Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
The publication of Part I of what with the appearance of this column is now a series, elicited quite a bit of commentary. And so those comments stimulated to write further on this subject, expanding the focus just a bit. First, a variety of views were presented on just what “capitalism” is. Here is my consideration of the topic, actually starting rather further back in the historical development of our species.
A. What is Capitalism (excerpted from the Afterword to the 2013 edition of my book, The 15% Solution.)
Man is unique among the species on Earth, animal and plant, in that in order to survive, its members must convert elements that they find in their environment, animal, vegetable and mineral, into other elements. Thus foodstuffs become food, a sheep’s wool becomes clothing, and petroleum becomes the stuff of heating homes. It is true that certain species do some sort of conversion on a limited basis. But for the most part, when they do those things, they do them on a limited basis and (except for birds’ nests) collectively. No individual beaver “owns” the dam or the tunnel in the same way that a member of our species “owns” a house, or a farm, or a factory.
But for man, with the exception of very (what we term) primitive societies, as Friedrich Engels informed us in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, the conversion process for just about everything is essential to survival for both individuals and the species. Whoever owns or controls it thus holds the keys to survival for all. Karl Marx (and perhaps others before him) called the components of the conversion process for changing environmental elements into usable goods and services, the “means of production.” We don’t know for sure, but it is likely that in the early days of human society the means of production were owned collectively. But sometime back in the dawn of the history of modern Homo sapiens things changed. Ownership of the means of production, whether it be simply of the farms from which food was grown or the mines from which the stuff of the early metal tools and weapons was dug, or the boats and pack animals through which early trade was carried out, came to rest in private hands, ultimately very few private hands. Some people owned the means of production; many more did not. The owners then came to employ the non-owners, either as slaves or for payment of one sort of another, to do the physical labor necessary to support the conversion processes.
Over time, the non-owners would produce excess product, beyond what the owners could consume themselves or they would allow their non-owners to consume. For quite some time, the owners would use these excesses simply to build ever-grander abodes and accoutrements, expand their property through purchase from other owners, raise armies to engage in conquest for similar purposes, or defend themselves against like-minded other owners. But then something changed. Beginning in Western Europe, during the 16th century (and in certain cases even before), some owners began investing their surpluses not in land or war or fancier castles, art work, and clothing.
With the discoveries (that is discoveries for Western Europeans, for surely the people who lived in the other lands already knew they were there), rather, they began to invest the surpluses in trading and expanding trade. In the process they discovered that they could accumulate rather larger surpluses than their forebears had under feudalism and before that, in the slave societies. And so, mercantile capitalism came into being: the investment, either directly or indirectly, in trade and benefiting grandly (that is accumulating surpluses) from it.
We all know what happened next. With an expanding capital base arising from trade, and with the technological explosion that both accompanied and fueled the early industrial revolution, came industrial capitalism. The owners of the means of production employed those who weren’t. They converted the surplus labor power of the non-owners into what we know as “profit.” As Karl Marx demonstrated (at great length, in Capital), the seeking of profit and ever-expanding profits at that, became the sole goal of industrial capitalism and the capitalists, disputations of this fact by the capitalists and their representatives in the political system and the media to the contrary notwithstanding. With rare exceptions, the owners of the means of production are in business first and foremost to make profits for themselves. The profits are used to some extent for personal aggrandizement, as under feudalism, but a significant portion of them is always used for re-investment, with the objective of making evermore profit.
Ownership of the means of production, which, we must recall, had been the key to survival of the human species from its beginnings, came to be evermore concentrated. From time-to-time the non-owners would attempt to organize to achieve one or more ends: more sharing of the fruits of their labor power through the formation of labor organizations; the development of political parties, strategies and tactics to promote their interests at the governmental policy level; in a few cases completely dispossessing the owning class, at least for some period of time. But by and large capitalism, in one form or another, has remained in control of human society around the globe. Although there were threats to its hegemony from revolutionary Russia and China in the last century, those threats have long since dissipated. The Russian experiment eventually succumbed to what someday will be called The Seventy-Five Years’ War Against the Soviet Union. The Chinese experiment succumbed to a very cleverly managed, mostly non-violent, internal counter-revolution, which did, however, manage to produce a mixed capitalist/somewhat-socialist economy.
“Free markets” are a form of capitalism, and actually historically they have not existed for very long periods of time. Capitalists compete with each other, to be sure, but some are more successful than others, the former tend to subsume the latter by one means or another, and the whole system flows inexorably towards monopoly capitalism. “Corporatism” is another form of capitalism in which corporation operate the state apparatus directly. In Mussolini’s Italy there was a parliament, consisting of representatives of the major corporations, appointed to it by Il Duce. In the “Citizens United” US, more and more elected officials at the national state and sure to follow, the local, levels are becoming more or less employees of the major corporations. But all these are forms of capitalism, to repeat, an economic system based upon the private ownership of the means of production in which the primary objective is the accumulation of profits, both for personal aggrandizement and for re-investment to make more profit.
B. What is Fascism.
This is the short definition that I use: ““A politico-economic system in which there is: total executive branch control of both the legislative and administrative powers of government; no independent judiciary; no Constitution that embodies the Rule of Law standing above the people who run the government; no inherent personal rights or liberties; a single national ideology that first demonizes and then criminalizes all political, religious, and ideological opposition to it; the massive and regular use of hate, fear, racial and religious prejudice, the Big Lie technique, mob psychology, mob actions and ultimately individual and collective violence to achieve political and economic ends; a capitalist/corporate economy; with the ruling economic class’ domination of economic, fiscal, and regulatory policy.” A (much) longer definition may be found in Appendix II of “The 15% Solution.”
It is safe to say that not all regimes that are generally regarded as fascist exhibited every one of these characteristics. In Japan, for example, there was no “charismatic leader” of the Hitler/Mussolini type. The Emperor was thought of by most Japanese as a living god, but few Japanese had ever even heard the Emperor’s voice until he announced the surrender of Japan following the terror bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fascist Spain’s Franco was an ensconced, brutal and cruel dictator, who did appear in public, but he could hardly have been considered “charismatic.”
C. Was Nazi Germany Capitalist or Socialist
Indeed the “National Socialist German Workers Party” had both the word “socialist” and the word “worker’ in its name. But if it were actually a “socialist” party either before or after it took power on January 30, 1933, would have come as a great surprise to the major corporations like Krupp, I.G.Farben, and Thyssen Steel which helped bring the Nazis to power and then profited handsomely after they did. Also it would have been quite surprise to U.S. capitalists like George Herbert Walker (sound familiar?) and Brown Brothers Harriman which, through Thyssen began supporting the Nazi Party in 1923, to Great Britain’s uncrowned monarch Edward VIII who never made it to the throne not because of his planned marriage to a US commoner/divorcee but because he was just too bloody close to Hitler, nor to Prescott Bush who was still doing banking for the Nazis in February, 1942 and quit only because President Roosevelt personally threatened him with prosecution under the Trained with the Enemy Act. And so on and so forth. As for the word “workers,” well the German trade unions, which represented a large number of them, were abolished in April, 1933. Yes, the State was very powerful in Nazi Germany just as it had been in the Prussian Empire. But it was there to serve the interests of the capitalist class, both directly and indirectly through the development of the military (highly profitable to the capitalists) and the organization and prosecution of the national security state. Indeed, the “left wing” of the Nazi Party, led by Gregor Strasser, who really had wanted Hitler to go after the banks (sound familiar?) was eliminated either during “The Night of the Long Knives” (June 30, 1934), or shortly thereafter.
D. As to the Soviet Role in World War II
The question of “who won the war” will be debated for centuries (that is if our species lasts centuries in the face of global warming, over-population, and the capitalist depredations), just as what really happened in the “Wars of the Roses” in 15th Century England is still being debated. Despite some wording in Part I that one reader found objectionable my view has always been that the outcome of World War II would have been quite different without the involvement of the Soviet Union and its Red Army.
Three significant battles on the Eastern Front can be picked out, in which a loss for the Red Army in any of them could well have led to a Soviet defeat with repercussions all around the world. Stalingrad of course marked, with the concurrent English victory at El Alamein, the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. But before that, if the Red Army’s Siberian divisions had not been able to launch and win their winter counter-offensive in front of Moscow in December, 1941, there could well have also been a different outcome. And then the Nazis’ fate was sealed with the Soviet victory in the greatest tank battle in history, at Kursk, July-August, 1943. Following that loss, except for the brief success in the Ardennes in December, 1944, the Wehrmacht was never again able to mount an offensive of any kind.
E. On Dealing with the Ad Hominem Arguments
Joe Califano, an attorney and a Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter, once shared this old lawyers’ saw with me: “If you don’t have the law, argue the facts; if you don’t have the facts, argue the law; and if you have neither the facts nor the law, argue ad hominem.
Senior Contributing Editor Steven Jonas, the polymathic author of this article, has published hundreds of essays on politics, history, culture, health and economics, and penned more than 30 books. His essays normally appear on many venues on the web, including the leading political sites.