30 November 2011: Unbridled capitalism needs an underclass

Unbridled capitalism needs an underclass

In a recent article, Joyce Shelby, emeritus professor of history at UCLA and the author of The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, writes, “From 1776 to the present, the bottom 60 percent of the American population, as University of Southern California historian Carole Shammas has documented, has never had more than 11 percent of the country’s wealth.”

That comes as no surprise to those who have read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Nor should it be surprising that that social reality will be our future barring fundamental changes in the way we conduct business. And by “business,” I mean beyond the economic to the political.

Traditional Indian castes, with Brahmins at the top and Shudras—blue collar and artisan types—at the bottom, serve well as a model for our ostensibly democratic society. For xenophobes, undocumented immigrants nicely fulfill the role of Untouchables.

Capitalism might be a market system that operates to create wealth, but in the end, unbridled capitalism is a class-creating economic system that not only allows for the super-driven to corner markets and, consequently, wealth but also contains the seeds for its own destruction. Without government restriction, monopolies would become the rule. Exxon-Mobil, once distinct companies, could be Exxon-Mobil-Conoco-Philips-etc.

It would be interesting to see what the data from other western capitalistic countries—France, Germany, Great Britain—says about their wealth-spread historically, but then their history demonstrates more governmental interaction within their economies.

We might be created equal, but 235 years of American history indicates 60 percent of us will live our lives in the underclass, only able to peer through the Saks Fifth Avenue window of the upper-crust. Thus it was, and thus it will be.

Pure capitalists need a large underclass for them to make it big. Shelby writes, “We may embrace the American dream of broad prosperity and wealth equity, but we have never been close to achieving it.”

And if we did? The usual suspects would label it—sniff, sniff—socialism, and God knows we cannot have that! It would be so un-Jesus who said to the young man in Matthew 19:21, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” That’s not quite the message we inculcate in our aspiring Horatio Algers who prefer treasure on earth.

Capitalism is a tiered system of haves-and-have-nots and winners-and-losers. There are only so many deck seats on our Titanic. If one is able to break through the class stratification barrier, another must drop to a lower level.

Capitalism is not the economic mate of democracy. Robert Reich, labor secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration, points out that while democracy depends upon some form of free enterprise, capitalism is not conversely dependent upon a free political system. Think China. That totalitarian regime has created an amazing capitalistic economic engine that holds a sizeable chunk of our paper.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson argues the Occupy Movement has “gotten into people’s heads.” He states, “Fairness can’t be dismissed as some sort of first step toward socialism, unless we’re willing to concede that capitalism and fairness are fundamentally incompatible.”

He adds, “I don’t believe this is the case.”

Well, yes and no.

There are various strains of capitalism, and corporatism, the one that has evolved in the US, is fundamentally incompatible with societal fairness. Please don’t tell me an investor, professional athlete, or CEO works harder and, therefore, deserves more than a blue collar worker or middle-class professional. Some people are simply better at Vegas.

The issue of fairness takes on a whole different meaning in the corporate world in which, as Denver Post writer David Sirota notes, the “maddening trend is the corporate sector’s shift from long-term customer care to short-term predation.”

Sirota’s use of “predation,” which American Heritage Dictionary defines as “the capturing of prey as a form of sustaining life,” is succinct as it more than suggests aggression: It’s devouring.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world not only out, but also up there. One doesn’t get to stroll down Wall St. by being a weenie. To borrow a marketing line from Frontier Airlines, the corporate world is a “different kind of animal.”

The world of corporate capitalism is a jungle in which the fittest survive and 60 percent of life-forms tread cautiously to avoid being lunch, for that’s the rule of the wild: Eat or be eaten.

Maybe that’s fair to some, but only pleasant if you’re the one being served the meal rather than being the meal itself.

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