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Humanizing Savage Capitalism
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Since his election, Pope Francis has warned repeatedly of the challenges and dangers posed by a “savage capitalism” that “has taught the logic of profit at any cost, of giving in order to get, of exploitation without thinking of people.” He has rightly criticized a “dictatorship of the economy” and a “cult of money” that consistently subordinates concern for human beings to questions of efficiency and profit. He has also held up an alternative rubric, noting that “concern for the fundamental material and spiritual welfare of every human person is the starting-point for every political and economic solution and the ultimate measure of its effectiveness and its ethical validity.”
Pope Francis’s critique of “savage capitalism,” coupled with the power of his own personal witness, has awakened new hopes and aspirations. But it has not yet led to large scale self-examination among American public intellectuals, or a critique of America’s current economic and political realities. That’s unfortunate. In many ways, America is ground zero for this “savage capitalism”- the place where the “dictatorship of the economy” and the “cult of money” enjoy almost unchallenged sway.
And if concern for the fundamental material and spiritual welfare of all persons is the metric, then our system fails, and fails miserably.
From the perspective of many Americans, Adam Smith’s celebrated “invisible hand” appears to be either a clenched fist, or making an obscene gesture. Economically, our descent into savage capitalism has been marked by increasing inequality, insecurity, and constricting opportunity. In Sheldon Wolin’s words, “[d]ownsizing, reorganization, bubble bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear” in which insecurity and uncertainty have become “the constant companion[s] of most workers.”
Politically, the concentrations of private wealth that are a hallmark of savage capitalism have corrupted and distorted our public discourse and given rise to a new politics of exclusion in which the interests of wealthy donors trump everything else. As a result, government has become less responsive to, and representative of, our interests and concerns.
Despite all the rhetoric of personal self-reliance in our society, in reality we are increasingly disempowered and isolated, and at the mercy of powers we cannot hope to match, influence, or often even understand. Under these circumstances, the relevant distinction isn’t between producers and parasites, but rather, between predators and prey. For most Americans, savage capitalism is the real “road to serfdom,” and the rich are our boyar lords.
In the end, the fundamental problem in savage capitalism isn’t scarcity, but hoarding. Put another way, the system generates wealth but fails to distribute it in an equitable way. And this distributive failure leads to the economic and political challenges - the lack of living wages, adequate benefits, stable employment, opportunity and political access - plaguing America today.
Ronald Reagan once quipped that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” Our experience since then has shown, however, that hearing “I’m from the private sector and I’m here to make a profit” is often worse. Thus the main legacies of the Reagan era - broadly-shared assumptions regarding the utility of redistributive public policies, the roles of the state and the public sector in meeting the needs and aspirations of the common people and fostering the conditions for human flourishing, and the relationship between government and the economy - must be overturned, or at the very least reexamined. We must, as Pope Francis has indicated, abandon failed “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.”
Simply put: social democracy humanizes savage capitalism. Progressive economic, tax, regulatory, and social welfare policies give the monster a human heart, perhaps even a soul. They are essential elements of an ethical economy, which must, as a matter of course, involve limitations on greed. They expand participation in both political and economic decision making, and recognize the rights of other, currently voiceless, stakeholders - including workers, consumers and communities. They protect the most vulnerable, and ameliorate savage capitalism’s harshest inequalities.
Today, the American people need a more active, assertive, and interventionist government, not a humbler one.
To survive as a democracy, and secure a livable future for ourselves, we must confront the savage capitalist monster. And we must do that here, in America, in the very lair of the beast.
Michael Stafford is a recovering Republican turned political independent and the author of “An Upward Calling.” Michael can be reached at