Capitalism's Ideological Crutches

Capitalism's crises have always threatened it. True, capitalism's defenders could fairly easily dismiss crises when they were shallow and short with limited suffering for the unemployed, bankrupt and their dependents and communities. Some said they were merely "bumps in the capitalist road" to growth and prosperity. Others saw crises as capitalism's way to "clean out inefficient firms" and thus prepare its next upswing. Such interpretations of capitalism - ideologies - have long served to counter criticisms of its instability, recurring cycles and the suffering they impose.

However, such ideologies arouse many more than the usual skeptics when - as in the 1930s and again since 2007 - capitalism's downturns cut deep and persist. Then capitalism's stark inefficiencies become too glaring as millions of unemployed workers alongside idled productive capacity yield massive waste and long-lasting social costs. Bailouts of large financial capitalists by the governments they control turn skeptics into critics. The critics then become mobilized into a real political opposition when subsequent government "austerity" policies shift the costs of crisis and bailouts onto the mass of people.

Capitalists and the rich remain determined now NOT to bear the costs of the bailouts or the crisis. Unlike in the 1930s, they don't see organized, determined and militant workers' movements to worry about today - nor any USSR positioned as an alternative to modern capitalism. So, they push austerity policies for governments everywhere. To sustain governments' austerity policies, capitalists and the rich lean on their ideological crutches to try to thwart political opposition.

The mainstream ideology that works best as capitalism's crutch is blame the government. This interpretation of modern society insists that the ultimate root and cause of economic problems is the government, not capitalism nor capitalists. If you are unemployed, foreclosed, or underpaid, the problem is not the capitalist who refuses to employ you, evicts you, or pays you poorly. It is instead partly your own fault, but mostly that of the government: the politicians and the bureaucrats.

Blame-the-government ideology serves capitalists and the rich executives, managers, professionals and advisers who depend on them. They can boost their profits and wealth by cutting wages, jobs and benefits, using toxic technologies, relocating businesses overseas, jacking up prices, foreclosing, evicting, and so on. They can provoke global crises and take massive bailouts with public money. To cover all that, business and political leaders, media spokespersons and academics compose a chorus that endlessly repeats, "blame the government." They seek to transform that idea into "common sense" so victims of capitalists' actions will automatically not blame them, but instead get angry at politicians.

The blame-the-government ideological crutch aims to stop, deflect and demoralize political coalitions of those hurt and outraged by capitalist crises. Consciously or unconsciously, capitalism's ideologues want to prevent any repeat of what happened in the 1930s. Then, a coalition of workers, farmers, intellectuals, and others forced President Roosevelt to do the opposite of austerity. He raised taxes on corporations and the rich to pay for creating Social Security, unemployment insurance and a massive federal jobs program. A similar coalition today could return taxes on corporations and the rich back to those much higher Roosevelt-era rates. That could fund a government jobs program now like Roosevelt's, reducing unemployment now without any deficit and thus no additional national debt. It could, of course, go further and question capitalism itself.

Blame-the-government ideology aims to prevent workers' angers and resentments about their deprivations under capitalism from building effective, organized political power. That ideological crutch seeks to assure that what capitalism does to the people economically will not be undone by the people politically.

Blame-the-government ideology supports capitalism also in another way. By portraying government as wasteful, incompetent, corrupt, power mad and oppressive, it strives to establish another "common sense" idea. Government should be kept economically weak: Keep its spending down, its budget balanced, or else in debt to capitalists and the rich (main government creditors). Limit the taxes it can levy, the regulations it can impose, and so on. Hobble the government while painting it as a negative social force, not to be trusted. Corrupt the politicians with the resources only corporations and the rich have and spend for such purposes and then denounce that corruption as the government's fault. Turn workers away from engagement, respect for, or even interest in politics. Disgusted and alienated, many workers withdraw, leaving the political arena to the capitalists and the rich to buy and shape. US mainstream politics thus serves and never challenges capitalism.

Blame the government, like all ideologies, has contradictions and blind spots. When war is on the agenda, politicians get quick makeovers from "crooks" into "commander in chief" and "national leaders." When workers strike and otherwise resist employers, capitalism's ideologues want to unleash government on those workers. In such conditions, ideology waffles from blame and reduce to celebrate and strengthen government. Similarly, when politicians get caught working for and being paid by capitalists and the rich, a troubling question invades public discussion. Who really is to blame: the politicians who serve, the capitalists who pay and get served, or the system they built and maintain together? 

Mainstream blame-the-government ideology is a fig leaf that hides (and thereby protects and supports) how capitalism works. In crisis times, it intensifies (e.g., Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan and Rush Limbaugh) to shift public attention away from capitalism's breakdown and gross injustice. Its ideologues then urgently ratchet up blame on the government for taxing us, limiting guns, attacking marriage, religion and heterosexuality, mandating health insurance, imposing regulations etc. Their mission: redirect mass hurt, fear, anxiety and resentment about the effects of capitalist crisis into rituals of resisting the evil politicians and bureaucrats who want to control us.

Capitalism's ideological crutches do not necessarily or always stress blame the government. In Germany (1930s) and Italy (1920s), for example, deep crises saw capitalists embrace instead fascist ideologies and political parties that exalted extremely powerful government. Hitler and Mussolini merged powerful government with major capitalist enterprises. They used state power directly to subordinate labor to capital and to destroy capitalism's major critics: labor unions, socialist and communist parties.

Capitalists in the US, increasingly since 1945, have preferred a blame-the-government ideology that best reflects their thinking and advances their interests. They used it to help eradicate the socialist and communist parties that had been crucial to the powerful union (CIO)-based workers' coalition of the 1930s. It helped likewise to weaken decisively the main labor movement (AFL-CIO) across the last half century. Workers persuaded that it is "common sense" to blame their economic conditions on government rather than their employers undermine union solidarity and militancy. Finally, blame-the-government ideology helped to roll back the New Deal as workers were invited to identify with corporations fighting against an evil government seeking to control them. Thus corporations could, for example, win public support for cuts in taxes on their profits even when those cuts threatened government programs workers wanted.

To expose and challenge capitalism's blame-the-government ideological crutch does not mean reversing its one-sidedness. We need not and should not celebrate governments and their policies just because capitalism's ideologues blame them. Governments are creatures of their societies. In capitalist societies, corporations and the rich use their resources and power to shape government to their advantages. They also lean on ideological crutches to win enough public support to keep control of the government and society. Workers have been and will continue to be victimized by capitalist controls of economy and politics. To change government policies they need to see through capitalism's ideological crutches. More than that, they will have to organize politically as they did briefly in the 1930s. Yet that, too, was not enough. The New Deal struck by Roosevelt, the CIO and the socialists and communists in the 1930s was a change in government policy, but one that did not change the underlying capitalist economic system. It left the tiny minority of capitalists (major shareholders and boards of directors) in charge of the corporations and they used that position over the last half-century to negate and reverse what happened in the 1930s.

A different economic system would have prevented that outcome. A different economic system would shape and sustain altogether different government policies.

A different economic system from the ground up means reorganizing enterprises to put democratic majorities (of employees and of residents of communities that interact with the enterprise) in charge of all the basic decisions: what, how and where to produce and what to do with the profits. With the people in charge of enterprises - instead of tiny groups of capitalists - the economic resources they send to the government (e.g., taxes) will require it finally to serve the people in return. Just as capitalist enterprises always made sure to shape government to work primarily for them, so a social transition to workers' self-directed cooperative enterprises would make sure that government, for the first time, genuinely works for the majority.

Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, New York City. He also teaches classes regularly at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan.

from Truthout, 9/3/12

by Richard D. Wolff
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