Capitalism by Any Other Name

I've been thinking about the term "capitalism" since Frank Luntz, the renowned pollster, told Republicans to quit saying it. The Occupy Wall Street movement has turned "capitalism" into a dirty word, he said. If Republicans want to win in 2012, they'd better stop worrying and learn to love "economic freedom" instead.

It's a stunning turning of the tide. No matter the kind of conservative—Southern, evangelical, libertarian, Tea Party, or old-school Rockefeller patrician—conservatives have never hidden their allegiance to the moneyed class and power elite. I have never in my lifetime seen a conservative counsel against expressing one of the major tenets of conservative ideology. You might as well advise the GOP to stop trying to repeal the New Deal and start defending labor rights.

I've been thinking about this rhetorical shift while riding the bus in New Haven every day. The passengers are typically at the bottom of the 99 percent. Some are destitute; some are unemployable. Most are working poor, people with full-time minimum-wage jobs who cannot rise above poverty. I wonder what they'd think of John Mackey's definition of "economic freedom." The CEO of Whole Foods wrote in The Wall Street Journal in November that the phrase means "property rights, freedom to trade internationally, minimal governmental regulation ... sound money, relatively low taxes, the rule of law, entrepreneurship, freedom to fail, and voluntary exchange." My guess is they'd think very little of it.

Mackey's definition is meaningful only if you already have money. Real money. Money you don't have to spend right away, money that can sit around for a while. But when you don't have real money, it has nothing to do with "economic freedom." If Mackey were defining "capitalism," that would be one thing. The working person might have nothing to say to that. The abstract nature of "economic freedom," though, invites interpretation, and, for the working person, it has everything to do with making a living.

Though "economic freedom" is now synonymous with capital, it used to be synonymous with labor. It makes sense. Government isn't the largest force in our lives. Corporations are. They dictate when to work, where and how. Or none of the above if you've been laid off. They don't want to pay for full-time work, health care, or pensions. During their golden age, unions were seen as a step toward greater security, which was a step toward greater freedom. If you, as an individual, didn't have to worry about bargaining for wages, retirement, or life insurance (because your labor posed actual physical risk), you were freed of that burden. In other words, economic freedom wasn't freedom from the rule of government; it was freedom from the rule of corporations.

More profoundly, labor's "economic freedom" is in keeping with the grandest narratives of American history, with colonists fighting the British colonizers, slaves fleeing their masters, women struggling for the right to vote, African Americans appealing for their inalienable rights. In each of these, a David battles a Goliath—and the underdog wins. Only in America. Where is the moral thrust of capital's "economic freedom" narrative? Making more money? Nah.

Some have warned that Luntz is setting a trap. The temptation among progressives has been to talk even more about capitalism since Luntz is "frightened to death" by the Occupy movement. If they do, critics say, Republicans will be able to portray progressives as socialists. No doubt they will, but not because the Occupiers are focused on capitalism. Conservatives are willing to cry socialist anytime something irritates business. It doesn't take raising a country's collective consciousness to the dangers of corrupt capitalism to draw rhetorical fire like that.

Talking about capitalism in America is somewhat like talking about class. As a social reality, it's so familiar as to be invisible, which is convenient for those, like the moneyed class and power elite, who don't want to talk about it. But once you start talking about an invisible force that can affect anyone, you start wondering why it doesn't benefit everyone. That, to me, is what the Occupy movement needs to keep doing: pointing out what should be obvious to all of us.

An enormous propaganda machine paid for by capital has made it necessary for thousands of people to march in the streets and camp in public parks to make what should be truly unremarkable observations: Rich people don't always deserve their riches, and people who work hard often can't make ends meet. This is about capitalism, because this is about the nature of work—and the enormous constraints faced by Americans employed or not. So, no matter what kind of rhetorical hocus-pocus Republicans come up with next year, no matter what they call capitalism, the elephant is still in the room. There's no replacing plainspoken truths.

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