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Is Cap. Worth Saving?

Ernest Erber

An Answer to the President of General Motors

Is Capitalism Worth Saving? – II

(13 January 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 2, 13 January 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In last week’s article, devoted to answering the slick defense of capitalism contained in Charles E. Wilson’s You’ve Got to Make a Profit, we discussed the change in approach used by recent apologists for capitalism. We pointed out that the article by the president of General Motors Corporation followed the current line of avoiding pleas based on the “moral rights” of a capitalist to make a profit and based itself upon the contention that a high standard of living and freedom from governmental despotism were assured only by the profit system.

Today we wish to take up the specific arguments adduced by Wilson in support of his contention. We will seek to list them and discuss them, one by one.

Argument Number One

Capitalism has developed this country and given the people the highest standard of living in the world.

The facts in this statement cannot be argued with. It is true that (1) capitalism is the economic system under which the United States developed and (2) the standard of living of the people in this country is, today, the highest in the world. But what follows from citing these facts? For the defenders of capitalism, the mere citing of these facts seems tantamount to saying that: therefore, it follows that capitalism is the best economic system for the American people.

But why does this follow? If the capitalists had used the same logic when discussing technical improvements, they would never have shown any progress. For instance, when the dynamo was developed and proposed as an improvement over the steam engine, why did not the capitalist say: “The steam engine has built the economy of this country, it has given us the greatest profits in the world, we refuse to consider any other method of supplying power to our factories”? Or when the automobile came along, why did it not make just as much sense to point out that the country had made great strides with the ox-cart, the covered wagon and the buggy?

To say that capitalism has developed this country does not constitute proof that (1) another system might not have developed it more, or (2) that at a certain point in the country ‘s development a more efficient system might not have become possible, or (3) that though capitalism developed the country in the past, it is capable of further development.

It is the same with the argument about the “highest standard of living in the world.” To say that we have the highest standard of living in the world does not constitute proof that (1) it could not be higher, or (2) that it is not abysmally low when compared with our economic potential, or (3) that the reason for its being high might be found in the fact that the rest of the world’s standard of living is low as a result of American exploitation.

No doubt, in ancient-times when slaves complained, about hard work and poor food they were reminded that slavery was the best system man had yet devised. After all, great cities were built and the land was brought under cultivation by the slave system. Before man had developed slavery, captives went into the stew for Sunday dinner (or the pagan equivalent). Now they were permitted to live and to work in building up the country. And no one could deny that the wretched quarters of the slave and his meager fare were better than living in a cave and going hungry much of the time. We are sure that some day archeologists will unearth a stone tablet of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce which makes precisely this argument. As a matter of fact, the Old Testament tells how, after the Hebrews had left Egypt for the freedom of the desert and suffered hungry days and nights, some of them began to long for the “flesh-pots” of Egypt, even as slaves.

The Nature of Progress

When Europe stabilized itself on the basis of feudalism, following the breakdown of the Roman Empire and the dissolution of the slave economy, the philosophers of the time pointed to the virtues of the feudal system and considered it the perfect social order for mankind. If the lot of the serf was a hard one, it was most certainly a more tolerable one than that of the slave in ancient times. If some agitators preached liberation of the serfs, as many did in Germany during the sixteenth century, and insisted that it was possible to till the soil without either serfdom or slavery, they were denounced as dreamers and dangerous persons, whose proposals would lead to the destruction of civilization.

We can see, therefore, that the arguments of the capitalist apologists are merely a repetition of the false logic of every previous ruling class. The privileged strata in society shrinks from the thought that, perhaps, like previous social systems, theirs too will pass away and be replaced by another. To accept capitalism as another transitory stage in the development of social institutions is to accept the idea that their privileges will some day end. The acceptance of this notion is, therefore, tantamount to accepting their defeat as inevitable. That is why not only every means of popular propaganda but also every phase of social science must be moulded to the purpose of teaching the perfection and permanence of capitalism. This theme is to be found in all the social sciences from political economy to anthropology, as well as in jurisprudence, philosophy and the arts.

We want to make one more observation on the argument about capitalism having built up this country and given the people a high standard of living. This is to observe that the capitalist apologists take a personal pride in this achievement. Why they should is a mystery. They do not maintain that the economy of this country was developed because the capitalists had that aim in mind. There was nothing purposeful about it. All that happened, they say, is that every capitalist kept his nose in his own business and sought to build it up as big as possible in order to make more profit. If he could, he bankrupted his competitor, cheated the government and robbed the consumer—not to speak here about the treatment accorded to his workers. If the economy developed blindly as a by-product of this mad pursuit for profit, why should anyone take pride in it? It is as if the bees who flit from flower to flower were to insist that the purpose of their flitting was not to extract the nectar but to carry the pollen from plant to plant as a disinterested service to horticulture.

Relative Nature of Perfection

It is also necessary to consider that the United States is today the only nation in the world where capitalism continues in a somewhat working order. If the capitalist system is so perfect, why have not other nations continued to prosper under it? Or is there something in the American climate or soil or blood stream that makes this country an exception? It is our contention that capitalism has a firmer foundation in the United States than elsewhere for a whole series of historical reasons. However, historical reasons, mean that the factors which have given stability to capitalism in this country are not permanent, have undergone change and continue to undergo change. These changes are steadily undermining the foundations of American capitalism as they did those of capitalism in Europe, its original stronghold. Witness the crisis of 1929–39. That is why we say that the condition of capitalism in Europe today shows us the face of American capitalism tomorrow.

A last word on the much publicized “American standard of living.” It would be folly to deny that the bulk of the American workers live better than those of Europe, even if we use the pre-war period as the basis of comparison. But this does not mean that there are not millions of American workers who live on a European standard of living. When the fact that American workers own automobiles is pointed out, it must also be remembered that a majority of them do not own automobiles. Thousands of coal miners, even with their recently increased income, are forced to live in clapboard shacks owned by the coal companies. The low standard of living of sharecroppers and fruitpickers is well known. It is an illusion of the worst kind to take Detroit automobile workers, who stand near the top of the wage scale, and think of them as TYPICAL of the American workers’ standard of living.

And even if all workers in this country earned what the upper third of them do today, what follows? “High” and “low” are only relative concepts. Pacific islanders who happened to live on an island with exceptionally fertile yam patches thought they enjoyed a “high” standard of living. They did, in comparison with their poorer neighbors. But when the American troops came and permitted them to pick through the garbage from the mess hall, they considered it a feast.

It is our contention that the planned economy of socialism, based on production for use and not for a profit, will make the highly-touted “American standard of living” of today seem primitive by comparison.

(We will take up Wilson’s second argument next week.)

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