Is Capitalism Failing Middle America?

June 4, 2005

By now it has become clear that President Bush and his intellectual circle intend great changes in American society. They mean not merely to roll back the social reforms of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, not merely to take down the safety nets that arose out of the Great Depression, but to return even further back to the end of the 19th century and Darwinian capitalism. They mean to reinstate the survival of the fittest as the hallmark of American business.

Perfectly suited for this roll back and perhaps its prime example, the world’s largest enterprise, Wal-Mart, is spreading across the face of America like a red cancer, eating up local businesses. After that company invaded Iowa, between 1983 and 1993, that one state lost grocery, hardware, building supply, variety, clothing, shoe, and drug stores. Wal-Mart quite simply succeeded in driving more than 1800 local employers off the Iowa map. To achieve such dominance, the company absolutely rejects unions, pays minimal or no health insurance and pays starvation wages to workers in China and Latin America. In court cases now on file in this country the company is alleged to cheat on overtime pay and to discriminate against women. There are credible allegations that they hire illegal aliens and, if any one of them asks for fairness under the law, Wal-Mart threatens him or her with deportation.

The spread of such mean spiritedness is not limited to Wal-Mart. In rural America, Monsanto has for years been suing family farmers in order to force them to purchase Monsanto’s own expensive, patented seed. That company is even developing seed which will not reproduce but which will force families to buy new seed each year, or that is, to go deeper and deeper into debt and to live, like serfs of old, strung out desperately from annual payment to annual payment. Similarly, ranchers of great spreads in Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico seldom own the cattle they herd, regularly go into debt and end up working 15-hour days, having become, in effect, hired hands for banks.

It is consistent that Federal bankruptcy courts have recently stripped employees of United Airlines and Bethlehem Steel of billions of dollars in pensions. Employees who diligently paid for these benefits over the years are now simply being told that creditors are more important than workers and that the savings that they amassed have been given away.

While wage earners are thus squeezed in the same way that farmers and ranchers are squeezed, raw consumer debt has reached record highs in America and become a pre-occupation of nearly every middle-class family. Congress this spring responded with legislation, however, not to ease the pain, but to aid credit card companies once again choosing property over people.

In such conditions, when most Americans are working harder and saving less, is it not fair to ask whether such predatory capitalism is working, or whether it is failing the average American? And if it is failing on the farms and in the cities, if it is failing the middle classes and the poor, if it is failing workers and professionals, if it is failing new immigrants and heirloom ranchers, for whom is it working?

If, that is, the rising tide of predatory capitalism sinks many more boats than it lifts, then let us open up America’s political discourse, throw away the blinders. Let us discard the slogans, the utopian myths of unbridled competition and get back to the business of working together, of creating community, of pooling our resources, of husbanding our land, of educating our people and at last put capitalism in its place, one tool among many, but never sacred and never beyond regulation. And when, in my town or yours, Wal-Mart or Monsanto begins to gorge on our neighbors, or when bankruptcy courts opt to put creditors before workers, let us never hesitate to use the law, to change the law if need be, to use all our tools, to control the capitalist myth, to put it to the service of real people.


"You work three jobs? Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that." George W. Bush, to a divorced mother of three, Omaha, Nebraska, Feb. 4, 2005