The Price of "Capitalism"

Scripps-Howard News Service 10.02.02
Balint Vazsonyi

The "Anti-Capitalist Convergence" had announced massive demonstrations and disruptions for the nation's capital for the past weekend. They did not materialize; only a small crowd came, valiantly trying to cause as much trouble as a small crowd can, but they became victims of their own hubris. So confident were they of 100,000 participants that those responsible for law-enforcement prepared accordingly. Police seriously outnumbered the protesters.

The non-event was notable only for the moment of levity when the master of ceremonies grabbed the microphone to ask that demonstrators come down from the trees which they had climbed, apparently, in order to break off the branches. "We have an environmentalist component among us," he said clearing his throat. "They don't think that's the way to treat trees."

No, it isn't. But then they may have been capitalist trees.

My interest in the affair comes from an entirely different direction, though. Over the past few years, it seems, everybody and his brother speaks about the capitalist system in America. Before, using the word was the hallmark of marxist training or influence. Yet lately, everybody is using the word - regardless of political leaning.

It bothers me because capitalism - the word and the concept - was the brainchild of Karl Marx. As well as offering an "-ism" opposite his own -ism, it describes a rigid class society in which one class possesses the means of production, the other nothing except its labor. The latter class is called "The Proletariat" who, as Lenin declared, can lose nothing but its chains when it rises against the oppressor.

This is not the place to argue whether capitalism was the appropriate way to describe certain European societies. The point is that owning things has always been open to Americans. The moment you buy one share of stock, you part-own "means of production," not to mention owning your home and arriving at your place of work in your own automobile - a very American image.

America never had a proletariat.

In that case, America could not have been a capitalist country.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has redefined capitalism after Marx, and it is inappropriate to use a word whose meaning is different from what the speaker has in mind.

Perhaps what we have in America is best described as a free-enterprise system.

Can you see an outfit called "Anti-Freemarket Convergence" organizing demonstrations in Washington? Even with all the champagne these protesters had consumed at their recent extended jamboree in South Africa, they would not do something so manifestly ridiculous.

In a sense it is a pity that the speakers at such rallies are so inarticulate, unappealing and predictable. Serious economists agree with at least one of their complaints about the International Monetary Fund: harmful interference with the aided country's ability to climb out of the ditch. Clearly, conditions need to be attached to loans, but strangling the debtor with impossible conditions is not practical.

(Naturally, the protesters' first demand always is that all loans should be immediately forgiven, all debts erased. When? Now!)

Alas, I have been watching these protests now for nearly 40 years and find that the organizers provide only slogans to the speakers, not to mention the crowd. Most participants are quite incapable of intelligent discussion. Of course, they also demonstrate only where they are not likely to encounter any serious physical risk - a habit that earns them no measure of respect.

But my main point still is that we ought to recognize people's political views by the words they use. Thus, persons whose beliefs are not informed by Karl Marx ought to stop referring to our free enterprise system as "capitalism."

There are many other words and expressions invented and introduced to promote a very specific political agenda. For years, I have been trying to persuade anyone willing to listen that the enforced switch from "personnel" departments to "human resources" belongs to that category. After coming close to giving up, the other night the same argument popped up at a most unexpected venue: in Jay Leno's monologue. Bless him.

What we benignly call "politically correct" is never without political purpose. Those who invented "native American" to replace "Indian" sought a term that would, at least by implication, diminish the legitimacy of everyone else who came here later.

Similarly, "capitalism," having been used for a century-and-a-half to denounce those who practice it, has all the connotations of greed and exploitation, and none of the uniquely American, fabulously successful, and gloriously liberating ring of "free enterprise."