My friends boast of this glorious philosophy. They use terms like free enterprise and free market—free everything, really. They say this glorious philosophy is the best invention since goat pepper soup. Now I am really interested. That comparison has gotten my attention. Tell me more. This philosophy they boast about is called capitalism.
I listened. I had to. They were all smiles and giggles when they spoke of their beloved capitalism. I smiled too, in the beginning. I wanted to be happy for them—and with them. But as their story unfolded, the creases in my cheeks started to settle and my lips lost that curl; my brow even furrowed slightly. They were my friends—nothing would change that, not even if they told me the goat pepper soup I prepared was just average (it wasn’t)—but I had to respectfully disagree despite their enthusiasm. For all the joy in their voices, they were beguiled, hoodwinked, bamboozled. Their beloved capitalism was a fraud.
Now it was my turn to tell my truth—the truth.
I cared deeply about our friendship, so much that I felt compelled to divulge the truth about capitalism, they way you tell your friends they should really change hairdressers, in a loving way. Capitalism was not the free everything they believed it to be. It was the opposite of what it purported to be. I could feel the look on their faces. Ouch. The plaster on their skin yanked wads of hairs as the words ripped their beliefs.
With immense effort and patience, I have searched the corners of this earth, far and wide, and nowhere have I seen a resemblance to this thing my friends call capitalism. Nowhere have I seen an economic or political system in which a country’s trade and industry are solely controlled by private ownership for profit. Nowhere have I seen an economic or political system in which the heavy hand of the state is far removed.
Capitalism masquerades as a philosophy where every person has the potential to be independently wealthy. The independent part is the one that makes my friends smile. It gives the sense that they worked hard all by themselves to accomplish their dreams, that all the money they earned and all the fancy degrees and materials they have primitively accumulated (clothes, shoes, cars, houses, boats, passport stamps, and other collectibles) are all a result of their individual efforts—that society writ large had little to do with their trinkets.
Of course this is not the truth. But a philosophy holds its power in what people believe rather than in where the philosophy’s tenets fall on the barometer of truth and falsehood; in fact, some philosophers would argue that such a barometer does not exist—that true and false are indefinite and only what people make of them. Clearly, any amorphous, ever-evolving standard is ripe for picking and molding for anyone with the cunning intelligence to do so. Hence, capitalism arises as a fickle philosophy which cajoles the ordinary man into thinking the wealth of nations and individuals are isolated affairs.
I have not witnessed such isolated accumulation that is the subject of this capitalism fantasy. I have not seen competitive markets where individual people or corporations thrive under capitalism, only monopolies and oligopolies of the few, who with their mafia-like tactics exclude others from competition through threats or actual violence. Markets, under capitalism, are rigged for the ruling class.
When failed businesses or failed farmers receive government welfare checks, called bail outs, have they successfully weathered competitive free markets? When entire banks, auto companies, and cities receive government handouts, are we to believe they are practicing capitalism at its finest—the so-called philosophy which declares winners and losers according to free enterprise? These observations have led to the conclusion that capitalism is a wink and nod philosophy. We should all turn our heads when the governments give money to private corporations or when individuals receive tax write offs. We should all turn our heads while the wealthy exchange winks and nods. “I’m rich because of capitalism, right? Because my company makes more money each quarter, right?” More, the boundaries of the ruling class are elastic, so as to permit newcomers who contribute to the charade.
My friends also discuss the free, voluntary exchange that takes place within capitalism. I ask them: Voluntary exchange—is that when countries freely give up their ancestors’ lands to foreign military bases? Is voluntary exchange when whole villages farm cocoa for miles and miles to export for cheap? Because they love cocoa so much, they volunteered to farm it for mass consumption or presumably for their own benefit? Is it when governments amiably make arrangements to import goods they do not need to boost other countries’ economies? Is this the voluntary exchange of which capitalism boasts?
At this point, my friends wear disheartened looks. But I tell them, there is more.
Capitalism as a philosophy espouses no such belief in private property. Indeed, capitalists do not believe people should truly own anything. In so-called capitalist nations, not a single individual can actually own land. The big government (there it goes again) can always take land from the so-called free individuals. The government can claim imminent domain—the argument that the government needs the individual’s land (for any purpose) and the individual must give up the land that she owns to the government…or else…
The big government in capitalist nations orders individuals to pay yearly for the land that the individuals presumably own. Some people would call this a tax, but “tax” is just a fancy term that obscures the plain and simple fact that the individual is not the genuine owner—sorry to break the news this way, but if you constantly have to pay someone for something, you do not own it at all. And if the individuals do not pay, the government will again take their “private property.” Most arrangements in capitalist nations are moving to such a subscription relationship, to make formalized agreements where individuals have to make regular payments for things they once owned. But this is the capitalism where my friends say the state is absent in the dealings of property and profit. I must inform them, sadly, that the state is omniscient under capitalism. Hello big brother!
Private property, in capitalist form, only emerges when a few oligarchs desire to profit. For example, is the basis for conglomerate Microsoft’s software private? Actually no. The software upon which the company based its ascent is open source software that has been created, shaped, and molded by the public. Only Microsoft takes public efforts and “privatizes” them which means nothing about their origin but just to say that only one person and his company should accumulate money from the public good.
In much the same way, multinational pharmaceutical conglomerates say only they can make money from their “private property.” But isn’t marijuana, for instance, an herb that grows everywhere? Couldn’t it be anyone’s private property who decides to grow it? Is an individual free in this free enterprise to grow or sell marijuana? Those like my friends who talk about free markets are mum when I explain how markets are only “free” for some—the ruling classes, the elite, the rich, and their conglomerate corporations—and restrictive for the majority.
If my friends dream to open a marijuana sales business…. well, they cannot. Unless they get permission. From who, you ask? The government. My, oh my, is this the state that is nonexistent under capitalism? The state that allows people to run amok with their free markets and free enterprises? Why is it that every time I suggest something about my private property or my business enterprises, I have to interact with this state that is supposed to be invisible under capitalism? The capitalism philosophy, when examined under a microscope, invariably leads to contradiction. In my perusal of capitalism, I found freedom nowhere. Under capitalism, freedom is an idea, one that was peddled about and thrown into flowery speeches, but in substantive form, freedom is missing.
So where is the free in capitalism? Free enterprise, free markets, free individuals? Where is the hands-off government? Where is this capitalism? Where? In reality, the closer one looks, the more that water on the road in the desert is not actually water but just a mirage. Up close, it looks less like water. When touched, there is nothing. Capitalism is that mirage. It is not what it appears to be.
In truth, capitalism is an empty, bottomless philosophy. Unfortunately, the materialism makes it that way—without real substance. Like putting lipstick on a pig, capitalism dresses up with amiable words like voluntary exchange, wage labor, private property, and individual rights to hide its true motives of unrelenting violence, sheer brutality, never-ending wars, and constant bloodshed. Capitalism unleashes its violence on the planet, decimating the world’s species. Any competition to existing corporations or powerful nations, any real challenge to the capitalist order, receives a coercive nudge to cede—accept a buyout, discontinue your nuclear weapon-making, or else… Competition is also quelled by the big governments—that’s right, the states which apparently are supposed to be mute, unbiased, non-factors according to capitalist mores.
The plain and simple, though gruesome, truth is this: capitalism is the philosophy that takes the kenkey seller and her community hostage with the threat of dropping a nuclear bomb on the entire village, the philosophy that threatens to leave thousands deceased and the remaining living with intergenerational deformities. After that threat is well-nigh-digested, I am told to aspire to a life not of culture and meaning, but a life filled with wages, that I am a voluntary wage laborer. I am told that if I am hard working, these wages will increase with time so that I can be able to afford, with money, actual food that I once grew in my village. If I am hard working, I can be able to afford with money a roof over my head that I once built with fellow residents in my village. Capitalism takes all that I had already and promises that I can get it all back, if I agree to a life sentence of wage labor for the capitalist. But I am told that I am free. Imagine that. And with a few generations of institutionalized forgetfulness—and by this I mean (mission) school “education”—that threat of violence which constantly looms over my village is conveniently left unspoken.
I would continue the search for the capitalism of which my friends once boasted (though now they seem rather quiet and dumbfounded). I would keep looking. But this search would be futile, in the end. The cute story of a dear capitalism, benevolent to many, free for all, my friends, that capitalism does not exist.