I would be the first to agree that capitalism is the best economic system that has been devised. But like everything else in life it has its pros and its cons. And unfortunately it has its major mishaps, which most regrettably is the state of affairs in our country today.
There is a profound and very dangerous conflict going on today; and that conflict is presently threatening the very heart and soul of this nation. Without doubt we are at the most critical stage of our history; and if the present conflict is not favorably resolved the foundations of our nation will crumble.
An economic system must be geared to serve the best interests of the nation as a whole. If that objective is not accepted as a given and not implemented with objectivity then the stage is set for perpetual division, tension, opposition, alienation, aggression and ultimate dissolution. We have seen this happen so many times in history and in the current political turmoil which plagues so many nations of the world.
When I was growing up during the 1950’s in most middle-class households only the father worked. Women had proved during World War II during the 40’s, filling in for men gone overseas, that they could work as well as any man; but after the war ended most chose to center their lives on raising the children and managing the household. They had the option . Family income, based on only the father’s salary was quite sufficient to meet the family’s needs and allow for reasonable savings. Jobs were held for years- 25 to 30 years was not uncommon. And pensions and social security provided a secure-enough retirement for a high percentage of the population. The point is that the system provided a good measure of security, at least for most middle-class people. I don’t mean to suggest that things were “just perfect.” They weren’t. But generally people felt that they were doing at least okay in terms of their subsistence.
The situation today is very different indeed. Take a walk around the block. Note the heavy atmosphere. People seem preoccupied, on edge, quite often gratuitously uncivil. The “stiff upper lips” are seeming to sag a bit. There is more than a hint of depression in the air. So many living to work, not working to live. So many deeply aware of the haunting insecurity that has taken over this country. They know that the banks, the credit-card companies, and the bosses own them. They know that they can be easily “down-sized” out of their jobs and that their pensions can be pulled with impunity. And that there are no longer effective unions to protect them. They know that their families’ healthcare, if they have coverage at all, is dependent upon their bosses’ good graces. They know that they can’t save any money because the costs of daily necessities, of energy, of their children’s education, and on and on, are so increasingly high. They know that if they wind up in a hole they can’t even have recourse to full bankruptcy protection any more, thanks to their “representatives” in Congress, who are in the pockets of the corporate usurers. Even the homes they’ve worked so hard to “own” can be pulled from them by private- development interests via eminent domain, thanks to a Supreme Court gone awry. The American-capitalist Utopia in the New Millennium!
What historical factors have led to the present crisis in the soul and body of our country? The synthesis of four elements is crucial to our discussion; though in no way do I mean to imply that they are fully dispositive of the issue. I would summarize the four elements as follows:
1.) The Calvinist work- ethic;
2.) the legal status of the corporation as a “fictional person;”
3.) the decline of defined ethical standards; and
4.) the emergence of globalization.
The Calvinist ethic came to these shores with the Mayflower. You will recall its major premises: “Salvation” cannot be earned but is predestined; and although it cannot be earned, one can recognize the elect by their degree of material prosperity, which constitutes a sign of grace. The imprint of the Calvinist doctrine upon our society is truly staggering- centuries later. Now, of course, with the declining influence of theology, “salvation” has taken on another - but analogous- meaning: Its heaven is one of assured, and hereditary, wealth, influence, status and respectability. And the purpose of life is to gather the means to acquire those blessings. And the altered doctrine affects not only the plutocracy of wealth, but also the rest of us to one degree or the other. Consider the reaction of many middle-class parents to a son or daughter announcing the intent to pursue a career in scholarship or teaching or the crafts or the creative arts; and contrast that to the likely reaction to an intent to follow a business career or a high-earning profession. Note the dropped jaws in the first instance. It’s not a question of following one’s bliss, as Professor Campbell put it. It’s a question of following the money- and the associated perks. And consider the inordinate amount of time that so many of us devote to keeping up with- and jumping over the heads of- the proverbial Joneses.
The second element concerns the judicial basis of corporate legal status. The Calvinist ethic coupled with the rapid development of technology during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced the particular species of capitalism which took hold in this country. And many of the results which ensued were very positive: Greatly increased production and employment to meet the needs of the growing population; innovative and useful inventions manufactured in great volume; dramatically augmented national wealth and expanding dominance in the world market. But the profiteering of business interests reached manic proportions and the social divisions quickly widened. Then came the Supreme Court decision in Santa Clara vs. Southern Pacific in 1886. The Court in that decision established that a private corporation was legally a “natural person” sheltered by the 14th Amendment; and members of a corporation were not individually responsible at law for decisions and actions of the corporate entity. The “corporate veil” was thus created and from that time corporate business was free to pursue maximum profit without regard for the common good. “Good” was viewed as that which resulted in the greatest possible profit for the individuals who owned and managed the corporation. Who or what might be hurt, compromised, debilitated or destroyed, including the nation as a whole, would no longer be so much of an issue. It certainly isn’t much of an issue now, over a century later. If I were to name the one element that has contributed most to the ethical deterioration and socio-economic decline of this democracy, it would be the Santa Clara decision. It created a class of profiteers who became increasingly amoral and outrageously greedy, with legal protection guaranteeing that they would suffer no personal consequences no matter how much destruction they wrought upon the people of this country and no matter to what degree they compromised our environment and resources.
The amoral climate engendered by the Santa Clara decision, coupled with the declining influence of traditional ethical codes has gradually but decisively brought into being in this country a socio-economic atmosphere that can well be described as dog-eat-dog. Social harmony, decency and communal advancement are falling under the continual assaults of the profit motive, and the Almighty Buck looks on and nods approvingly from his throne. There has grown in this country a frenzy of acquisition, an unabated obsession with profit- motivated activity , a terror of impending deprivation that has transformed us into a frantic ant-hill, the lives of whose members mean only work, work and more work. The current count of Americans’ work hours per year is considerably higher than that of other industrialized nations. And more and more Americans have been shown to be foregoing vacation and personal time, apparently for fear of losing a competitive edge. The corporate oligarchy , in a word, has created a nation of driven serfs, many of whom hope to join the ranks of the lords. The fact, however, is that very few Americans will experience dramatic changes in their economic status from birth to death- actually about one in a million. Sad that about 200 join the lords while 200 million strain and struggle in their fantasies of ascendance ‘til they die of stress and exhaustion. Is this what our great nation was founded for?
And the situation has been greatly intensified by globalization. Now the call of cheap labor and vastly increased profits beckons the corporate lords abroad and they’re showing clearly where their true loyalties lie. And their politician -puppets make excuses for them as they “downsize” American workers and “out-source” their operations, leaving discarded workers and ghost towns in their track.
What the Santa-Clara corporate sociopaths wanted was a nation of slaves to work to death for them and to consume ever-more obsessively their increasingly costly products. And that’s exactly what they’ve gotten, especially now when they constitute the de facto government .
Can anything be done? Is it all hopeless? It surely looks hopeless. But, being an American, let me show some healthy optimism.” Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea,” as Walter Winchell used to open his radio program in the old days-- Wake up! Don’t believe the “market-tested” gibberish of the profiteers and their politician- handmaidens. Indifference to politics is not an option any more. Don’t rely on sound- bites and photo-ops. Study the issues and know your best interest.. Sign petitions, write to your repesentatives- and for God’s sake- vote.
As far as I can see, the thrust of meaningful reform has to center on countering the devastating effects of the Santa Clara decision and individual owners of corporate enterprises must be held accountable not only for individual criminal acts-- but civilly for corporate torts and breaches of contract adversely affecting their workers and the public. As it stands now, they can be held accountable only for criminal acts committed in the context of their business activities, as witnessed in the recent Enron trials. Money indeed talks where they’re concerned; and the talking would be a lot louder if their personal pockets were at stake in suits for money damages. It would require complex and precisely crafted legislation in terms of the nature and extent of individual liability; but it can be done. But it certainly won’t be done by them -- or by their politician fraternity brothers unless they’re driven to the wall by the American people.
The other crucial element is of course reform of current campaign- financing and lobbying laws, which have created the bed-fellow syndrome which is destroying our nation: Politicians and big- business are now one-and-the-same or interchangeable. If the interests of the people of this nation are ever to be served again the Siamese twins must be separated. If the Washington politicians are permitted to rely primarily on their corporate masters for campaign money nothing will change. Not a chance. Again, a hard fight and intelligent legislation will be required. But it can be done and it must be done.
During World War II we Americans gathered all our strength, mobilized our resources and quite literally saved civilization. Now we need to save ourselves. We can do it.