The Right’s Abiding Befuddlement About Capitalism

From the National Review to Fox News to the rightist pundit class conservatives reluctantly have begun acknowledging, and hence responding to Occupy Wall Street. One can safely say they doth protest too much. Rich Lowry at the National Review titles his response, “The Left’s Pathetic Tea Party”. Naturally more accurately pathetic is a “grassroots” movement both organized by and financed by wealthy individuals and corporations. I think you’ve pretty much defined the Tea Party as “pathetic” with that scenario. One cannot leave unremarked the lack of self-awareness that leaves conservatives blind to the hilarity of their bottom up movement funded from the very top. Such is The Right’s Pathetic Tea Party.

There’s a conspicuous nervousness in their brittle, slightly hysteric attempts at dismissal and condescension. They rely on their usual tired old hobbyhorse of equating all that does not comport with their jaundiced and falsely mythologized view of Americanism, and their fully misunderstanding versions of capitalism with anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism. As it turns out the vision of capitalism evoked by the sentiments of Occupy Wall Street are fully in synch with pure and original capitalism. For all its fatuous claims to ownership of capitalist economics, the right couldn’t be further off into the hinterlands when it comes to correctly understanding capitalism, utterly confused and misled.

Conservatives generally attempt to affect a concern for originalism in all things, whether historical or constitutional or social. So to put it bluntly, their radical views of capitalism are newfangled, synthetic, cooked-up versions of it well at odds with its origination. If one had paid no attention whatsoever to American history perhaps, one could be excused for failing to understand that nothing was more anathema to the founders of the nation (obvious in their repudiation of and revolution against aristocracy ) than concentrated wealth and power, two things embraced by today’s right as emblematic of Americanism and capitalism. Wrong, very wrong.

Jefferson’s words would be right at home at Occupy Wall Street. He said, “I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies.” In fact Jefferson seems to be engaged in a science fiction channeling of his successor of a century and a half later, FDR, when he declaims the need to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

The right’s ideologies of capitalism are virtually antithetical to the ideas of the man widely regarded as the father of modern economics and the original theoretician of modern capitalism, Adam Smith. Capitalism’s theoretical goals of averting concentrations of wealth, of empowering individuals to obtain fair compensation and of widespread prosperity are heretical to today’s conservatives, goals all but communistic to this benighted and blinkered bunch. The entity most emblematic of Smith’s vision of capitalism would be: unions.

Contrary to conservatives’ prizing of capital to the point of worship while diminishing labor’s place in the balance between the two, Smith envisioned capitalism as empowering the multitude and diversity of workers, many of whom do so many lowly things all of us require be done (cleaning, serving, fetching and carrying), Smith’s version of capitalism understanding their value rather than disparaging them as Republicans and Randians do as capitalism’s losers, simply and deservedly lowly, not only of lower human worth but of lesser value to society. This view is in fact profoundly anti-capitalistic.

The right’s Randian, Austrian School and Libertarian fantasies of imagined elite capitalist Lords looming above an imagined slothful and witless working class majority, all that is good, valuable and productive embodied in the businessman, promotes a view of the capitalist and the corporation that has little to do with actual capitalism and more to do with an end run around capitalism and around democracy, and back to aristocracy and feudalism by other names, to the iron rule of power, money and class. Wrong. Very, very wrong.

All of the right’s eternally loudly blathered convictions about small government, the Founders, sanctification of business and finance, and their saliva-spraying scorn for progressive taxation and redistribution are grossly mistaken. Capitalism’s leading light, Smith, strongly advocated the need for fair and progressive taxation, saying:

“The rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more in proportion. The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”

Sorry Mr. Norquist. No, that isn’t Elizabeth Warren talking, though one would be forgiven for thinking it was. She understands capitalism. The right? Not so much.

To hear today’s conservatives blunderingly confuse the interests of, and the preeminence of business and corporations with capitalism, and to venerate them, while deifying profits, and describing the assailing of too high profits as communistic or socialistic is to slap your forehead with bemused pity. If anything, one could easily imagine Adam Smith’s anti-corporate message being relayed across Zuccotti Park as if he were standing there:

“Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

One can effortlessly imagine Smith setting the party of Trump, John Galt and Paul Ryan to rights about the wealthy. Ayn Rand called them “the innovators” and the “exceptional minority” while today’s Republican Party calls them “job creators.” Smith warned of a:

“…disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition.”

You can almost picture Smith grabbing Eric Cantor by the scruff of the neck and sitting him down for a talking to. Conservatives are not shy about demeaning America’s menial workers as embodiments of insufficient ambition and wherewithal, deserving only as much recognition or remuneration as we deign with a sniff to give them, in some cases recently going so far as to assert they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Smith says,

“Consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to, what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated.”

In other words, you can’t live the good life you currently enjoy without the labors of a lot of “lowly” people, meaning that you depend upon them, meaning they have a lot of societal value.

Conservatives make a fetish of their bogus references to bogus history, but the real thing reveals a view of capitalism at odds with their phony modern canards. Abraham Lincoln, a republican who surely would be party-switching today, again seems to channel the future Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman or Hubert Humphrey or perhaps AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka :

“There is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.”

The American right, always on the side of management and owners, always the champion of the businesses and corporate mammoths that fund them, miss no opportunity to denigrate labor. Self-identified Tea Party governors like Scott Walker, Mitch Snyder and Rick Scot and a multitude of Republican state legislators publicly excoriate unions and union workers, enact laws designed to penalize them, abolish them or seriously deter them, and always deride labor as subservient to capital and ownership. Lincoln said,

“It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not existed.”

Oh, history, schmistory.

While Joe the plumber might be taken aback by Obama’s supposedly Freudian socialistic slip when referring to “spreading the wealth around,” or calls for a more equitable and healthy distribution of the fruits of the nation’s productivity from Occupy Wall Street speakers might incite the scorn of the Fox channel dunderheads, Smith, sounding like Michael Moore, said,

“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”

Smith spoke of the “natural progress of opulence,” and in all likelihood did not mean “progress through the entire top one percent.”

And of course you will never cease to hear American conservatives dyspeptically dismiss the “public good,” or “lifting of all boats,” or communal efforts to raise the level of everyone for the betterment of all, in the name of a healthier whole. The contemporary American right’s conceptualization of the relationship between the citizen and government is one in which the citizen should view that relationship as first and foremost concerned with his direct benefit from government only. The Godfather of Capitalism had a decidedly more enlightened view:

“What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves well fed, clothed, and lodged.”

Whatever you do, do not let Ron Paul, and God forbid Rick Perry hear about this. There isn’t enough mud in Texas for them to satisfactorily hurl at Mr. Smith at Republicans’ next debate.

As for Republicans’ small government mantra being somehow bizarrely associated in their minds and in their rhetoric with capitalism, if only Smith could yell through a bullhorn at Occupy Wall Street into the studios of Fox News, advising on government’s capitalist obligation of “erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works which may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society,” and reminding them, if the reference to LBJ’s signature Great Society program hasn’t caused them to blind themselves and tear off their ears, that all of their “socialism” buzzwording aside, this arrangement is, “of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals.”

Most importantly, the domination by the top percentile and the imbalance between capital and labor from which America now suffers as a thirty year march of declining wages and a diminished place for labor in the economy proceeds, which is the salient core of Occupy Wall Street’s message and rationale, the progenitor of capitalism understood, addressing the nature of, and the nasty ramifications of that imbalance this way:

“It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.”

So, on the next occasion when you encounter conservative hooey and phooey about America and capitalism, or sneering references to the participants and ideas heard at Occupy Wall Street, remember: they don’t know jack. And they sure as shit don’t know Adam.

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