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During the Cold War, America capitalism was a positive influence, both as an idea and as a political force. The alternative was communism. The relative virtues were obvious.

Compare Eastern Europe, under the sway of the Soviets, with Western Europe -- the brightness of democracy contrasted with the grimness of dictatorship, the prosperity of the West contrasted with the deprivations of the East.

In that context and in that time, we Americans were justified in seeing our capitalist system as the good guy.

Over the past generation, capitalism has continued to strive to extend its dominion. But now the alternative against which it is fighting is no longer the failed system of communism, which collapsed in some places, was abandoned in others, and was discredited worldwide. The alternative that American capitalism battles politically now is the kind of mixed economy that virtually every market society in the world -- including the United States -- found to be preferable to unbridled capitalism for creating a decent society and providing a good life for people generally.

In that system, the market and its powerful actors are understood to be but one of several legitimate claimants in determining the destiny of a society.

In the 1950s, corporate America was more accepting of the idea of a mixed economy. American capitalism granted that in addition to big business, big labor and big government had important roles in advancing values other than those of corporate wealth and power.

But in these times, the political power of American corporate capitalism is marshaled to weaken other competing forces in the American power system, and thereby sweep aside considerations other than those of financial profit.

The American corporate system used to recognize -- albeit sometimes grudgingly -- the rights of workers. Now it uses political clout to erode the rights to organize and to get a fair share of the abundance that capitalism produces.

Largely through the influence of corporate money in politics, the wages of large categories of American workers have been stagnant, or even declined, for more than a generation. The ratio of the pay of corporate CEOs to the pay of average workers in their companies was 20 to 1, or 40 to 1, in the decades following World War II. Now the person at the top earns about 300 times as much as his or her average worker. It is because of money-driven politics more than market-driven economics that income and wealth inequality is now greater in America than at any time in living memory.

American capitalism has been attacking government as well. Where once there was general acceptance that government had an essential role in regulating the market economy to protect the public interest, now that has given way to an assault on the idea of government regulation, on the legitimacy of our democratically elected officials protecting those values the market system cannot adequately take into consideration.

It would be wrong to say that all corporate power is represented by people like the Koch Brothers, who bring the weight of their huge wealth into our political system to paralyze our democracy when it needs to act on the urgent warnings of climate scientists. But as the Koch Brothers jeopardize the well-being of our descendants, and of life on earth, for their own enrichment, we do not hear other corporate powers in the energy industries repudiating their conduct. Indeed, the industry as a whole has been funding efforts to sow doubt where there is little or none, just as the tobacco industry did, to keep us addicted to their products.

Nor do we see the national organization of the Chamber of Commerce willing to sacrifice any of their own self-interest by supporting policies that would serve the greater good.

Corporate power as a political force has become less willing to be guided by a sense of citizenship. We're told that corporations are "persons," but they are not acting like the kind of persons our founders thought necessary to make our system work -- people who care about more than just what they can get for themselves.

Even in the economic sphere, it is not sufficient for corporations to concern themselves only with their own profit. In the political sphere, such an ethic is poison.

American corporations have every right to protect their legitimate interests, and protect themselves from injustice. But so long as they wield their great power with indifference to justice, the capitalist force in America no longer deserves the kind of moral respect we gave it during the long years of the Cold War.

Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia's Sixth District, is an author whose books include "The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution."

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is a 2 not 1 Generation Problem, the Result (0+ / 0-)

    of governing policies of both our conservative parties since no later than the winding-down years of the Vietnam War.

    Corporate America wasn't "accepting" back then they were regulated. After all they'd gotten Taft-Hartley passed 30 years earlier in the 1940's. It's just that the representatives of we the people back then mostly agreed to impose massive restraints on the behavior of business, finance and media. The Cold War had a decade left to play out when our governance began liberating capitalism in earnest.

    Business in the 50's would've behaved as it did in both the 20's and the 2000's absent the much more severe regulatory environment of the 50's.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 07:33:04 PM PDT

    •  cold war period (0+ / 0-)

      "The Cold War had a decade left to play out when our governance began liberating capitalism in earnest."

      I did not say or imply that the cold war kept the capitalists more tame.  And yes, the unwinding began with Reagan's election in 1980. Even before that (cf. the Powell memorandum of the early 1970s), the reactionary corporate counter-revolution got rolling.

      As for whether there was a different political thrust to the American corporate world in, say, the 1950s, than there is in our times-- well, you think there's been no change, and I believe otherwise. I believe there was much more of a sense of a social contract --in the society generally, and in the corporate world in particular-- after the Great Depression and World War II and 12 years of FDR and 8 years of Harry Truman.  Not a night-and-day sort of contrast between then and now, but not a trivial change either.

      Questions of this sort are not easily resolved empirically. A half century of investigation of a lot of history has given me some sense of things, and while I would not claim to have certainty on the matter, I think you overstate the continuity of the ethic of the American capitalist system when you suggest that NOTHING had changed between the 1920s and the 1950s, nor from the 1950s until now.

      Look at our political system, and how much has changed.  The John Birch Society was considered too wacko for William F. Buckley to allow them into the conservative movement he was trying to build.  Now, those people are prominent in the inner circle of one of our two major parties.  (The Koch Brothers father was a Bircher, if I recall.)

      If that kind of change can happen in our political system, gone off the deep end, it seems unlikely that at the corporate end of the American power system, the players are just the same as they were.

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