From the NYT
“Demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond,” said Gabriel Willow, a protester strolling past a sleeping-bag pod of young adults in the park last Monday.
What idiocy. Disempowerment is when people don't
respond to you. The OWS movement, as I've said before, has gone about its business in many wrongheaded ways; nevertheless, the the thing has caught on. These are desperate times, and a desperate people need to rally around something
There has been a lot of talk about formulating demands. That's good. But aside from the question of demands, these protests need a definition
. The right is mounting a huge effort to portray the OWSers as Marxists and anti-Semites. This propaganda campaign will succeed unless it can be countered.
Like it or not, a generation of Americans has been trained to view "capitalism" as neo-liberalism: You can't call what you're doing "capitalism" if Milton Friedman might not have approved of it. Similarly, many Americans define "socialism" as Marxism as Bolshevism as let's-burn-all-the-churches-and-kill-baby-Jesus
This was not always the case. People used to be smarter about such things.
When I was a boy, it was generally understood that West Germany -- a country which experienced a miraculous post-War growth -- had made remarkable gains through an admixture of capitalism and socialism. Few Americans had a problem with that. By contrast, today's ideologues look back on 1970 and see no difference between West Germany and East Germany: Seen through libertarian eyes, both were equally guilty of Marxist sin. But at the time, the difference between West and East was considered important enough to justify a nuclear war.
We need to return to an era when it was generally understood that both capitalism and socialism came in differing flavors. Neo-liberalism, or unfettered laissez faire
, ain't the only trick in the book. There are other tricks -- tricks that work better. When Mike Wallace confronted Ayn Rand on television in the 1950s, he almost laughed at loud at her distaste for what he wisely called "regulated capitalism."
Why on earth would she detest a system which worked so well? What a ridiculous woman!
Ha Joon Chang (yes, I know that I often refer to his works) devotes the final chapter of his book 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism
to the "What is to be done?" question. His first piece of advice: Expand our concept of capitalism.
There are different ways to organize capitalism. Free-market capitalism is only one of them – and not a very good one at that. The last three decades have shown that, contrary to the claims of its proponents, it slows down the economy, increases inequality and insecurity, and leads to more frequent (and sometimes massive) financial crashes.
There is no one ideal model. American capitalism is very different from Scandinavian capitalism, which in turn differs from the German or French varieties, not to speak of the Japanese form. For example, countries which find American-style economic inequality unacceptable (which some may not) may reduce it through a welfare state financed by high progressive income taxes (as in Sweden) or through restrictions on money-making opportunities themselves by, say, making the opening of large retail stores difficult (as in Japan). There is no simple way to choose between the two, even though I personally think that the Swedish model is better than the Japanese one, at least in this respect.
So capitalism, yes, but we need to end our love affair with unrestrained free-market capitalism, which has served humanity so poorly, and install a better-regulated variety. What that variety would be depends on our goals, values and beliefs.
Now we are getting somewhere. Here's the first big idea we must push: Capitalism comes in more than one flavor
. We are not forced to choose between Milton Friedman and the Bolshevik bogeyman.
(The second big idea concerns the distinction between finance capitalism and industrial capitalism. That's a topic for another post.)
We still need to finesse our terms. Just as the Republicans learned that the label "death tax" works better (for their purposes) than "estate tax," we must seek an alternative to the phrase "free market capitalism." That term sounds far too pleasant; it conjures up images of happy cabbage sellers at a medieval fair. In its place, I propose "predatory capitalism" and/or "anarchic capitalism."
We should also emphasize one key fact: What we want is not new
The phrase "regulated capitalism" refers to the way things used to be, back when this country was the envy of the world -- back when America made
things, back when politics were a whole lot saner. Again, think of Mike Wallace in his studio, smirking at the Great Objectivist Cigarette Hag who was foolish enough to criticize regulated capitalism
, the system that gave us interstate highways, U.S. Steel and Cinerama. Wallace smirked his smirk on national teevee, confident that the whole damned country was smirking along with him.
We lost our prosperity because we stopped smirking at the Hag.
So here's a motto, here's a demand, here's a self-definition:
BACK TO THE FUTURE!
We believe that the strange new ideology of unrestrained predatory capitalism has failed. We want a return to the system of regulated capitalism that served us so well in the first three decades of the post war era.
Read and re-read those words in boldface. Do you think that this formulation will scare Middle America? I don't. The Fox Newsers will have an awfully hard time arguing against the "Back to the Future" idea.
Don't let the Fox crowd define who are you. Define yourselves as advocates of Regulated Capitalism
. Smirk at anyone who expresses disdain for such an obviously sensible idea. Once the concept of "regulation" is buffed and shined and made respectable once more, all sorts of excellent things become possible.