Steve 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
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.