For the past few decades, Conservatives and members of the Right have been accusing the Left or anyone who criticizes Capitalism and the free market system of being Marxists or Socialists. An example of this is the past three years, with Tea Party members labeling President Obama and his policies as being Marxist. It seems that many in the Right assume that the only critiques of Capitalism have come from Karl Marx. This is a fallacy, as many other individuals and groups have been critical of the Capitalist system. Here are a few of the critiques of the Capitalist system that I found. If you know more, please share with us what you know.
THE WRITINGS OF CHARLES DICKENS
Charles Dickens was a great social critic of his times. In his books, like Hard Times, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Oliver Twist, Dickens describes the suffering of those living in poverty and he excorciates the British economic and social conditions that perpetuate poverty. Because of this critique of the British economic system, Dickens’ writings have been admired by those on the Left like Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw, Dorothy Day, George Orwell and Howard Zinn. In an influential essay that George Orwell wrote about Dickens, Orwell thought that though Dickens has many of the same criticisms of the economic system as Karl Marx, Dickens attacked Capitalism as a moralist and not as a revolutionary. Dickens felt that each member of society had a responsibility to each other, and that the who have been gifted with material prosperity had a responsibility to help those who are poor and marginalized in society. Though Dickens was distrustful of revolutions, he felt that revolutions were inevitable if the upper classes neglected their responsibilities and allowed the poor to be systematically abused and exploited. In his book A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens wrote of the inevitability of the Reign of Terror due to the centuries of mistreatment of the poor:
It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the one only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown- as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it- as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw.
In his book Hard Times, Charles Dickens makes explicit his criticism of the way the economic system creates divisions between the haves and the have-nots and makes the rich insensitive to the plight of the poor. In one passage, Dickens describes the fallacies of those who consider themselves self-made men:
This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of six-pence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it?
The heroine of Hard Times, Louisa, learns of the plight of the poor and learns something about empathy. In one passage:
For the first time in her life Louisa had come into one of the dwellings of the Coketown Hands; for the first time in her life she was face to face with anything like individuality in connexion with them. She knew of their existence by hundreds and by thousands. She knew what results in work a given number of them would produce in a given space of time. She knew them in crowds passing to and from their nests, like ants or beetles. But she knew from her reading infinitely more of the ways of toiling insects than of these toiling men and women.
Something to be worked so much and paid so much, and there ended; something to be infallibly settled by laws of supply and demand; something that blundered against those laws, and floundered into difficulty; something that was a little pinched when wheat was dear, and over-ate itself when wheat was cheap; something that increased at such a rate of percentage, and yielded such another percentage at such another percentage of crime, and such another percentage of pauperism; something wholesale, of which vast fortunes were made; something that occassionally rose like a sea, and did some harm and waste (chiefly to itself) and fell again; this she knew of Coketown Hands to be. But, she had scarcely thought more of separating them into units, than of separating the sea itself into its component drops.
As a moralist writer, Dickens recommends that the more privileged members of society are duty bound to help others who are less fortunate. He wrote in Hard Times:
Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog’s-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you.
CATHOLIC SOCIAL THINKING
The Catholic Church’s social teachings have been consistently critical of the Capitalist system for the way industries have exploited the labor of the poor, while trapping vast segments of humanity in degrading living conditions. The Catholic Church has always been concerned about the poor, but it wasn’t until Pope Leo XIII issued the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 that the church took a position on the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. Rerum Novarum was deeply influenced by the medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas and his ideas of a just society. It advocated the organization of workers into unions or guilds, the right of a “just wage”, the right of private property, and the obligation of the government to intervene for the “public good”.
Subsequent papal encyclicals expanded upon the foundations that Rerum Novarum set forth. Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno stated that the right of property must be subordinate to the common good and it delineated the idea of subsidiary, the idea that a greater and higher association should not do what a lesser and subordinate organization is able to do. Pope John XIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra asks Christians to join in the fight for social justice as enumerated by Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. Pope Paul VIs encyclical Populorum Progressio focused on the responsibilities of former colonial powers to its former colonies, the need of the state to help the poor, and called for a more equitable relationship between industry and labor. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens extolled work as dignifying people and was concerned on how workers would adjust to the changing technologies and new industries.
All of these encyclicals have some scathing critiques of the Capitalist system. Rerum Novarum states:
In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.
Quadragesimo Anno states:
Property, that is, “capital,” has undoubtedly long been able to appropriate too much to itself. Whatever was produced, whatever returns accrued, capital claimed for itself, hardly leaving to the worker enough to restore and renew his strength. For the doctrine was preached that all accumulation of capital falls by an absolutely insuperable economic law to the rich, and that by the same law the workers are given over and bound to perpetual want, to the scantiest of livelihoods. It is true, indeed, that things have not always and everywhere corresponded with this sort of teaching of the so-called Manchesterian Liberals; yet it cannot be denied that economic social institutions have moved steadily in that direction. That these false ideas, these erroneous suppositions, have been vigorously assailed, and not by those alone who through them were being deprived of their innate right to obtain better conditions, will surprise no one.
Mater et Magistra states:
In economically developed countries, relatively unimportant services, and services of doubtful value, frequently carry a disproportionately high rate of remuneration, while the diligent and profitable work of whole classes of honest, hard-working men gets scant reward. Their rate of pay is quite inadequate to meet the basic needs of life. It in no way corresponds to the contribution they make to the good of the community, to the profits of the company for which they work, and to the general national economy.
We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner. Other factors too enter into the assessment of a just wage: namely, the effective contribution which each individual makes to the economic effort, the financial state of the company for which he works, the requirements of the general good of the particular country—having regard especially to the repercussions on the overall employment of the working force in the country as a whole—and finally the requirements of the common good of the universal family of nations of every kind, both large and small.
The introduction of industry is a necessity for economic growth and human progress; it is also a sign of development and contributes to it. By persistent work and use of his intelligence man gradually wrests nature’s secrets from her and finds a better application for her riches. As his self-mastery increases, he develops a taste for research and discovery, an ability to take a calculated risk, boldness in enterprises, generosity in what he does and a sense of responsibility.
But it is unfortunate that on these new conditions of society a system has been constructed which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation. This unchecked liberalism leads to dictatorship rightly denounced by Pius XI as producing “the international imperialism of money”. One cannot condemn such abuses too strongly by solemnly recalling once again that the economy is at the service of man. But if it is true that a type of capitalism has been the source of excessive suffering, injustices and fratricidal conflicts whose effects still persist, it would also be wrong to attribute to industrialization itself evils that belong to the woeful system which accompanied it. On the contrary one must recognize in all justice the irreplaceable contribution made by the organization of labor and of industry to what development has accomplished.
PROGRESSIVES OF THE 19TH AND EARLY 20TH CENTURY
During the late 19th and early 20th Century, one of the groups that appeared in response to the problems of the Industrial Revolution were the Progressives. These were mostly middle and upper class reformers who felt that the industries and monopolies emerging from the Industrial Revolution were gaining control of large segments of the American economy, leaving the average American with less control over their own lives. During this time, between one third to one half of the population were living in poverty. According to Rebecca Zurrier’s book Art For The Masses, men, women and children worked for subsistence wages for twelve- hour days, eighty hour weeks, under conditions that resulted in more than 570,000 industrial accidents each year- and provided no compensation for injury or layoffs. Because of these conditions, nearly 10,000 strikes and lockouts occurred between 1881 and 1890. The lack of any government regulation enabled a few men to accumulate huge fortunes and permitted the consolidation of industry into a few powerful trusts. By 1910, 1 percent of the population controlled 47 percent of the nation’s wealth. In Philip Dray’s book There Is Power In A Union, Dray quotes economist Herbert Croly:
…a simple and poor society can exist as a democracy on a basis of sheer individualism. But a rich and complex industrial society cannot so exist; for some individuals, and especially those artificial individuals called corporations, become so very big that the ordinary individual… cannot deal with them on terms of equality. It therefore becomes necessay for these ordinary individuals to combine in their turn, first in order to act in their collective capacity through that biggest of all combinations called the government, and second, to act also in their own self-defense, through private combinations, such as farmers’ associations and trade unions.
There were two Progressive responses to the growing economic and social inequalities that were brought on by the emerging economic system found in the Democratic and Republican Parties. A summary of the Progressive Democrat and Progressive Republican views could be found in the philosophies of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Eugene Debs. David Traxel, in his book Crusader Nation, wrote:
Policy toward the enormous concentration of economic power in the trusts was one of the points of contention in their differing visions of America’s future. Roosevelt believed that this increase in size and power of corporations was inevitable under modern economic conditions; they were here to stay, and the way to control them was through an equally strong central government armed with clear regulatory powers. Wilson, advised by the brilliant Boston lawyer Louis Brandeis, argued that these huge entities should be dismantled, not regulated. Only then would small entrepreneurs and businessmen have a chance to make their own fortunes.
THE POPULIST PARTY
Between 1891 and 1896, the Populist Party emerged in response to the financial difficulties that many farmers were facing during the late 19th Century. Responding to similar economic problems that the Progressives were trying to tackle, the Populist Party had as its goal the shifting of the balance of economic power more towards the rural and farming interests. Howard Zinn states the problems that led to the Populist Party in his book A People’s History of the United States:
Land cost money, and machines cost money- so farmers had to borrow, hoping that the prices of their harvests would stay high, so they could pay the bandk for the loan, the railroad for transportation, the grain merchant for handling their grain, the storage elevator for storing it. But they found the prices for their produce going down, and the prices of transportation going up, because the individual farmer could not control the price of his grain, while the monopolist railroad and the monopolist banker could charge what they liked…
The farmers who could not pay saw their homes and land taken away. They became tenants. By 1880, 25 percent of all farms were rented by tenants, and the number kept rising. Many did not even have money to rent and became farm laborers; by 1990 there were 4 1/2 million farm laborers in the country. It was the fate that awaited every farmer who couldn’t pay his debts…
The government played its part in helping bankers and hurting the farmers; it kept the amount of money- based on the gold supply- steady, while the population rose, so there was less and less money in circulation. The farmer had to pay off his debts in dollars that were harder to get. The bankers, getting the loans back, were getting dollars worth more than when they loaned them out- a kind of interest on top of interest. That is why so much of the talk of farmers’ movements in those days had to do with putting more money in circulation- by printing greenbacks (paper money for which there was no gold in the treasury) or by making silver a basis for issuing money.
During the Depression of the 1870s, the Farmer Alliance movement began in Texas. These farmer alliances spread, and by 1886, 100,000 farmers had joined two thousand farmer alliances. They formed cooperatives to buy things together and get lower prices. Cotton farmers in these alliances would put their cotton together and sell it cooperatively, a process known as “bulking”.
Many farm alliances were sympathetic to the labor movement and wanted regulation of railroad rates and heavy taxation of land held only for speculative purposes. The Texas farm alliance members went to the 43 states to lecture and organize, and by 1889, the National Farmers Alliance grew to 400,000 members. Various experiments were tried to deal with the worsening economic conditions of the farmers. The Texas Alliance attempted to form a Texas Exchange to handle the selling of the farmers’ cotton, but lacked the funds. In the Dakotas, a great cooperative insurance plan was set up for farmers to unsure them against the loss of their land.
Seeing how they needed political power to accomplish many of their goals, the Populist Party was formed. The Populists developed a plan called the Omaha Platform which called for the abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours and Government control of all railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. In the 1892 Presidential election, James B. Weaver received 1,027,329 votes. At the Populist Party convention in St. Louis in 1892, orator Ignatius Donnelly said:
We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized… The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrate, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists.
The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages; a hireling standing army… extablished to shoot them down… The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes… From the same prolific womb of government injustice we breed two classes- paupers and millionaires…
The Populist Party was eventually co-opted into the Democratic Party. But its ideas animated the politics of Democrat William Jennings Bryan and helped move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.
According to Wikipedia, anarchism can be described as the political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society. Anarchists oppose the idea that power and domination are necessary for society, and instead advocate more co-operative, anti-hierarchical forms of social, political and economic organization. Emma Goldman was an anarchist who fought for worker rights and wrote several essays on the anarchist philosophy. In her book Anarchism and Other Essays, Goldman wrote:
Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.
Dorothy Day and many members of the Catholic Worker hold a Christian anarchist philosophy. In the Catholic Worker website, it states its views on capitalism and offers an alternative:
When we examine our society, which is generally called capitalist (because of its methods of producing and controlling wealth) and is bourgeois (because of prevailing concern for acquisition and material interests, and its emphasis on respectability and mediocrity), we find it far from God’s justice.
–In economics, private and state capitalism bring about an unjust distribution of wealth, for the profit motive guides decisions. Those in power live off the sweat of others’ brows, while those without power are robbed of a just return for their work. Usury (the charging of interest above administrative costs) is a major contributor to the wrongdoing intrinsic to this system. We note, especially, how the world debt crisis leads poor countries into greater deprivation and a dependency from which there is no foreseeable escape. Here at home, the number of hungry and homeless and unemployed people rises in the midst of increasing affluence.
–In labor, human need is no longer the reason for human work. Instead, the unbridled expansion of technology, necessary to capitalism and viewed as “progress,” holds sway. Jobs are concentrated in productivity and administration for a “high-tech,” war-related, consumer society of disposable goods, so that laborers are trapped in work that does not contribute to human welfare. Furthermore, as jobs become more specialized, many people are excluded from meaningful work or are alienated from the products of their labor. Even in farming, agribusiness has replaced agriculture, and, in all areas, moral restraints are run over roughshod, and a disregard for the laws of nature now threatens the very planet.
–In politics, the state functions to control and regulate life. Its power has burgeoned hand in hand with growth in technology, so that military, scientific and corporate interests get the highest priority when concrete political policies are formulated. Because of the sheer size of institutions, we tend towards government by bureaucracy–that is, government by nobody. Bureaucracy, in all areas of life, is not only impersonal, but also makes accountability, and, therefore, an effective political forum for redressing grievances, next to impossible.
–In morals, relations between people are corrupted by distorted images of the human person. Class, race and sex often determine personal worth and position within society, leading to structures that foster oppression. Capitalism further divides society by pitting owners against workers in perpetual conflict over wealth and its control. Those who do not “produce” are abandoned, and left, at best, to be “processed” through institutions. Spiritual destitution is rampant, manifested in isolation, madness, promiscuity and violence.
–The arms race stands asa clear sign of the direction and spirit of our age. It has extended the domain of destruction and the fear of annihilation, and denies the basic right to life. There is a direct connection between the arms race and destitution. “The arms race is an utterly treacherous trap, and one which injures the poor to an intolerable degree.” (Vatican II)
In contrast to what we see around us, as well as within ourselves, stands St. Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of the Common Good, a vision of a society where the good of each member is bound to the good of the whole in the service of God.
To this end, we advocate:
–Personalism, a philosophy which regards the freedom and dignity of each person as the basis, focus and goal of all metaphysics and morals. In following such wisdom, we move away from a self-centered individualism toward the good of the other. This is to be done by taking personal responsibility for changing conditions, rather than looking to the state or other institutions to provide impersonal “charity.” We pray for a Church renewed by this philosophy and for a time when all those who feel excluded from participation are welcomed with love, drawn by the gentle personalism Peter Maurin taught.
–A decentralized society, in contrast to the present bigness of government, industry, education, health care and agriculture. We encourage efforts such as family farms, rural and urban land trusts, worker ownership and management of small factories, homesteading projects, food, housing and other cooperatives–any effort in which money can once more become merely a medium of exchange, and human beings are no longer commodities.
–A “green revolution,” so that it is possible to rediscover the proper meaning of our labor and/or true bonds with the land; a distributist communitarianism, self-sufficient through farming, crafting and appropriate technology; a radically new society where people will rely on the fruits of their own toil and labor; associations of mutuality, and a sense of fairness to resolve conflicts.
THE SOCIAL GOSPEL MOVEMENT
The Social Gospel movement was another reaction to the industrial age of the early 20th Century, lead by Protestant reformers who wanted to apply Christian ethics to the problems of capitalism. Prominent in the Social Gospel movement were Episcopalian Richard T. Ely, American Congregational church pastor Washington Gladden, and Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch. Walter Rauschanbusch’s book A Theology for the Social Gospel in 1917 describes the responsibility of Christians to be involved in social action. Rauschenberg wrote:
An unawakened person does not inquire on whose life juices his big dividends are fattening. Upper-class minds have been able to live parasitic lives without any fellow feeling for the peasants or tenants whom they are draining to pay for their leisure. Modern democracy brings these lower fellow-men up to our
field of vision. Then if a man has drawn any real religious feeling from Christ, his participation in the systemized oppression of civilization will, at least at times, seem an intolerable burden and guilt.
Using Wikipedia as a source, the Social Gospel activists lobbied for abolishing child labor, regulating the hours of work by mothers, crusading against the 12-hour day for workers at U.S. Steel, and fought for enforced schooling so the poor could develop talents and skills. Social Gospel reformers opened settlement houses, most notably Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams. These settlement houses helped the poor and immigrants by providing services such as daycare, education, and health care. Thomas Uzzel of the Methodist People’s Tabernacle established a free dispensary for medical emergencies, and employment bureau for job seekers, a summer camp for children, night schools for extended learning, and English language classes. Myron Reed of the First Congregational Church became a spokesman for labor issues such as worker’s compensation. The Baptist minister Jim Goodhart set up an employment bureau, and provided food and lodging for tramps and hobos at the mission he ran.
From reading the above descriptions, it’s obvious that Karl Marx was not the only person who was critical of the Capitalist system. Most of them did not want to overthrow Capitalism, but they did want it regulated so that the flaws of the system did not harm our society or our democratic traditions.
Personally, I think that the Capitalist system has great benefits and great flaws. One of the things that has bothered me over the past few years has been the seeming collective amnesia that the Tea Party and many conservative Republicans seem to have about the flaws of the unregulated free market system. In the course of this country’s history, the United States has had periods of serious economic crisis in 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1919, 1929 and now today. In the long run, I do think that the Capitalist system has brought more people out of poverty than any other economic system. And it brings out the entrepreneurial spirit that sparks technological innovations. But there are always people that will be left behind who will be trapped in poverty and exploited for their cheap labor. And environmentalists have noted the pollution and environmental destruction caused when the economic system exploits natural resources.
I think the concentration of too much wealth and power in corporations is just as corrupting as the concentration of too much power in government. Over the past several decades, the various checks and balances to corporate power, whether in the form of regulatory government agencies, unions, or the press, have diminished. I end this blog with a description of Capitalism that I like from the book Collapse of Liberalism: Why America Needs A New Left, by Charles Noble. He wrote:
In combination, free markets and capitalism have also helped usher in and sustain fundamental political changes, widening the scope both of personal freedom and political democracy. Because of this system, more people get to choose where to work, what to consume, and what to make than ever before, while traditional inequalities of rank and status are overturned.
The spread of market capitalism has also laid the foundation for the expansion of democratic decision making. With the establishment of private property and free exchange, political movements demanding other freedoms, including wider access to government, have proliferated. To be sure, capitalism cannot guarantee personal liberty or political democracy – it has coexisted comfortably with dictatorships too, from Nazi Germany to China’s current amalgam of free enterprise and authoritarian rule – but to date, no society has been able to create and maintain political democracy without first establishing and securing a market capitalism system. …
But market capitalism is not a machine that can run on its own. It needs rules, limits, and above all, stewardship. Partly because it is a machine and therefore indifferent to human values, and partly because there is no central planner to assure that everything works out in the end, there must be some conscious effort to bring order to this chaos. Left to it’s own devices, unfettered capitalism produces great inequities, great suffering , and great instability. In fact, these in-built tendencies are enough to destroy the system itself. …
To the extent that capitalism has served the interests of the vast majority of Americans, and not just a few rich investors and corporate executives, the left deserves the credit. … In the twentieth century, it was the left that fought for racial justice, worker rights, equal opportunity, women’s liberation, environmental justice, consumer protection, civil liberties, and antidiscrimination laws – the whole panoply of social and political changes that made America a better society.