Capitalism, greed and DNA

When some 5,000 people — mainly CEOs and other executives — gather at New York’s Radio City Music Hall for the World Business Forum on Oct. 7-8, they’ll shell out between $2,700 and $3,000 for a ticket. Do the math and you’ll see the gate will take in almost $15 million for the two-day event.

But that’s peanuts for these folks. Almost any one of them could buy up the whole auditorium and still come out ahead for the year.

Outside will be an array of protesters demanding a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Inside, raising wages — for workers, that is — won’t even be discussed.

Does $15 an hour sound like a lot? Just compare it to what big capitalists get. Take Larry Ellison, the retiring CEO of Oracle. He “earned” $38,000 per hour last year. Even if we win the higher minimum wage, it would take a worker more than 15 months of 40-hour weeks to earn what Ellison gets in one hour.

In June 2012, Ellison bought the whole island of Lanai in Hawaii, and will rule over its 3,200 residents like a king. (New York Times magazine, Sept. 23)

The enormous wealth that is being amassed at one end of the pole and the extreme poverty plaguing the other is giving capitalism a bad name. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll published in December 2011 showed only 46 percent of young people in the 18-29 age bracket had a favorable view of capitalism, while 49 percent said they favored socialism. Since then, pollsters haven’t asked this question again.

Another factor in the growing mass hatred for capitalism is its reckless destruction of the environment in the mad rush for profits. No wonder young people don’t look kindly on this system. They’ll be stuck with the climate change disasters bearing down on us — at the same time they’re trying to pay off their student loans with minimum wage jobs, if they can find any.

All this could be cause for deep pessimism and inertia. Indeed, those under the influence of the right wing are preparing for Armageddon and circling the wagons in a racist frenzy against those least responsible for the state of the world.

However, the momentum right now is with new progressive movements that are on the rise. Millions around the world are fighting the effects of capitalism — its impoverishment of the masses; its imperialist wars; its racism, sexism and gender oppression; its lust for carbon fuels to power industries that create more and more goods with fewer and fewer workers.

End the illusions!

What is needed, however, is a massive movement against the system itself, not just its effects. There are still many illusions about capitalism — that it can be made greener, more just, less greedy; that it can respond to these social, economic, political movements and be reformed.

These illusions also extend to capitalist democracy. It has been drummed into our heads that we choose our leaders through free elections. But for the people’s choice to really make it into the halls of power is as rare as hen’s teeth. A recent article confirmed that most majority Black cities — like Ferguson, Mo. — are ruled by white mayors and city councils. How many workers, how many union members are in Congress? The deep pockets of big business buy elections 99.9 percent of the time.

Yet illusions about how to overcome capitalism’s crises persist.

The people who put together the agenda for the Business Forum are aware of this. Their website for the event lists many speakers and their topics. One is “Conscious Capitalism: Building a Business Where Everyone Thrives.” Another is about “corporate social responsibility.” A third claims to have the key to “launch a creative revolution that will unleash the real potential of people and organizations.”

The word “profits” is never mentioned. It’s all “opportunity” and “creativity.” Any would-be speaker who dared to suggest that their wealth is based on the exploitation of workers would never make it to the stage.

None of this is new. The capitalists and their army of apologists have long claimed that the wealth they amass would trickle down to the people eventually. But it doesn’t, and a lot of people are not buying that argument any more. They are realizing that they must come together and fight just to get a living wage.

The environmental movement is also beginning to move beyond appeals to CEOs and government officials and talk about system change. At the huge New York march against climate change on Sept. 21, many placards, floats, banners and stickers hit capitalism as responsible for the lack of any agreement to cut carbon emissions that cause global warming.

Yet this is still a far cry from building an openly anti-capitalist movement. For that to happen, there has to be some understanding of the alternative. What other economic system is possible?

A scientific approach to system change

This is where Marxism comes in. It has been so attacked for more than a century that many people disillusioned about capitalism may think they can brush it aside so as not to draw the fire of the ruling class and its agents. But Marxism is science, and there is no substitute for science. If we are going to do more than mouth phrases about system change, then we have to understand the nature of this system, the social forces it has created, and how it can be overcome.

For starters, Marxism lays bare the inner contradictions of capitalism. It explains the dynamic of this system, the profit motive, which has revolutionized the means of production so rapidly that today’s world would be unrecognizable to our forebears of just a century ago. While this revolution in technology brought vast wealth to its owners, it also appeared to some that eventually all classes — at least in the developed imperialist countries — would benefit.

But this dynamic, this constant need to develop the means of production while shedding workers, has led to the vast global labor market that now exists. And it is pitting higher-paid workers against those most impoverished. This is dragging down workers everywhere. The only way to fight it is to internationalize the struggle against capitalism.

Today’s capitalists have more wealth than they know what to do with. They throw it at art, real estate, anything that might increase in value because of speculation. What they don’t do is give it back to the workers who created it in the first place, even though their own economists are warning them that they are undercutting the market — that people would like to buy some of what is produced but don’t have the money and have maxed out their credit.

And if capitalists do invest some of their wealth in new production, it is production that uses computers and robots — because that lowers labor costs. Which means even fewer actual humans can buy their products. Robots don’t eat, don’t drive cars, don’t need furniture.

What is the reason for the capitalists’ seemingly irrational greed?

Greed not in our DNA

Greed is not in our DNA. We as a species of animal evolved over millions of years and succeeded because of our ability to work together and cooperate. Greed is a product of class society, which has existed for only a few thousand years.

Capitalism raised greed to a new, even more obscene level. The rich no longer count their wealth in X number of cattle or piles of gold. They measure it in currency, and the sky’s the limit.

Greed doesn’t produce capitalists; capitalism produces greed. To survive in the dog-eat-dog world of competing corporations, each capitalist has to lower costs and use the money saved to expand and drive out competitors (while keeping some for incidental expenses like yachts, private planes and 40-room mansions, all written off as business expenses).

What’s the alternative? Breaking the stranglehold of the capitalists over the means of production. Liberating the technology we have produced so it can be used to solve the problems of hunger, homelessness and environmental destruction. Social ownership. Socialism.

And to get there? Revolution.