Sometimes you have to look at things you took for granted your entire life and say; “Why?” Take this whole capitalism thing, roughly defined as private ownership of the means of production operating in a relatively unregulated free market. Profits are earned by ownership, wages paid to workers. Profits are either distributed to owners or reinvested in new technologies or industries. The eternal market forces of supply and demand determine product costs and workers’ wages. We have been told that upon this system the Western World and America in particular has grown fabulously wealthy.
You look around you, notice that in America the standard of living is pretty good, people aren’t starving to death and the nation has an impressive infrastructure. Our economy is the most powerful and successful in world history, and we have more rich people than any other nation and an incredibly large middle class who live in relative comfort and financial security. So you’re thinking, yeah, sure, capitalism is the bomb, we’ve got it made over here, especially when you look a huge regions of this world where people live in backward squalor; ignorant, diseased, illiterate, hungry and oppressed. You’re glad you are an American.
Then you start looking deeper into capitalism and you find out that in America today the richest 1% of the people own more wealth than the bottom 95% of Americans combined. You recall your history lessons and oral histories about sweat shops, company stores, robber barons, monopolies, strikes, labor wars, lockouts, child labor, blacklists and 12 hour work days. Maybe you’re thinking that ownership isn’t all that different from the royalty America overthrew in her Revolution in the 1770’s and 1780’s. Monarchs ran the entire world back then, and made no claims at all about their rule being fair or the wealth being equitably distributed.
They took the lion’s share of the wealth to build castles and buy jewels and funny clothes and have grand parties while the vast majority of humanity lived in appalling poverty while they worked themselves to death in service of a tiny minority who called themselves royalty. European royalty got educated, well fed, grandly housed and finely clothed while the masses were illiterate, hungry, sick and in rags. The Catholic Church and its later offshoots were the equally wealthy institutions that in partnership with royalty conspired to keep the peasants in backbreaking servitude their entire lives, refusing to teach them to read or learn the truth about the greater world around them.
The masses were ruled by fear, superstition and brute force. This went on for endless centuries until the British Colonies in North America said “Enough!” The leaders of the rebellion against the British Empire wrote the most profound political documents ever produced, guaranteeing universal human rights to the citizens of their new nation, their new kind of nation. No man would be king, or duke, earl or prince either, and the people would elect their own leaders. No religion would be enforced by this new nation, and it was forbidden for Church and State to collaborate on anything at all. Against all odds they succeeded and The United States of America was created.
The country was full of hard working people suddenly free of the stifling monarchs. Education caught on, enterprise was encouraged and the bountiful land and resources were exploited to their fullest, creating a land of opportunity that attracted millions and millions of immigrants. Like any group of people anywhere, some grew rich, and the chance to become wealthy was the calling card of this young nation. The fact that there were some states in America that held slaves bothered a lot of people, but not enough to do anything about it for about 80 years when it took a terrible civil war to put an end to that last barbaric vestige of monarchism.
Now all of America was free, and the Industrial Revolution was transforming the nation and the world. That’s when the new monarchists made their move, grabbing the majority of the wealth and building vast fortunes on the backs and the health of workers. Banks somehow took ownership of family farms and it soon seemed that every ordinary worker owed something to some wealthy institution. Miners were forced to live in company housing, shop at ridiculously overpriced company stores for all their needs and provide their own blasting caps and safety equipment out of what was left of their meager pay.
Thousands died and when they did their families were turned out into a cold world with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Either that or their very young male children were forced to take their places in the mines so the family did not perish. In urban industries, sweat shops, child labor, 7-day work weeks and unsafe working conditions killed thousands more as the robber barons built mansions, travelled in private railroad cars and held grand balls congratulating themselves on their status as self-made men. Attempts at collective bargaining for better wages and working conditions were met with lockouts, firings, clubs and rifles. A bloody labor war was fought right up until the height of the Great Depression, when the government finally decided to side with the workers and social change was slowly achieved, with every small increment of change fought tooth and nail by the ownership class.
These “Capitalists” figured that all wealth was rightfully theirs and they need only pay their workers enough to eat so that they were strong enough to labor to provide more wealth to ownership. There was hunger in America, the most bountiful country on the planet, right up until the 1960’s when another president sided with the poor and provided food stamps. Even though starvation was erased, poverty was not and since the late 60’s the segment of society whose wealth has grown the most is the one who needs it least, the richest 1% of Americans, the ownership class.
There is a reason why this class of wealthy individuals advertises and celebrates every instance of someone rising from poverty to wealth in America and that is because it is an incredibly rare occurrence. The class of people that were poor in the 1920’s, the 1930’s, the 1960’s or the 1990’s are overwhelmingly still poor. The class that was rich in those times are now richer than ever. The American Dream of rising from rags to riches remains just that, a dream, to 99% of Americans. To the elite 1%, depressions or recessions mean very little in terms of lifestyles.
Even in 2008 when 5 trillion dollars in wealth disappeared due to the greed and corruption of wealthy bankers, the super wealthy didn’t go broke. Even if some of them lost half their wealth, $50 million gets you every bit the lavish lifestyle that $100 million does. Or if someone who was worth a mere $10 million now has only $5 million, will anyone need to hold a fund raiser for them? As for the rest of us, we’re saddled with another set of royalty hogging nearly half the wealth of this nation of 303 million “equal” citizens. We may say to ourselves that we are blessed to have our nice little houses and our cars and are sending our children to college, but we pay and pay and pay the ownership class dearly for these privileges every step of the way during our hardworking lives, and most of us are only a job loss, a disease or an accident away from losing everything we have worked for all our lives.
Our family farmers have been replaced by corporate agribusinesses who feed us less wholesome and nutritious processed food, our skilled factory workers have seen their jobs sold to the lowest overseas bidders. Our small businesses have been eliminated by giant corporate box stores paying less than subsistence wages. In the early 2000’s an administration hostile to America’s workers engineered the biggest heist ever with tax breaks to the super wealthy, transferring trillions of dollars from the pockets of the working classes to the wealthy, the largest peacetime transfer of wealth in history.
How exactly is capitalism different from monarchism? The wealthy robber barons who engineered the 2008 financial debacle that devastated so many ordinary Americans are still in power, still playing dangerous games of chance with the wealth of a nation while unemployment swells to well past danger levels. If ever we needed the government to befriend the working classes again, it is now. When the top 1% of our nation has more money than the bottom 95% of the people, we are a monarchy with no actual king, but no shortage of peasants. Capitalism is a rousing success for the ruling elite, an abysmal failure for the rest of us. So much for taking things for granted.