Entry from September 28, 2011

“Seizing Populist Mantle, Obama Pushes Jobs Bill” headlines The New York Times. More importantly, he has dropped the pretense that his populism is not “class-warfare” with the announcement that he considers himself “a warrior for the middle class.” But whom is he a warrior against? The rich? The labor market? Or the capitalist system which was once supposed by socialists to have produced the intolerable inequities he now inveighs against? To me his class warfare is more interesting for what it doesn’t say than for what it does, and what it doesn’t say is anything that might suggest he is one of those old-fashioned class warriors who sought to make war on free-market economics (under the name of “capitalism”) itself.

The President has presumably calculated that, in thus playing to his left-wing base without sounding too much like a socialist, he will do himself more electoral good than harm. I think he is mistaken in this, and that he will lose more votes in the middle from people suspicious of European-style egalitarianism — as someone once said, when you talk to Americans about redistributing income, they think it’s their income that will be redistributed — than he will gain on the left. But what do I know, compared to the highly paid political experts he can afford to employ? If he is successful, however, it is pretty clear that he himself only believes he will be so if he pussyfoots around the class-warfare rhetoric of yesteryear.

Interestingly, the leader of the British Labour Party (once proudly self-identified as “socialist”), Ed Miliband, seems to have made a similar calculation to President Obama’s, since the general view of his speech at the Labour conference yesterday is that he repudiated a decade and a half of “New Labour” attempts to purge the party of its old-style socialism. Of course, the politics of envy and class-warfare has long played better in Britain than it does in the U.S., but even there Mr Miliband’s shift to the left dared no mention of the words “capitalism” or “socialism.” The idea appeared to be to signal a return to the left-wing ideas of the past while avoiding any commitment to the language of the past. The suggestion is that this time it will be different; this time the party’s leveling and egalitarian tendencies will return without the baggage of association with revolutionary socialism and its commitment to systemic change.

If so, however, the signal may not be getting through to various gleeful left-wingers who have taken it as their cue to re-announce that the recent and continuing economic crisis, worse in Britain and much of Europe even than it is here, shows that capitalism doesn’t “work.” Mary Riddell, writing in the Telegraph in advance of the speech claimed that “His argument has been prefigured by two articles by Stewart Wood, his closest adviser and intellectual touchstone, signaling the death of neoliberalism.” That word, “neoliberalism,” by the way, is a recent favorite left-wing locution signifying what used to be signified by “capitalism” — that is, belief in free-market economics. “Although the N-word is unlikely to pass Mr Miliband’s lips,” she went on (and it didn’t), “he will call time on the theory adopted by Margaret Thatcher, that markets left to rip, and lower taxes on the rich would produce an affluence at the top that would percolate down to the poorest.” Meanwhile, in The Guardian David Harvie and Keir Milburn were proclaiming that “if the financial meltdown has taught us anything, it’s that markets don’t work.”

Well, this is what comes of belief in “capitalism,” which Ms Riddell’s headline writer says Tony Blair “worshiped.” At the Labour conference, by the way, the name of Mr Blair, the most electorally successful Labour leader in history, was booed — which tells you at least as much about Labour’s direction as Mr Miliband’s speech. Of course capitalism doesn’t “work” if you suppose that working would amount to the production of socialist ends with capitalistic methods. If the god of “History” had in fact decreed, as many socialists as well as many who would shun the name suppose it has, that mankind were intended to be free, prosperous and equal all at the same time, then, “capitalism” would be as unlikely to get us to that destination as socialism has proved to be. Indeed, the concept of “capitalism” itself was designed (by socialists, of course) precisely so as to come second in the race to utopia.

But there is no utopia, no socialist paradise in which want, hardship and inequality shall have been forever banished — hence, neither capitalism nor socialism will succeed in getting us there. The idea that capitalism doesn’t “work” only shows that the whole concept is misconceived. Neither capitalism nor markets nor neoliberalism will produce what socialism won’t produce either. But if “working” means not producing perfection but simply distributing goods and services most efficiently and in the interest of the largest number, markets work just as well as they always have worked — and insofar as they may seem not to “work” it is generally because they have been interfered with by well-meaning (or, indeed, ill-meaning) politicians. At some level the politicians themselves must know this, and know that we know it, or they would be more open and straightforward about their attacks on markets.

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