Public Comment

Commentary: Thoughts on Capitalism

By Marc Sapir
Tuesday May 16, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following commentary appears only on our website. 


Wednesday morning, April 5, Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Observer, posted an interesting poll report on the list of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). Doug found that someone had spent a lot of time and money polling people in dozens of countries on whether or not they believe capitalism is the best economic system. The poll found that a majority of the people surveyed worldwide said yes. But what intrigued Doug was the ranking in support: China (1), India (2), the United States (3) etc. China and India are booming within the capitalist world economy as production, as well as service industries runaway from their native lands, slash work forces and seek out the cheap labor the two population giants have to offer. But in both China and India the disparity of income between rich and poor is huge and a majority of the population is still rural, living under extreme economic pressure. In his posting Doug pointed out that, unlike the United States, most people in China and India do not have access to telephones. As a result any pretense that a telephone survey is a random sample of the general population in China or India, is just that, a pretense.  

Those results may be an accurate reflection of the views of the successful upwardly mobile urban class that is tearing up the asphalt and benefiting from the exceptional economic growth. But the reported results can’t represent the opinions of the people of those nations in general because the typical person wasn’t eligible to be polled. In the United States it might be a different story, reflecting the spell (or delusion) that Americans have been put under due to U.S. military and economic supremacy after World War II. That period of unequal prosperity for the U.S. has ended as real wages are falling for most workers—despite the still large strata making six-figure salaries—while living costs skyrocket in key areas of economic necessity (housing and health care in particular). But old loyalties die hard and few people know much about the economic causes of the World Wars, including the one that the United States has just begun. 

This poll on capitalism has me wondering who put up the money to poll tens of thousands of people (costing at minimum $100,000 to $200,000) to see if capitalism still holds sway in the hearts and minds of people? Because even asking the question implies that someone is worried. Of course, they ought to be. We’ve got Ken Lay and his crowd, Abramoff and his crowd, Mr. Delay and his staff, Mr. Cheney’s Scooter. Most of these guys are going to jail but they are sort of the advance guard, stand ins for a system run amok with thievery via de-regulation and the de-legitimization of law, fairness or social concerns. As if that weren’t enough we have the legitimization of wars of aggression, government sponsored terror and torture, the seizings and renditions and torture of people, often innocent, who don’t have to be tried or charged or even permitted to defend themselves in a court. And now the scapegoating of the undocumented, as if Congress didn’t have their hands full taking all that money from lobbyists. The social and cultural fabric of Capitalism is obviously in trouble and that’s why the Right wing has been called forth to insist that we not say the word capitalism, but to call it liberalism. The problems are all due to “liberals” and “liberalism.”  

Now don’t get me wrong. I do agree that liberalism is an aspect of capitalism and a liberal politician is not necessarily more honest than a conservative. But it sure isn’t liberalism that spawned Ken Lay or the rest of the rampant dishonesty, selfishness, deceit, and moral depravity that the Religious right rails against. It’s the damned trillions in profits and its insatiable appetite to eat the world up—eating up all our decency and turning our culture into an internecine web of gang warfare. And just to make the point that liberalism isn’t quite what it claims to be here’s the state of Massachusetts—this very same day—one of the most politically liberal states, announcing a wonderful solution to the health care crisis. They are going to waste God knows how many millions to create a new bureaucracy that will tell every person how much they must pay for private health insurance (partially subsidizing the poor) and then give their folks differing qualities of insurance based upon this means testing. Not only will Massachusetts thus institutionalize inequality in health care, they’re calling it “health care for all” (co-opting the slogan of the national health insurance single payer movement) while guaranteeing more profits to the health care industry; not only will Massachusetts waste vast sums on an unneeded state bureaucracy that will burden and tie down the poor; but in a fitting move, they will make it a punishable crime to fail or refuse to pay whatever they tell you must pay.  

No, capitalism is not everlasting, impenetrable, nor even stable. And it should not surprise any of us that some folks with big bucks are worried. What I think they are worried about is that the W card instead of clearing up some of the ambiguities of power that liberalism reflected in the era of incredible U.S. economic worldwide expansion, has had the opposite affect. It has narrowed the prerogatives and increased the instability of U.S. capitalism. Even the now stagnated Iraq war, which temporarily forestalled a major U.S. depression by some years, seems to have left the United States no options but to pursue other more definitive invasions, so as to leave no doubt about U.S. power, control of oil resources, and stability. Of course, a brief contemplation leads to the conclusion that more aggression will not stabilize the situation at all. And so there is no where to go, except to poll and wonder how long the people are going to stay loyal. My guess is, not very long. But I could be wrong. 


Marc Sapir is the executive director of Retro Poll (