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Saturday, April 17, 2004

And another thing-misdefining capitalism

Conservatives really do miss the Cold War, as has been widely noted. Hell, our administration appointed a bunch of people who think if they wish hard enough, they can still be fighting it. It gave them an enemy, a purpose. It was exciting, because with the Evil Empire as an enemy they could run around the globe making deals with the devil in order to undermine it, a mess that we are still getting to clean up now and probably will be trying to clean up for decades.
But, on the money side of things, it created the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to redefine what the words "democracy" and "capitalism" meant. Or, more specifically, to conflate the two words so that they were generally regarded as the same thing. Of course, it was a long, involved process to do this and it meant setting up and rigidly enforcing a series of dichotomies. Luckily, they had help.
Democracy is diametrically opposed to dictatorship. When communism first emerged, there really was no reason for people to assume communist countries would have to be dictatorships, and in theory, they don't have to be. However, thanks in large part to Stalin who didn't really seem to see a difference, communist countries are dictatorships.
So now that communism=dictatorship, there was alot of work put into creating a second dichotomy of communism/capitalism. Are they opposites? Well, I don't really think so, but only because I tend to think that no economic system really can have an opposite in another. That is a profound misunderstanding of what an economy is. Any one economy has many different economic systems and they all rely on one another to exist, even if sometimes there are conflicts that have to be managed, such as the conflict between capitalism and free markets. Under communism, in fact, there can be a sort of capitalism that is just heavily capped and managed. And there's no reason there can't be some kind of free market.
So, to fix the communist/capitalist dichotomy in people's minds, a real Us vs. Them mentality had to come into play. Luckily, the dictatorship/democracy dichotomy was there to feed into it. If you look back on anti-Soviet propaganda in the 1950's, there's surprisingly little criticism of their economy and more criticism of the lack of freedom and conformity.
The economic differences were fed slowly into the propaganda. Once we had accepted that theirs was a system opposite of ours, we were open to messages about how we had refrigerators and grocery stores and they had bread lines. Of course, it helped that it was true that their economies sucked. The messages regarding economic differences grew in size until in the 1980's, you barely heard about how the Russians were not allowed, say, freedom of speech and religion and all you heard was the poor Russians don't have McDonald's.
(I'm not trying to trivialize their deprivation at all. If only to rid their people of deprivation, then communism had to fall. However, economic deprivation is a different thing than being deprived of civil rights, even if the two are related.)
Basically the Us side was democracy and the Them side was dictatorship and slowly but surely capitalism began to be fed into the Us side while communism was on the Them side. We're opposites, aren't we? And therefore, just as surely as communism=dictatorship, democracy=capitalism. The media around the fall of the Berlin Wall was a culmination of decades of developing this belief. I remember that the new "freedom" of the East Berliners was represented by their awe at the huge, Western grocery stores.
Meanwhile, back home criticizing capitalism was equated with criticizing democracy and therefore freedom. And since capitalism=democracy and democracy=freedom, freedom means capitalist freedom. Suggesting that consumer freedom might be closer to the spirit of democracy was and still is dismissed as "communist" thinking. But there was a big flaw in the whole communism-dictatorship/democracy-capitalist set-up. And that was that once communism fell, the dichotomy would fall with it.
Now that the Soviet Union doesn't dominate our foreign policy and press, it's easy to see that democracy=capitalism is false. There are capitalist countries that aren't free and there are semi-socialist countries that are. And it defies common sense. In a democracy, we can vote capitalism out of existence and still have a democracy.
I'm not against capitalism outright; it has its place. But I am glad that people are waking up and realizing capitalism isn't essential to democracy and we can move on and find ways to manage it.


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