© Robert Orwell Hand – (Reprinted with Permission) https://understandingthings.net/2019/09/01/understanding-freedom-part-iii-freedom-and-government-cont/
Virtually everyone knows, and most of us would at least pay lip service to, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But another “Golden Rule” seems to correspond far more directly with most people’s lived experience: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
Which is just another way of saying that the powers that be decide the way things are. And to protect and preserve their prerogative to do so, they organize the way things are so as to indoctrinate the people without the gold into believing that the way things are is preordained, and so, that resistance is futile. This is accomplished systematically by such institutions as public education (despite the best subversive efforts of many excellent teachers) and organized religion (which, with some exceptions, habitually confuses the powers that be with “the will of God”). From the medieval religious doctrine of “the divine right of kings” to the modern economic doctrine of “irresistible market forces,” the way things are is clothed in the robes of omnipotence and omnipresence.
And so, the way things are is such that the freedom of the few (the owners) depends on the slavery of the many (the workers), who are indoctrinated—by the education system, organized religion and the mainstream media—into believing that they are free. This kind of governing system is called “capitalist democracy.” What it means is that the owners have bought the government (most obviously but not only, by funding political campaigns) whereby they offer the electorate a choice between candidates who (regardless of party) are beholden to them.
As a result, the government becomes the instrument of the owning class, which ensures that government policies and priorities not only allow but also enable the owners, in the name of “economic freedom,” to take virtually full possession of the wealth produced by workers.
The owners maximize their profits by paying their workers as little as they can and charging consumers as much as they can (and since workers and consumers are the same people, they get screwed on both ends). This concentration of economic power is called capitalism (the ideology, ipso facto, shared by the owning class). By securing economic power in the hands of the owning class (i.e., the few), capitalism assures that the working class (i.e., the many) remains economically and, therefore, politically powerless.
The ostensible function of labor unions is to access the potential leverage of the many (the workers) over the few (the owners), primarily through the threat of strikes. But, after (and because of) significant early-to-mid-20th century victories in improving working conditions and increasing workers’ wages, labor unions have been effectively suppressed and co-opted to the point of near impotence by America’s owning class via government domestic policy.
The division between the owning/ruling class and the working/serving class is, of course, more complicated, in that small business owners are typically also workers, who employ themselves to participate in the labor for which they also employ a relatively small group of others; these owners/workers, as far as political power is concerned, find themselves among the working class rather than the owning class. That is, unless and until (and against the odds) they grow their businesses to the epic proportions that could elevate them to owning-class status, in which case they will likely be bought out by one or another already-big business to which they have become an economic threat. Thus the creation and expansion of monopolies (exposing the fact that capitalism is only about competition until the winners buy out their competitors, thus disposing of the competition). Which is to say that the owning/ruling class, while not altogether impenetrable, seems determined to remain as few as possible.
Capitalists love to identify capitalism with freedom: free enterprise, free markets, free trade. What the rhetoric of capitalism carefully omits is the fact that its brand of “freedom” is strictly limited to the capitalists themselves: the owners who turn what they can of what they own into capital, that is, into sources of revenue. Their “freedom” is the unhindered power to acquire and possess and employ whatever sources of revenue they can and will for the purpose of acquiring the maximum profit therefrom.
And the owning class justifiably, in its own eyes, exploits the working class because owners see themselves as superior to workers; rather than viewing workers as their equals (as if they were really supposed to believe that “all men are created equal”), owners used to call themselves their workers’ “betters.” And the proof of their superiority (in their eyes) is their wealth, despite the fact that, in a growing majority of cases, that wealth is inherited rather than earned. And, of course, even when earned, their wealth is “earned” by the toil of workers, who are typically viewed by owners as—at least potentially—lazy, shiftless and dishonest. A point of view, again, that serves to justify owners’ exploitation of their workers.
Of course, workers are “free,” but only to sell their labor (assuming they can find owners who will buy it) or face the consequences of unemployment. Consumers are “free” to buy what they can afford (based, of course, on the wages the owners pay them as workers). For their part, owners are free (barring government “infringements,” such as a minimum wage, on their freedom) to pay their workers as little as they can, with little or no regard for their workers’ wants and needs, either within or outside of the workplace, and charge consumers (who are, again, mostly workers) as much as they can. And this, for products made as cheaply as possible, at further expense to the health and well-being of both workers and consumers.
A perusal of the history of the powers that be, at least in Western Civilization, suggests that the former place of kings and emperors—always buttressed by power-worshiping religious establishments and their ability to extract wealth from and instill subservience in the masses—has been taken not so much by the presidents and dictators of the world, but rather by the capitalists who own the global corporations—the financing and manufacturing conglomerates—that pull the strings of the governments, whether democracies or dictatorships, now in the name of “free markets.” What is called “globalization” amounts to the effort to incorporate the entire world into the Western capitalist orbit, all in the name of the “freedom” of capitalists—with the perennial support of many religious establishments—to pillage and plunder the planet. Capitalist “freedom,” then, is a euphemism for greed.
Many actual and aspiring capitalists deny the equation of capitalism with greed on the grounds that owners with moral and social conscience exist who adequately, and even generously, compensate their workers. To whatever extent this may be true, however, capitalism as a system bends owners decisively toward the priority of profit at the expense of whatever (or whoever, in the case of workers and consumers), would threaten to lessen or limit profits. Which is to say that the system itself preys upon the moral weaknesses of owners, the most powerful of whom—and, therefore, those in position to do the most damage—live at such a social distance from everyday people that their ability to empathize (integral to a moral and social conscience) has withered away under the heavy hand of their wealth.
And, of course, some capitalists (and their Wall Street enablers) have joyfully sold their souls to Mammon, inspired even yet by the Reagan-era ethic: “Greed is good!”
No one, of course, can deny the dazzling array of products that the engines of capitalism have made available to consumers (to those, again, who can afford them). Neither can anyone deny the rise of the advertising industry, whose function is to subconsciously persuade consumers that they need those products, even if they must consign themselves to unending and unpayable debt to acquire them. Whatever the benefits of capitalism, its costs to the quality of human life (and the quantity of human lives) are increasingly evident.
And within capitalism lie the seeds of its own demise. When the mass of workers are underpaid to the extent that they, as consumers, cannot afford to purchase the collective fruit of their own collective labor from their owners, the system is plunged into a crisis of over-production and under-distribution. When workers/consumers are trapped in a vicious cycle of unpayable debt, the bottom eventually falls out of an increasingly financialized economy. And the U.S. government (increasingly since the 1970s) worsens the problem (as it did in 2008) by bailing out banks and corporations while allowing the working class to sink ever deeper into economic despair.
Thus the necessity of government regulation of capitalism—that is, restraints on the “freedom” of capitalists, if only in the interest of saving capitalism from itself. But far more importantly to the vast majority of people, capitalism must be regulated in the interest of the safety of workers (i.e., safe working conditions) and consumers (regarding the food they eat, the cars they drive, the planes in which they fly, the water they drink, the air they breath, etc., etc.). All of this, combined with the endless, and inevitable, boom and bust cycle of even a modestly regulated capitalism (not to mention the increasingly unregulated capitalism that resulted most recently in the economic crash of 2008), would suggest that the ideal of freedom for all demands a better way.
But the political establishment carries on, by either demonizing (by Republicans) or marginalizing (by Democrats) socialism, as if there were no viable economic and political alternative to the capitalist system.
Critics of socialism point to the Soviet Union and Communist China as examples of socialism’s undemocratic character and, therefore, its incompatibility with freedom. These critics ignore the fact, however, that both of these so-called “socialist” states did not disperse power throughout the working class but, instead, concentrated power in their respective Communist parties, reducing the workers of their societies to servants of the state. George Orwell wrote (in his preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm) that “nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country,” due to which “I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement [in England].”
Which is to say that “socialism” without democracy—as characterized the Soviet Union and continues to characterize Communist China—is not socialism in anything but name. (Noam Chomsky points out that shortly after the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and prior to the subsequent Russian civil war, Lenin began to dissolve the soviets—the worker councils that had formed to govern the new republic democratically—in favor of concentrating power in his own and in the hands of what became the Communist Party; after Lenin, Stalin simply consolidated and intensified the centralizing tendencies of Leninism, thereby producing the subsequent horrors of Stalinism.)
Another alleged problem with socialism is human nature: critics argue that workers would not be motivated to produce apart from the capitalist incentives, positively, of wage increases and the “upward mobility” provided by the hierarchical (i.e., top-down) capitalist system and, negatively, of the fear of losing their jobs. This argument has no answer, however, for the question of why workers who jointly owned the companies in which they worked would not be fully motivated to use their gifts and skills to make their companies as productive as possible, while at the same time protecting their communities from the environmental and social damage so often caused by capitalist “free enterprise.” (The increasingly successful rise of “co-ops,” that is, worker-owned enterprises, in both the U.S. and Europe is a potent counterargument to disingenuous critiques of the impracticality and unfeasibility of socialism as an economic system.)
Most importantly, perhaps, critics of socialism have no answer for the question of how democracy, a political system that identifies “freedom” with the power of the many (who work), can co-exist with capitalism, an economic system that identifies “freedom” with the power of the few (who own). In historical fact, the pressure of democratic movements (i.e., movements of the people: women, blacks, natives, environmentalists, and other working people) has been the only counterweight to the overriding tendency of capitalism, in its all-consuming drive for profit, to commodify all aspects of American life, placing a profit-value on every person, place and thing. (For a wealth of detailed examples of people-powered movements, see Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.)
In the U.S., the powers that be have portrayed (through public education and mass media, among other purveyors of political propaganda) capitalism and democracy as proceeding together triumphantly in the interest of social progress. Which has been to paint the picture of the powerful and the powerless, singing in harmony and marching hand-in-hand into an ever happier and more prosperous national future.
American history is far more accurately understood as the unending—and grossly unequal—conflict between capitalism and democracy. And—as illustrated by the rise of fascism in Europe between World War I and World War II—the extent to which capitalism prevails over democracy is arguably the extent to which democracy is replaced by fascism (i.e., the authoritarian merger of government and corporations, characterized by white nationalism and militarism and imperialism, among other noxious -isms).
The unrestrained capitalism—that is, free enterprise, unregulated by government—of the early 20thcentury (in America, the “Gilded Age” of the capitalist “robber barons”) resulted in the worldwide Great Depression, the results of which included impoverished European workers turning from governments that had failed to protect them from the predations of capitalism to fascist dictators like Spain’s Franco, Italy’s Mussolini, and of course, Germany’s Hitler. These fascist ghouls promised workers a restoration of their dignity and status, at the expense, of course, of minorities and immigrants and dissidents, plunging Europe into World War II and resulting in the Holocaust.
The U.S. was spared the European turn to fascism in response to the Great Depression by FDR’s New Deal reforms—under the pressure from below of the growing organizations of American socialists, unionists, and communists—which promised and, to some extent, delivered economic relief to U.S. workers, who subsequently became the soldiers who helped the anti-fascist allied forces of Great Britain and the Soviet Union to win World War II. The injection of socialism into the American capitalist system—in the form of Social Security and government-provided jobs, along with the dramatic raising of taxes on the wealthy and the strict regulation of corporations—in the aftermath of World War II resulted in the birth and growth of a prosperous (albeit almost exclusively white) American middle class.
No sooner had this unprecedented rise of the working class to relative prosperity begun, however, then the powers that be—unwilling to be denied any measure of their prerogative to orchestrate the way things are—began demonizing and deconstructing the forces of capitalist reform. The socialist, unionist and communist organizations, and their allies in the education system and the entertainment industry, were ruthlessly repressed by the U.S. government via the “Communist witch hunt” of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s. Despite the counter-cultural anti-war and civil-rights social uprisings of the 1960s, by the end of the 1970s the powers that be had succeeded in shaking off the regulatory chains that had been imposed on the American capitalist beast.
The result was the gradual return to, and intensification of, the “freedom” of the powers that be to financialize and commodify all aspects of human existence—now known as “neoliberalism.” In turn have come levels of income inequality not seen since before (and that resulted in) the Great Depression, increasingly destructive climate-change events, and endless warfare across the face of the earth.
And just as in the wake of the Great Depression of 1929, so with the Great Recession of 2008 has erupted a global turn to fascism, the inevitable outcome whenever the powers that be are fully unleashed: allowed the freedom to organize the way things are precisely as they wish them to be.
But this time, instead of a New Deal that would provide enough socialism to persuade U.S. workers to reject their fascist impulses (i.e., the dark side of human nature), they have been offered an American brand of neo-fascism in the form of an arch-capitalist, President Donald Trump.
In sum, contrary to the unrelenting rhetorical efforts of the powerful to characterize socialism as the enemy of freedom, the practical reality is, quite simply, that socialism is economic democracy: the freedom/power of the people over their own working lives (work consuming the vast majority of people’s waking hours and, therefore, their lives). In that the vast majority of people are workers, the power of the people in economic terms translates to the power of workers. The more power workers in a society have over their labor and its fruits, the more democratic is that society. Which is to say, the freer is that society.
A functioning democracy, then, consists of ways and means of diffusing socioeconomic-and-political power among all the people, and dissolving concentrations of power in the hands of individuals or groups, in the interest of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Which is to say, in the interest of freedom for all. Bringing this about—or, as per usual, sabotaging every effort to do so—is what politics is all about.
(Next: Understanding Freedom: Freedom and Politics-Part 1)