Reducing Systemic Issues to Personal Failings Shows Progressives’ Misunderstanding of Capitalism
Recently, Nina Turner, running in a special election for Congress in Ohio, gave a speech in which she identified the “giant” that needs “slaying” to be “pure unadulterated greed”. It’s not the first time I’ve seen such language from Turner or other “progressive” Democrats.
Folks understand the growing poverty, the accelerating capture of the economy (and for the matter, the political system, too) by the wealthy and are therefore desperately trying to understand the problem, explain how the problem came about, and find a solution. Unfortunately, the history of capitalism is long and complex, resulting in many incomplete and inarticulate explanations and critiques that can even take the spotlight off of capitalism (which the ruling class of course loves). For example, Turner’s blame of “pure unadulterated greed” ironically takes the pressure off of capitalism by reducing systemic societal issues down to individual morality and responsibility — that is, allowing a handful of people (or maybe even a single person) to be scapegoated and blamed for the problems while the system keeps chugging along unaffected by a few leadership changes here and there. (Similar happens in Congress, where despite getting a couple new folks elected each election, Congress continues doing what it has always done and not much policy actually changes.) The article “Seven Left Myths About Capitalism” by Blair Taylor from the Institute of Social Ecology wraps up many of the myths around capitalism into several categories. The full essay is a great read but I’d like to discuss some of the key points below.
Individual Responsibility vs Systemic Failure
Many of the typical myths boil down to some form of greed, as we saw with Turner’s comments. “Greed Caused This” incorrectly frames the problem as personal, moral failings by corporate executives, investors, etc. Relatedly, folks might specifically single out banking executives and the financial sector by saying “Bankers Caused This”. Either way, by implying that personal greed is the root cause, this myth implies that many economic problems could be “fixed” by simply having “non-greedy” people running the economy. Choose the “right” economic leaders and everything will be fine. However, capitalist markets institutionalize competition, which prevents cooperation and “being nice”. Instead, the most cut-throat — those that pay workers the least, cut the most corners, etc. — tend to be rewarded with more business and profits, meaning regardless of how “selfless” one might be, the system will require a certain amount of oppressive hierarchy simply in order to survive.
“Progressives” often further “clarify” that greed is concentrated in the largest companies with near-monopoly power — in other words, that “Big Corporations Caused This”, which incorrectly implies that greed’s control on the economy can be “reversed” by supporting “small business” instead. However, “small business” is still capitalist (even if “only” petite bourgeois) and still run with the same ruthless capitalist drive as big business. Actually, if anything, small business often must be even more ruthless and cut-throat than big business because of the pressure to “compete” with the big corporations that have more institutional power and financial backing. The result ends up that many “small businesses” pay even lower wages and provide even worse working conditions and benefits than the larger businesses. Ironically, the smallest of businesses are often actually exempt from many labor laws that regular big business, and larger businesses have so many more employees that they are often easier to organize into unions (although historically most of those once radical syndicalist unions have themselves ended up becoming merely managers of capitalism in the modern era, often a proxy for Democratic Party or even Republican Party interests). In the end, small business eventually becomes big business by cut-throat capitalist market competition and wealth accumulation, meaning we’ll always be playing a game of whack-a-mole as long as capitalism itself exists. Whether small or big, capitalist business is still capitalist business, the size of the business is not a root cause of our societal hardships under capitalism.
In response, many will suggest that we “Just Create Alternatives” — that is, create alternative businesses — of even non-profits! — like worker co-ops or community farms to oppose for-profit greedy behavior. However, this suggestion incorrectly implies such alternatives are sufficient on their own to oppose capitalism and downplays the important role of political organizing in creating power — in fact, such “alternatives” may actually end up strengthening capitalism due to the pressure to stay relevant in the system. Worker cooperatives that started with strongly socialist ideas, such as Mondragon Corporation in Spain, have over time shifted toward capitalist behaviors and expectations on its workers to maintain their competitive status in the market; even the most progressive and ecologically-minded business will be coerced into cut-throat capitalist behavior to maintain competition, otherwise they risk going out of business. While these “alternative” projects may be very good and still worth doing, alone they will face the same market pressures as any capitalist business, pushing it either out of business or right back into a capitalist mindset no matter how well-intentioned the founding members are. Yet again, system change is needed first to be truly effective, which means that “alternatives” alone are not enough — there must be community political organizing first to create that systemic change.
Ultimately, systemic institutional failures under capitalism that “reward” competition rather than cooperation are the problem, not greed in general — greed is more of a symptom of the institutional problems, rather than the cause. To address these issues, we must adopt economic and societal structures that encourage and reward cooperation and mutual aid.
Corruption Doesn’t Mean Capitalism Can Work
The argument about greed focuses first on economics, but then takes on political components to attempt to explain why “the free market” or other aspects of the economy don’t “self-correct” or stay fixed. Greed in the political realm ends up becoming the accusation of corruption — using one’s authority for personal gain (presumably due to greed). The new argument that “Corruption Caused This” again incorrectly frames the problem as personal, moral failing by politicians. Again, this criticism implies that capitalism and the government can be “fixed” if the officials and decision-makers just take the “right” actions, including some level of regulation or oversight to make it harder for an individual to act on their greed. However, this criticism doesn’t address the historical origins of government and laws. Most of our modern laws were generally designed by the wealthy to protect capital, including protecting private property and profits, and so politicians will always be pulled within the system to governing for the benefit of capitalism. Regardless whatever else they say, the first police forces were created in the US to capture runaway slaves and protect industrial capital by ending labor strikes — and still to this day police enforce laws largely centered around protecting the ruling class and their capitalist property rights, not human rights. “Getting money out of politics” might help a little with getting choice on the ballot, but doesn’t change the institutional pressures candidates and parties face once elected.
A more extreme view on corruption sees a vast, secret conspiracy of many individuals and institutions that uphold today’s nonsensical system. Therefore, many get stuck on the idea that all that needs done is for us to “Unmask the Conspiracy” so the system can finally change under public pressure. However, much like other critiques, this view overlooks the systemic institutional pressures of capitalism; those pressures end up forcing folks to defend the current system in order to stay alive in it, no grand conspiracy required.
Regardless the views on how deep corruption and conspiracy may go, many politicians and political organizations use rhetoric claiming something to the effect of “We’ll Take America Back”, which incorrectly implies that there was ever a time in US history when business respected workers or government respected voters. Workers have always had to unionize, strike, and take other actions for gains against the system. Similarly, the ruling capitalist political parties have always sided with capitalist markets, generally opposing voters’ demands until voters created independent political movements that challenged the system with direct action, civil disobedience, independent campaigns, and more. Today we often hear a variant of this as “We’ll Rebuild The Middle Class”, but this rhetoric also advances a number of fallacies about labor history: there is no “middle” without a “poor”, meaning the system never intends on abolishing poverty itself, and creates class divisions rather than the class solidarity we need to build a new system. Instead of challenging the long-time systemic issues against workers and voters, the argument of “taking back” or “rebuilding” the system reinforces state authority — as well as the capitalist market economy and class division — as being “good”. If only the “right” government bureaucrats were making decisions, things would be better!, they want us all to believe.
Ideas like “we’re taking back America” can easily feed into racism, anti-semitism, and general xenophobia of immigrants as angry people look to scapegoat others for the weakening middle class, loss of jobs, or perceived loss of political power. From their perspective, if capitalism is “natural” or can be easily “fixed” and not the root problem, then any problems must be the result of some group of people sabotaging it. Talking about “taking it back” sets up an adversarial relationship against voters, immigrants, or some other group of people, rather than focusing on the systemic problems. As such, progressives that do not tie their critiques and solutions to a firmly anti-capitalist stance can actually feed the right-wing ideas they are attempting to oppose.
It’s not enough to merely be “progressive” — one must be explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist. “Progressive” Democrats like Turner must take heed.
Developing A Deeper Critique — And A New Vision
When we consider all the incomplete critiques above, we see that the root cause is actually something deeper and more institutional than it appears at first. Even “good” people with the right ideas tend be pressured by the system — anyone that does not conform to the capitalist system is effectively pushed out of the system and demonized. To continue to hold power in the system is to “compromise”, to give in and to help perpetuate the capitalist system — which is why so many political activists rightly call out the long list of “progressive” candidates that have slowly weakened their stances the longer they remain in office in today’s system. It’s not necessarily a personal, moral failing, or any sign of treachery or “selling out”, but rather symptoms of a capitalist system that resists change from within — a system which defends itself by co-opting those that wish to change it, whether working from the economic or the political side. The ultimate takeaway is that capitalism cannot be reformed or “fixed”, it must be replaced.
Of course, none of the proceeding discussion means greed does not exist. Of course it does. However, it is a mistake to attribute all of our societal problems to “simple” answers like greed when there are much stronger pressures and forces at work. Our job is to understand those systemic forces and work to change them, which will require some careful analysis and understanding of where we’re at, how and why we got here, and where we want to go from here. If we’re not careful with our critiques of capitalism, they could actually backfire — ironically those same incomplete critiques risk inflaming the right-wing and fascism. Don’t forget that fascism was originally presented to the people as a “third way” opposed to both capitalism and communism! Not all forms of anti-capitalism are based in left-wing ideas of freedom and democracy, so we must be very careful with our analysis and critique so that we are only advancing a vision of collective liberation, not continued oppression.
I believe a Green Socialist vision — taking heavily from many socialist traditions including social ecology — provides one of the most comprehensive critiques as well as a holistic vision of what an ecosocialist future would look like. We must work to spread a deeper analysis and vision if we want to create real systemic change; myths about capitalism won’t do.