The Price of "Capitalism"
Scripps-Howard News Service 10.02.02
The "Anti-Capitalist Convergence" had announced massive
demonstrations and disruptions for the nation's capital for the
past weekend. They did not materialize; only a small crowd came,
valiantly trying to cause as much trouble as a small crowd can,
but they became victims of their own hubris. So confident were they
of 100,000 participants that those responsible for law-enforcement
prepared accordingly. Police seriously outnumbered the protesters.
The non-event was notable only for the moment of levity when the
master of ceremonies grabbed the microphone to ask that demonstrators
come down from the trees which they had climbed, apparently, in
order to break off the branches. "We have an environmentalist
component among us," he said clearing his throat. "They
don't think that's the way to treat trees."
No, it isn't. But then they may have been capitalist trees.
My interest in the affair comes from an entirely different direction,
though. Over the past few years, it seems, everybody and his brother
speaks about the capitalist system in America. Before, using the
word was the hallmark of marxist training or influence. Yet lately,
everybody is using the word - regardless of political leaning.
It bothers me because capitalism - the word and the concept - was
the brainchild of Karl Marx. As well as offering an "-ism"
opposite his own -ism, it describes a rigid class society in which
one class possesses the means of production, the other nothing except
its labor. The latter class is called "The Proletariat"
who, as Lenin declared, can lose nothing but its chains when it
rises against the oppressor.
This is not the place to argue whether capitalism was the appropriate
way to describe certain European societies. The point is that owning
things has always been open to Americans. The moment you buy one
share of stock, you part-own "means of production," not
to mention owning your home and arriving at your place of work in
your own automobile - a very American image.
America never had a proletariat.
In that case, America could not have been a capitalist country.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has redefined capitalism after
Marx, and it is inappropriate to use a word whose meaning is different
from what the speaker has in mind.
Perhaps what we have in America is best described as a free-enterprise
Can you see an outfit called "Anti-Freemarket Convergence"
organizing demonstrations in Washington? Even with all the champagne
these protesters had consumed at their recent extended jamboree
in South Africa, they would not do something so manifestly ridiculous.
In a sense it is a pity that the speakers at such rallies are so
inarticulate, unappealing and predictable. Serious economists agree
with at least one of their complaints about the International Monetary
Fund: harmful interference with the aided country's ability to climb
out of the ditch. Clearly, conditions need to be attached to loans,
but strangling the debtor with impossible conditions is not practical.
(Naturally, the protesters' first demand always is that all loans
should be immediately forgiven, all debts erased. When? Now!)
Alas, I have been watching these protests now for nearly 40 years
and find that the organizers provide only slogans to the speakers,
not to mention the crowd. Most participants are quite incapable
of intelligent discussion. Of course, they also demonstrate only
where they are not likely to encounter any serious physical risk
- a habit that earns them no measure of respect.
But my main point still is that we ought to recognize people's
political views by the words they use. Thus, persons whose beliefs
are not informed by Karl Marx ought to stop referring to our free
enterprise system as "capitalism."
There are many other words and expressions invented and introduced
to promote a very specific political agenda. For years, I have been
trying to persuade anyone willing to listen that the enforced switch
from "personnel" departments to "human resources"
belongs to that category. After coming close to giving up, the other
night the same argument popped up at a most unexpected venue: in
Jay Leno's monologue. Bless him.
What we benignly call "politically correct" is never
without political purpose. Those who invented "native American"
to replace "Indian" sought a term that would, at least
by implication, diminish the legitimacy of everyone else who came
Similarly, "capitalism," having been used for a century-and-a-half
to denounce those who practice it, has all the connotations of greed
and exploitation, and none of the uniquely American, fabulously
successful, and gloriously liberating ring of "free enterprise."