The dysfunction of capitalism was a prominent topic at CNN’s first Democratic primary debate. Since Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the top two declared candidates, respectively self-describe as a Progressive and a democratic socialist, this is hardly surprising. It is certainly less surprising than the prominence of the Glass-Steagall Act, a New Deal policy that separated commercial and investment banking, in proposed solutions to current economic crises.
This, which former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley repeatedly cited as the middle class’s best hop in the struggle against big corporate banking and which former Rhode Island governor Linc Chafee begged a novice’s ignorance when pressed on his vote as a Senator to repeal it, was really the only new ideological ground tread in left-wing economics. The bifurcating of the country into a greedy, self-interested moneyed power and an honest class of small business owners and families struggling against this corruption is as old, bland and tired as the Democratic field.
This rhetoric is straight from the era of the Populist party. In fact, Sanders’ railings, punctuated by forceful gesticulations against what he termed “carnival capitalism,” evokes nothing so much as Samuel Bryan’s famous “cross of gold” speech.
The age and inability to vary this rationale might explain the stunning lack of awareness on display in the elite of the Democrat party, whose railings against big business were staged in a casino and broadcast over the air and radio by media giants.
Perhaps the most telling exchange of the night came during a spar between Sanders and Clinton. As the two competed to see who could be most slavish to class warfare political correctness, Clinton spoke of capitalism as if its ends were only to help small businesses. Anything else, say a global charity which might have dubious ethics but which does engage in at least some aid to the needy, she seemingly views as a symptom of sickness, something that needs to be dealt with to “save capitalism from itself.”
Sanders seemingly agreed with this. He praised entrepreneurialism, an attitude which would seem to be at odds with the centrally controlled economy necessary to socialist economics, and the efforts of small and medium businesses. The problem, according to Sanders, is some people having too much and others having too little.
This is a slight departure from Marx’s trite epithet of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The implication here is not that materialism is evil, but that too much materialism in the hands of the wrong people is morally reprehensible.
And that’s the “democratic” element of Sanders’ socialism: a central authority wielding absolute power of judgment over who is qualified to have. True democracy, of course, is mob rule- there is no nuance when it comes to opposing factions. There is only the will of the greatest number. Anyone who understands history, of course, will note what happens when this kind of cognizance is invested in the state- organs become nothing but an extension of the will of the ruler. Dysfunction and tyranny soon follow.
Incidentally, a state with these sort of broad, compassion-driven powers is also the same as 20th century American populists wished for. Their idea of independence involved a benevolent overseer who looked out for the interest of the average people. Progressivism is considered to be a populist movement by many political scientists.
It is evident that these economic positions are variations on a theme. Sanders and Clinton can quibble over semantics, but the end they want is the same: a government self-aware and adjudicating based on “fairness.” This is a tired theme, one championed during the 20th century by liberal demigods like Roosevelt, whose protectionist economics utterly failed to create real growth for the cherished middle class.