Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Problem Isn't Capitalism, It's Our Society

People often rant against the evils of capitalism … exploitation of workers, people in general, and the environment.  But the problem is not so much capitalism as the social structure in which capitalism has operated. 

In the United States. the structure has been one which exalted individualism and correspondingly had a laissez faire attitude towards business.  It was a conservative social context in which each person was pretty much out on their own.

It was only after the turn of the 20th century, when the excesses of the industrial robber barons became egregious to society, and during the Depression, when capitalism clearly failed to provide for the people, that the government stepped in.  It regulated private enterprise, became an employer of last resort through efforts such as the CCC and WPA that produced lasting accomplishments, and provided various forms of assistance to those in need.  

Those actions indicated a partial change in the social context … what’s been termed the progressive movement … into one where it was felt that government had to play a role to stop the excesses of private enterprise, to level the playing field between employer and worker as well as between producer and consumer, and to help those in need.  All for the common good, in keeping with the Declaration of Independence's dictum that all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We still had a capitalist system.  But now there was an overlay of government regulation and action because it was realized that the profit motivation that lies behind all actions in a capitalist system would frequently not operate to protect the common good, meaning the wellbeing of all in society.   It is worth noting that corporations are a creature of the law and are granted their license because of the benefit that society as a whole should derive from their operation, not just for the accumulation of wealth by their owners.

In the years since the Reagan administration, however, the progressive movement has receded and the individualistic, laissez faire society has come to the fore again.  Most recently we have seen the Radical Right push to dismantle most of what the bipartisan progressive movement built to improve our society over the previous 100 years.

But even at its broadest expanse, the progressive movement was not all-inclusive.  We were never a community, except perhaps for a brief period during the Depression.  The difference between a communal society and an individualistic society is that in the former, every person has a role to play and every person is valued.  No matter how simple or mindless their role.  And if someone cannot play a role due to physical or mental infirmity, they are still valued as human beings who are part of the community.

Conservatives used to point almost with glee to the failure of Communist systems, not just economically, but especially as relates to the abuse of their own citizens.  But this is just further confirmation of the point made initially in this post, that it is not the economic system but the social structure that determines whether people and the environment are valued.

The experience of both the Soviet Union and China show, for example, that although ownership and the political/social structure changed dramatically, one elite just replaced another.  While the Soviet Union did in a limited sense live up to its Communist underpinning and provided for all the people, in both countries the political/social structure valued neither people nor the environment; both were exploited, just for a different end … not profit but state power.  Not surprisingly, the introduction of socialist capitalism in China hasn’t changed that.

In our society, and in every country around the world - for there are no communal countries - there are millions of people who are not valued.  Who do not have a place at the table.  And even most of those who are at the table, who help produce the product and are paid for their work, are not valued in any humane sense of the word.  They are just viewed as expendable cogs in the machine.

In short, we live in a society in which, while people may rant about the value of life in certain contexts … abortion, death with dignity, when human action collides with God-given directives …  they really place no value on life.  They have no concern or feelings of responsibility for the welfare, the quality of life, of their fellow citizen.   There is no sense of community.  The social contract is in tatters.

The problem of poverty and homelessness in the US is not due to a lack of resources.  The problem of racism and other discrimination is not one that is inherent in man.  The social problems we face are a direct result of the social system we have built.  And thus the answer to our social problems lies in rebuilding or redirecting our social system and reinforcing the role of government in advancing the common good.

I’m not talking about a utopia.  I’m just talking about a society that is humane, that values the life of everyone who is a member of the society … at a minimum everyone who is a citizen, but ideally everyone who lives here regardless of their status.  And finds a way to implement that humaneness by making everyone feel valued rather than feel like refuse, whether it’s through the educational system, housing, social services, whatever.  

Capitalism and a humane society can coexist and support each other.  They are not mutually exclusive.  But it implies capitalism with a social conscience, not unbridled capitalism such as was evidenced recently by several in-name-only pharmaceutical companies that bought existing low cost name drugs and then raised the price dramatically to an exorbitant amount, endangering people's lives.  It implies capitalism where maximizing profit is not the sole operating goal.

Bottom line, everyone … child and adult … deserves to feel like they are a human being and are valued and respected by others, whether it’s immediate family, peers, or the broader society.  So many people are broken because they have had life experiences that do not make them feel valued and respected.   And so they come not to respect or value themselves.  That not only harms them, it harms society; it is a drag on society.

This is a failure of society.  And only society can fix it.