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Capitalism 2by Daniel Johnson, Deputy Executive Editor
This is the text of a talk I delivered to the Calgary group Poverty Talks on the first anniversary of the OWS movement.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - Why are so many people in our society poor? Because they’re animals. And because they’re animals, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for them to escape from their lives of deprivation and degradation. Political scientist and social activist Francis Fox Piven was born in Calgary but she grew up and made her career in New York. Her eye-popping book is called Regulating the Poor (2nd edition 1993). In one awful paragraph—53 words—she summarized the plight of the poor and working poor:
“Some of the aged, the disabled, the insane, and others who are of no use as workers are left on the relief rolls, and their treatment is so degrading and punitive as to instill in the laboring masses a fear of the fate that awaits them should they relax into beggary and pauperism.”
Today’s capitalism began with Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution in the mid-19th century. Darwin saw that at all levels of animal existence there were predators and prey. But he also saw contradictions: horses forming protective rings to guard against predators, wolves cooperating in packs, birds helping each other at the nest, fallow deer marching in unison to cross a river and vampire bats who share blood, mouth to mouth, with less successful members of the colony after a night’s hunt so that at sunrise, no one hangs himself up hungry. Mutual aid and cooperation are everywhere in the animal kingdom…
…except among humans in a capitalist society!
That mankind was part of the animal kingdom was not in dispute. But it was the rich and powerful men of the 19th century who co-opted Darwin’s theory to justify their greed and domination of society through a philosophy that came to be called Social Darwinism.
Using Darwin’s theory, Herbert Spencer, the Father of Sociology argued that unrestricted competition and the status quo (the rich as overlords in society) were in accord with biological principles. He opposed public aid to the poor:
“If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”
The original John D. Rockefeller, in his guise as a Christian, once told a Sunday School class:
“The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest. The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendour and fragrance which cheer its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God”.
The most influential of the social Darwinists was the Yale professor, William Graham Sumner who, at the end of the nineteenth century, defended great wealth:
“Millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done. It is because they are thus selected that wealth-—both their own and that entrusted to them-—aggregates under their hands….They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society.”
By this standard, today’s billionaires must be a thousand times more a bargain for society. Hedge fund manager John Paulson made billions betting against the U. S. housing market. As journalist Linda McQuaig wrote in her 2010 book The Trouble With Billionaires, Paulson
“…figured out how to make money betting that the millions of people signing up for mortgages they could only dream of actually affording would soon start defaulting. When they did, Paulson was there, watching money flood into his hedge fund….In 2007 he personally pocketed $3.7 billion, giving him the record—perhaps of all time—for financially profiting from the misery of others.”
If he had worked an 80 hour week, he was making $250/second and because the income was classified as capital gains, his tax rate was in the neighborhood of 15%.
Lester Ward, the first president of the American Sociological Society, was not fooled by Social Darwinism:
“The fundamental principle of biology is natural selection, that of sociology is artificial selection. The survival of the fittest is simply survival of the strong, which implies and would be better called the destruction of the weak. If nature progresses through the destruction of the weak, man progresses through protection of the weak.”
In 1883 Sumner had published What Social Classes Owe Each Other, and Ward, in reviewing it, understood exactly how humanity’s mis-framing of the social world had occurred.
“The whole book is based on the fundamental error that the favours of this world are distributed entirely according to merit. Poverty is only a proof of indolence and vice. Wealth simply shows the industry and virtue of the possessors….and human activities are degraded to a complete level with those of animals.”
It was in this milieu that the ethics of business became the ethics of society at large, which launched the dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself society we live in today.
It is normal for human beings to be competitive in a social environment. The expected outcome is that, because of natural differences, some people will do better than others—whether it be academic or scientific standing, musical accomplishment, novel or poetry writing, mechanical or culinary arts, sports or entrepreneurial success. The outcomes of these efforts can be significant and valuable contributions to the enhancement of society.
But under Darwinian capitalism, which defines today’s society, which is what OWS is protesting; everyone is subjected to predatory competition resulting in our savage society.
Capitalists, to put this in perspective, are animals in the same way as the poor. As a class, however, they are just more successful as predatory animals than are poor people. We must rise above that thinking—rich or poor, human beings are more than animals.
The German philosopher Goethe argued that “Man is an animal, an animal with a difference, singled out for higher things”. This perspective has been short-circuited by the monetizing and commercializing of everyday living. We have lost the Spirit in mankind.
In competitive systems there are winners and losers. The winners are the so-called 1%; the losers those in the bottom fifth or so, who struggle just to survive, for sufficient food, adequate housing and so on. In the middle is that mass of people striving to move up and, at the same time, struggling to keep from sliding backward.
Socially malignant outcomes are driven by the forces of free-market capitalism that most people unthinkingly support.
Right-wing Nobel economist Milton Friedman, once wrote:
"There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits…"
We have allowed business ideas and priorities to dominate our culture so that ordinary people have come to monetize life itself. This is the essence of what OWS is protesting.
What is a capitalist?
In the 19th century a capitalist was one who had access to capital. But today, in our system of predatory capitalism, a capitalist is one who believes in capitalism. Even if you have no capital, even if you’re poor, if you believe in the system, then you’re a capitalist.
There is no easy solution; perhaps there is no solution. The only way I see out is through democratic action. After all, there are tens of millions of ordinary voters and only a few thousand billionaires and plutocrats. As a mass, they must rise up and cast off their chains. They must learn that the world belongs to them, too.
In our system of predatory capitalism, except by accident, no one is going to help the poor. They must rise up and help themselves. That’s what democracy is all about.
Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Daniel Johnson as a teenager aspired to be a writer. Always a voracious reader, he reads more books in a month than many people read in a lifetime. He also reads 100+ online articles per week. He knew early that in order to be a writer, you have to be a reader.
He has always been concerned about fairness in the world and the plight of the underprivileged/underdog.
As a professional writer he sold his first paid article in 1974 and, while employed at other jobs, started selling a few pieces in assorted places.
Over the next 15 years, Daniel eked out a living as a writer doing, among other things, national writing and both radio and TV broadcasting for the CBC, Maclean’s (the national newsmagazine) and a wide variety of smaller publications. Interweaved throughout this period was soul-killing corporate and public relations writing.
It was through the 1960s and 1970s that he got his university experience. In his first year at the University of Calgary, he majored in psychology/mathematics; in his second year he switched to physics/mathematics. He then learned of an independent study program at the University of Lethbridge where he attended the next two years, studying philosophy and economics. In the end he attended university over nine years (four full time) but never qualified for a degree because he didn't have the right number of courses in any particular field.
In 1990 he published his first (and so far, only) book: Practical History: A guide to Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” (Polymath Press, Calgary)
Newly appointed as the Deputy Executive Editor in August 2011, he has been writing exclusively for Salem-News.com since March 2009 and, as of summer 2012, has published more than 210 stories.
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