Occasionally I meet people who really love capitalism. They proudly call themselves capitalists. They extol its virtues. They confidently explain to me how capitalism fairly distributes scarce resources and encourages productive competition. They prattle on about something they call “trickle-down economics.” Apparently capitalism is just the best. It makes everyone’s life better (this hyperlink might be a satire. It’s hard to tell with these capitalists). I’m told that if it wasn’t for capitalism, I wouldn’t have a computer or a smartphone and I would have polio.
Sometimes I will tell them that I am not so sure that capitalism is the best. I will say something about corporate greed, or unfair wealth distribution, or the exploitation of workers and natural resources. For my scepticism I am routinely called a “communist.” This kind of dichotomous reasoning is pervasive. I was once having a conversation with someone about the Vietnam War in which I remarked on the destructiveness, inhumanness, pointlessness, and what I felt was the ultimate wrongness of the United States’ prolonged military intervention in Vietnam. I was told that if I opposed the Vietnam War, I must support communism. Indeed, I was told that if I wasn’t happy that the US “won” the Cold War, I must be a communist.
While it is certainly possible that I am a communist without actually knowing it, I profess that I am not a communist. I have never been a member of a communist political party, and though I am intimately familiar with and deeply influenced by the writings of Marx and Engels, I do not subscribe to their social-economic-political vision (or rather, I don’t subscribe to their vision in its entirety, as if that was even possible – just as capitalists who profess to adore the work of Adam Smith don’t subscribe entirely to his vision, though mostly because they haven’t actually read Smith, except insofar as it has been summarized as “free-market” in first-year business classes). Part of the problem, of course, is that people who call me a “commie” are not altogether sure about what exactly constitutes communism (or capitalism for that matter).
My capitalist accusers are often baffled when I tell them that while I believe in things like the social subsidization of health care and even the socialization of natural resources, I am not in favour of Soviet-style autocratic state communism. I explain that I believe in some manifestation of democracy, and they are astonished! I tell them that there are very few, if any self-professed communists that believe that Soviet communism lived up to even the most basic ideals of Marxism (as the most prominent articulation of communist theory), and that there is indeed, a long history of Marxist thinkers who were wholly critical of the failures of the purportedly communist Soviet states. They are shocked when I explain that many communists don’t even consider the Soviet Union to have actually achieved communism in any meaningful sense, and even more shocked when I tell them that most modern communists are decidedly democratic in political outlook.
Conversely, I will tell them that many capitalists have taken advantage of markedly undemocratic states, or that some states might even be best described as authoritarian and capitalist, and that, above all, capitalist corporations often exert power that is unaccountable to democracies. Totalitarianism and a socialistic distribution of wealth and resources are not mutually inclusive, I will explain. Neither are democracy and capitalism, I will go on. This is even more astonishing for capitalists, as they have been routinely told that freedom and capitalism go hand in hand. (A promising side note: A Google search for “capitalism and freedom” yields a parade of shallowly argued, uncritical accounts professing love for both capitalism and freedom, while a search for “capitalism and democracy” results in many very critical, thoughtful critiques of the tensions between modern capitalism and democracy. This is consistent with my views that one should be sufficiently wary of anyone who couches any argument for some cause or belief in the purported loss of “freedom,” as it typically amounts to scaremongering. Apparently people are able to better grasp the complexity of the concept of democracy).
One thing in particular that I find is very hard for my contemporary capitalist friends to grasp, is that capitalism hasn’t always looked as it does now. I tell them that just 50 years ago (heck, just 30 years ago), wealth was distributed more evenly across economic classes, income tax rates were more progressive, corporate tax rates were higher, corporations had less power, banks were more tightly regulated, and yet people still called their economic system capitalism. Audible gasps. But that sounds like communism!
Obviously, these anecdotes reveal less about the state of serious debate about economics and politics (which is often pretty sorry, in any case), and more about horrible reasoning and the efficacy of simplistic ideologies. However, I would feel more comfortable that I am merely criticising strawmen, or getting bent out of shape over silly fringe views, if such beliefs were not so common. There is so much that could be said about the dangers of forgetting histories and misunderstanding theories. And much more to say about how polarized debate obliterates nuance and makes even the most modest of critiques appear radical. Put simply, the fact that those who even timidly question beliefs in the fundamental greatness of capitalism are so regularly derided as “communists” amply demonstrates precisely its uncritically accepted dominance. This is in itself is sufficient for critique.