Capitalism: Unfit for civilized societies

The Paradox of the New Elite
In economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.


Upstate New York

The U.S. has seen extreme economic stratification before; the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons still resonates across the decades. What has happened is that the forces that used to oppose wealth have largely abandoned the field, in part because of success, in part because of a shift in priorities, in part because of other conflicts.

To make a long comment short, the Democratic Party stopped fighting for economic justice in favor of social justice, and ended up selling out to the business community. For example, we now have a Democratic governor in New York State who is attacking state employee unions for having too much, while defending the right of millionaires to have even more - but he supports same sex marriage for rich and poor alike.

The full legacy of Martin Luther King has been forgotten. While everyone is aware of his leadership in fighting racial inequality, few know that he had come to see that economic inequality was as great a problem. At the time of his assassination, he was shifting his efforts to fight poverty as well as racism. It is ironic that King was rejected by many unions because of racism among union members, one of the things that led many of them to turn to Nixon and then Reagan in reaction to a Democratic Party that was spending their tax money on - in their opinion - undeserving minorities, and giving them special preferences.

This has pretty much given the forces driving inequality free rein over the last 30 years. The Republican Party has never had any problem accommodating racism or economic injustice; the party thrives on division. The break down of the labor - Democratic alliance, the destruction of unions in America, and the growing symbiosis between Wall Street and the Democratic Party Leadership has further accelerated the trend.

Inequality comes at a high price. Wilkinson and Pickett detail in the book "The Spirit Level" how it corrodes the quality of life for rich and poor alike in ways beyond money - is anyone listening?

New York City
It's the old divide-and-conquer. White men who see women, immigrants and minorities becoming successful become resentful toward egalitarianism. They retreat to a fantasy identificiation with the white men who are members of the economic elite. The elite channels the anger of white men toward immigrants through psychologically sophisticated propaganda that makes them think it is the immigrants, not the Wall Street bankers, who are destroying their lifestyle and sense of identity. This is changing slowly, however, as the job prospects for college-educated white men have plummeted. A successful revolution in the United States needs white men, and the white men of the 99 per cent are waking up as they realize that even a middle-class life for them may be out of reach.

New York
Economic inequality in the U.S. is exacerbated when then "elite" class, particularly those who control the banks, are permitted to gamble with citizens' money and not be held to accounts when their bets fail.

As Walker F. Todd, a research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and a former official at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, commented in a front-page NYT article today (Bank’s Collapse in Europe Points to Global Risks)regarding the possible collapse of the European banking giant, Dexia: “In the short run, it would help if the authorities would say they refuse to provide publicly funded money for the payoffs of derivatives,” he said. “This is like using public funds to support your local casino. It is difficult to see how this is good for society in the long run.”

Nathan an Expat
In many ways "inclusion" as discussed in this article (gender, race sexual orientation,etc...has) often serves as a specious bait and switch for the real issue of socio-economic class. Replacing the sons of the wealthy with the daughters of the rich will do little to address the growing gap between rich and poor. I remember clearly a conversation with a rich White South African on the eve of Mandela's triumph. A reporter was asking him what he would do if a Black South African bought the house beside him. He replied looking over the well groomed hedges and expanses of closely clipped grass, "If he can afford that house I think we'll get along just fine". And they do -- all over the world with the Ivies and similar educational systems providing a fig lead of "certification" for the laughable argument the system is somehow a meritocracy as opposed to a corrupt inbred favors trading plutocracy that takes care of its own. (How many US President's children are now working for hedgefunds? How many senior government officials rotate out of investment banks?) Oh, one last anecdote a Yale admissions officer spoke of their concept of a "well rounded" candidate being one who could "roll all the way from New Haven to Wall Street".

Marv Raps
New York City
Excellent article. However, the assumption that the super rich earned their wealth and have an inalianable right to keep it needs to be challenged. Those who captured a percentage of a nations wealth that would have made the aristocracy of the 19th Century envious did not earn it through hard work, creativity and innovation. Few, if any, are inventors of great industries and even if they were, they would have relied on legions of inventors, innovators and laborers who paved the way for their success. Others relied on their wealth to capture greater wealth. Money does not earn money, it can merely capture it. Until we rethink the way wealth is captured and the way workers are denied the full fruit of their labor, the stratification of society will continue to get more unequal and social mobility, less common.

Leesburg, Florida
Inclusion of minorities is probably a consequence of federal laws originating from the slavery issue and not from any humanity emanating from the people, at least in the south. I am from the deep south and believe me when I tell you that old perverse attitudes still prevail.
Concentration of wealth, however, and the elitism which naturally accompanies it is a direct consequence of capitalism. In but a few hundred years, capitalism has changed the typical person from one who took great pride in his work, who valued the work ethic, and realized that work itself is what makes people happy, to a person who values money and possessions above character, and appearance above substance. We have morphed into a vain and superficial society.
It seems that superficial and vain people also have less respect for the truth. The majority of presidents since Hoover have been caught in lies, who knows how much deceit went unnoticed. The people themselves have been transformed to have less respect for the truth. The point being that the elitist tenet ‘giving truth to the people would be like throwing pearls to swine‘ is probably now true.
Capitalism has another quality rendering it unfit for civilized societies, it is a natural enemy of the Earth. It is simply cheaper, hence more profitable, to dump one’s manufacturing waste into the earth, sky, or ocean, than to dispose of it responsibly.

kallian publico
Brooklyn, NY
Hard work? Setting up a financial industry casino is hard work? Facebook is hard work? Porn sites? Are these the businesses of the future or are they the new churches of a mentality scornful of collective, social responsiblity because they thrive on vulnerable, individual uncertainty. Without morality collective approval and disapproval will not be forthcoming. The symptom of this inequality, alienation, is also the cause. The only way to overcome this problem will be through morality. Whoever Resets the boundaries of what is right and wrong gets to define what is "legal"(financial derivatives) and what is "criminal"(terrorists).

Ronald Cohen
Wilmington, North Carolina
The shifting balance of power in this nation is directly connected to the influence of money and benefit that is conferred on elected officials by the financially dominant that the pervasive appointment of financial insiders to government positions. To restore the balance that must (a) be term limits; (b) public electoral financing; (c) end to the revolving door; (d) overruling of Citizen United by Congress commonsensically defining a person as a biological entity not a legal fiction; (e) return to Glass-Stiegel.

Durham, NC
The part that is even worse than the loss of opportunity is the quality of our 'elite.' Our 'elite' 'leaders' are incompetent, short-sighted and greedy. Having a system like ours might be palatable if the people at the top actually deserved their positions.

Colesville, MD
There are at least two common misconceptions among the pundits. First, the economic inequality and second the consumption demand slump are the two root-causes of economic debacle. They are not. The root cause has nothing to do with these results of systematic breakdown due to internally inherent contradictions.

“It is the system, stupid!”

It is true that inequality is associated with any private-ownership system but with capitalism, the ruling class has systematically established the legitimated and justified inequality. Historical, educational, news media and cultural inculcations render egalitarianism a taboo or if not, a freeload-like concept or a socio-irony. Capital relies on taboos and cultural misconceptions for its supreme reign on people’s spiritual and intellectual lives, just as it sets up politics, ideology, law and order as well as civil society to rein in people’s political lives.

Capital-owners have never volunteered to confer on people egalitarianism without a struggle. The more people struggle against the system, the more they get concessions from the ruling class. When they failed to struggle, the obtained concessions became invalid almost at once. The class struggles and never subjective wishes decide the outcome. This socio-political rule applies equally well to race, gender, age, immigration, religion and cultural equalities.

The author seems to lean too much towards the disinterested and subjective willingness of an unnamed ruling class to understand correctly the socio-political conflicts the vast population faces today.

OWS protesters clearly understand better than pundits their class struggle can make much more difference than ballots that are not a match of the greased palms. Mass movements with democratic awakening are no longer isolated anti-capital democratic activities of the frontal battlegrounds such as the Arab countries; it has spread to vastly large rear areas of advanced or emerging capitalist countries.

Olympia, WA
I think, in fact, we have become a pseudo meritocracy. We are becoming more of an aristocracy where the privileged few can maintain their wealth from generation to generation through inheritance and their children get special treatment regardless of their academic achievement. Take George W. Bush, for example. Here was a mediocre student who gets into Yale because of his family name. With the demise of inheritance tax, compounded by economic stagnation, we've created a system that prevents social and economic mobility. Cronyism, nepotism, sycophantic behavior, and the like are the new norm in coporate and government culture. Arguably, the elite system perpetuates this condition since incompetent "leaders" like Bush now are the heads of of corporations And their dreadful decisions have destroyed the economy leaving only this aristocratic model in place. We are becoming a society like 19th century England without the glory of a monarchy.

Egalitarian? Equality?

This piece lacks a historical perspective and is inaccurate. This country was founded on inequality and that has remained the status quo! Rich, white male landowners pitted themselves against white indentured servants and African slaves to maintain economic, legal and political power. Very little has changed since then! The author is confusing the increased visibility of minorities and women with actual economic and political power. The truth is that the descendants of the white landowners comprise the 1% that own 80% of the wealth in this country. There still exists institutional discrimination which prevents low-income whites, women and minorities from acquiring real wealth in this country. There never has been equality and there never will be unless the class structure is exposed and fundamentally altered.

Stephen de las Heras
New York, NY
The left needs to take responsibility for their failings as well. Dividing everyone into groups by race, or gender, or sexuality really undermined the notion of caring about everyone's rights, and everyone's opportunities, and distracted people from the real issue: growing inequality. Togetherness and fairness were traded away for group identity and trying to leverage that identity into some sort advantage in the real world through diversity initiatives or quotas. The only liberals who ever had a real sense that this was a bad thing, to the extent that they didn't belong to a "group", were often sent to the back of the line, or portrayed as the bad guys, were white heterosexual men.


If by "egalitarian" the author means "fair," we as a country, society and culture have never been so. George Washington was the richest man in the United States. For all it's high falutin' language about liberty and equality, the Constitution is rather vague and subject to interpretation-some would say written largely in favor of property owners, of which there were only a handful in Washington's day. The American Revolution was about wealthy colonists wanting a larger share than King George allowed and a redirection of the fomenting, angry rebellion of the other 99%: white indentured poor, slaves and natives who were joining forces against American Colony elites holding all the cards.

The middle class is a lovely invention designed to give just enough comfort to just enough people. Sated, it provides a buffer for the 1% against rebellion of the angry poor, for whom the middle class life is held out as a carrot. With the decimation of workers rights and the loss of the rising tide, which in the past did "raise all boats," the angry poor becomes an ever increasing threat.

Nothing new under the sun.

Dwight Bobson
Washington DC
This discussion assumes the existence in the U.S. of ideals, i.e., a free market and capitalism. The U.S. could produce greater financial equality within limits of a person's ability if the ideals were not gamed and twisted in favor of the already wealthy, which to me means certain people are allowed to cheat. If a company buys (read: campaign contribution), via political favor, a loophole in a law that allows it be favored over relative equivalent competitors, it creates inequality. If the same is done with a regulation that allows what amount to corporate welfare (see: http://www.cato.org/corporate-welfare, it creates inequality. There is no apparent accountability applied to cheaters, be they members of congress or those who buy their influence from them. Laws and their enforcement need to be in place to have a chance at financial equality. What the GOP as a political arm of the wealthy, with the help of the Democrats who are willing to allow cheating for both those who tug at their heartstrings as well as the wealthy campaign contributors, endorse is the de-regulatory government that has been increasing. And this is not to excuse Clinton's repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act as proposed by influential GOP congressmen. In summary, the average American has been cheated, knowingly and deliberately, by their elected representatives. And you cannot talk about ideals of equality and justice without recognizing that power corrupts and wealth buys power and so it also buys corruption. That man is so corruptible is simply a fact of life in America where greed has the stamp of approval from such a large segment of the powerful, of the leadership and of the elected.

Richard Doczy
So what is wrong with being un-egalitarian? Nothing in nature is. Nor in athletics, nor in scholarship, nor in beauty, nor...well you should get it by now. Why should we all be equally poor or rich? Makes no sense and trying to make us so simply makes those who would arrange it far more powerful than the rest of us.

Little Silver, NJ
It is time to recognize that income inequality is a normal, natural result of increasing productivity, especially from technology. We live in a world where increasingly complex (and formerly labor-intensive) tasks can be performed by fewer and fewer people. The trend started during the Industrial Revolution, and has likely accelerated during the Technological Revolution of the past 20 years. The difference is that we didn't notice, or didn't care, when 20 uneducated farm laborers were replaced by a thresher or combine. But when 20 college-degreed accountants are replaced by a spreadsheet program, or 20 highly-skilled arc welders are replaced by a robot on an assembly line, we notice. All the wages that those displaced workers used to receive are going to naturally get redistributed upward to fewer, more technologically-skilled workers.

This is progress, and is natural. And it is beneficial to society. Instead if fighting it, we must learn to cope, and teach our children to cope, and prepare so that they are not left behind.

You want income equality? Ban the computer. Ban electricity while you're at it.

Teed Rockwell
Response to Tom in NJ:

"This is progress, and is natural."

So is bubonic plague, and economic collapse caused by housing bubbles. That doesn't make it right or desirable.

"And it is beneficial to society."

Only if you define society as the Rich

"Instead if fighting it, we must learn to cope, and teach our children to cope, and prepare so that they are not left behind."

And how are we to do that when education is now so expensive that only the Rich can afford it?

Vincent Amato
New York City
The real problem is the notion that American exceptionalism is to be maintained at any price. When it became clear that European and Asian economies were trending toward greater prosperity as the devastation of WWII receded into the past, it appeared that economic policy makers made decisions that said to our own citizens and to the world at large, "we may no longer be able to provide the relative advantages to our workers and ascendant middle class that they acquired in the 1950s, but we will allow some Americans at least to acquire wealth unimaginable in any other country." The now highly vaunted 1% is, in effect, an American version of the Potemkin Village, a facade of highly tinseled wealth behind which the vast majority are left to make do the best they can on their own. This is not a byproduct of superior skills or the magic of capitalism for a handful, it is a matter of policy, of, in effect, subsidies to the richest Americans. We have been taught to believe that anything more equitable would create a grey, Scandinavian style socialist reality.

Colorado Going Blue
Inequities are forgiven if success is achieved. Success has become based on our modern icons. Our social icons are given, largely, by the media. These icons are the rich and famous. Success is determined, somewhat by talent, but mostly by access to capital. Those who are the traditional gatekeepers of the capital are formidable in excluding those who are not cultivated in the knowledge, or the family, understanding how to access capital. No investment, no return, so to speak. But more brutish is that there are painfully few protections any longer to control how capital is raised at the elite level. Pillaging those without has become fair game. Hence the elite end of the pool is heading in an upward trajectory toward success at the logistical expense of those on the bottom being pushed further downward. There is no equality in a society which cannot create a government that can consistently protect those with less political power from those who hold it. There are no protections in America for being poor.

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