By Ann Robertson

For lack of time I will not talk about the inherent connection between capitalism and imperialism, racism, sexism, and fascism. 

I want to begin with the arguments that have been raised in support of capitalism because when it was in its early stages western philosophers were wildly enthusiastic about it. They thought that capitalism was the best of all possible systems. And their argument went like this:

We humans have a particular nature that is individualistic, competitive and selfish. Capitalism embodies exactly these principles. So, by letting us realize our true nature we will be most productive.

More specifically, because producers compete against one another, each is compelled to try to produce the best commodity at the lowest price in order to survive as a business. Consequently, capitalism is forever producing better quality commodities at a cheaper price. And although people individually are only seeking their own benefit they are led as if by an invisible hand to promote the interests of society as a whole.  

What these philosophers did not understand is that this competitive, selfish individualistic human behavior which they took for granted is not the cause of capitalism. These behavior characteristics are the effect of capitalism. We humans have a very flexible human nature. We adapt to the surrounding conditions. Put us in one framework and we will act competitively. Put us in another framework, and we will act cooperatively. But science is absolutely clear about one thing throughout this flux: we are a social species, and we have deep physical and psychological needs to belong to a community.

What these philosophers did not take into consideration, with a few exceptions, is the impact of capitalism on the working class. They were only looking at capitalism from the point of view of the capitalists. With pressure on capitalists to lower costs, however, they typically turn to their work force:

  • Make people do more work in the same amount of time.
  • Announce they will have to move the business to where they can find cheaper labor unless the workers accept a wage cut.
  • Cut benefits by making workers pay more for their health care and pensions.
  • Transform workers into part-timers so as to pay them less and avoid paying benefits altogether.
  • Make it hard for unions to get established. 
  • Replace humans by machines.

There was a recent New York Times article about the meeting of corporate heads in Davos Switzerland. And the Times reported that publicly these corporate heads would bemoan the effects of introducing artificial intelligence into the production process because workers would lose jobs. But when they talked privately they were in a race to automate their business, and they could not care less what happened to their workers.

All of this is to emphasize what Marx originally argued: workers and capitalists have irreconcilably antagonistic interests. 

Capitalists want to pay workers the minimum in order to sharpen their competitive edge and survive. 

Workers want a substantial salary to enjoy life and provide comfortably for our families.

As a result of capitalists going after workers to maximize profits by suppressing wages and benefits, there is an unrelenting tendency in capitalism for inequalities in wealth to grow. Workers can organize, mobilize and reverse this tendency, as was done in the 1930s when there was a massive working-class upsurge. But when the upsurge subsides and labor peace returns, the inequalities once again begin to grow. This has been happening since the 1970s, and we are now as bad off in terms of inequalities in wealth as we were in the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th century. Here in the U.S. since 1980 the income of the top 1% has doubled while the bottom 90% of the population has lost ground.

But things are still worse. These inequalities grow at an accelerating rate: 

The more money you have, the easier it is to make even more money.

And the rich routinely use their extra wealth to lobby and shower campaign contributions on politicians in order to influence government policy, and they have been singularly successful at getting their taxes reduced and by getting their businesses deregulated. As was recently reported by The New York Times, their efforts at getting their taxes reduced have resulted in the equivalent of each middle-class family now being forced to write a check for $15,000 and giving it to the top 1% of the capitalist class.

But there is still more that is wrong with capitalism. Every specific kind of economy spawns a culture that is a reflection of itself. Feudalism had its culture and capitalism is no exception. 

On a somewhat abstract level, thanks to its hyper individualism, capitalist culture would have us all believe that we are self-made individuals and the position we end up with in society is entirely the result of our own efforts or lack thereof. Studies have proven this to be completely false, but this theory has served as the basis of the politics of hate.

On a more concrete level, the culture of capitalism encourages everyone to one degree or another but mostly the rich to place a maximum value on the acquisition of material wealth while turning one’s back on the kind of spiritual values that derive from belonging to a community or enjoying the beauty of nature. It is a culture which encourages selfishness, greed and deceit. Look at PG&E falsifying safety records while it is on probation for committing multiple felonies, Wells Fargo committing fraud in relation to over a million of its customers, ExxonMobil lying about climate change to ensure they can continue to pollute the environment and drag us ever-closer to environmental disaster, pharmaceutical companies lying about their opioids to get their customers hooked and then lying about their involvement, and finally practically the entire banking system engaging in the home mortgage fraud, pushing us into the Great Recession. These examples of deceit and greed are not the exception – they’re the rule!

Recently academics have been doing studies on the effects of wealth inequality on human behavior. Here are a few of their results:

The rich are more likely to take candy from a jar that is labeled, “Just for kids.” They are more likely to cheat at games, cut off pedestrians in crosswalks, and take bribes. They are less likely to pay attention to someone who is in a lower economic class than they are.

We in the working class, on the other hand, even though some of this culture seeps down to us, nevertheless studies show:

We are more likely to place value on our immediate communities because we depend on each other. We keep an eye on each other’s places and do a whole array of favors for each other. We are more tuned into interpersonal relations than the rich. And we donate a greater percentage of our money to worthy causes than the rich.

Research has also confirmed that once people have a sufficient amount of money to take care of basic needs and live comfortably, money over and above that does not increase happiness. But the rich, with their poverty of spirit, simply pursue the acquisition of wealth with even more frenzied intensity. It is no wonder, as Ryan pointed out at our last meeting, why Gramsci was emphasizing the importance of creating a new culture, a socialist, working-class culture, to replace this perversely sick capitalist culture, and as Darby pointed out, this socialist culture which we are bringing into existence is one where we support one another, not use one another. 

A book by two academics has been recently published with the title Why Nations Fail. They argue that the main reason nation’s fail is that there is domination “by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people.” That is exactly the position we are in today, but even worse: we are dominated by a corporate class that is prepared to destroy the planet and life as we know it in order to safe-guard their short-term profits. What is happening to the environment alone is a sufficient reason to conclude that the capitalist class is unfit to rule.

We are entering into a period of capitalist crisis, both humanitarian and environmental, which means there will be many new opportunities for us to put socialism on the agenda. 

Already, an absolute majority of young people ages 18-29 prefer socialism to capitalism, and the number keeps going up. 

And the U.S. working class is beginning to stir: 

The number of workers who went on strike last year was the highest since 1986. The teachers have been winning big strikes. 

The president of the flight attendants’ union raised the idea of a general strike and air traffic controllers started calling in sick, and suddenly Trump thought it would be a good idea to end the government shutdown. 

In France, Macron, who has arrogantly referred to the working class as “those who are nothing,” thought he could keep taking from them in order to give to the rich until the working class put on their yellow vests, got out into the streets, and told him he went too far. They forced him to retreat and make concessions, and with 70 percent of the population supporting them, they give no indication of backing down. Now they are demanding much more.  

We in DSA are in a pivotal position thanks to the tens of thousands of people who have joined our ranks. We can play a leading role in a revolutionary upheaval. But we need to continue and redouble our efforts to organize the working class, and our DSA folks at Anchor Steam deserve huge credit. And we need to continue our own education in revolutionary socialist politics, not reformism where we just aim at making the US economy look more like Denmark’s. Thanks to our Education Committee, we have made a great start.

Let me conclude with a short quote from Marx and Engels: “Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.” 

That’s what we’re all about!