Complaints about “capitalism” have become more common the last few years in the United States. This has been a welcome development. Anytime the collective perspective is widened, it’s beneficial to at least some degree. In a complementary way, calls for “socialism” have also become more frequent.
We can credit these trends to social conditions. First, as such conditions have worsened by several measures — such as those that track economic factors and health statistics — more people have been willing to question the status quo. As the system falters, the number of folks no longer willing to play along goes up.
Secondly, some credit is due to the activists, scholars, artists, etc., who have kept fringe ideas alive through the times that were leaner philosophically (though wealthier financially). Occasional eruptions of activity have provided necessary exercise for these ideas, such as the turn of the century Anti-Globalization movement, and Occupy.
However, I put “capitalism” and “socialism” in quotation marks for a reason. The main issues that have been raised — income inequality (including falling wages and rising executive compensation) and a disintegrating social safety net (like lack of access to affordable healthcare, housing and education) — are grievances with Neoliberalism,* and the principal solutions, especially as enumerated in the Green New Deal (the Democratic party version) — such as increased government action and spending to create jobs, redistribute wealth and provide essential services — would not be Socialism, per se, but rather a return to, and ramping up of, Keynesianism.
This is not about splitting hairs. This is about getting to the root of the matter.
FDR’s New Deal (and Johnson’s Great Society) were both Keynesian; that is, they followed the theories of economic philosopher John Maynard Keynes, who developed them in the 1930’s (good summary). Keynesianism was not at all Socialist, and in fact sought to preserve Capitalism by blunting its sharper edges. With Keynesianism the sword is left entirely intact, and remains in the grip of the ruling class. With actual Socialism, by contrast, the workers seize the sword from the ruling class and wield it themselves.
What is the nature of this sword? Ironically to some — not the least of whom would be many in the Pacifist movements — this sword is a kind of plowshare; both are murderous. The multiple, intertwined crises we are facing today — whether economic, social or environmental — all precede Capitalism by several to many millennia. Capitalism emerged in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s (with no small help from the colonialism and slavery that marked the euphemistically named “Age of Exploration”) and Socialist thought rose in the mid-1800’s, as the massive dislocations of the industrial revolution demanded a reasonable response.
Yes, the depredations of Capitalism (and “capitalism”) have been horrifying, and yes, Socialism (and even “socialism”) offer something marginally softer, or more “humane” in comparison, but we must look back further in history than these relatively recent philosophies and practices if we want to address underlying causes.
I am speaking here of what Jared Diamond called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”: Agriculture, which burst onto the scene about 11,500 years ago.