By: Marcus Perriello | Our Voice Contributor
To understand how Capitalism became the Eco-political monolith it is today, we have to go back to where it originally began. To do that, we need to start with the parent system of Capitalism, which is Feudalism. Much like its offspring, Feudalism has an extremely rigid structure with clearly defined roles in society. There’s the monarch, the lords, the enforcers, and the serfs. Now, compare that to a Capitalist infrastructure. There is the CEO, the board of directors and shareholders, the management, and the workforce. There is a very distinct parallel between these two systems and when one takes the time to closely examine them, it’s not hard to understand why.
During the era of Feudalism, a much stronger presence existed in the Christian Church that often competed with the understanding of the Feudal political power structure. Monarchs and Popes would very often battle for the final say over who’s decries should govern society. But at the bottom of Feudal society, the foundation remained the same. The Serfs were born into servitude to their respective landowners and had no chance for economic mobility. They survived on the schillings provided by the landlords, but mostly by farming their own crops. The purpose for the serf’s existence we perfectly understood, and nothing we meant to change.
Yet Serfs still wanted freedom and mobility. But the enforcers, at the behest of the landlords and sometimes the monarch, were made to ensure that the serfs never broke protocol. A rigid system, with specifically defined roles, that served the lords and monarchs at the top. It took a worldwide pandemic from Asia to break the cycle, and the infrastructure, of Feudalism. Enter, The Black Death. For 3 years, all across Europe, Asia and Africa, The Black Death ravaged entire communities and rapidly deprived the ruling elites of their labor force. Even the landlords and monarchs themselves were not immune from the horrific plague.
Theories and scapegoating were just some of the coping mechanisms people used to try and explain why this was happening. Many called the plague a miasma; a free-floating phenomenon created by God to smite those who were guilty of sin. Others resorted to blaming Jews and carried out atrocities of torture and murder that would make the Salem Witch Hunts look like a school play.
There were The Flagellants; a group of pious Christian devotees who marched through towns and cities across Europe, carrying large crosses and engaging in acts of self-flogging as a demonstration of penitence. It was believed that these actions would prove to God that they were deeply sorry for their past sins and were ready to follow his word, in the hope that they would be spared from the deadly plague.
As the population began to dwindle, landlords found themselves in a predicament that the system of Feudalism they had so generously profited from had not prepared them for. They were faced with a diminishing labor force, failing crops, and a growing resistance to the status quo that saw a mass movement among the serfs demanding change.
At first, the lords turned to their respective monarchs for help. In England, the King decried that serfs must accept the conditions set forth by their respective landlords and that their terms were non-negotiable. But the laws of supply and demand gave these elites a serious reality check. Serfs began leaving their various lands to seek opportunities elsewhere, searching for other landlords who would pay them better and even provide better living conditions. This was the genesis of modern Capitalism.
Eventually, the movement towards Capitalism and away from Feudalism became so great that the ruling elites had no choice but to accommodate the demands of the working class. The era of Feudalism was over. Serfdom progressed into the status of Employee, while landlords and some more ambitious former serfs became Employers. While most of the power structure of Monarchy and The Church remained intact, the economic landscape had changed completely, forever.
From that point on, more people than ever before could reach higher levels of wealth and power, which made Capitalism more and more appealing as it spread across the world. Still, the power struggle continued between political and religious institutions, as well as among the newly-liberated working class as people constantly jockeying for their respective status in society. This growing societal concept of Competition led to the rise of the post-middle-age empires of Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, and the Ottomans. The lure and seduction of Capitalism also inspired German and Dutch prospectors to seek out new opportunities abroad. Many of these capitalists sought greener pastures throughout Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and of course, “The New World” (the United States).
While the Portuguese and the Spanish Empire dominated the competition in Latin America and the Caribbean saw a fairly-well spread-out occupation of English, Spanish and French settlements, it would be the British who would form the basis for the original 13 colonies in 1622.
The French settlement, which at the time stretched from what is now Louisiana all the way up through modern-day Quebec, was often at odds with the British settlers. Native American tribes caught right in the middle, as both sides sought opportunity by expanding their respective boundaries. The European’s respective boundaries encroached on those of the native tribes with whom they now occupied the land.
This created a fierce competition for survival, as the Western settlers brought the ideals of Capitalism with them, while the Native American tribes held more naturalistic beliefs in how their societies were to be run and organized. Ambition, innovation and technology would see the utter decimation of many of the native tribes as the Western settlers slaughtered millions in their pursuit of greater opportunity westward, just as the Conquistadors were responsible for the annihilation of the native tribes in Latin America. This is yet another illustration of what Capitalism does to people and how it inherently pits us against one another.
Next, we turn to the post-colonial capitalist phenomenon: The Industrial Revolution. This was the era when innovation and experimentation really exploded and resulted in a rate of economic growth that had never been seen before. What was once merely a swath of small and scattered enterprises was now morphing into large corporations. One of the most glaring examples of this transition was John D. Rockefeller, and his company Standard Oil, which went on an economic tear through the the United States, eliminating competitors and gobbling up their remains, further consolidating the profit and power of the Oil industry into the country’s first official monopoly. Rockefeller controlled 97% of the nation’s oil market at the height of his empire.
Likewise, the Industrial Revolution saw the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt in railroads, Andrew Carnegie in steel, and JP Morgan in banking and electricity who would see their respective competitors such as Tom Scott, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla defeated and consumed as the spoils of war, once again proving Capitalism’s inherent incentive towards adversarial behavior. It was at this point that Capitalism in the United States really began to meld with the political power structure. The presidential election of 1896 would change American politics, forever.
By this time, the working class of the United States were mostly living in poverty while the oligarchs of the day lived in luxury and leisure. But the working poor were already showing signs of resentment towards those at the top, and had been for some time. Back in 1892, Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead steel plant went on strike in response to Authoritarian plant manager, Henry Frick, who worked his labor force to the bone and showed no concern for their well-being. When one of the plant workers died on the job, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and a strike was called. Henry Frick failed in his attempts to get the workers to fall in line and eventually called in The Pinkertons, who were a mercenary force that it was said could rival the U.S. military. The showdown at Homestead led to the deaths of 9 workers and the injuring of countless others. Yet in the end, the Pennsylvania governor sent in the National Guard to restore order, and the plant was handed back over to Frick.
This was a seminal moment for the American Labor Movement. After that incident, unions began popping up all across the country and the ruling elites began to panic. 1896 saw the initiation of modern politics in the United States, as the elites banded together to run Ohio Governor, William McKinley, against William Jennings Bryan. Money won both times in 1896 and in 1900, as the employers and industrial titans used their immense wealth and power to strong-arm the public into voting against their best interests. This would be a primary example of how politics was to function, moving forward, and continues to do so to this day.
Employers wield their enormous wealth and power as tools of oppression towards the mass of people, constantly threatening to take their money, their jobs, and their companies out of the country if the people vote to redistribute their wealth and power. This worked for a while, leading to what was known as The Roaring 20s. The Stock Market soared to unprecedented heights and pop culture was extremely lively with the onset of the motion picture industry and the jazz scene. But then 1929 happened; the Great Crash, and the United States entered a period of immense poverty and desperation not seen since.
It was the labor movement, the communist and socialist parties, the unions and many intellectuals of the day that led the charge to take the country back from the ruling elites. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would campaign as the anti-Establishment candidate and win an overwhelming victory in 1932. Because of his populist economic policies, he was reelected 3 times, becoming the first and only U.S. President to serve more than 2 terms. In response to this trend, the wealthy elites used their wealth and power to influence the Republican Party to amend the Constitution to impose term limits on the presidency. That’s when Republicans began to win the presidency again, and it was from there that Roosevelt’s New Deal would be slowly and systematically dismantled throughout the Golden Age of Economic Expansion.
During this time period was also the onset of the Cold War, starting in 1945. This would be the impetus for the Left-Right, Communist-Capitalist paradigm that continues to dictate political and economic discourse in the U.S. today. The American household, the education system, the media, even the churches were rife with anti-Leftist rhetoric that made Socialist topics in America taboo. If anyone dared to challenge the conventional Capitalist ideology, personal, economic and political ruination would soon follow.
People were taught rather stringently that Capitalism was the American way of life and was never to be challenged. Any such action would result in deep suspicion and theorizing about such parties and were usually labeled as Communists and sympathizers to the Soviet Union. From here on out, the Capitalists continuously peddled the narrative of Capitalism as more of a religion than a mere economic system. The wealthy elites act as the clergy, while the masses are expected to obey their word as if God himself had spoken them. Here’s where the truly religious aspect of American Capitalism begins to take shape.
As Americans were being taught to think about Capitalism in a more dogmatic and religious manner, their actions would manifest in the form of resisting the formation of unions, voting for more and more Right-leaning policies, and the mistreatment and vilification of anyone who disagreed with the status quo. Critiquing Capitalism was more like saying God didn’t exist, which is ironic considering it wasn’t until 1954 that ‘In God We Trust’ started to appear on U.S. currency. But in 1960, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered what could be argued as the most poignant and meaningful farewell speech in the history of the U.S. presidency. His piercing words warned the public against the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex, and to never allow it to dictate and/or replace our democratic processes and institutions.
John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts and newly-elected President of the United States, would eventually go on to challenge this Industrial War Machine, and many argue that he paid for it with his life. It was as a result of his assassination and the railing against the official Warren Commission Report that the term “Conspiracy Theorist” was officially weaponized against anyone who dared to challenge the official statements from the power structure. Had President Kennedy’s Vietnam withdraw policy taken effect, the Military Industrial Complex would have stood to lose an estimated $80 Billion a year in revenue. That amount of money was unheard of, in those days, which provides motive to have the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces eliminated, as he was a clear and present danger to the profits of the Military Industrial Complex.
Since JFK, no President has dared to challenge the will of the war profiteers, as administration after administration has overseen countless wars for profit carried out in the name of American Capitalism. It would be Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 to the presidency, who would deliver what many consider the death blow to the power of America’s working class when he lowered the corporate tax rate from 74% to only 28%, and when he terminated the air traffic controllers who went on strike. Although they were unionized, Reagan disregarded this and fired them anyway, giving the ruling elites a sense of empowerment that has been on an economic rampage ever since.
Unionization in the United States has since fallen from 33% to a meager 7%. Wealth and income inequality in the country – and across the world – has skyrocketed to levels even beyond those of the Gilded Age and the Roaring 20s. As more and more media outlets have been purchased by other corporate interests, the information put forward to American viewers has taken on a very specific viewpoint, which is 100% Pro-Corporate and anti-worker. People who appear in media segments to discuss these issues are relentlessly smeared for standing up for the Poor and working class, just as the McCarthyites of the Cold War did to all who openly opposed their views. Industry leaders and economic elites have been running for, and winning public offices all over the country since the official deification of Capitalism and have crafted the nation’s policies to reflect their own worldview, which again is Pro-Corporate and anti-worker.
This leads to the final point: That the United States is no longer a functioning representative Democracy and Constitutional Republic, but rather a functioning Oligarchy. This reality is clearly demonstrated through the Far-Right policies of the Trump administration, as well as the bottomless-pit spending of billionaires like Michael Bloomberg in political races to outright buy their way into public office in order to further craft public policies that are beneficial to themselves and their financial ambitions. With all these events giving the people historical context and lessons to learn from, the mass of people are beginning to once again question Capitalism and whether or not we should consider abandoning it completely, or repeating methods of the past where we merely administer economic first-aid and ignore the underlying systemic causes of society’s economic problems.
The United States, and participants of Capitalist societies in general, are now so polarized because of the inequality inherent in Capitalism that what status quo defenders consider as “Moderate” is now viewed as no longer a viable option. Much like the fading away and eventual disintegration of Feudalism, it can be argued that Capitalism is in its twilight years and something new is on the horizon. What it is or how long it will last is entirely dependent upon how We, The People meet the coming challenges.