anti-capitalist, with anti-capitalist demands, as legitimate!

And the shift isn’t just in the media. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll indicates that barely more than half–53%–of American adults think capitalism is a better economic system than socialism. And Republicans thought big government bailouts and stimulus packages were scary! It can’t be long before conservative pundits look at those numbers and start calling for that 53% to start arming themselves for a fight against the impending tide of Communists coming to take away their guns and plasma screen TVs in service of The Party.

Yes, all signs seem to be pointing towards a growing number of Americans realizing that maybe the free market isn’t the same as freedom, and that capitalism might actually be causing all kinds of global misery rather than economic prosperity. And that’s certainly a very good thing.

But the framing of this discussion has really been irking me lately. The recession is being called a meltdown, a catastrophe, a disaster. And it is all those things, to be sure: working- and middle-class folks’ retirements have evaporated into thin air, unemployment is at astronomical levels, foreclosures are happening left and right. And this is all quite tragic.

But the misery bred by capitalism is no new development. I was thinking about this as I read that In These Times cover: “It is time to rethink capitalism.” Now is the time, now that “average folks” are being hit by the free market’s latest temper tantrum? Everything was cool before, but now we’ve gotta rethink this capitalism business?

News flash: the majority of the world has been getting screwed by global capitalism since its inception. Pick your poison: Columbus’ landing in Americas and the subsequent slaughter of millions of indigenous peoples, slavery and present), the fact that the average CEO in this country makes 344 times that of the average worker, the fact that half of the world lives on $2 or less a day, the incredible amount of violence and environmental destruction required to keep the system a-churnin’. The list goes on and on. These things have been happening for hundreds of years but few in the mainstream media and general populace in this country have batted an eye–quite the contrary, they’ve been ardent defenders of what is supposedly the greatest and most free economic system in the world. Once folks start losing their jobs, houses, and retirement, though, they begin rethinking capitalism.

I suppose this is the way things work in this country. The Vietnam War was rotten from the get-go, but it was poor and working-class folks who were the ones fighting and dying at the outset. It wasn’t until years into the slaughter, when bright-eyed middle-class kids–you know, the ones who were supposed to become doctors and lawyers and upstanding, all-American citizens–started coming home in flag-draped coffins that popular opinion turned against the war.

The same is true of our current economic collapse: it has taken a society-wide bludgeoning for folks to rethink a fundamentally unjust economic system. It’s just a shame there had to be so much suffering before we got here.

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Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org