I was talking to a friend yesterday. He’s a smart guy. We almost never talk about politics, however; but the subject came up. And he mentioned that he was a centrist. He made what is, in some contexts, a valid point: that extremism in political ideology leads to catastrophe. But he mentioned Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians. (He was most critical of the last.) But that’s a shockingly small Overton window. What about communists and fascists? What about the only political group I know of that takes our economic system seriously: Marxists.
From a more practical standpoint, did the Democratic Party having complete control of Washington really lead to catastrophe? The country barely changed. Was that extremism?!
I see the situation totally different. The libertarians are irrelevant — except that they give intellectual credibility to the others. The Democrats are a center, even center-right, party in a global perspective. And the Republicans are proto-fascists. A centrist should love Barack Obama, and actually, I believe my friend does. It isn’t my intention to indict him. Indeed, he is in favor of Universal Basic Income.
But his extremely limited notion of the political landscape is what pretty much everyone shares in America. Let me illustrate with a story that David Foster Wallace famously told in his commencement speech, “This Is Water.” (I’m sure most people have heard the story at one point or another in their lives):
To me, capitalism is the water that we swim in. And I find it really frustrating that most people can’t see it.
Oh sure: they know the word. They think it is shorthand for freedom and democracy. The slightly more sophisticated think that it is about economic markets and the profit motive. Capitalism is none of these things. And the way that capitalism normally operates, it is the enemy of these things.
Marxists Understand Capitalism
When I was a libertarian, I was struck by the fact that it was only when I talked to Marxists that I found people who seemed to understand capitalism. Of course, I thought they were wrong in their analysis, but they understood what it was. I thought that I was very knowledgeable, of course; I thought I understood capitalism too. But the truth is that I didn’t. Because, while they saw the water, I didn’t. My study of intro economics in college, if anything, made it harder to see the water.
Capitalism is a system where ownership entitles you to profit. And I’m not talking hammers here. It’s not a question of using capital to build things. It is rather more like the fallow land across the street from me. Someone could be farming it, but instead, it is just being held by someone who inherited it, waiting until the city expands to the point where they can sell it to someone else who will build condos.
See the Water
Now, I understand the arguments in favor capitalism. And I’m not completely against it. But unlike the average American who thinks they are centrists because they don’t see the economic waters they swim in, I side with the Marxists. They see the water. And that means they are able to see beyond the water.
Each year, roughly a third of our income comes not from creating things but from owning things. A third! That’s capitalism. That’s water.
You don’t have to agree with my beliefs about capitalism. But things will only get worse as long as you don’t see that capitalism is a choice that is mandated by the government. There’s nothing natural about it. Rape, theft, and murder are natural. Getting thrown in jail for trespass is not.
Be like the Marxists to the extent that you see the water. Then we all might be able to make some progress.