Capitalist Apologetics With Steve Pearlstein

Capitalist Apologetics With Steve PearlsteinSteve Pearlstein is the author of Can American Capitalism Survive? — a liberal capitalist. Bhaskar Sunkara is the editor and publisher of Jacobin — a socialist. Vox decided to print a “debate” between them, Is America’s Future Capitalist or Socialist?

I don’t think much of it because Pearlstein and Sunkara get into the weeds of some issues and as a result, the “debate” is about one-tenth as long as it should be. The condescending tone of Pearlstein is also annoying, but that is not worthy of discussion — only to notice the way that these apologists always take this tone as a way to dismiss the idea that any systems besides capitalism are impossible. It’s their one-two punch: (1) Socialism can’t work; (2) Stalin! (They never grapple with any socialist systems that have worked.)

Stop Saying the Rich Will Care About the Poor Because they Care About Women!

But I was most struck with what seems to be the core of Pearlstein’s argument: we can save capitalism by reinstating norms. He points to the #MeToo movement. This is beyond ridiculous. Pearlstein has his head so far up his apologetics that he can’t see the truth.

I don’t know why capitalism’s apologists always fall for this. Let’s go over it again. LGBT rights were able to make headway because rich people are sometimes gay and rich people have friends and children who are gay. What’s more, LGBT rights cost the rich nothing.

The same is true of women. The rich have no problem with giving women equal rights. One way or another, they have gained their wealth through a system that benefits them at the cost of most women (and lots of other people). But they’ve got their money now! And they know their daughters will too. Mainstream feminism doesn’t pose any threat to their wealth.

Poor People Are Different

None of this calculus applies to poor people. To begin with, rich people don’t have poor children. They don’t have poor friends.

But most of all: helping poor people will require that the economy become more egalitarian. That is: it will cost them money — directly. And that’s in an absolute sense and a relative sense. I suspect if it were just absolute and the relative difference were the same, many rich people would go for it.

As a result, we will never undo, “Greed is good” — as Pearlstein fantasizes. Whatever happened to “Power concedes nothing without a demand”? How exactly do we move forward on norms by asking politely? Especially in the modern context where rich people live in different worlds than the rest of us? Twitter memes?!

The Post-World War II Delusion

How is it that people take a 25-year-long period of relatively good times and turn it into some natural state?

Pearlstein also relies on the idea that norms after World War II stopped capitalists from abusing their power. He dismisses the fact that it had much to do with unionization. I have one immediate question, “Then why were these same ‘enlightened’ capitalists so keen on ramming through the Taft–Hartley Act in 1947?” I don’t believe that needs an answer.

But also, how is it that people take a 25-year-long period and turn it into some natural state? The century before was horrible. The five-decade-long period since has gotten worse and worse. And remember, all during that time, the rich were doing everything they could to change the system. The rich never saw it as anything but temporary.

And that period after WWII when businesses did take a broader view of their mission was a fluke. That’s not the way things normally work.

Can you imagine the rich ever agreeing to even a 5 percent increase in taxes? Even if a credible case could be made that it would postpone a violent revolution? I can’t. And so I can’t imagine the rich ever agreeing to economic democracy.

What Prevents Real Change

This all leads me to some uncomfortable thoughts about political change. It’s not like we live in a democracy — or a democratic republic. As long as we don’t have economic democracy, we wouldn’t have political democracy. And without that, there is no clear way to get economic democracy.

Centuries of legal opinion make private property a given that most people can’t even imagine questioning. (Note: not personal property.) It’s very much like the centuries where poor people didn’t question the Divine Right of Kings. Now they don’t question the Divine Right of Private Property.

Going even further, the vast majority of poor people think of the standing police force and army as something meant to protect them when that is just a pretense.

Pearlstein claims that the first order of business is to get “money out of politics.” Oh yes! That will save us! (Corporate and union, because they are the same thing!) Then only the rich and well-connected will be able to win elected office. Bravo! (Pearlstein didn’t mention publicly-funded elections, so I assume he’s not for them and just has this idea if you get money out of politics the rich won’t be able to bend it to their will.)

We Are Doomed

Ultimately, I’m a pessimist. But it’s not irrational. Humans are horrible. The only thing that keeps me humble is the fact that I struggle. If I were rich, I’m sure I would have created an impenetrable philosophical system that told me it was right to be able to buy truffles while others starved.

I am certain that America will continue its decline to the point that it puts someone like Trump in charge full-time. What I can’t imagine is how this mess of a nation becomes better for more than a couple of years at a time.

No amount of hoping will save us from the toxic system that our country is based on.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Capitalist Apologetics With Steve Pearlstein

  1. I read that debate, and I don’t even know where to start with Pearlstein. Where does he think the decline in nice-capitalist norms came from? The boogeyman? Space herpes?

    He gives the game away by reminding us all how we have power as consumers. Oh, Lord in Heaven, that cliche. Somehow, we’re supposed to get together as consumers and demand vulture funds stop fucking Puerto Rico, by……. (ellipses to infinity). He has no solution, except kindler gentler TED talks and business ethics courses in MBA programs. (Newsflash; every MBA program requires such a course, and they are hi-larious.)

    This schtick has been around for ages. “Use the magic of the market to do good.” It’s like a fad diet that never goes away.

    I felt bad for Sunkara, who was trying to meet this doofus halfway, and it was like attempting first contact with the plasma entities of Nebulon 3. The universal translator from “knowledgeable economic historian” to “corporate tool” had a wire loose.

    Side note, but I love how climate-change deniers always accuse scientists of pimping global collapse danger “for the money.” For one thing, being an apologist pays more. For another, the meteorologists, atmospheric physicists, biologists, oceanographers, etc, etc, would still be studying, say, tadpoles even if there wasn’t any existential threat to tadpoles! The Audubon Society’s extensive network of bird-watching hobbyists has provided useful data on changing migration patterns. Those people aren’t being paid a dime.

    I wonder what Pearlstein would do if nobody paid him to be a company stooge. Maybe just be a jerk, or open up a restaurant that made really good cookies. I dunno.

    • I’m glad your reaction was as strong as mine. I wondered if it was just me. It seemed like so much happy talk. But then again, that’s what his book is: ways to pacify people screwed by the current system. Of course, the book will only be read by the kind of people who already want to believe this garbage. It’s also the constant refrain that he, in his old-man wisdom, knows what can be done and Sunkara is just young and foolish.

      • Such books are the yuppie equivalent of “Everything I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” If you’re vaguely aware that what your employer does is Bond-villain evil, but you REALLY LIKE THE SALARY, there’s always a book or two which “everybody is talking about” that proves, once again, how being a soulless turd makes the world a better place. Just so long as we all groove with the author’s stated noble intentions, as described in NPR interviews. Undoubtedly, if you’re hip enough, copies of such books will be conspicuously placed around your home and/or worksite. As if anybody’s actually fucking read the thing. (Do not, under any circumstances, read these books, and start howling out loud while you do so. Yuppies will not approve.)

        I could go on and on, but you know the drill. I’d like to read Sunkara debating with somebody in her intellectual league about different economic systems, as that’s a discussion worth having. Unfortunately, I am unable to look up her previous work right now, as I’m busy arguing with Vox to give me one goddamn shred of money for years of free labor. So it goes, so it goes…

        • It reminds of Thomas Frank’s article on how business books are all the same and that their purpose is to convince middle managers that they are part of the “creative class.” It is a delusion that has allowed these people (as Chris Hedges call them: The Liberal Class) to not perform their traditional function of limiting the abuses the rich. And truthfully, if I didn’t have a lot of other personal work, I’d need a delusion to get me through the day.

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