The opinions expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect opinions or positions held by Indivisible Northampton-Swing Left Western MA.
It has become commonplace in left and liberal circles to rail against the rapacity, cruelty and destructiveness of capitalism. But capitalism is not the problem and we’re scaring people away from our cause.
At the most rudimentary level, capitalism is defined as a system in which the means of production and distribution are privately owned. In the popular imagination this means that anyone is free to start a business, take the risks and reap the rewards. That’s in contrast to everything being run by a nanny state. In other words, when we rail against capitalism, many people think we are threatening their entrepreneurial freedom and it conjures up the bleak. dreary images of long lines and commodity shortages in Soviet Russia.
In fact, it’s not capitalism that’s the problem, it’s the implementation.
The basic difference between capitalism and socialism is that in a capitalist system the means of production and distribution are owned privately and in a socialist system they are owned collectively. The different ways of implementing these systems are what give them their character. An unregulated capitalist system is very different from one in which there are safeguards of public well-being. An autocratic socialist state is very different from a democratic one. In fact, an autocratic socialist state has more in common with unfettered capitalism than a democratic socialist state, which, in turn, has more in common with a well-regulated capitalist system.
Our problem is not that the means of production are in private hands, it’s that our system is not shaped by regulation to serve the public good. More than that, the erosion of regulation has enabled a small number of people to accumulate outsized wealth and to deploy that wealth to capture the government and usurp democracy. The villain is plutocracy, not capitalism.
The underlying and more profound question is that of the nature of ownership: whether ownership is more a matter of dominion or of husbandry. The impetus of the liberal/left is to treat the earth as a commons, not as property. It seems that this shift in consciousness can be accomplished through the steady accretion of laws and policies if a democratic process is allowed to thrive.
We can’t afford to scare people away with imprecise language that carries threatening cultural baggage, no matter how well or ill deserved.
So the next time you feel the urge to rage against the machine, use the word plutocracy instead of capitalism. Oligarchy is slightly less precise in my opinion, but it may have its rightful place. A lot of people who might otherwise be persuadable are going to be turned off if you threaten to do away with capitalism and take away their right to own a business.