Has Capitalism “Worked”?

It’s laughable to me when critics of socialism parrot the cliché that “it has never worked anywhere in the world.”  Usually, that prosaic statement is made not from primary research, but from lazy borrowing from others—who more than likely also did not do their own research or reading.  What does it really mean that something has not “worked”?  It is a funny way of describing opposition to a sociopolitical and economic system.  However, it seems never to elicit any comparative analysis about the “workings” of capitalism.  The assumption is that capitalism is working, but there is very little conveyed about how it is or what makes its success different from socialism’s failure.

Is capitalism successful because a very small percentage of people get inordinately wealthy and a majority regularly struggle to make ends meet?  What makes that prove capitalism is working?  Is the destiny of capitalistic endeavors to encourage a dream that is obviously unreachable for the masses of people?  I mean, if it has been working for, let’s say, a century and a half, then what exactly has been working?

We can have discussions about freedom, entrepreneurship, and following one’s dreams, but the reality is that the majority of workers are employed in jobs they do not enjoy; yet they feel stuck in those jobs and unable to quit because the circumstances will not be any better.  The delay in getting a paycheck if one lands another job may constitute a hardship, and if there are any added expenses accompanying the new position, then its worth is challengeable or questionable. There may be a slight improvement in income, but the ability to meet the vicissitudes of life will usually substantively stay the same.  This lack of mobility and estrangement from genuine liberty are part and parcel of capitalist systems practically speaking.

Perhaps, there is a theoretical predisposition towards capitalism that I am not feeling and/or a philosophical antipathy towards socialism that I am not grasping.  From my vantage point, whenever there is an element of care that is injected into capitalism, some immediately cry foul and condemn it for being “socialist.”  The word itself has become a scapegoat for anything that tasks or defies free enterprise.  It might take too long herein to assert how capitalism in the United States has rarely, if ever, been “free,” and that social institutions of one stripe or another have always been subject to some form of regulation.  In human affairs, nothing can be truly anarchic, for we will roughshod over each other in a Hobbesian state of nature.

Then, of course, the fact that so many people equate communism and socialism often obviates or precludes having a meaningful discussion. Sound bites and tweets are not enough to straighten out the confused and ignorant. Nevertheless, the inadequacies of the resultant discussions are passed off as instructive, which they are not. Moreover, the distinction between (sheer) socialism and democratic socialism is rarely explained. Most democratic socialists are not spouting violent overthrow of the body politic or the putting of major industries under government control. The fear-baiting that goes on when democratic socialism is often discussed vitiates addressing the serious issues about the real burdens of capitalism in the United States and elsewhere.

I have characterized myself much of my adult life as a democratic socialist.  Most of my mentors have been or leaned heavily that way: Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Muelder, Jane Addams, Michael Harrington, Barbara Ehrenreich, W. E. B. Du Bois, Harvey Cox, Manning Marable, J. Philip Wogaman, Letty Russell, Cornel West, et al.  I know it is ill-advised to utilize the biblical witness for such support, but it seems to me that the care evinced by prophets, apostles, and Jesus lends itself to a milieu that is so much concerned about the disadvantaged that constructive social services are necessary—whether or not the capitalist system is eliminated.

In our country, the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots, so to speak, has to be closed.  Why it has gotten to this point is debatable; that it must close is not.  People who are business owners should not be free to monopolize a market or to refuse to pay workers livable wages.  Such is simply common, moral sense.  However, the idea of an unbridled market has captured the imagination and has become a mantra all its own.  People who are seriously disinherited by this notion are often the ones who irrationally support its self-enslaving disenfranchisement!

Poverty can (and must) be eradicated, but it will never happen under a capitalist system.  Even our mixed economy is not compassionate enough to thwart making paupers out of the majority of its citizenry.  It is nice that democratic socialism is increasingly tolerated and accepted in the public arena and that some leading public figures embrace many of its ideas and ideals.  Public discourse is helpful, but talk in the final analysis is cheap when unaccompanied by systemic, structural changes.  I want to encourage the dialogue and the ongoing struggle—both endeavors in which I have been engaged for four decades or more.

About mdbwell

Pres., Project for the Beloved Community, Inc.; B.A.--Wesleyan University; M.Div.--Yale University; Ph.D.--Boston University; Summer Study--Harvard University; Social ethicist; Ordained minister; Advocate for the poor
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