Over the holidays, I watched the documentary Saving Capitalism, which features Robert Reich's vision of how to save our economic system. While the film could have been called "out of touch" when it was released in 2017, in this 3rd year of Covid pandemic I would describe it as absolute bologna.
Monarchy had sincere critics who pleaded with the King to save his kingdom by [Reich’s words] “changing the rules," by making the monarchy "work for the people." Feudalism and slavery had the same sorts of critics who pleaded with lords and nmasters to "treat" serfs and slaves far better as necessary to save their systems. Colonists in British North America pleaded with King George III to treat colonies better to save the empire.
Reich does this for US capitalism today, but he takes such criticisms an important step further: he explicitly appeals for active mass political intervention to save capitalism by changing its rules. When Washington, Jefferson et al likewise called for mass political intervention back in 1774, they had come to a different goal. They did not seek to save King George - a feudal residual - or the British empire. They sought and made a revolution against them.
But Reich is wrong when he says "nobody is listening" to the mass dissatisfaction with capitalism. Everyone is listening but they draw different conclusions. One response is the rise of Donald Trump and a reactionary tradition that seeks political gain by fake symbolic gestures to mass dissatisfaction while it shores up the system: it is saving capitalism in its way. Another response is to use the government to correct the worst abuses that breed mass dissatisfaction; here we find Buffett's tax reforms, Biden's Build Back Better plan, etc. These are all efforts to save capitalism by making careful accommodations to mass grievances while shoring up the system. Reich criticizes the inadequate level and extent of most accommodations proposed to date by fellow Democrats to his right. He wants to go much further in such accommodations.
History is full of examples where all such critics failed to save what they had hoped to save. We know that because monarchy, feudalism and slavery barely exist any more. Perhaps their declines were postponed by listening to their critics on a few occasions. But eventually, all fell when the movement to save shifted and became a movement to surpass, when it became revolutionary.
Thus the question in the US today has already moved beyond Reich's framework. It is no longer whether US capitalism can be saved and how best to do that. It is: why save a system that works this way and resists basic needed changes demanded by today's political realities and by those who seek to save the system?
In the spirit of Washington and Jefferson (and important others), the issue today has become different and is captured in three short sentences. System change is long overdue to come to the front of our agenda. We can do better than the capitalist system just as those before us knew they could do better than monarchy, slavery, feudalism, etc. The key task today is to work out the broad outlines of a better system and the best strategy to get us there.
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Richard D. Wolff
[email protected] Board of Directors Member