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What is Capitalism?

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April 1, 2022


A certain congressional airhead (AOC) recently whispered “Most people don’t really know what capitalism is; most people don’t even know what socialism is” and we are compelled to agree — most people don’t know what these things are. But then, a Supreme Court nominee isn’t expected to know what a woman is, so perhaps this isn’t so incriminating an indictment of the public’s general level of political awareness. Still, we are inclined to take the vapid whisperer’s implied advice and seek a lesson in what capitalism is.

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A harsh critic can sometimes render a more honest appraisal than can a solicitous friend, so we begin by consulting the writings of one of the most highly committed and energetic socialists of the twentieth century for some insight into what capitalism is. Though this lesson was given nearly 100 years ago (and shows something of its age) it has an oddly contemporary ring to it, especially when placed alongside the tweeted musings of the thought leaders of the Democratic Party. Addressing his contemporaries, our chosen source proclaimed:

Capitalism is not a thing, but rather a disposition toward things. Our social needs don’t stem from mines, factories, buildings, lands, railways, money and stock portfolios, but rather from the misuse of these goods. Capitalism, then, is nothing other than the misuse of social capital, and such misuse is by no means limited to the economic sphere, but applies more generally to all areas of social life. The capitalist principle is the deliberate misuse of social capital, and the individual who practices this misuse is a capitalist.

If I misuse economic goods to torment and tantalize my people, then I am not worthy of possessing them. Were I to act in such a fashion, I would effectively have turned the intent of life into its opposite, and I would be an economic capitalist. Were I to misuse cultural goods… then I would be a poor steward of the cultural goods entrusted to me, and hence a cultural capitalist. Capitalism can assume a wide variety of forms, and it appears wherever personal goals are pursued in opposition to the peoples’ interests…

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It is the opposite with socialism. The socialist world view begins with the people and proceeds to things, and things are subordinated to people, rather than vice versa. Socialism puts the people before all, and things are a means to that end. 

Such bracing moral clarity! How could any young American socialist fail to take inspiration from such nobly proclaimed humanitarian sentiments? Indeed, how could one resist being moved by our chosen source’s sincere compassion for the neglected and the deprived, his righteous indignation at the criminal practitioners of capitalism? Surely (one is tempted to assume) if only such a man were granted the authority to assign to all his constituents that which each truly deserves, injustice would cease to govern public affairs and the good of the people would no longer be sacrificed to the narrow interests of a selfish few. And, of course, that is precisely the plan — every socialist envisions a command economy (and dreams of dominating it).

Our chosen source of this lesson, Joseph Goebbels, rose to power at the side of Hitler using rhetoric like this. The lesson we have chosen to relay appears in an article Goebbels contributed to his newspaper Der Angriff entitled “Kapitalismus” (published July 15, 1929.) It is with sentiments such as these that the National Socialists justified their quest for power, and once in power, they would go on to determine who was worthy of what, with consequences that are too well known to require recounting here.

Perhaps, then, we should return to the question: What is capitalism? One could say it is a network of economic interactions among independent actors each of whom seeks to better his or her economic standing by more effectively meeting the dynamically evolving needs of an ever changing market than do their similarly motivated rivals. One could speak of the capitalist as one who recognizes opportunities and then innovates and improvises in response to these so as to create value that customers recognize, and will voluntarily pay for. Individual initiative – not government dictates — determines what succeeds or fails in a capitalist economy. Risk is encouraged; many ventures fail, though some are conspicuously successful.

But what is capitalism in the eyes of a socialist? At its most vulgar, “capitalism” is a slur used to freeze political opponents; it is convenient defamatory shorthand for “enemy” (see Goebbels above.) But it must be ackowledged; the socialist does indeed have legitimate reasons for detesting capitalism: capitalism (at least in its pure libertarian form) is a barrier to the exercise of political authority. Free economic actors needn’t seek a tyrant’s blessing to act.

And what is socialism? Socialism is authoritarianism — the socialist, at bottom, is a petty tyrant possessed of an exalted sense of political entitlement grounded in a claim to moral superiority. The preening little socialist fantasizes about exerting absolute control over all aspects of social life, and expects to be congratulated for this.

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Socialism is the sentimental veneer of political brutality. To their deep discredit, the Democrats routinely and increasingly echo and advance the political sentiments of the worst political criminals of the 20th century. Looking over the last few years, we have observed Democrats habitually ginning up racism, slandering police, inciting (and then justifying) riots, promoting and practicing both censorship and viewpoint coercion, proclaiming the supposed virtues of socialism, viciously smearing their critics, and generally wallowing in the political gutter. The Democrats have venom on their lips and blood on their hands.

Which brings us to reflect upon a recent episode: during a press conference in Europe, President Biden rushed at the chance to denounce former President Trump (and by implication all those who had voted for him) as Nazis. Biden’s repeated recourse to the “fine people” hoax seems almost pathologically reflexive — he simply refuses to drop the debunked smear. As if on cue, he resorted to his stale, rehearsed little pantomime where he pretends to have been moved to seek the office he now holds in response to the unbearable spectacle of “Charlottesville.” In this periodically trotted out stock cheap shot — always delivered with the same insufferable scripted sanctimony and clumsily feigned personal anguish — Joseph Robinette Biden effectively proclaims that the nation he now leads is so chock full of racists that he just had to come out of retirement to block them from taking over. In this sick little self-congratulation fantasy, this rasping husk of what was once a time-serving dimwitted kleptocrat defames an entire nation in order to portray himself as its reluctant savior. What a revolting spectacle it is to see this isolated, historically inconsequential incident repeatedly dredged up as a national indictment — and now on foreign soil, no less! — and all so that the American people can be casually slandered for the benefit of a fading geriatric demagogue. Isn’t it well past high time he stop milking the dead cow of “Charlottesville?”

Any society is apt to be confronted with numerous problems and challenges, and ours is no exception. But some problems are bigger than others, so priorities must be set. Our problem is not that we don’t know what capitalism is, or what socialism is, or, for that matter, what a woman is; our problem is: we don’t know what a demagogue is. But given the cheap, overheated, divisive, contemptuous rhetoric being sprayed out of the mouths of leading Democrats with all the self-restraint of a skunk afflicted with severe chronic incontinence, perhaps even the least attentive of us is beginning to learn. With November approaching, let us propose: a party dominated by political hacks that habitually disgrace themselves by stooping to this level richly deserves to be demolished at the polls.

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