Clarifying Economic (& Theological) Terms in the Capitalism-Socialism Debate

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 8: 4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8; 1TM 2: 1-8; 2 COR 8:9;LK 16: 1-13

Last weekend, comedian, Bill Maher, and film-maker, Michael Moore, got into a shouting match on Maher’s show “Real Time.” Their point of contention was capitalism vs. socialism. Moore argued for socialism; Maher was against it. Their boisterousness reminded me of dinner-table arguments which (I’m ashamed to admit) I’ve been part of myself.

I bring all this up because the debate is intimately related to this morning’s liturgy of the word. Though the readings obviously pre-date the emergence of the modern system, they all criticize what has historically become “the spirit of capitalism.”  

In any case, the Maher-Moore debate is worth considering not only because it manifests the relevance of the Jesus tradition to arguments like theirs. The argument also demonstrates the counter-productivity of the squabble itself. It’s counter-productive because its terms fall into a trap congenial to the enemies of the biblical tradition. The trap frames alternatives to our present economic system in terms of “socialism” instead of in terms of social justice, mixed economy, and “preferential option for the poor.”

That’s a simple distinction I never tire of making, because (as I point out in my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news) it’s absolutely key to the discussions of capitalism and socialism that will inevitably characterize the election season we’ve just entered – especially following the eventual selection of any Democratic candidate. No matter who the candidate turns out to be, s/he will be predictably vilified for advocating socialism pure and simple – an economic system that simply does not exist.

Maher and Moore both missed that point. The rest of us shouldn’t. In fact, I recommend avoidance of capitalism-socialism framing altogether. I’ll explain what I mean, and then elucidate the connections with today’s readings.

To begin with, Moore’s mistake was to represent as “socialism” his advocacy of Medicare for all (Maher was against it), free college tuition, college loan-forgiveness, and the Green New Deal. In reality, those programs notwithstanding, each of them represents elements of mixed economies – the only form of economic organization that exists in our present context. And a mixed economy always has three elements (1) Some private and some public ownership of the means of production, (2) Some controlled markets and some that are free of control, and (3) earnings limited (usually by progressive income taxes).

Every economy in the world has those elements. There are no exceptions.

Mixed economies contrast with the three elements of capitalism as well as with those of socialism. Capitalism’s three points are (1) Private ownership of the means of production, (2) Free and open markets, and (3) Unlimited earnings. None of the world’s economies embodies those elements untempered by planning.

Meanwhile, socialism’s three points are (1) Public ownership of the means of production, (2) Controlled markets, and (3) Limited earnings. Like untempered capitalism, such economic arrangement exists nowhere (including in “communist” China or Cuba).     

For his part, Maher’s defense of capitalism was also a defense of mixed economy. He agreed with many of Moore’s points. So, Maher’s “capitalism” was no less mixed than Moore’s. The difference was that Maher wanted more market and less planning in economic policy.

This is not to say that all mixed economies are equal. (And this point is essential to keep in mind). The crucial question with them is “Mixed in favor of whom?” Those who mistakenly identify themselves as “capitalists” tend to advocate economies mixed in favor of the rich. They do so on the belief that wealth trickles down; a rising tide lifts all boats, etc.

Those who (equally mistakenly) identify as “socialists” want economies mixed more in favor of the working and unemployed classes. They recognize that unregulated markets respond primarily to those with the most money. Economies therefore have to be controlled to include those with limited (or no) resources.

With all of this in mind, Moore and Maher might have resolved their argument by recognizing that the choice before them is not between capitalism or socialism, but between an economy mixed in favor of the rich or one mixed in favor of the poor. And the formula for doing so might be: As much market as possible, with as much regulation as necessary (to assure a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet).   

Now, a formula like that not only avoids “the socialist trap;” it is also highly compatible with the biblical social justice tradition that’s expressed so clearly in this morning’s liturgy of the word. As I’ve translated them below, today’s selections point out the injustices inherent not only in the economies of the ancient world, but in today’s neoliberal order. Both, the readings imply, were and are rigged in favor of the rich and against the poor.  Check the readings for yourself here.

This is the way I interpret them:

 AM 8: 4-7

Money makes the rich
Exploit the poor.
It leads the wealthy
To distort religion
Manipulate currency
Put thumbs on scales
Sell shoddy products
And underpay workers.
But never doubt:
They will one day reap
Due karma.
 
PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8
 
For God will lift up
The poor
From the dirt
And “shitholes
They’re forced
To live in.
Thank God:
The lowly
Will one day
Become their own
Masters instead.
 
1 TM 2: 1-8
 
In the meantime,
Pray that the powerful
Might change their ways
For God cares
Even for them.
Pray that they
Might know God
As revealed in
The poor man
Jesus who died
For them too
Despite their bitterness
Lies and self-serving
Talking points.
 
2 COR 8:9
 
Yes, don’t forget:
God chose
Self-revelation
In the poor
Not in the rich.
Ironically,
God’s Preferential Option
For the Poor
Is the only way
To prosperity.
 
LK 16: 1-13
 
In fact,
The poor man, Jesus,
Laughed at the rich
Who can’t use a shovel
To save their lives,
But blame the beggars
Their own policies have created.
The rich are so crooked,
He joked,
That they even admire
Shrewdness in those
Who end up stealing from them!
Their own small larcenies
Grow exponentially.
So they cannot be trusted.
Restitution is therefore in order.
But don't worry
About the bankers:
Their “generous” loans
Can easily be written off
Without in the least
Impacting their
Decadent life-styles.
Their basic mistake
Is believing that
Differentiating wealth and God
Are somehow compatible.
They are not!

Don’t you agree that sentiments like those favor economies mixed in favor of the poor? (That’s the way they appear to me.) The readings imply that if mixed economies are all we have, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap that ensnared Moore and Maher. Instead of arguing about non-existent “capitalism” or “socialism,” we should make sure to embrace the principle “As much market as possible, but as much planning as necessary (to insure a dignified life for all).”

But to avoid pointless shouting matches, it will be necessary to carry around in our minds those clear and easily understood ideas about what capitalism and socialism are. To repeat: capitalism’s essential elements are (1) private ownership of the means of production; (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. Socialism’s defining points are just the opposite: (1) public ownership of the means of production; (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. Once again, those two definitions make it clear that mixed economies are all we have. 

Finally, we should be emphasizing the incompatibility between  the Judeo-Christian tradition and the spirit of capitalism as characterized in today’s readings. Excessive wealth on the one hand and God on the other are not compatible. Or, as Jesus put it, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Despite our culture’s claims to the contrary, that’s the faith we “People of The Book” (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are called to embrace.

Marianne Williamson and the “Dark Psychic Forces” of Capitalism (Sunday Homily)

Readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ECC 1:2; 2:21-23; PS 90: 3-6; 12-14; 17; COL 3: 1-5; 9-11; MT 5:3; LK 12: 13-21

Marianne Williamson shone brightly again during the first night of the second Democratic debate. This time, with only nine minutes of exposure, she had the whole country talking.

As with her first appearance, her name was the most Google-searched among her nine debate rivals. And afterwards, the Washington Post, for instance, noted her contributions with headlines like “Marianne Williamson Had A Big Night in the Democratic Debate,” “Marianne Williamson Made the Most of Her Limited Time . . .,” “Marianne Williamson Makes the Case for Reparations in her Breakout Debate Moment,” and “I’ve Worked for Marianne Williamson. She’s No Kook.”

Additionally, “Democracy Now,” the following day gave more time than ever to Marianne’s remarks about the Flint water crisis, and about reparations, though, in the process, Intercept columnist, Mehdi Hasan felt compelled to dismiss her (without explanation) as “a little bit kooky, let’s be honest.”

Meanwhile Cody Fenwick writing for AlterNet favorably included Marianne’s comments about reparations among his “Nine Best Moments” of the primary debate. However (significantly for our focus here) his article, “Here Are 9 of the Best Moments and 7 of the Worst from the 2020 Democratic Primary Debate,” created a special category for what her campaign considers her most significant remark. Fenwick classified the following as a “Moment that Defied Category.” He wrote, “In the course of a rousing speech about the shameful government-triggered water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the author’s speech took a bizarre turn: ‘If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.’” Without further comment, that statement concluded his article.

Thinking it somehow “bizarre,” Fenwick was evidently confused by the reference to a “dark psychic force,” even though Williamson immediately explained its meaning. She was referring to “the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country.” His confusion resulted, I think, from Williamson’s entry into unexplored debate terrain as she attempted to drive the conversation deeper than the clichés and normalized insanity that characterized many of Tuesday’s exchanges (like Steve Bullock’s disagreement with Elizabeth Warren about first use of nuclear weapons).

What “dark psychic forces” did Williamson have in mind? Judging from her books Healing the Soul of America, and The Politics of Love, they are habits of mind and spirit inculcated by a culture that tolerates, if not celebrates:

  • The collectivized hatred she specifically referenced
  • The mind-set that actually considers first (or any!) use of nuclear weapons as acceptable
  • White supremacy and white nationalism
  • American exceptionalism
  • Imperialism and neo-colonialism
  • Child abuse at our borders
  • Regime change wars
  • An all-encompassing gun culture reflected not only in law, but in our films, novels, newspapers, and magazines – and especially in military policy

That’s just the short list of the dark forces in question. But for Williamson, all of them can be synopsized in the single term “fear.” Systemically, they can be summarized in the term “capitalism” and the terror-filled interlocking systems of individualism, competition, and greed that system inspires.

And that brings us to the theme of the liturgy of the word for today’s 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time. On my reading, all of them present a light-hearted critique and rejection of the underlying spirit of capitalism. But see if they speak to you in that way. Take a look at them here.

In any case, what follows are my “translations”:

ECC 1:2; 2:21-23 (A Book of Hebrew Wisdom)
 
Accumulating property
And money
Working hard to get it
Worrying about it
Losing sleep over it . . .
Is all foolishness.
And in the end,
You can’t take it with you.
How silly to fret
About possessions!
 
PS 90: 3-6; 12-14; 17
 
So, soften your heart.
Life is short
It passes
Like the seasons
Like grass.
You might even die
In your sleep tonight.
Instead, enjoy life NOW.
Be happy and kind
And careful
In whatever you do.
That’s true prosperity.
 
 
COL 3: 1-5; 9-11
 
As St. Paul says,
Use your Christ consciousness
To look beyond
The material
To discover
True wealth –
Your invisible life
Within.
After all,
Happiness
Has nothing to do
With idolizing money
Or pleasure, or deceit.
It’s all about
Living with
The consciousness of Jesus
That all humans
(wherever they come from)
Are sisters and brothers.
 
 
MT 5:3 (Blessed are the poor in spirit)
 
In fact,
Christ’s values
Are the exact opposite
Of the world’s.
 
 
LK 12: 13-21 (Parable of the wealth-obsessed rich man who dies in his sleep)
 
So, don’t be foolish
Worrying about
Inheritance and money
You didn’t even work for.
After all,
Life’s not about
How much you have.
Instead,
Laugh with Jesus
At fools who spend
Entire lives
Focused on mammon
Only to die
Before they’ve had time
To enjoy the rich Life
God has given
To everyone
Equally.
Notice how the readings lament and make fun of lives based on greed and focus on material accumulation. Such goals produce anxiety, sleeplessness, jealousy, and frustration. They end with a completely wasted life and early death. 

As opposed to the Prosperity Gospel, this is what Jewish Wisdom Literature, the prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, and leaders like Marianne Williamson have to say about excessive material wealth. It's not the point of life. Instead, love, justice, and the inner peace and community they produce is what fullness of life is about. 

Readings like today's remind us of the gloomy and literally unspeakable (i.e. off-limits for discussion) forces that drive our culture. They are encapsulated in our economic system that emphasizes individualism, competition, violence and fear. The system is capitalism-as-we-know-it.

By bringing that up and in terms of "dark psychic forces," Williamson places herself beyond normal political discourse. To mainstream commentators, that makes her puzzling, bizarre, weird, and "kooky," even kookier than those advocating the omnicide of nuclear war.

However, to those of us seeking escape from business as usual, it made her the best candidate on last Tuesday's stage.
 
The favorable reaction to Williamson's statements there shows that increasing numbers are recognizing her truth.

	

Jesus’ Calls Followers to Practice What Marianne Williamson Calls a “Politics of Love”

Readings for 5th Sunday of Easter: Acts 14: 21-27; PS 145: 8-13; REV 21: 1-5A; JN 13: 31-35

The readings for this fifth Sunday of Easter centralize Jesus’ New Commandment, to “Love one another as I have loved you.” He also identifies the criterion for distinguishing his true followers from those who are not. He says, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – again, “as I have loved you.”

So, the question becomes how exactly did Jesus love those he interacted with? Was his love confined to the inter-personal sphere, or was it somehow political? And even if it was, is a politics of love practical? Or are we condemned to the political status quo based on fear and greed which our “Christian” culture has ironically convinced us is much more realistic than the love and compassion that Jesus seems to recommend?  

The answer to all of those questions was captured in our liturgical readings several weeks ago in Jesus’ first sermon as recorded by the evangelist called Luke. Jesus described his program in this way: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That final phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” is key to answering the questions I just posed. It’s a reference to the Jubilee Year enshrined in Israel’s ancient tradition. That tradition, if nothing else, was highly political. As economist Michael Hudson has reminded us recently in his And Forgive Them Their Debts, Jubilee referenced a political and economic practice common not only in Israel, but throughout the ancient Middle East. It had kings and emperors (usually on the occasion of their assuming power) periodically creating a clean slate for everyone, especially the poor. During Jubilee, debts were cancelled, land was redistributed, slaves were freed, and amnesty was extended to prisoners. Jubilee prioritized the needs of the poor, not the rich. Its unfolding in Jesus’ public life involved non-violent resistance to temple authorities who had aligned themselves with Roman imperialism.

In other words, the unmistakable conclusion here is that if Christians are to love one another precisely in the way that Jesus loved them, their love must be unapologetically political and anti-imperial. They must practice a politics of love that prioritizes the needs of the poor, sick, indebted, imprisoned, and of those victimized by oppressors of all kinds.

In our own day, don’t you think that at least gestures towards the spirit of the Green New Deal as opposed to continuation of the status quo? I do.

But, you might ask, is a politics of love practical?  Or given the fallenness of the human race, isn’t it more realistic to practice our familiar politics based on fear and greed – to run the country like a business instead of like a family.  Isn’t it more sensible to appeal to self-interest, money and the bottom line?

In response, Marianne Williamson would ask, “Well, how’s that working out for you?”

In case we’ve forgotten, (and please notice the dollar figures in what follows) by prioritizing the values of fear and greed, our “leaders” have :

  • Committed to a program of perpetual war that’s costing us about $2 billion per day
  • Spent $2 trillion in just one of those wars (Iraq) while slaughtering hundreds of thousands of civilians (and perhaps more than a million) and creating ISIS in the process
  • Prevented refugees created by our wars and economic system from finding refuge in our country where all but a hand-full (Native Americans) are descended precisely from immigrants, refugees, and slaves forced by the rich to work here against their wills
  • Created a society in which 3 men own as much as the bottom 50% of the country
  • Given $2 trillion in additional tax breaks mostly to those men and their colleagues in the richest 0.1%
  • Decided to commit mass suicide by hanging on to an economic system that is destroying our planet despite our claims to love our children and grandchildren
  • Asserted proudly that, all evidence to the contrary, our system of political-economy somehow “works”

And that’s just the short list of the craziness of our culture’s commitment to fear and greed rather than to a politics of love and compassion that prioritizes (as did Jesus) the needs of the poor, education, health care, debt forgiveness, and anti-imperialism.

Clearly, we can do better than that. Clearly, it’s time to try something else.

But where, our culture asks, would the money come from to eliminate poverty and save the planet? Practically speaking, where would we find the money for a Green New Deal, for universal health care, for higher wages, for forgiving student loans, to remedy the epidemic of homelessness?

“Don’t make me laugh” says Marianne Williamson in her Politics of Love. She writes:  

“How would we pay for all that education and culture, health and safety” ask those who have no problem whatsoever paying for ill-begotten wars and tax cuts for the extremely wealthy. Such a question should be met by laughter from those who were never consulted as to how we would pay for a $2 trillion war in Iraq (which, among other things created ISIS) or a $2 trillion tax cut for the wealthiest among us (which, among other things, is already adding tour wealth inequality).”

No doubt, the Jesus of Jubilee would join in Williamson’s ironic laughter. Where will we get the money?

Please go back to the dollar figures I asked you to note above. Then allow me to count the ways. They include moving quickly to an energy economy not based on fossil fuels, and then:

  • Saving trillions when the energy-switch enables us to stop fighting and threatening wars fought for oil (think Iraq, Iran, Venezuela). Stopping those energy wars would enable us to cut the Pentagon budget in half.
  • Revoking the recent tax gifts to the rich. That too would provide trillions
  • Revising the tax code’s highest bracket to 75% annually freeing up billions in the process
  • Cutting off all subsidies to oil companies. That as well would save millions each year
  • Imposing the death penalty on Exxon and seizing its assets as a penalty for concealing and lying about its climate research. That alone would go a long way towards paying for any Green New Deal
  • Returning to workers the wages stolen by their corporate employers who for the past 40 years have kept the fruits of skyrocketing labor productivity for themselves while practically stiffing their employees.
  • Recovering from corporations like McDonalds and Amazon the cost of food stamps and other federal aid programs accessed over the years by their underpaid workers.
  • Identifying the beneficiaries of 250 years of unpaid slave labor and assessing penalties on the families and corporations involved for the wages not paid for all that forced labor. The money could be used to build respectable housing and palatial schools in black communities.
  • And here I’m probably only scratching the surface.

According to my way of looking at things, implementation of the above policies would actually pay for the Green New Deal without raising taxes on any but the super-rich whose extravagant lifestyles will remain mostly unaffected.

In any case, the point is that the politics of love highlighted in today’s readings is the only realistic way of saving our planet. And Marianne Williamson is the only presidential candidate willing courageously to say so.

Again, as Marianne puts it, (just as in the past) love is the only answer to our current problems. “It was love that abolished slavery, it was love that gave women suffrage, it was love that established civil rights, and it is love that we need now.”

(P.S. Marianne Williamson recently achieved the 65,000 unique contributions required for her to appear on the debate stage with other Democratic presidential candidates. But now that more than 20 are running, it’s necessary for her to poll at 1% in national opinion polls. She’s close to achieving that goal too, but needs financial help to get her name and identity before the public. Please help her by donating here. She only has till June 12th to reach this goal.)

France’s Yellow Vests: Their Program Should Be Our Program

As I reported recently, I spent my Christmas vacation tracking down and studying France’s “Yellow Vest” movement. In December, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman did something similar. However, as expressed in his piece, “The End of Europe,” his conclusions mirror old threadbare thinking about social transformation. Most tellingly, while honoring the voices of the Yellow Vests as grassroots activists, Friedman’s responses exclude the very democratic input the Yellow Vests demand. Instead, he looks to government and business leaders to save what he termed “the idea of Europe.”    

My own conclusions are the reverse. I see the Yellow Vests as advocating a democratically radical, comprehensive and bottom-up approach to what distresses our world. In fact, the issues and demands of the Yellow Vests suggest proven reforms that are clearly feasible, since they’ve worked in the past. The economic and political restructurings implicit in their working-class demands could save our planet and create the other world that all progressives sense is possible. Consciously or unconsciously, the Yellow vests propose a program worthy of support by us all.    

Friedman & the Yellow Vests

According to Friedman, France represents the last barrier against the disintegration of Europe itself. Across the European Union (EU), England is committing collective suicide (because of Brexit), Germany is turning inward, and Italy (along with Greece) is in full rebellion against EU austerity measures. Meanwhile, the United States incipient withdrawal from the world increasingly leaves the continent without its traditional life insurance policy against “predatory threats from the East.” That insurance is needed now more than ever in a world where Russia is again asserting its power, and where China promises to become the center of the world.

However, Friedman says, the Yellow Vest Movement reveals that France itself is in danger of disintegration. The movement has arisen because the country’s working poor and anxious middle class have not benefitted from the liberal order of political-economy characterized by globalization, technological development, and mass migration of workers from the former Soviet Union and from France’s colonial empire. In the face of such developments, the poor have been completely marginalized, while robotics, artificial intelligence, outsourcing and competition from Chinese imports have made it increasingly difficult for middle class wage-earners to sustain accustomed life styles.

For France, all of this has been complicated by the ineptitude of its president Emmanuel Macron. On Friedman’s analysis, Macron has done the right things, but in an arrogant top-down, “let them eat cake” manner. The right things have included giving tax breaks to the rich, while imposing austerity (and job re-training programs) on workers. Austerity has meant raising taxes on diesel fuel, reducing pensions, and making it easier for employers to fire their workers.

In other words, Friedman approves of the very policies that have given rise to the “Yellow Vests” in the first place. For him, it’s just that austerity’s necessarily bitter pill wasn’t administered with the proper bedside manner.

And, according to the New York Times columnist, there is no apparent alternative. In the face of globalization, he holds that old solutions (simply cutting or raising taxes) cannot work. Instead, he vaguely calls for cities and local leaders to become “more nimble.” In his words, that means forming coalitions of business leaders, educators, and small entrepreneurs who can compete locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

That’s it. That’s Friedman’s analysis and solution.

Entirely absent from his considerations is any mention of “Yellow Vests” (i.e. working class) involvement in the solutions he finds so elusive.  That is, Friedman’s own approach, like that of Macron is entirely top-down. Like Macron he seems tone deaf to the “Yellow Vest” demand for inclusion in decision-making processes.

Necessary Changes in Consciousness

But what would such inclusion entail?

It would first of all necessitate changes in the very consciousness exhibited in the Friedman piece. These changes would include recognition of:

  • The Fundamental Failure of Capitalism: Friedman begins his article by celebrating capitalism. He writes “Ever since World War II, the liberal global order. . . has spread more freedom and prosperity around the world than at any other time in history. . .” Granted, such triumphalism might have been defensible (for those ignoring, for example, U.S. interventions in the Global South) before the dawn of the climate and immigration crises. However, today its uncritical hubris is embarrassing as the system’s train of destruction stretching back to capitalism’s dawning are seen as threatening the very continuation of human life as we know it. We can now see that capitalism has not really been successful. Quite the opposite. Persisting in lionizing the system while ignoring its run-away destruction prevents serious analysts from imagining the fundamental changes necessary to address the system’s basic failure. Apparently, it prevented Friedman from doing so.
  • Yellow Vest Criticism of Neo-liberalism: What consciously or unconsciously irks the international working class about neo-liberal globalization is the fact that the reigning economic model accords rights to capital that it steadfastly denies or severely restricts in the case of labor. It grants capital the right to cross borders wherever it will in pursuit of low wages and high profits. Meanwhile, it insists that labor, an equally important element of the capitalist equation, respect borders and/or severe restrictions on its mobility. Evidently, this is because the authors of the system (politicians, corporate boards, and lawyers) realize that freer movement of labor especially from the East or Global South would outrage constituents and consumers within industrialized countries in the developed world. The “Yellow Vests” prove that such outrage has taken hold in France and threatens to spread across the continent as workers from Europe’s former colonies extend and appropriate for themselves the logic of “free trade” heretofore acted upon only by capitalists and denied to labor. The immigration crisis is the result.

Necessary Reforms

As noted earlier, the Friedman article throws up its hands in surrender before the changes he describes as perhaps signaling the end of Europe. He writes, “Here is what’s really scary, though. I don’t think there are national solutions to this problem — simply cut taxes or raise taxes — in the way there were in the past.” So (to repeat) our author is left with the standard neo-liberal policies earlier described – trickle-down tax cuts for corporations and austerity for workers – implemented by the usual suspects with no mention of worker input.

None of that will work for the Yellow Vests. They want their voices heard. They want democracy at all levels. Such democratic ideal suggests changes far beyond the tired nostrums offered by Friedman – or perhaps even imagined by the French protestors themselves. These might include:

  • Democratized International Trade Agreements: Trade agreements like the European Union or NAFTA for that matter need to be negotiated with workers taking part. That means that the real EU question isn’t whether or not Great Britain should renegotiate its Brexit. The real issue is the reformulation of the EU Charter itself. The whole thing has to be rethought with the circle of negotiators widened to include all stakeholders. This means going beyond politicians, corporate heads, and lawyers to include trade unionists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, educators, social workers, women, and representatives of children. In the process, each stake-holding group must have equal votes to complement their intellectual input. The same holds true for NAFTA.
  • Democracy at Work: Workers like the Yellow Vests spend most of their lives at work. Hence, their demands for democracy suggest, that any concept of self-governance must be broadened from the exercise of voting franchise every few years to include democracy at work. In its most effective form, democracy there takes the form of worker-owned cooperatives, where workers decide what to produce, where to produce it, and what to do with the profits. Enterprises of this type would never elect to pollute their neighborhoods, to pay outlandish salaries to administrators, to move their firm to a foreign country, or to lay off workers because of technological advance (all Yellow Vest complaints). Introducing such change is entirely possible. For instance, since 1985 Italy has taken steps to favor cooperative ownership. According to the country’s Marcora Law any company going out of business must extend to workers the right of first refusal in the case of a firm’s transfer of ownership.
  • Democratization of the New Technology: Democratic movements like the Yellow Vests need not be Luddite vis a vis the introduction of new technology. Instead, they might welcome any “labor saving” technologies. However, the point of such introduction would not be to down-size the labor force, but to shrink time spent on-the-job. For too long computers and artificial intelligence have been used by employers to cut labor costs and increase profits rather than to expand worker free time. By contrast, worker-friendly technological policies could make widespread job-sharing possible to eliminate unemployment. Four-hour workdays could replace present overwork. It could become possible to work only 6 months per year, or to take sabbaticals every few years without any reduction in pay.
  • A Green New Deal: Part of eliminating unemployment entails implementation of a Green New Deal (GND) to address climate chaos in ways that mirror Roosevelt’s original New Deal to combat the disastrous effects of the Great Depression. Prominent among the GND’s provisions must be the contemporary equivalent of the old Civilian Conservation Corps – this time to accomplish the environmental ends that the economy’s private sector is unwilling or unable to achieve.  
  • A Marshall Plan for the Former Colonies: To reverse the influx of immigrant workers, the former colonial powers must stop the wars and environmental policies that end up creating refugees and migrants in the first place. This means, first of all, ending their resource-wars and the failed war-on-terrorism. Secondly, however, the old colonists need to implement a New Marshall Plan in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, where centuries-long resource-extraction policies have created the very poverty, hunger, and unemployment that has transformed the Global South from a natural paradise to a cauldron of social inequities. Besides being a remedy for the migration crisis, a grand Marshal Plan for the Global South is a matter of reparations.
  • Implementation of the NIEO: Specifically, reparations should entail something like the implementation of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) demanded by the Group of 77 within the United Nations in 1974. The New Order would grant Global South countries the power to control multinational investments within their borders. Recognizing that no country has ever achieved “development” as a mere supplier of raw materials to already industrialized countries, the order would require the latter to make large transfers of capital to the former colonies in the form of money and technology. It would also guarantee stable prices for raw materials from previously colonized nations in exchange for finished products (like tractors and computers), with the prices for the latter indexed to the established value of the raw materials.
  • Implementation of A New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO): As recognized by the UNESCO McBride Report in 1980, the former colonies need not only a new economic order, but one in which special attention is given to the international flow of information. The Global South needs a world information system that gives its inhabitants themselves the ability to portray and understand their own reality rather than being dependent on their former keepers for information about their lives, cultures and politics.     
  • Deep Cuts in Military Spending: All of this would be financed by higher taxes on the world’s 1% and by developed world cuts in military spending. Such increases and cuts would (1) recognize that the present war on terror is an utter failure, and (2) divert money now spent on attacking countries in the less developed world to constructive projects there such as rebuilding homes, schools, hospitals, power plants and water purification systems. Arguably, this would do more to combat terrorism than wars and bombing campaigns which many see as aggravating the problem of global terror. Again, this is a question of reparations.  

Conclusion

The elegance of the just-listed responses to France’s Yellow Vests and to the crisis of the neo-liberal order the protestors are rebelling against is that they are not new. In the cases of the New Deal and Marshall Plan, they enjoy a proven track record. At the same time, the prescriptions are much more detailed than the abstract cliches reflected in Thomas Friedman’s endorsements of neo-liberal austerity and “more nimble” decision-makers drawn from the professional classes.

Instead, the suggestions just listed have been with us since the 1930s (in the case of the New Deal), since the 1940s with the Marshall Plan, and since the mid’70s and early ‘80s with the proposed NIEO and NWICO. For their part, as Richard Wolff points out, worker co-ops have been hugely successful, for instance in the Mondragon Corporation in Spain and throughout the world, including France and the United States. Across the globe, worker cooperatives already employ 250 million people and in 2013 represented $3 trillion in revenue. Meanwhile, a huge body of literature from the 1960s and early ‘70s described a world in which computers and robotics would be used not to one-sidedly increase corporate profits, but to provide lives of leisure and enjoyment for ordinary people.

None of this is unrealistic, dreamy or impractical. In other words, we have the Yellow Vests to thank for helping us recall that another world is not only possible, but that we’ve already experienced it!

The Missing Faith Dimension of the Capitalism vs. Socialism Debate

Jesus Communist

Democracy Now recently reported surprising results from a new Gallup poll about evolving attitudes in this country about socialism. The poll concluded that by a 57-47% majority, U.S. Democrats currently view socialism more positively than capitalism.

Let me offer some reflections sparked by those poll results. I offer them in the light of some pushback I received over my related blog posting about the capitalism vs. socialism debate. These current reflections will emphasize the faith perspective that has not only shaped my own world vision, but that should mobilize Christians to be more sympathetic to socialist ideals.

To begin with, the Gallup poll results are themselves astounding in view of the fact that since after World War II all of us have been subjected to non-stop vilification of socialism. As economist and historian, Richard Wolff, continually observes Americans’ overcoming such programming is nothing less than breath-taking. It means that something new is afoot in our culture.

On the other hand, the Gallup results should not be that shocking. That’s because since 2016, we’ve become used to an avowed socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, being the most popular politician in the country.

On top of that the recent 14-point victory of another socialist, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, grabbed everyone’s attention. Recall that Ms. Cortez defeated 10-term congressional incumbent, Joe Crowley, in her NYC race for the Bronx and Queens seat in the House of Representatives.

Socialist candidates seem to be sprouting up everywhere. They advocate a $15 an hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and tuition free college education.

Such promises seem to be somehow awakening Americans (at least subconsciously) to the reality that at least since WWII, similar socialist programs have become quite familiar. We’ve all experienced their efficacy since Roosevelt’s New Deal. We expect the government to intervene in the market to make our lives better.

In fact, since the second Great War, there have been no real capitalist or socialist economies anywhere in the world. Instead, all we’ve experienced are mixed economies with huge elements of socialism that we’ve all taken for granted.

Put otherwise, economies across the globe (however they’ve identified themselves) have all combined the three elements of capitalism: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings, with the corresponding and opposite elements of socialism: (1) public ownership of the means of production, (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. The result has been what economists everywhere call “mixed economies”: (1) some private ownership and some public ownership of the means of production (exemplified in the post office and national parks), (2) some free markets and some controlled markets (e.g. laws governing alcohol, tobacco and fire arms), and (3) earnings typically limited by progressive income taxes.

What has distinguished e.g. the mixed economy of the United States from the mixed economy, e.g. in Cuba is that the former is mixed in favor of the rich (on some version of trickle-down theory), while the latter is mixed in favor of the poor to ensure that the latter have direct and immediate access to food, housing, education and healthcare.

My article also went on to argue that the socialist elements just mentioned have enjoyed huge successes in the mixed economies across the globe – yes, even in Russia, China and the United States.

“All of that may be true,” one of my readers asked “but how can you ignore the tremendous human rights abuses that have accompanied the “accomplishments” you enumerate in Russia and China? And why do you so consistently admire socialism over capitalism which has proven so successful here at home?”

Let me answer that second question first. Afterwards, I’ll try to clarify an important point made in my recent posting’s argument about the successes I alleged in Russia and China. That point was in no way to defend the horrendous human rights abuses there any more than those associated with the successes of the U.S. economy which are similarly horrific. But we’ll get to that shortly.

In the meantime, let me lead off with a that basic point about faith that I want to centralize here. Here my admission is that more than anything, I’m coming from a believer’s perspective.

That is, without trying to persuade anyone of its truth, I admit that my Judeo-Christian faith dictates that the earth belongs to everyone. So, boundaries and borders are fictions – not part of the divine order. Moreover, for some to consume obscenely while others have little or nothing is an abomination in the eyes of God. (See Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus (LK 16:19-31).

Even more to the point of the discussion at hand, it is evident that the idea of communism (or communalism) comes from the Bible itself. I’m thinking of two descriptions of life in the early Christian community that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. For instance,

Acts 2:44-45 says:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Acts 4:32–35 reads:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had . . . And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed is also important for me. He said that whatever we do to the hungry, sick, ill-clad, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned, we do to him. The words Matthew attributes to Jesus (in the only biblical description we have of the last judgment) are:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
There is much, much more to be said about this basic faith perspective. But for now, let that suffice.

Now for the second point about human rights:

• To repeat: no one can defend the obvious human rights abuses of Russia or China. They are clearly indefensible.
• In fact, they are as inexcusable as the similar abuses by the United States in countries which are or have been U.S. client states. I’m referring to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Vietnam, and countries throughout Latin America and Africa. In all the latter, it has not been unusual for freedom of press to be violated, for elections to be rigged (think Honduras just recently), for summary executions to be common, for journalists to be assassinated in large numbers, and for dissenters to be routinely imprisoned and tortured. Christians advocating social justice have been persecuted without mercy. (Recall that infamous Salvadoran right-wing slogan, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”)
• Moreover, while we have been relatively free from such outrages on U.S. soil, the events of 9/11/01 have been used to justify restrictions of freedoms we have historically enjoyed. Here the reference is to wiretappings, e-mail confiscations, neighbors spying on neighbors, and other unconstitutional invasions of privacy that seem to violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. It is now even permissible for the nation’s head of state to identify the press as “the enemy of the people.”
• 9/11 has also been used to justify the clearly illegal invasion of at least one sovereign country under false pretenses (Iraq) with the resultant deaths of well over a million people (mostly civilians). Other countries have also been illegally attacked, e.g. Libya, Yemen and Somalia without due congressional authorization. 9/11 has further “justified” the establishment of “black sites” throughout the world, the “rendition” of prisoners to third countries for purposes of torture, innumerable (literally) arrests without charges and imprisonments without trial. It has even led to extrajudicial killings of U.S. citizens.

Such observations make the general point that when countries perceive themselves to be under attack, they implement policies both domestically and abroad that defenders of human rights correctly identify as repressive, cruel, criminal and even homicidal. Russia, China, and Cuba have been guilty of such policies. But so has the United States in supporting friendly regimes throughout the world and by implementing increasingly repressive policies here at home.

Now consider the pressures that led Russia, for example, to implement its own indefensible repression:

• As the most backward country in Europe, its people had suffered enormously under an extremely repressive Czarist regime. [Czarism, in fact, was the model of government that most Russians (including criminals like Stalin) had internalized.]
• Following its revolution, Russia was invaded by a vast coalition of forces (including the United States). It was forced to fight not only the invaders, but Czarist sympathizers and anti-communists within its own population.
• The country had twice been invaded by Germany through Poland and saw itself as needing a buffer from its implacable enemies to the west.
• Its people had fought heroically against German invaders and though suffering 20 million deaths and incredible infrastructure destruction, it managed to defeat the German army and largely be responsible for winning World War II.
• During the Cold War, Russia found itself under constant threat from western powers and especially from the United States, its CIA, and from NATO – as well as from internal enemies allied with the latter.

My only point in making such observations was not to defend Russia’s indefensible violations of human rights (nor China’s, nor Cuba’s); it was, rather, to make my central point about the efficiency of economies mixed in favor of the poor vs. those mixed in favor of the rich.

As shown by Russia (and even more evidently by China), economies mixed in favor of the poor develop much more quickly and efficiently than economies mixed in favor of the rich. While both Russia and China became superpowers in a very short time, the former European and U.S. colonies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia have remained mired in colonial underdevelopment. The latter’s organizing principle of “comparative advantage” has proven ineffective in enriching them, since it locks them into positions of mere suppliers of raw materials to industrialized countries. No country has ever reached “developed” status by following such principle. In other words, Global South countries are still waiting for that wealth to “trickle down.”

So, readers shouldn’t mistake the argument made by Wolff and others. It was not to defend the indefensible. (Even Khrushchev and Gorbachev recognized and denounced the crimes of Josef Stalin.) The relevant point is about capitalism vs. socialism. It was to indicate that the vilification of socialism overlooks the achievements of that system despite (not because of) restrictions on human rights that are common to both systems in egregious ways that no humanist or follower of Jesus should be able to countenance.

My conclusion remains, then, that it is up to people of conscience (and especially people of faith) to oppose such restrictions and violations wherever we encounter them – but especially in our own system where our voices can be much more powerful than denunciations of the crimes attributable to “those others.”

I’m Not Racist!

Here is a must-see video. It’s Joyner Lucas‘ hip-hop dialog between a white man and a black man. When I saw it yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking how good a discussion-starter it would have been in courses I’ve taught.

See what you think.

I only wish that there had been a third participant in the dialog —  someone who might helped the principals see that their anger is misdirected.  They are not each other’s enemies.

No, the real enemy is the system of capitalism run by the 0.1%. Its underlying ideology of extreme individualism, and vicious competition keeps everyone’s eyes off the ball by pitting blacks and whites against one another. Meanwhile, the system enriches the few while failing miserably to provide adequate jobs, wages, education, housing and health care for the majority.

This is an example of the system’s “divide and conquer” strategy that works every time.

Through your comments, please share your reflections.

Stephen King’s IT: A Halloween Parable about America and Its Orange-Haired Clown

Pennywise 2

I don’t like horror films. They’re too much like real life with its mass shootings, hurricanes, and the policies of that clown in the White House. So I demurred when friends invited me to see the film version of Stephen King’s IT.

In the end, however, I was somehow persuaded. After all, as a box office phenomenon, IT remains the highest grossing “R” rated film in history. Its subconscious cultural content, I suspected, might somehow explain that huge box office success. So I accompanied my friends to our local Miramax determined to find that content.

Before I get to that however, a word about the film itself. . . To put it succinctly, IT was quite boring. In terms of horror, it didn’t even succeed in the (otherwise quite easy) task of scaring me!

Think about the movie’s unlikely premise: a group of 7 pre-teens meet a terrifying clown who lives submerged in the sewer underworld of Derry, a small town in Maine. The kids are all outsiders; they even call their group “The Losers’ Club.” One is black, another Jewish, and the remainders a tomboy, a stutterer, a frail hypochondriac, an overweight intellectual, and a wise-cracking smart-aleck.

The Losers’ adversary appears every 27 years to maim, kill and disappear children in Derry. No one but the kids can see the motley spirit who appears all-powerful. Nonetheless, in the end, (spoiler alert) the children improbably, but only apparently kill the clown. (Readers of King’s book know Pennywise will return in 30 years or so – thus setting up the dreaded sequel.)

Oh hum!

None of this is to say that IT wasn’t terrifying. However, its truly scary characters were the story’s adults – especially the Losers’ parents. They were variously fat and lazy, sexually abusive, violent in the extreme, deceptive, authoritarian, possessive and stultifying.

What united them all was their mirror-perfect depiction of our country’s adult refusal to recognize an extreme violence threatening our own children, even when it’s staring us in the face. Nothing mobilized the adults; not disappearances, shootings, torn limbs, decapitations, bleed-outs, bullying, racism, child abuse and even a room covered with blood. They just couldn’t see any of it, and got angry when the children suggested that something was wrong.

Of course, all of this reflects our culture’s normalization of terror in a country described by that other Mr. King (Martin) as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” We’re blind, for instance, to the horror of our economic system that today allows the preventable deaths of 30,000 children each day – without most of us taking any more note of the tragedy than the adults in Derry’s Maine-stream.

With the clown, we leave the terrifying adult world, and enter an ironically less threatening spirit world. But the spirit of what? The clown’s name “Pennywise” might offer a clue. (After all, Stephen King did choose to call him that?) Pennywise’s puzzling designation implies a connection between terror and money. Could he be the embodiment of an economic spirit that saves pennies, while being pound-foolish – the implied second half of the clown’s name? There’s got to be some meaning there.

In any case, and regardless of Stephen King’s intentions, our culture’s short-term focus on saving pennies (e.g. by defunding public schools, and healthcare) destroys children’s lives as surely as bites from the movie-clown’s yellowed incisors.

So, my premonitions may have been spot-on. Despite its artistic demerits, IT does hold lessons for those determined to probe its cultural context. They include:

  • Wake up!
  • Realize our pound-foolish system is destroying our children.
  • It depends on terror, fear, and violence to do so
  • Most of its older victims are in denial.
  • Younger “Losers” know better.
  • Listen to them.
  • And don’t be afraid of that violent, pennywise clown in the oversized suit.
  • Get rid of him as soon as possible.