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Is capitalism inherently anti-democratic?

By       Message Brian Cooney     Permalink
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The last 150 years of American history certainly suggest that capitalism erodes democracy. The story is simple enough. Competitive markets create winners; the bigger the market, the bigger the winners. We have the biggest market of all. Federal and state election campaigns cost lots of money, which big market winners give to those who will enact their agenda at the expense of everyone else. Result: plutocracy.

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What is the plutocratic agenda? In brief, that government should do everything possible to maximize the profits of big investors and large corporations. Taxes on corporations and rich investors should be cut. Regulations should be minimized. Labor unions should be weakened or eliminated in order to keep wages low.

This agenda calls for social programs to be reduced, not only because they are paid for by taxation, but also because they tend to make workers feel secure enough to resist exploitation. The costs of damages done by private producers to the environment and to people's health should be either ignored or paid by the public.

The capitalist agenda can be summed up as creating the best possible "business climate." Politicians and think tanks controlled by Big Business keep assuring us that profit growth leads to more investment which creates more and better jobs for everyone. That way we will all be better off than we would with costly social programs our society "can't afford."

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FDR's New Deal temporarily checked the plutocratic takeover, but Big Business soon reasserted itself so vigorously that we now live in an age as gilded as the one before the New Deal. But the question remains: does capitalism have to be like that? The answer seems to be no, if we look at Denmark and other Nordic countries.

During the Democratic presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders (a self-identified "socialist") often mentioned Denmark as a model society. Yet Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, speaking at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government last October, insisted that his country "is far from a socialist planned economy."

Instead, Rasmussen added, "The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state which provides a high level of security for its citizens, but it is also a successful market economy with much freedom to pursue your dreams and live your life as you wish." In 2015 Forbes once again ranked Denmark first in its list of Best Countries for Business. (It ranked the U.S. 22nd.)

Although Rasmussen heads the center-right Venstre Party, he explained that there is a consensus among the main parties on the value of the welfare state even though it requires taxes that "come to almost half of our national income compared to around 25 percent in the US." So the Danish people and political establishment clearly reject the American model of a good business climate as peddled by the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a model that calls for minimal taxes and government programs. Yet, according to Forbes, Denmark has a much better business climate than the U.S.

Some people may want to call Denmark a capitalist country, or talk about "Nordic capitalism," despite the great difference between the American and Nordic models. I would argue that doing so blurs a profound difference in value and culture between them, one that explains why plutocracy has taken hold in the U.S. We can see this difference by reflecting on the word "capitalism."

Capital, as part of the word capitalism, designates assets or goods insofar as they can be used to produce a marketable product or service. In other words, it's a power or capacity to produce what can be sold. So capitalism can be understood as (economic) 'powerism,' odd as that sounds. Capital is a power that must grow endlessly by feeding on profit. If it stops growing, we get stagnation, recession, or depression.

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An "ideology" is a set of beliefs that explain or justify the political structure of a society. Capitalism is an ideology that regards capital (and its growth) as the primary goal of a society. It subordinates all the institutions and activities of society to that goal. One striking example of this ideology is the privatization movement in the U.S., the drive to turn over public functions such as education, prisons, and the military to for-profit corporations.

"Republic" comes from the Latin res publica, meaning a public matter or thing. Its meaning is similar to "commonwealth." As the resources and functions of a society are increasingly privatized, a republic decays into a network of private properties.

To treat capital, a form of power, as an end is irrational. Power is a means, not an end. It is only as good as the end to which it is a means. The Nordic model values capital for the social goods it makes possible such as universal healthcare, subsidized higher education and job-training. The ultimate social goal in the Nordic model is to enable each citizen to live the best life he or she can.

In the Nordic model people rule capital, as one would expect in a genuine democracy. In capitalist America, capital rules people--a destructive means-end reversal in which a wealthy minority views citizens as "human resources," commodities to be purchased at the lowest possible price in a labor market.

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I'm a retired philosophy professor at Centre College. I also am a regular columnist for The Danville Advocate-Messenger,the local paper in what was my home town (I now live in Connecticut. My last book was Posthumanity-Thinking Philosophically (more...)
 

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