Tag Archives: capitalism

Ramming Morality Into Our Economic System the John Ruskin Way

Tom Block, an artist and author of five published books, believes art is a vehicle for human rights activism; he connects 13th-century ideals of “legislative prophecy” with the present, looking for a moral center in politics, the economy, and social interactions.  In this post, Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at http://www.tomblock.com/) draws lessons from a 150-year-old book about the problems with and how to improve America’s economic system.

THOMAS

Tom Block

Let’s forget about Trump for a moment.

After all, as fun and exciting and different as his presidency is proving to be, he will not – in the end – change the course of human events.  Even less so, of the economic pressures that aggrieve and threaten to crush us.  Where Trump is a pimple on the butt of American history, our ongoing economic anarchy is a blistering, cancerous abscess affecting the fate of all of people.

I picked up a book the other day which threw the greed, inequality, lawlessness, and inhumanity of our Western capitalist system into stark relief.  And given that this series of essays was written more than 150 years ago, at the infancy of the Industrial Revolution, I found it both prescient and deeply disturbing.

It diagnosed the creeping illness of the economic system of mid-19th century England, which so closely parallels our own, in 21st-century America.  The only difference being that the ability for “economical science” (as the author called it) to wreak havoc on society and individuals has grown exponentially, keeping time with our frantic technological progress.

More than that, however, the slim pamphlet provides a potential palliative for this social illness.

I’m talking about an 1860 series of four essays, “Unto this Last,” by writer and philosopher John Ruskin.  Ruskin set out to show how economic health concerns far more than the acquisition of “all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value” (Ruskin quoting John Stuart Mill).  He laid out quite clearly that true economical well-being involves evaluating the totality of society, not just the amount of gold distributed among the fewest number of people (as seemed to define – and continues to delineate – the true state of “wealthy” nations).  In his view, “just or economical exchange…is simply [that wherein there is] advantage on both sides [and] whatever advantage there is on either side…should be thoroughly known to all concerned. All attempt at concealment implies some practice of the opposite.”  He also chafed at the idea that people with different interests (for instance, labor versus capital, or client versus producer, etc.) must “necessarily regard each other with hostility, and use violence or cunning to obtain the advantage.”

Obviously, this kind of transparency and fairness runs directly contrary to what is considered “sound” business practice.  As many current chairmen of publicly held corporations would surely note, their obligation is to their shareholders, not to consumers, to the health of the environment or nation, or even their own workers.  Isn’t the idea of having an economic exchange which is of “advantage on both sides” not only absurd, but antithetical to good business practice?

It’s a zero sum game, man!  There are winners and losers in life – and we want to be on the side of the winners!

This dynamic of greed and self-justification stretches back to the beginnings of capitalism, often dated by historians to fourteenth-century England.  As Ruskin argued, those in power “never professed, nor profess, to take advantages of a general nature into consideration.”  Instead, they believe they are simply experts at “the science of getting rich…Every man of business knows by experience how money is made, and how it is lost,” they’d argue.

Ruskin has an easy reply to this line of reasoning – one that all progressives should keep handy when arguing economic theory with the smarmy and self-certain advocates of economic anarchy (“deregulate the banks!” “deregulate the corporations!” “eviscerate environmental protections!” “never, ever raise the minimum wage!,” etc.):

The circulation of wealth in a nation resembles that of the blood in the natural body. There is one quickness of the current which comes of cheerful emotion or wholesome exercise; and another which comes of shame or of fever. There is a flush of the body which is full of warmth and life; and another which will pass into putrefaction.

As diseased local determination of the blood involves depression of the general health of the system, all morbid local action of riches will be found ultimately to involve a weakening of the resources of the body politic.

And so it is: as the inequality of wealth accretes (as it certainly has since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, he whose name graces an airport, a federal building and perhaps, some day, the dime), the health of the nation, as well as the environment upon which the nation sits and depends, weakens.  And so too, if we can judge by the growing anti-science, anti-truth legions collecting in our public square, does the mental acumen of the polis.

So what is one to do?

One of the hallmarks of my belief in activist social theories is that they be applicable, and lead to quantifiable, positive social change.  We must move beyond simply expressing opposition to current political and social energies, to devising specific manners of combatting them.  We must develop, as Hannah Arendt called them, “clumsy theories” – theories which can actually be implemented.

Ruskin’s ideas show a way forward in the realm of the 21st-century global economy.  And although I believe he would support a universal basic income, universal health care and access to housing for all, he states no such thing, and certainly is no proponent of communism or socialism.

I feel it is his acceptance of capitalism as the economic structure which makes his ideas more powerful.  He is not going against what most people in our society (and certainly the older monied class, though not always today’s youth) accept as the “best” way for the economy to work.  Rather, he is tweaking, infiltrating and massaging it to make it work for a far greater portion of the population.  And in the best of cases, for the entire society.

Ruskin reconsidered the manner in which we think about the most basic aspects of a healthy society.  For instance, he noted: “The vital question, for individual and for nation, is, never ‘how much do they make?’ but ‘to what purpose do they spend?’”  Today, 21st-century “educated consumers” – all of those purchasing organic and fair-trade goods, buying local and at farmer’s markets, examining labels to make certain they weren’t made in far-away sweatshops, staying away from Walmart, Target and other multi-national corporations while paying a little bit extra to support the locally owned store or individual market – are living by Ruskin’s code.

Doing so does cost a little bit more, and given that reality and many workers’ low pay, we also need to think in terms of another movement gathering steam, one that Ruskin would heartily endorse: the Fight for $15.  For Ruskin made it very clear that the price of labor should not be set by the anarchy of the marketplace and desperation of the worker.  A fair and living wage should be paid to all, he argued:

The abstract idea, then, of just or due wages, as respects the laborer, is that they will consist in a sum of money which will at any time procure for him at least as much labor as he has given, rather more than less. And this equity or justice of payment is, observe, wholly independent of any reference to the number of men who are willing to do the work.

This idea of “procuring at least as much labor as he has given” translates into an equitable exchange in which workers are paid what they’re truly worth, not what business owners say they are.  We definitely see this idea in force now, as over the past couple of years, the ideal of a $15/hour minimum wage has been gathering steam.  Low-wage earners in many cities and states can now take home pay more in line with their time expenditure, and thus have greater purchasing power.

Finally, we need to follow Ruskin’s lead and center honesty in our economic thinking.  Currently, the idea of “honesty” in commerce runs contrary to our economic model.  Our economy is built on lying to consumers, usually obliquely through advertising messaging, but sometimes through overbilling, frank misstating of a product’s benefits, and outright fraud, such as Wells Fargo Bank’s practice of opening expensive bank accounts without informing people of their fees.  But it doesn’t have to be that way; as Ruskin said:

The acquisition of [true] wealth is finally possible only under certain moral conditions of society, of which quite the first was a belief in the existence and even, for practical purposes, in the attainability of honesty…There is no Wealth but Life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

Ruskin’s ideas are hardly revolutionary.  He does not advocate for the cessation of wealth accrual, or the destruction of the capitalist system.  He only advocates for ramming a moral lodestar into the center of the system.  There would still be labor and capital – but capital would treat labor with humanity, kindness, fairness and honesty.  Money could still be won, but it would no longer be the “god” it has risen to in our pagan economic system; it would be simply a byproduct of hard work and good ideas, not malfeasance, cleverness and trickery.  And when gobs of money were won, the “winner” would treat all the laborers in their orbit with fairness and honesty, as well as do their best to protect the values of respect, health and morality.

Unto this Last thus holds much wisdom for today’s progressive economic and social thinker.  The kind of tweaks, infiltrations, and moral compass Ruskin proposes – if advocated by enough people through specific legislative, legal and economic proposals – might actually begin to create the kind of practical utopia he envisioned.  Many such ideas – a universal basic income, access to higher education for all, health care as a human right, etc. – are already percolating in our society.  In some cases, like a living wage, social pressure has driven legislative action and these ideas are actually beginning to be implemented through legislation.

Now we just need more of that!

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Supporting Bernie Sanders is a Feminist Choice

Lela Spielberg is a lifelong advocate for gender equality. She has worked in the education and social services field as a teacher, policy analyst, and program designer at a local family foundation in Washington, DC.  In this post, she describes how the dialogue about Bernie Sanders and his supporters illustrates some of the problems with a particular brand of American feminism.

Lela Spielberg

Lela Spielberg

Over the last month, as Bernie Sanders has gained popularity in the polls, the media and prominent political figures have ramped up their attacks against him. At first, these attacks were unsurprising to me: “he’s inexperienced;” “he’s too idealistic;” “he’ll never get anything done.” These statements are part of the typical chorus of attacks that Washington insiders and committed capitalists have used against progressive candidates since the beginning of time.  I won’t spend my time debunking these myths, as there have been several articles, including ones on this blog, that have done so already. However, about a month ago, a new strand of attacks emerged that I have found more troubling – as a woman, as a millennial, and as an American. These attacks allege that Bernie and/or his supporters are anti-feminist. Not only are they untrue, but their language also demonstrates the deep sense of elitism and entitlement that pervades traditional American feminism.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I’m a Bernie supporter. I’ve identified as a socialist ever since I learned about the concept in my eighth-grade world history class, and I’ve admired Bernie’s activism since I moved to Washington over six years ago. Until Bernie jumped into the race, I had planned on casting a rather unenthusiastic vote for Hillary Clinton. While I believe Clinton to be smart and hard-working, her past support for bad trade deals, aggressive war, and welfare reform are not aligned with my values of fairness, peace, and economic equality. Bernie, on the other hand, has spent decades fighting for these values and has a record to prove it.

Moreover, all of these issues are at the heart of what I believe feminism to be—fighting for fairness for all women, regardless of their race, sexual identity, education level, and economic position. Consider, for example, that two thirds of workers who earn the minimum wage are women. While Clinton has voiced support for raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, only Sanders has embraced and aggressively campaigned for the $15 minimum wage that thousands of women throughout the United States are demanding. Or think about the young women and girls being rounded up and deported by the Obama Administration. Clinton defended these actions six months ago and still won’t commit to ending them. Sanders, on the other hand, has spoken out strongly against the deportation raids and in support of Central American children. To me, feminism is not just about abortion rights and breaking the glass ceiling; it’s also about making sure that all women have access to good, reliable prenatal care and early screenings for breast cancer under a Medicare for All health care system, which Bernie Sanders supports and Hillary Clinton does not.  Feminism is about fighting for the empowerment of disadvantaged women both in the United States and around the world.

Yet powerful public figures, including two “feminist icons,” have called my feminism (as well as the seriousness of my convictions) into question by mocking my choice to support Bernie over Hillary. While they’ve since issued partial apologies for their most egregious comments – Gloria Steinem’s assertion that young women only support Bernie because “the boys are with Bernie” and Madeleine Albright’s statement that “there is a special place in hell for women who won’t help other women” by voting for Hillary Clinton – the fact that they made them at all, and their failure to really own them, propagates an American feminism that isn’t about supporting all women, but is about supporting wealthy, powerful, white women. So do comments by the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who said in an interview with the New York Times in January that she sees “a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.”

The idea that young women are complacent and don’t have a sense of history is wrong. I appreciate the strides women have made, in politics and in boardrooms across the country. These accomplishments are wonderful, and they should be celebrated and continued. However, in crowing about these accomplishments without acknowledging that most of them only benefit middle- and upper-class white women, it is Steinem, Albright, and Wasserman Schultz who forget the lessons of history. Even with Roe v. Wade, poor and working-class women still lack access to safe, affordable abortions and family planning choices that their wealthier female counterparts have. This deep inequality that has only grown in recent generations is one of the reasons I am voting for Bernie Sanders.

As it turns out, my peers feel similarly – Sanders leads Hillary when it comes to female voters under 45, and he beat Hillary by 11 percentage points among all women in the New Hampshire primary. Yet many media voices continue to paint Bernie supporters as mostly male by using the term “Berniebro.”  Coined in an article in the Atlantic, the Berniebro label originally characterized Bernie supporters as “white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, ‘upper middle-class’); and aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands.”

Numerous other commentators, including Paul Krugman, have now picked up on this label.  In their estimation, the Berniebro is not only a privileged white man, but a sexist, online harasser, too. In reality, however, the term Berniebro is sexist. When it isn’t accusing women of being “bros,” it’s ignoring the voices of women (and, for that matter, the people of color and working-class people) who support Bernie.

Let me be clear: I am not defending anyone, Bernie supporter or otherwise, who makes sexist, nasty remarks about Hillary Clinton. Nor am I denying that Hillary Clinton encounters sexism that Bernie Sanders and other men never will – she absolutely does. However, I am challenging those writing and speaking about the election, and about Bernie and Hillary in particular, to broaden their thinking and definition of feminism. Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra wrote a wonderful piece for Alice Walker’s blog where they eloquently sum up this tension within the feminist community. They write:

In the US feminism is often understood as the right of women — and wealthy white women most of all — to share in the spoils of capitalism and US imperial power. By not confronting the exclusion of non-whites, foreigners, working-class people, and other groups from this vision, liberal feminists are missing a crucial opportunity to create a more inclusive, more powerful movement.

We have a long way to go before we have the truly inclusive, powerful feminist movement that the authors envision. Electing Clinton won’t get us there. To be fair, neither will electing Sanders. But not shaming women for casting a vote against economic, racial, and myriad other forms of inequality is one place we can start.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Gender Issues, US Political System