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Capitalism's Devotional Song

"The conservative refrain goes something like this: "If only things were left to the free market and we liberated ourselves from government's meddlesome regulations, then we would see how beautifully a pure capitalism works.”


by Michael Parenti

In fact, we did practice something close to a pure capitalism in 1893. The result was economic depression and widespread unemployment, nine-year-old children working fourteen-hour days, typhoid and cholera epidemics in Philadelphia and other eastern cities, malnutrition and tuberculosis, and contaminated water and food supplies for the poor.

We had uninhibited environmental devastation and horrible work conditions, no pension programs or minimum wage, no occupational or consumer safety regulations, no prohibitions against child labor, and no Social Security, collective bargaining, or industrial unionism. We had unrestrained monopolies and trusts – and enormously high profits.

Conditions in the United States in 1893 were not unlike what they are today through much of the Third World. But for the capitalists of that era, these dismal conditions were not seen as evidence of the system's failure. For them, capitalism in the good old days was working quite well. Success was measured not by the quality of food, drinking water, housing, schools, transportation, and health care, but by the rate of capital accumulation.

The function of capitalism then and now has been to invest capital in order to accumulate more capital, and in that sense the system has performed superbly, for those who own and control it.

Today, the conservative goal is the Third Worldization of America, to reduce the U.S. working populace to a Third World condition, having people work harder and harder for less and less. This includes a return to the ”free market,” free environmental regulations, free of consumer protections, minimum wages, occupational safety, and labor unions, a market crowded with underemployed labor, so better to depress wages and widen profit margins.

Conservatives also seek the abolition of human services and other forms of public assistance that give people some buffer against free-market forces. Underemployment is a necessary condition for Third Worldization. Alan Budd, professor of economics at the London Business School candidly observed (Observer, June 21, 1992) that the Thatcher government's cuts in public spending were a cover to bash workers: ”Raising unemployment was a very desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes. What was engineered – in Marxist terms – was a crisis in capitalism, which recreated a reserve army of labor, and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.” With underemployment and poverty come the return of tuberculosis, homelessness, and hunger, and a sharp increase in the number of people who work at non-union, low-paying, dead-end poverty-level jobs.

The essence of capitalism, its raison d'être, is not to build democracy, or help working people, or save the environment, or build homes for the homeless. Its goal is to convert nature into commodities and commodities into capital, to invest and accumulate, transmuting every part of the world into its own image for its own realization."

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