When capitalism gets bad press, rename it “free market” to prevent people from calling for socialism.
In a Newsweek op-ed, Peter Roff reassures us that, despite a growing state of crisis in the lives of young Americans that has encouraged them to think favorably about socialism, there’s no real danger so long as we are clear about what capitalism is. Reaganomics will somehow save the day. And for anyone tempted to appreciate the merits of socialism, he offers us this deep insight, expressed with elegant subtlety and impeccable logic: “Just look at Venezuela.”
In the contest between capitalism and socialism, Roff avoids defining socialism. After all, why define it since we know it is the enemy? But, since a Gallup poll tells us that the image of capitalism has taken a hit among Democrats, he takes a stab at redefining capitalism: “For conservatives who support the free market—a much-improved way to describe capitalism—the trend identified in this latest Gallup survey provides both an opportunity and a warning.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A political system masquerading as an economic philosophy in which people are constrained by circumstance but money is free
The article is essentially dedicated to maintaining the religious credo that affirms Americans’ unbending belief in the current oligarchic capitalist political system. Roff takes great pains to banish the word “socialism” from US political vocabulary. Reluctantly admitting that “Democrats have a more positive image of socialism than they do of capitalism,” he dismisses its significance on the grounds that it is merely a persistent delusion. He identifies the true issue — that “Democrats are losing faith in capitalism” — and offers this explanation: That the disillusioned younger generation has been deluded by timid conservatives, such as Paul Ryan, “searching for ‘kinder, gentler’ ways to talk about the economic realities of the world.”
It’s the fault of the “reformocons” (conservative reformers), whose philosophy that one of their own thinkers, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, summed up in this way in 2013: “[I]n order to win sustainably, Republicans must put forward policies that are credible, conservative and directly address the day-to-day concerns of lower-middle Americans.”
Both Roff’s attack on reformocons and Gobry’s defense reveal a singular lack of interest on both sides in the social issues they presumably address as they focus uniquely on the best strategy to win elections. They both believe so strongly in their credo that they need not engage in any serious analysis.
Roff makes this clear when he affirms that “Blunt, straightforward talk about how free markets make life better.” He thus avoids the debate over whether his beloved “free market” model may have evolved toward a very unfree monopolistic capitalism, or whether the military-industrial complex conservatives applaud isn’t the most obvious example of the “big government” they so vehemently abhor. It also avoids the question of why if life is better thanks to free markets that so many people not only find it worse, but life expectancy has declined, mean income has stagnated, economic precarity has become the norm and opiate addiction soared.
As noted in yesterday’s column, conservative political ideology defined itself in the wake of the McCarthy-era obsession with “evil” communists, which included socialists and sometimes liberals, all of whom had in common a belief in “big government.” Republicans shied away from McCarthy’s extremism, but embraced his obsession with the communist enemy in Russia as well as “the enemy within,” whom FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover assiduously harassed without McCarthy’s political fanfare. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, both Democratic presidents, hewed to the conservatives’ anti-communist ideology but defined themselves as Democrats by promoting “big government” to tackle racial and economic inequality.
Today’s intra-conservative debate reveals two constants in their ideology: the branding of socialism as un-American — which even Democrats adhere to — and the credo that all government (except the military) is big government and, therefore, to be rejected.
Gobry — who is French, but can be classified as a conservative American thinker — preaches the moderate, or “reformed” Republican gospel. “Republicans should absolutely keep cutting taxes, but they should cut them first on lower-middle (and middle-middle) American families.” He goes further, suggesting that “you should get tax cuts (payroll and/or income) or tax credits or even cash for getting married and/or having kids.” Here, though he refuses to admit it, he is inspired by the long-term success of France’s policy of “allocations familiales,” a direct subsidy to families and an encouragement to reproduce. If identified as French, it would be immediately castigated by US conservatives as a heinous example of socialism.
The only time Gobry actually mentions France in his long manifesto is when he acknowledges what Roff so vehemently denies — that “lower-middle folks are gradually coming to accept bigger government … and conservatives must strike the problem at the root in order to prevent America turning into France.” Gobry keeps the credo intact: “[B]igger government” is not “big government” and, more significantly, the ultimate aim of conservatives is to “prevent America turning into France” (i.e. a diabolically socialist nation).
All conservative thought — whether pure and orthodox like Roff or reformocon like Gobry — must agree on one thing: banishing the thought of socialism from the minds and vocabulary of Americans. They must avoid even mentioning countries that are suspected of being “fellow travelers.” Even for the Frenchman, American “free market” ideology must in all cases be free of contamination from abroad.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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