To paraphrase Gerald Ford, the state of the world is not good. Oxfam announced last week that the 26 richest people in the world own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population – about 3.8 billion people. Carbon dioxide emissions accelerated like a “speeding freight train” in 2018, as one researcher told The New York Times. Recently, scientists have announced that the oceans are warming and polar ice caps are melting even faster than they thought. In the United States, life expectancy has declined each of the past three years due to “deaths of despair”: suicides and drug overdoses and complications from alcoholism.
Amid these crises, a few public figures have suggested that the capitalist elite ought to loot a little less. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) supports a 70 percent marginal tax rate on top earners, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposes a wealth tax on people with over $50 million. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) supports an ambitious revival of the social welfare state and regularly takes aim at corporations that pay workers poverty wages while generating immense profits for shareholders. In his new book “Winners Take All,” Anand Giridharadas, former columnist for The New York Times, skewers plutocrats who prefer philanthropy to systemic reform or ethical behavior. Even Tucker Carlson decries the damage market-friendly policies have inflicted on ordinary American families.
Capitalists have responded to this criticism with ridicule and fear-mongering about the Red Menace. For example, look no further than this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos. When a panel touched on Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to raise the top marginal tax rate, the audience burst into laughter. A smirking Michael Dell said that he could put money to better use than the government could. Tony Blair, former salesman for the Iraq War and current consultant for sundry autocrats, scoffed at the idea that he and his fellow Davos attendees bore responsibility for “breaking the modern world,” as Giridharadas suggested. For his part, Bill Gates argued that capitalism is a fine system that just needs some tuning and wondered what critics preferred — communism?
The attitude of Davos attendees provides insight into the present mindset of global elites, who are obviously aware of the crises of capitalism. After all, the conference discussed those problems and concluded that the world needs more philanthropy and some tinkering with tax credits. The choice of the capitalist class to stymie real action, such as “Medicare for All” or a “Green New Deal,” is an informed one. The rich have decided that soaring inequality, poverty, deaths of despair and ecological collapse are preferable to paying more in taxes. Capitalists will wring every drop of profit from labor and nature until their lives, fortunes or political power are threatened. Right now, they feel comfortable ridiculing critics.
The resistance of the capitalist class to even modest reforms is unsurprising. The greatest achievements of American history were not the work of enlightened politicians. Rather, they were concessions of the ruling class to agitation from below. The Confiscation Acts, Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction Amendments would never have occurred without the work of zealous—sometimes-violent—abolitionists. Progressives, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, took action in the face of a Populist insurgency, industrial unionism and the exposés of muckraking journalists.
Similarly, the New Deal was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to stave off socialism (and fascism) and placate a newly militant labor movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the product of a decades-long protest movement and the threat of Black Power. As Frederick Douglass understood, “power concedes nothing without a demand,” and that demand must have force behind it.
So, we must make capitalists frightened again. Workers must organize for higher wages, more benefits and representation in corporate governance. If their demands are not met, they must strike. This organizing will be difficult due to the capital’s decades-long assault on labor; union density is at an all-time low. The “wildcat strikes” of teachers in 2018 represent a risky yet necessary path forward.
Likewise, we need local, national and global movements that fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, adopt renewable energy and provide refuge and reparations to victims of the inescapable consequences of climate change.
Political candidates must identify and confront the “great malefactors of wealth” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. Publicly shaming the executives of major banks and corporations and proposing concrete policies to bring them to heel, as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have done, is the correct strategy. The central question to ask of any candidate is this: how will they seize political and economic power from the few and return it to the many? The capitalists are already waging a class war; let us join the fray.