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Michael Gene Sullivan

Michael Gene Sullivan

Posted April 17, 2009 | 10:04 PM (EST)

Capitalism - the Gift That Keeps on Taking: Part I


Part one of a four-part series in which Michael makes it clear why he's never been invited to a corporate brunch -- but he's not bitter.

What exactly is capitalism?

Some say it's the highest, most elegant economic structure upon which robust wealth for all can be built. Others say it's a flashy, coked-out thug with an uzi in a dark alley who threatens to shoot your kids unless you give him access to your 401k.

Personally, I think capitalism is simply a concept that does not, in the long run, work. It's like communism -- it looks good on paper.

Now, communism doesn't work because it requires people to act, well, not like people. Everybody working together for the common good, common ownership of public wealth, wise stewardship of public resources, respect, justice, yadda yadda yadda...like that's ever gonna happen. It's hard enough getting roommates to wash their own dishes, let alone getting them to work together to end corporate oppression.

Remember, these are people we are talking about. People -- the ones who put dire health warnings on cigarette packages so they'll have something to read while they suck hot, smoky death into their lungs. If we as a species can't figure out that voluntarily breathing poisonous gas is a bad idea, how can we manage something as complicated and altruistic as economic equality?

So let's leave communism to the higher animals, like the bees.

Capitalism, on the other hand, seems extremely doable, doesn't it? Dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, every man for himself -- I mean, how hard is that?

Well, first off, dogs don't really eat dogs very often. In fact, they are famous for working together, in packs. Dogs eating dogs is actually kind of a warning sign that something is very wrong with the ecosystem, "Survival of the Fittest" doesn't account for slick marketing and stock manipulation, and the only "every man" who is actually for "himself" is a hermit. Stinky, hairy, and whatever they are making all by themselves, I doubt you want any. It takes hundreds of people -- parents, friends, teachers, clients, employees -- to make one successful person. The only thing self-made about a "self-made man" is his inflated sense of his self-madeness.

So what, exactly is this economic system that produces enormous wealth for the few, but low wages and cringing debt for the rest; that promises mansions on the moon, but delivers a tenement on a superfund site in New Jersey -- a system that always and only puts profit before humanity, a system that has a history of regularly crashing and burning, taking a chunk of our future with it each time?

What Is Capitalism?

Many Americans think capitalism means the right to vote.
Nope. That's democracy. In capitalism only dollars vote.

Many think capitalism is in the Bill of Rights.
It's not. If you haven't read it, do. It's one page.

How about the rest of the constitution?
Nope. Nothing in there about buying low and selling high.

Some think it's all of us working together to improve all our lives.
Theoretically, that's socialism.

Or maybe capitalism is just a willingness to work hard, using your brain, brawn, or talent to get ahead? Enriching yourself by the honest sweat of your own brow, or hard earned intellect?

Ummmm...no.

A "capitalist" is someone who makes a living not from their own labor, but from their money, their "capital." See, that's why it's called "capitalism," and not "laborism," or "hardworkism." Interest, dividends, stock sales -- not work. If you work for a living -- even if it's intellectual work, and you need that paycheck to live -- you are a worker. (Middle class is just a worker with a mortgage.) "Oh, what about the hairdresser on the corner! What about the mechanic down the block!" Well, what about 'em? If you own a business that you have to work at to make a living, you are an owner/operator, a self-employed worker. Let me say that again: If you own a small business that you have to work at you are not a capitalist! Sorry to shout, but for some reason people have a hard time with that one. The hairdresser, mechanic and the rest are owner/operators, living on their labor, and if they stop working they fail. Workers.

If, however, their "capital" provides enough financial return for them, they are capitalists.

That's it.

Most Americans are not capitalists. They might want to be capitalists, but no matter how much you, or that hardworking barista, that well paid techno-nerd, small farmer, or gangsta rapping bank teller may want to be capitalists, you are not capitalists. You are workers.

You probably belong to the class whose income does not cover all its needs, and who rely on public wealth and services to survive. Government-funded roads, police and firefighters, government oversight for clean air, water, and food. Free public schools, libraries, and parks for your kids -- all those services that capitalists say don't work because they haven't been privatized -- all the things and services we citizens can't afford by ourselves, so we pool our money in the form of taxes to pay for. Actually, when you think about it, all the wannabe capitalists are living like socialists.

At this point some shiny-toothed twit normally lurches from his barcalounger and snorts "But we've never really given real Capitalism a chance!" That's right, Snuffy. And d'ya know why? Because every time -- every time -- America starts down an unregulated, pure-capitalism road and lets free-market capitalists get all jiggy wid our economy the whole damn country almost falls apart! Historically the closer we've gotten to unregulated capitalism the worse things have gotten, and I, for one, think it would be batshit nuts to let our ship of state hit the easily avoided iceberg of profit-driven stupidity and sink just because crazy old Captain CapitalistPants demands an unfettered chance at the wheel. Thank goodness our parents and grandparents had the wisdom to save this nation from it's own unregulated greed.

But back to my point:

Now that we know who is and who is not a capitalist, let's look at why this steaming sack of profit driven demonology is antithetical to common sense, human values, kindness, puppies, Mom, and apple pie...

Part Two...Part Two...