“Capitalism was once viewed by workers as a system to be fought. But capitalism is no longer challenged. Capitalist bosses, men such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Donald Trump, are treated as sages, celebrities and populists. The liberal class functions as their cheerleaders. Such misguided loyalty, illustrated by environmental groups that refuse to excoriate the Obama White House over the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, ignores the fact that the divide in America is not between Republican and Democrat. It is a divide between the corporate state and the citizen. It is a divide between capitalists and workers. And, for all the failings of the communists, they got it.”
Chris Hedges from Death of the Liberal Class
Ecologically speaking, it seems capitalism isn’t sustainable in the long-term, e.g. capitalism is premised upon infinite growth within a finite system. This isn’t possible and we are seeing extinction rates that the planet hasn’t seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Some models predict there won’t be a living thing in the ocean—no sharks, whales, dolphins—in the oceans by 2050. Where the oceans go, I suspect, we go.
Chris Hedges isn’t anti-capitalist per se; he’s anti-oligarchy; it just so happens he isn’t going to give capitalism a pass while criticizing capitalists who exploit certain aspects of this economic system at the great expense of the public. In history there isn’t another economic system that has produced as much wealth or enabled so many people to enjoy such a high standard of living. Not even close. Hedges though, like Marx before him, is critical of neo-liberalism (or the whole laissez-faire approach that the Republican Party and its uncritical acolytes places on a pedestal). We’ve conducted this “unfettered capitalism” experiment before: we called it liberalism in the 19th century, the Gilded Age. Before the passage of labor laws, minimum wage laws, and a number of other progressive measures, etc. the working class was vulnerable to exploitation, dismissal, and abuse by employers. Government stood by unwilling to do anything because of the “liberal” ethos, i.e. it was widely believed the worst thing a government could do was intervene in the economy or lives of the individual citizen. This is what was known as Classical Liberalism ( a far cry from the “liberalism” of the 20th century). The terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean entirely different things today.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” changed things for America (as Bennett’s equivalent did in Canada) in the 1930s where governments intervened in the economy to regulate it thereby, in principle, mitigating some of the risk and volatility that naturally flows from a capitalist system, e.g. stock market speculation in the 1920s resulted in the New York Stock Exchange crash and led to the Great Depression.
So FDR’s administration intervened passing the Glass-Steagall act to prevent banks from acting fraudulently or taking on un-necessary risks that created systemic risks for the economy as a whole. Arguably, the social programs that emerged out of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations made the United States a model for other liberal democratic states to follow with respect to moving towards a more equitable approach to governance and economic oversight.
Glass-Steagall was repealed by Bill Clinton in the 90s; the American economy was de-regulated more and more through the George W. Bush years; then we saw a massive expansion of the financial services industry at Wall Street and all these wonderful products like credit default swaps. In 2008-2009 the whole system collapsed due to systemic fraud and borrowing: investment banks over leveraged themselves; they risked others peoples’ money by using it to purchase credit default swaps; they then bet on those swaps failing by taking out insurance; and then when these products failed made enormous personal profits why the whole economic system—the one upon which everyone else depends—collapsed. Not a banker batted an eye. So far as they were concerned the system worked (just not for anyone else). A few dozen Wall Street speculators and traders made off like bandits. No charges laid. Unfettered capitalism.
Marx argued unfettered capitalism (that whole Classical Liberalism, known as neo-liberalism today) was a revolutionary force—it doesn’t take us to a socialist dictatorship but towards fascist authoritarianism (or corporatism). I’ll totally admit at face value America looks pretty free, and it is, but the great irony is you can have all the civic and civil rights you want and still not possess any real decision making power. The American political theorist Steven Wolin describes the situation in America as “inverted totalitarianism.” I talk about this problem specifically in a post called Part 3: The Donald Trump Phenomenon: Where’s It All Going? (click here).
Ironically, we don’t have to go to the communists to find a critic of American-style capitalism. Adam Smith, author of the Wealth of Nations argued “greed is good”; however, it seems like the GOP and conservative economists read up to this point and then quit reading; if you keep reading Wealth of Nations, Smith argues entrepreneurs do have a responsibility to society as a whole; they don’t just get to do whatever they like for the sake of profit; rather, they have a responsibility to their communities not to act unethically or so selfishlessly that they jeopardize the public peace (he also had problems with monopolies and corporate power). In fact there were many cases of people running corporations who were either imprisoned or put to death for defrauding the English public in the 1600s and 1700s. Sort of places the whole Great Recession of 2008 into perspective, doesn’t it? Literally only one banker went to prison for what happened.
By contrast a good proportion of those traders in 2009 who committed fraud (although they broke no actual laws because Glass-Steagall was repealed, though these men and women certainly crossed some ethical lines) would’ve been put to death by 18th century standards of law and the corresponding capitalist ethos. Smith is the proto-capitalist who saw the need and wisdom for wise regulatory regimes; and that’s all Hedges would argue for.