Back in February, Trevor Hill, a college sophomore speaking at a Town Hall meeting in New York asked the leader of the House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to address a rather startling observation. If the majority of Americans between the age of 18 and 29 no longer support capitalism then why should the Democrats still cling to it with such tenacity?
Of course, that’s not really one question; it’s two. Should we in the first place, attempt to replace capitalism with something else?
And if so, what?
New kid on the chopping block
If democracy is in crisis, then capitalism must be in free fall. By 2016, the wealthiest 1 percent of families controlled 38.6 percent, of the nation’s wealth. That’s a record for those who have been paying attention to such things. It also happens to be nearly twice as much as the bottom 90 percent. They now hold just 22.8 percent of the wealth, down 30 percent from 1989.
If losing a third of one’s wealth in less than 20 years isn’t an indication of a system unfit for purpose, then what is?
Nancy’s affirmation that the Democratic party’s commitment to capitalist economics is stronger than a mustard dipped jalapeno is hardly surprising. Those placed at the center of power rarely comprehend the radicalism of the fringe. Or empathize with their frustrations.
It’s always been that way.
Enlighting the way
Take the Enlightenment for example. A fermentation of ideas promulgated by a loose association of thinkers, dreamers, poets, and braggarts, it cast its net far and wide. As hearsay and superstition gave ground to scientific enquires, intellectuals began to turn their attention towards the inefficacy of society itself.
“Man is born free and yet everywhere he is in chains.”
How true that statement once was.
Because his was a world of HDR contrasts; of abject poverty and egregious wealth, of absolutist freedoms and unavoidable recidivism. Humanity prospered, yes, but it also wandered into a quagmire of dissolution.
In the West, Rome had fallen. Europe descended into a tapestry of internecine bickering woven from the ensanguine threads of a few great houses. In the East, the very thought of progress proved too much for some to endure. China scuttled its Navy; Japan barricaded its own ports.
Something had to give.
And give it did. In France, in 1789, revolution broke out, and capitalism was born.
Au contraire mon frère
It wasn’t so much that the revolution put right all that had gone wrong before it. Nor was it the case that a capitalist system borne on the back of emergent democratic ideals sprang from out of nowhere. Revolutionary zeal did not spontaneously create the system. The enlightenment did not even favor it. Rather it was a by-product, the natural evolution of a society that had lost patience with the contradictions of the old one.
Societal liberalization created an environment conducive to capitalist growth; the new emphasis on liberty gave people the breathing room they needed to experiment with new forms of business and more than that. It necessitated movements towards mass education while simultaneously raising wages above subsistence levels.
Over the course of the 19th century, consumerism slowly morphed into a mainstream – if initially modest – cultural phenomena.
In truth, France’s moment of Zen created as many problems as it solved. It was not the end of the old order but rather, it was the beginning of the end of that which preceded it. An interim stage, Mercantilism had been a fudge of sorts, a test-run for a proto-capitalist system running parallel to a political system not yet elastic enough to accommodate anything more radical.
And still, to some, the process itself was an inevitability, as predictable as the rising of the tides.
And just as unavoidable.
Road to somewhere
“History after all,” such luminaries told us, “has a direction.”
Both saw that the ultimate goal of humanity was the realization of human freedom and both agreed that this could only be achieved via the creation of the perfect state. Such an ‘Eden’ required a dialectical process to come to fruition – that is to say – it was necessarily the product of the tension between what an ideal state should look like, the condition that society finds itself in, and mankind’s attempts to forge the world into something more agreeable to its nature.
Central to this idea was the rather large body of data suggesting that this process had been going on for quite some time. History, it seemed, could be divided into broad periods of which there had — at the time Hegel and Marx were writing – been five.
During this period — dubbed primitive communism by social scientists — property – and therefore wealth — was virtually non-existent. As such, these small tribes were essentially apolitical.
Agriculture and proto-democracy
A focus on meritocracy defined the second stage. The best warrior during times of war led the tribes, the best diplomats while in contact with other tribes and so on and so forth. Precarious levels of excess existed but there was little in the way of actual wealth.
Agriculture proved to be both a blessing and a curse. With the ability to store excess food the need for the all hands-on operations of our past ended. Specialization became a ‘thing.’ Potters, smelters, tanners and so on could sell their services in exchange for food and later, for money. The ‘best’ warrior for the job became a warrior caste that soon became disinterested in the opinions of those they were supposed to be protecting.
Eventually, productive property such as cattle was seen as little different from the productive capital of human beings and in short order, the state became a tool for the slave-owners to use and control the slaves.
As slave societies collapsed, a new system was ushered in, one that tied individuals to the land. Medieval serfs might not be slaves, but without any realistic chance of social mobility, they might as well have been
Two important caveats to this evaluation of human history deserve consideration. First, retrograde actions are common; slave rebellions, for example, can be both suppressed and reversed. Second, that clear lines of delineation between periods are rare. The onset of capitalism was — as we have seen — preceded by Mercantilism, that bridge between the intractability of feudalism and the exuberance of the age of discovery.
Still, the evidence was compelling. Just as technology moved through a logical progression — from flint spears to bronze swords to muskets, rifles, airplanes, and missiles—so too did society progress in a singular direction.
And there’s that question again.
If over half of young Americans are most assuredly not satisfied with the dialectic process laid out before them then capitalism, for all its ubiquity must by definition be far from perfect.
And this we know.
The end of history
Hegel – writing in 1807 shortly after Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions co-opted the French Revolution – was satisfied that History achieved levels of perfection sufficient to satisfy the dialectic. Although contradictions remained – he cited America’s continued use of Slaves as an example – no further changes significant enough to warrant a new ‘period’ history were needed.
“Baloney,” said Marx.
His observations of the plight of the urban poor in the most industrialized city of the most industrialized nation on the planet – Manchester – suggested levels of contradiction sufficient to drive the debate yet further towards the sixth period of history. This final stage of history – a classless society of equals –he called communism. In his Utopia there would be no contradictions; the state that one found oneself in was the state that one wished to be in.
There was only one catch.
It might take some time to come to fruition.
After all, Feudalism had lasted for some 600 years, and slave societies stretched back into the dimmest memories of antiquity.
Marx’s solution was simple. Rather than wait for the debate to proceed naturally, he advised that we attempt to kick-start the process. In effect, he recommended that we set human history on fast-forward. He even advocated using existing state apparatus to set up a dictatorship tasked with the creation of communist man.
Utopia, paradise; call it what you will. It all sounded too good to be true really.
And therein lies the rub.
The road least traveled
The destination is far less interesting than the journey itself. Attempts by the Soviet Union to create a worker’s paradise were met with abject failure. For Hegel, the progress of towards freedom was driven by human ‘Geist’ or ‘spirit.’ Such a concept is as far removed from the metaphysical connotations of New Age philosophy as one could get.
Instead, Hegel’s spirit is a mere abstraction, the result of finite and deterministic actions perpetrated by members of society acting more or less according to their nature. It is as Nietzsche suggested the ‘beast with red cheeks’ that all too human sense of dissatisfaction with our lot in life, that quintessential mercurialism that separates our species from all others.
Attempts by Soviet agencies to remove inequality merely limited diversity. Taste, desire and individual agency could not be subsumed. Not by systemic propaganda and not by the promise of a better future to come. Where Marx dismissed freedom – arguing that the only true freedom is economic in nature – ordinary people demurred. In Berlin, a wall was built to keep East Germans from defecting to the decadent and capitalistic west and not the other way around.
The baby out with the pram
A more damning critique of Marxism in practice one could not find.
Of course, the failure of the Soviet experiment in no way invalidates the observations of Marx, at least, it doesn’t invalidate all of them. The dichotomy he advocated is after all, rather easy to follow. Humanity is either happy with society as it stands or it is not. And, as we have seen, the dissatisfaction felt by a majority of young Americans is all too real. For Pelosi – and indeed the entire Democratic party apparatus — the simple fact that Marx’s ideas don’t work means that we are stuck with Hegel’s observation that history had come to an end.
Which is – of course – based on a thorough misreading of both the mood of the nation and the theory itself. I mean, come on, this is the DNC we are talking about here.
What else would you expect?
The temptation to view societal refinements regarding great leaps forward is something of a false narrative. True, massive contradictions such as systems of slavery tend to end with a bang rather than a whimper. But for the most part corrections – even hard-fought ones – cause less upheaval.
Examples’ of attempts to create a more idealized society are easy to find. Universal suffrage, gay marriage, minimum wage legislation, all were implemented long after Hegel’s death. And yet all follow the same general formula he put forth all those years ago. The human spirit, dissatisfied with its lot in life changes societal norms via the same tried and tested dialectic that has governed human interaction for the entirety of its existence.
Each contradiction, once tackled, creates a series of lesser contradictions which – in due time—are tackled in their own right. Then they’re retackled until no further contradictions remain. Whether this endpoint represents the sixth stage of humanity or merely a more refined version of itself is largely academic. Indeed, we’ve already seen what a v.5.1 capitalist society might look like.
During the Cold war, western powers, terrified that Marxism would seduce their populations, created a system of ‘capitalism-light.’ Like the rentier states of the geopolitical Middle East, they offered a form of capitalism that was far more palatable to the masses than it had been during the times of Karl Marx.
The Cold War propensity towards relatively high wages, cheap affordable housing and enviable standards of living was no accident. On the contrary, it was there by design. The consumerism that Marx had dismissed as mere ‘commodity fetishism’ became a source of great comfort to a society where hard work and aspiration became — quite unexpectedly — interchangeable concepts.
Halcyon days gone by
That the capitalism v5.1 of the Cold War years just so happens to have been the world that Pelosi grew up in is no coincidence either. Deliberate attempts to reign in the worst excesses of capitalist greed and exploitation created at least the illusion of egalitarianism.
Of course, the establishment of a white and predominantly male heterosexual economic equilibrium provided even more welcome distractions. The civil rights movement attempted to tackle social injustice and victory – on a statutory level at least – was attained after a relatively brief struggle. But economic parity was not and by the time the Cold War gasped its last dying breath Capitalism entered one of those not so rare retrograde actions.
The collapse of the Soviet Union created a sense of rampant triumphalism. Marx was wrong, Hegel was right. Books like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History extolled the virtues of Liberalism in both the political and economic sense of the word.
Organizations such as the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, and G7+ were created or else expanded to take advantage of the victory of one ideology over the other. And as the bribes engineered to steer inquisitive minds away from the evils of communism were rescinded — something happened. Capitalism began to sharpen its claws again; v5.1 was rolled back to v5.0.
Wages began to stagnate as aspiration was gently peeled away from the individual industry. The top 1 percent began to funnel ever more egregious wealth into their own coffers. Social services buckled and then began an agonizingly slow death at the hands of never-ending cuts and calls for austerity. When the shit hit the fan — as it did in 2007 — the squeeze was already bearing down on ordinary American workers.
But worse was to come.
By 2012, 42 percent of Americans were earning less than $15 an hour — $31,000 annually for full-time work – despite the fact that $31,000 a year is the figure one needs to enjoy any kind of economic security.
Which is the exact point that both Pelosi and Hill missed so spectacularly.
Raising the wage would not shepherd in the sixth era of mankind, and that is a good thing. It would not unravel capitalism, and that is also a good thing. Because, ultimately, regardless of how many people might opt to reject capitalism one simple fact remains. None of them has come up with a viable alternative, which is not to say that one does not exist. Capitalism has brought levels of prosperity unmatched in human history and will continue to do so until we discover a way of organizing economic life that contains fewer contradictions.
Hill’s dissatisfaction is based on accurate observation on the failures of raw capitalism; Pelosi’s is based on her experience with Capitalism light an experience in which her generation prospered in ways that her predecessors could only dream of. Both are valid positions that lead to the same unavoidable conclusion.
We return to v5.1 and begin work on v5.2 with only a limited sense of urgency. This plan, the plan of democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders is less radical than some would have you believe. Far from being revolutionary, it’s not even part of societal evolution.
It is – perhaps perversely – a devolution; a return to a more equitable society. A society of reasonable wages, of tax plans that place necessary burdens on those who can afford to pay most. An America where moribund industries are laid to rest upon a bed of training opportunities, subsidies and guaranteed employment. A world of healthcare, opportunity, and education for the many, not the few. In short, a place where young men like Hill can ask Pelosi a question and receive a satisfying answer. A place where he can be told that wages are up. Where life expectancy remains buoyant, and where the need for a radical overhaul of a broken system has been subsumed by the need to tweak the old one.
Because to think otherwise is to fly in the face of history.
Featured Image Via YouTube Video.