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Issue #1730      May 11, 2016

Capitalism and entitlement

In a recent editorial in the Australian Financial Review (“In defence of the wealth creators” 29-04-2016) the authors set out to justify the accumulation of great wealth by the few; that “growing the economic pie for all” means “people who are successful keep more of their money”. Naturally. The editorial dismisses revelations of massive tax avoidance and rorting by corporations such as those exposed by the Panama Papers. Not surprisingly, no mention is made of the exploitation of labour.

This is the first in a series of occasional articles which explores some of these issues.

The notion of entitlement is deeply embedded in the history of the capitalist system. This notion is based on the nature of political power. In classical political theory – from Aristotle to Locke to Burke – the state, or government, is viewed as a vehicle for the preservation of the existing status quo.

Fundamental to that status quo was the property relationship characterising it and thus determining it. From this, the assumption was promoted that government existed to protect private property i.e. the means of production.

Connected with this was the idea that the existence of private property was the prerequisite of civilisation. This proposition arose out of the technological and productive advances made which were erected on the accoutrements of civilisation.

Therefore – and the transition appears altogether logical – it is only those among the propertied who should be among those who govern. Clearly, if private property is the basis of civilisation, and if government exists to protect that private property, then surely those possessed of said property are only those who are properly meant to be vested with government authority.

Or, as the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Jay, put it: “Those who own the country should govern it.”

By extension, just as the security of private property was of the essence of civilisation, so only those who possessed private property were really civilised.

It was but a step from this comforting observation to conclude that those who possessed private property not only were the civilised with the right to govern, but that they were also the ones alone capable of conducting government.

In all this it was assumed, as was natural for the rulers of societies based upon the private ownership of the means of production, that acquisition of more property was of the essence of “human nature”: the more successfully acquisitive one was the more notably “human” was he.

Note too, that it was the poor, by definition being no good at all, therefore poor, were especially prone to the rapacity for the possessions of others. Hence, it was the duty of the rich, in the name of civilisation itself, to restrain the poor. Such restraint was the main function of government in general.

Sovereignty, then, or political power, under feudalism, inhered in the owners, with the classical forms being either the tyrant or the oligarch.

More and more the idea developed that ownership of the earth inhered in God who had designated earthly rulers in clearly defined hierarchical patterns, and that these divinely-anointed ones held their property in accordance with His will. At the apex was the one earthly figure who was The Sovereign: it was in him personally that the sovereignty of the political entity resided.

So, sovereign was always spelt with a capital S; his person was adorned with symbols of power and dignity; his name was gilded with phrases like His Supreme Highness, His Eminence, His Most Worshipful Person, The Sun God, The Supreme Ruler, and other monuments to man’s verbal ingenuity when properly impelled and sufficiently rewarded.

The capitalist revolution against feudalism represented a two-pronged attack upon this ancient and medieval view of sovereignty. In the first place, capitalist destruction of feudalism carried with it the creation of the modern nation, and the complex feeling known as nationalism.

This attack also required the participation of masses of people of small or no property in order to overcome the power of the aristocracy and the landlords.

The appearance of the modern nation and idea of nationalism meant that sovereignty became national rather than personal. For example, during the French Revolution, France existed in French men and women; they make up France, they are France. Which had been the meaning of Louis XIV’s insistence; “The State, I am the State”, denouncing the concept of nationality, that France is not Louis but is the French people.

From the earliest times, the rising bourgeoisie, even when revolutionary, was sorely troubled as to how far the masses might go; how seriously they might take the idea of sharing in actual sovereignty and how to control them once the feudal system was destroyed.

This revolution was not one that challenged the ownership of the means of production. So there was in defining the concept of rule by the people, a limiting feature in the definition of who constituted the people. Here too it meant that only those with property could properly participate in the exercise of government.

Therefore, it was the propertied who were the people; the remainder of the population were inhabitants, residents, masses but not people.

It is of the greatest importance to see that when capitalism replaced feudalism, advocates of the change and adherents to the new system insisted that it represented the triumph of reason and, hence, of freedom.

Capitalism – that is to say the free market, the system of free enterprise and immutability of the law of supply and demand – it was held, was not really a social system but rather the achievement in human relations of the reasonable and natural order of things.

The law of supply and demand was as constant and as natural as the law of gravity. The whole functioning of free enterprise and the unencumbered market was as inexorable and as natural as the coming and going of the tides.

Source: The Nature of Democracy, Freedom and Revolution – Herbert Aptheker

Next article – Law-and-order policies no answer

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