Oops! After the Great Depression, American Capitalism entered a period of calm and even prolonged prosperity. But what also happened was that the underpinnings of the Reform Capitalism initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt were slowly being undermined. The Glass-Steagall law that limited bankers’ risks was set aside. Forces were marshaled against the gains made by Unionized labor, a rising tide that had lifted all ships for working people, organized or not. The vast truly middle class of Americans enjoyed a standard of living that was the envy of the world.
So in 2008, a Recession hit. Downturns, of course, had not been unknown in previous periods of American Capitalism. There had been panics, speculations that had gone awry, bubbles that burst and industries whose stodgy, unimaginative management had let become obsolete. Some of these episodes had had serious consequences, yet the economy always seemed to rebound. That is, until the Great Depression. Then, it required a dozen years of continuous domestic struggle and the demands of a global war to get back on track. And without sounding pollyannish about it, thus began a period of extraordinary growth and change. No longer was one-third of the population deeply mired in poverty, labor-management relations became better than they’d ever been and working people had money enough to take vacations just like the rich folks did. We became the leading power in the world, free or otherwise, and isolationism died. Education – higher education particularly – boomed. The G.I. Bill helped get thousands of veterans back into peacetime. We even began to make some headway on our racial problems.
Yet all through those years when we were defending American Reform-style Capitalism, first against Nazism and then Communism, there were mutterings, an expressed nostalgia for the ”good old days” of unpunished cheating on consumers and the open toleration of financial shenanigans. Polluters cried they were losing their freedom when they had to stop dumping parts of their costs of doing business on the public. To these people, liberty meant doing anything you wanted to do and, if it turned out to be criminal, you could always hire an expensive lawyer. Imperceptibly, the wealthy got wealthier. Bigger chunks of the pie went to less and less individuals. All business frustrations could be blamed on government oversight and, indeed, there were plenty of glitches in the system. But during 2008, when the housing bubble burst, suddenly, one-tenth of the U. S. population found itself out of work.
Apologists for tooth and claw American Capitalism call this creative destruction. It is a favorite Mitt Romney term. Out of the ashes, allegedly, something new and better will arise. Fine. Tell that to the people whose lives and well-being are destroyed – ‘lucky you, it’s creative, you should be grateful.” The idea is actually in philosophic terms derived from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German sage, whose dialectic theory was borrowed by Karl Marx in designing Communism and Hitler, too, since he called himself a Socialist. Those two movements certainly account for the most destruction (of lives, property, etc.) in the world’s history and creative it certainly was not.
The American people should label this “creative destruction” for what it really is: the wreckage of many lives and immense gains by a favored few taking advantage of the turmoil caused. Never has our nation experienced such a discrepancy in the division of wealth as now exists in the United States. Government has in various places bee captured and manipulated by certain interests and non-elected, shadowy billionaires are beginning to dominate our public life that in a way far outdoes the excesses, of the Robber Baron days.
The Great Depression brought war and non-creative destruction to many parts of the world. Now, the Bush Recession at home is spreading to Europe and other places on the planet. The very idea of Capitalism remains – rightly in some instances – under attack again. The reforms that made America a land of opportunity once more, tempering the sharpest, most ruthless and selfish of the purveyors of Capitalism, have been worn down, even discredited.
That old bromide – “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it” – is quite pertinent here. What was an age of horror, of merciless poverty, enforced inequality, home-grown aristocracy- has been set as a goal for the political party now most loudly trumpeting the glories of tooth and claw Capitalism, as it existed before being mellowed and open to democracy.
Prosperity will never come from slashing salaries, denying opportunities, trashing education, and forgetting that God made this Earth and saw that it was good, and should never be wantonly despoiled.
Capitalism has many good points. But what it needs at present is an infusion of “creative creativity.” Growth, yes, but not at any expense. Fairness to all, rather than just a few. Our mothers told us to share, did they not? So did our fathers, but not in the same words. The sense of community, engendered by our past, is always with us. It has sustained us through all our vicissitudes, including those presented by various aspects of Capitalism. We will have to live with this form of financial arrangement. But let’s never stop trying to make it better for everyone.