Capitalism, Socialism, and the Earth

The online Oxford Dictionary defines democracy as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives….”

But it immediately biases the discussion with the following sentence to illustrate the word democracy: “capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world.” That is, capitalism and democracy go together. Wherever capitalism goes, democracy goes. The ascend together as was imagined to be the case in the Arab Spring.

To the contrary, the online Oxford Dictionary defines capitalism as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”

The Oxford Dictionary identifies what we are coming to realize in America. We do not live in a democracy. We live under “the economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit rather than by the state.” Neither are they controlled by the people of the state, the body politic.

The presumed ideological kinship between capitalism and democracy has existed in America culture as long as most of us can remember. It wasn’t always so in the 1920s and ‘30s, but, as we are beginning to understand again by virtue of circumstance, democracy does not depend upon a capitalist economy. In fact, democracy and capitalism are contradictions in terms. They are philosophically incompatible.

The more natural kin of democracy is socialism, as defined by the online Oxford Dictionary: “A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

Democracy is the rule of the people, “a system of government by the whole population….” or, “the community as a whole.”

Finally in America an intelligent discussion is afoot about democratic rule and economics. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate takes the discussion to a new level that views global capitalism as “the most profound threat humanity has ever faced: the war our economic model is waging against life on earth.”

American Democracy – Trevor Potter, Bill Moyers, and Stephen Colbert

Exercise Your Franchise

….

Voting  is our duty,

One person-one vote.

Together we matter,

Each voter take note!

– Steve Shoemaker, acrostic verse written in early morning hours, Sept. 25, 2012.

It’s all about citizenship. Trevor Potter said it last week on Bill Moyers & Company (PBS). He had said it earlier in interviews with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.

Go back and click his name to see Mr. Potter’s full professional biography on the Bill Moyers and Company website. Here’s the beginning of his bio and why the Moyers interview with Mr. Potter is important to us.

A former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, Trevor Potter has been fighting for campaign finance reform through the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit organization he founded to track and pursue legal cases related to campaign finance, political communication and government ethics at the federal, state and local level.

Mr. Potter is a Republican who believes that the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision threatens democracy itself. In the interview with Bill Moyers, he states as clearly that a democratic republic’s integrity depends on the nation’s voters seeing themselves as citizens. For Potter, citizenship – which means putting the larger good above one’s own narrow self-interest – is seriously at risk. Campaign financial reform is not the whole answer, but it is essential to democracy itself.

Click on Bill Moyers & Company to watch the conversation in part or in whole.

Capture the Flag

Children playing Capture the Flag

Long before I got hooked on Facebook, my childhood friends and I used to play outside until it got dark.  Capture the Flag was our favorite game.If you had the flag, your job was to keep it; if you didn’t, your job was to capture it.  Only one person had the flag; the rest of us worked together until one of us got it.  And when one of us did, the game started over again.

Even if you hadn’t captured the flag that night, you went home knowing that tomorrow you had another chance.  Nothing was forever in the game of Capture the Flag.

We were learning how the game of democracy is played. We were learning how to win and how to lose.  We were learning the importance of continuing to play the game because no one knew how things would turn out the next night before our Moms called us home at bedtime.

All these years later, we’re playing Capture the Flag on Facebook.  Some of us are Democrats.  Some are Republicans.  Some are Libertarians.  Some are Socialists.  Some of us are Cynics who’ve decided that the game is stacked and that no matter how hard they try to capture the flag for what they believe in, the same bullies always win.

When we played the game as kids, there was a nearly level playing field.  The slowest of us had less of a chance than the fastest, but even the slowest and the smallest had a shot, if we worked together to capture the flag.

It’s not that different now, except that the bullies have money the rest of us don’t have. They’ve also learned how to divert our attention. Well-funded mind-bending scare tactics seek to convince voters that the flag has actually been in our pocket and that we, not they, are losing control of our country if health care reform, action on climate change, and reigning in Wall Street are the results of the November election.

Protest sign: U.S. Chamber of Commerce

It’s time to go out to the backyard and play the game again. Time to stand up together to reign in Wall Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and to tell our friends in the Tea Party that  deregulated, laissez-faire capitalism will serve only the fittest, not the many. Time to snatch the Stars and Stripes out of the deep pocket of the bullies who paint themselves as America’s last, best hope. No one gets to keep the flag in the United States of America.

Cuban Altar Boys, the Pope, and Occupy

Pope Benedict has called for political reform in Cuba. The Cuban government has refused the request.  It continues to insist on one party rule.

Ninety miles away, here in the U.S., we have Occupy because an oligarchy has stolen the rule of the people. (“They may squirm in hearings, but Wall Street oligarchs know who has the power“.) The Supreme Court’s ruling has given the green light for some of the people (i.e. corporations) to rule the airwaves with the unlimited spending that buys elections “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Which people? Follow the money and you will see the illusion that America is a democracy. We have hoods over our heads.

We’re an oligarchic society. For all intents and purposes we live under the rule of the few, for the sake of the few. Fewer and fewer of the crumbs in Jesus’ parable of the poor man Lazarus are falling from the rich man’s table.

Why would Raul and Fidel Castro, two former altar boys, and the Cuban Communist Party refuse to open up the Cuban political system?

One need only review the history of Cuba prior to the revolution for their reasoning. I’ve had this conversation. I had it in 1979 in Cuba, and I had it in 1966 in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain. See yesterday’s post (The Wafer and th Loaf: the Pope and Raul Castro)

The Iron Curtain was altogether different from the Cuban embargo. The Iron Curtain was raised from the other side of the fence. It was put up by what we then called the Eastern Bloc, not by us in the West, while the Cuban embargo, the Iron Curtain meant to strangle the success of the socialist experiment, was built by the U.S.  Against all odds, Cuba has survived without access to the world’s largest market 90 miles to the north.  Somehow or other, against all odds, Cuba defended itself successfully against the giant to the north’s invasion at Playa Giron, “the Bay of Pigs”. It has lived ever since in fear of its northern neighbor, especially its ex-patriot Cuban business class in Florida that led the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Now Pope Benedict is urging the Cuban government to open up the political process, to expand political freedom.

Partly it’s a matter of perception.

Here in the West we decried the Iron Curtain as the means of dictatorial regimes to keep people in East Germany from fleeing to West Germany. To us the Berlin Wall was a prison wall intended to keep people from fleeing to freedom.  As seen by the Czechoslovakian family with whom I lived during the summer of 1966 and by the students at the university in Bratislava, the Iron Curtain served an altogether different purpose. It wasn’t to keep them in. It was to keep us out. They believed in the egalitarian society they were hoping to create. The Wall had been raised to wall out the corrosive influences of Western materialism, the power of money that is capitalism, the culture of greed, the survival of the fittest, the culture of selfishness.

Today Cuba is poor. Or is it? How do we measure poverty…or wealth?

Prior to the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, two former altar boys, Cuba was the U.S.’s source of sugar. The sugar came from sugar plantations owned by American Sugarwhose American elites and their Cuban partners gathered for lavish vacations on the white sands of Varadero Beach.  The American one-percent was reaping the profits and lying on the beach with their Cuban corporate friends at Varadero. It made no difference to them that the literacy rate of the Cuban people was among the lowest in the world.  The vast majority of the people could neither read nor write. It didn’t seem to matter to the elites or to Batista, the Cuban dictator whose government they had bought and paid for.  The vast majority of Cubans – those who spent their days cutting sugar cane on the large plantations, peasants who scratched out a living with a few chickens and pigs, and those who worked in the tourist industry in Havana and at Varadero Beach – had no health care, no dental care, and no safety net other than the Church’s charity. It was an island of economic injustice relieved by episodic acts of religious charity.

In short, Cuba was an oligarchy.

If Cuba “opens up” the way the Pope and most Americans believe they should, Cuba will very quickly become again the place it was before the former altar boys came down from the mountains to ousted Batista and American Sugar.

Is Cuba poor? Is America poor?  Cuba has had universal health care for longer than the US. Has had the Civil Rights Act. No one goes without seeing a doctor.  Its literacy rate is one of the highest in the world because of its government’s commitment to education and literacy for all its citizens.  Here at home a conservative U.S. Supreme Court is weighing arguments that could turn back America’s closest thing to universal health care, and the literacy rate is dropping, the prison population is mushrooming with school dropouts who can’t read or write. Those who can afford it, move their children out of the public schools into private schools.  The gap between the haves and have-nots widens every day. And the people on Wall Street who keep the rest of us living in the illusion that our future security rests with the interests of the oligarchy is as tall and thick as it ever was.

During his trip to Cuba Pope Benedict not only called for reforms in Cuba. His words also pointed north to the U.S. and the system that enshrines private capital and greed rather than God as the central principle around which Western societies are organized.  Pope Benedict denounced the ills of capitalism, as he has done repeatedly.

Benedict bemoaned a ‘profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families.’” (Nicole Winfield and Andrea Rodriguez, Huffington Post, 3/27/12).

The calls to open up the political system, on the one hand, and to end the ills of capitalism, on the other, are twin calls that echo 90 miles to the north as well as across Cuba.  We live in a closed system where the ills of capitalism turn the Constitutional rights and freedoms of a representative people’s democracy into a money game, a single-party oligarchy in which the one-percenters put hoods over our heads while they look forward to the installation of another Batista, the day when the can join their friends again on the white sands of Varadero Beach.

Plato on Wealth and Poverty

“The form of law which I propose would be as follows: In a state which is desirous of being saved from the greatest of all plagues—not faction, but rather distraction—there should exist among the citizens neither extreme poverty nor, again, excessive wealth, for both are productive of great evil . . . Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth.”

Sound like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)? Karl Marx maybe? Bill Maher?

It’s not. It was , Greek philosopher (427-347 B.C.) and “father of Western philosophy” who said it.
But it could have been Chuck Collins, grandson of Oscar Meyer, co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good. On their website, watch Chuck speaking on wealth inequality. I met Chuck three years ago at the home of a wealthy couple in Minneapolis.
I chimed in on the discussion in December, 2010 with a guest commentary on MPR, “Fear ‘redistribution of wealth’? Don’t look now”, arguing that the redistribution had already taken place – from the middle to the top of the economic ladder in America.
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Let me know what you think? Do you agree/disagree with Plato: “Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth”? Or with Chuck? Should the distribution of wealth (a ceiling and a floor) be on the table or off the table of a democratic republic? If economics is not on the table, what does democracy mean?

“Say the word ‘freedom'”

When the political campaigns speak of ‘freedom,’ listen with care

Gordon C. Stewart, published By MPR, aired on “All Things Considered”, August 31, 2011 Click LISTEN to hear the commentary on Minnesota Publc Radio.

My hearing continues to get worse. In the sound-proof booth of the hearing test, the audiologist asks me to repeat the words I hear…

“Say the word ‘good’.”

“Wood.”

“Say the word ‘cold’.”

“Hold.”

“Say the word ‘gold’.”

“Goal.”

It’s not easy inheriting my mother’s hearing loss. Getting the words wrong often separates me from normal conversation.

But it also has its advantages. I listen more carefully, and the world of silence brings me to a deeper reflection about the words we hear every day.

I’ve begun to listen more carefully when the word “freedom” is used.

“Say the word ‘free.'”

“Free,” we say. And something deep within us hears the national anthem: Land of the free, and the home of the brave.

We Americans love freedom.

Future anthropologists will likely observe that freedom was the most treasured word in the American vocabulary. It is the most powerful word in our language.

No one understands this better than the handlers of political candidates. They know that the word evokes an unspoken reverence, and that perceived threats to freedom alarm us and cause us to get back in the ranks of freedom’s faithful. They know the nature of language and of word association.

“Say the word ‘freedom’,” they say.

“Democracy.”

“Say the word ‘regulation’.”

“Socialist.”

“Say the word ‘socialist’.”

“Un-American.”

“Say the word ‘government’.”

“Enemy.”

“Say the word ‘American’.”

“Free.”

Freedom stands alone in the American pantheon.

Ironically, in the hands of the unscrupulous, the word we associate with individual liberty can cause a collective stampede. It calls us from grazing freely in the pasture to joining a mindless herd.

We don’t like heresy; we’re afraid of being heretics.

My hearing will continue to get worse. It will take me into a world of increasing silence. In a way, I wish the same for the rest of my countrymen. We could all use some time away from the word-association games.

When we hear the word “freedom,” we should be free to listen carefully and understand it for ourselves.

Sorrow Floats: the Healthy Deregulated Capitalism Myth Just Keeps Re-surfacing

Gordon C. Stewart | Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009MinnPost.com

“Sorrow floats.” Perhaps the line from a John Irving novel — in which “Sorrow,” the stuffed family dog preserved by a taxidermist, floats to the surface of the lake after a plane crash — helps explain what is happening in America.

Something dear to the American family died one year ago last September-October. Prior to the series of chilling events of that period, most of us had lived with the illusion of relative economic and financial health. Then Sorrow was rushed to the emergency room for government resuscitation.

Since then our memories of that pre-September 2008 world have taken a turn that families often take at funerals when the eulogies bear little resemblance to the reality of the deceased. We’re quarreling over what was real and what is mythical reconstruction.

Following the plane wreck that takes the lives of the Berry family parents in Irving’s “The Hotel New Hampshire,” the stuffed family pet bobs to the surface of the lake, floating among the wreckage. Sorrow floats. So does the thing we lost last fall.

What died? A ruling assumption

What died last year was the ruling assumption that an unregulated free-market system was the best way to organize an economy and that laissez-faire capitalism is democracy’s natural ally. The market almost crashed. It didn’t crash only because the federal government intervened to prevent a repeat of the crash of 1929. Sometime between mid-September and Oct. 7, when Congress passed its bill to stabilize the financial markets, the myth of the virtue of deregulated capitalism died. It was stuffed by the taxidermy of government intervention, but it still floats.

When a conviction or a myth dies, it doesn’t go away. It continues to bob to the surface. Sometimes, as in the case of the Berry family, the old dog is much easier to love after it is dead. Sorrow — obese, lethargic, and persistently flatulent in its old age — no longer waddles through the dining room to foul the air and ruin everyone’s dinner. In the public psyche, the unpleasant memories of the real life Sorrow give way to the stuffed Sorrow, a thing of nostalgia that lives on … even after it’s dead, and long after the plane has crashed.

Over and over, we forget

Sorrow and its old illusions float every time the reconstructed memory, forgetting the real Sorrow, barks about “socialism.” Sorrow floats every time we shout each other down in town-hall meetings. Sorrow floats every time nostalgia forgets that it was only by government intervention that Sorrow is still around. Sorrow floats every time we forget the voracious appetite, unscrupulous predatory practices, insatiable greed, and the obesity that led to the deaths of Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns, not to mention insurance giant AIG and all the banks that had taken the plunge into a market of deregulated derivatives and mortgages that led to the epidemic of home foreclosures, bankruptcies, pension-fund collapses and job losses. Sorrow, the old dog that failed us, still floats and still barks a year after the crash when the mind forgets and nostalgically remembers a system we thought was working in our interest.

Old ideas and convictions die hard. The powerful economic forces that grew fat during the years when government was viewed as the people’s enemy will stoke the fires of public anxiety and anger, taking advantage of the floating Sorrow that reminds us of something that we love more in retrospect than we did the day it died of its own obesity.

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He is the moderator of Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues and former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of anyone else.

Yesterday’s post “The Gospel and the Chicken Coop” (scroll down) quotes from President Dwight Eisenhower’s Farewell Address. This morning Unedited Politics, a blog dedicated to respecting viewers’ ability to draw their own conclusions (no punditry on this blog), posted the speech.

The American Oligarchy

By the Rev. Gordon C. Stewart | Thursday, April 29, 2010

We do not live in a democracy; we live in an oligarchy, “government by the few, especially despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). I’ve been waiting for people in high places to say it.

Goldman Sachs executives’ testimony Tuesday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations brought the elephant into the living room, but the name of this species of government remains unspoken for understandable reasons.
A democratic republic is a constitutional form of government where the people rule through their elected representatives gathered in deliberative bodies. The faces and voices of Goldman Sachs’ executives demonstrated the intransigent arrogance of the private institutional concentration of wealth and power of deregulated capitalism.