[This is the fourth blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. My previous two entries addressed the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really remove our culture’s blinders unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. So having already dealt with capitalism, the last installment tried to explain Marxism, socialism and communism in fewer than 1000 words. This week’s episode finishes Rule One by explaining mixed economy and fascism in just three points each. Next time we’ll move on to the second rule of critical thinking, “Expect Challenge.”]
Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, the world as a whole has moved away from attempts to implement either pure capitalism or pure socialism. Instead, the trend virtually everywhere has been towards selecting the best elements from each system in a “mixed economy.” As the phrase implies, this involves (1) some private ownership of the means of production and some public ownership, (2) some free and open markets and some controlled markets, and (3) earnings typically limited by a progressive income tax.
Of course what we have in the United States is a highly mixed economy. The U.S. government is, after all, the largest land owner in the nation. Drug, alcohol, food, and medical care markets (and many others) are highly regulated. Following World War II, Americans earning more than $400,000 were taxed at a rate of 91%. Currently, the top income tax bracket is 34%. None of that would be possible under pure free market capitalism.
Similarly, countries claiming to be “socialist” (like Venezuela) or “communist” (like Cuba) have mixed economies. Private enterprise is a key part of both.
Does this mean that the economic systems of the United States and Cuba for example are the same? Not at all. True, both economies are “mixed.” But they differ in terms of whom they are mixed in favor of. The United States economy is mixed in favor of the wealthy and corporations. This is illustrated by consideration of the recipients of recent government bailouts – basically large corporations and Wall Street firms rather than middle or lower class people. The theory at work here is “trickle down.” That is, it is believed that if the wealthy prosper, they won’t hide their money under their mattresses. Instead they’ll invest. Investment will create jobs. Everyone will benefit. So mixing an economy in favor of the wealthy is not sinister; it’s done for the benefit of all.
Cuba, for instance, has a different approach. Its theoreticians observe that historically the wealth hasn’t trickled down – at least not to people living in the Third World (the former colonies). So, (the theory goes) the economy must be mixed directly in favor of the poor majority. The government must adopt a proactive posture and interfere directly in the market to make sure that everyone has free education (even through the university level), free health care, and retirement pensions. Food is subsidized to ensure that everyone eats. And the government is the employer of last resort to provide dignified employment for everyone, so that Cubans are not simply on the dole.
In summary, then, all we have in the world are “mixed economies.” Today, most of them are mixed in favor of the wealthy (once again, on the “trickle-down” theory). Some, like Cuba’s, prioritize the needs of the poor.
What about fascism then? Today the word is thrown around on all sides, and seems to mean “people I disagree with,” or “mean people,” or “those who force their will on the rest of us.” There’s talk of Islamo-fascists. President George W. Bush was accused of being a fascist. Recently President Obama has been similarly labeled.
None of those really capture the essence of fascism. Benito Mussolini, who claimed fascism as a badge of honor in the 1930s (along with Adolph Hitler in Germany, Antonio Salazar in Portugal, and Francisco Franco in Spain), called fascism “corporatism.” By that he meant an alliance between government and large business concerns or corporations.
In terms of Rule One of Critical Thinking, then, we might understand fascism as “capitalism in crisis” or “police state capitalism.” That is fascism is the form capitalism has historically taken in situations of extreme crisis, as occurred in the 1930s following the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929.
More accurately however (in the light of our previous section on mixed economies), we might call fascism police state economy mixed in favor of the wealthy. Fascists are always anti-socialist and anti-communist.
The three elements of fascism then include: (1) A police state (2) enforcing an economy mixed in favor of large corporations, (3) characterized by extreme anti-socialism and anti-communism, and by scapegoating “socialists,” “communists” and minorities (like Jews, blacks, gypsies, homosexuals . . .) for society’s problems.
Both economies mixed in favor of the rich and those mixed in favor of the poor claim to respect human rights. They also blame their opponents for not following suit. The truth is, however, that both types of economies both respect and disrespect human rights. That is, despite claims to the contrary, no system of political-economy has shown consistent respect for all human rights. Instead all systems prioritize them according to what they consider the most basic. This means that capitalism respects some human rights more than others. So does socialism.
Capitalism puts at the top of its list the rights to private property, the right to enter binding contracts and have them fulfilled, as well as the right to maximize earnings. These rights even belong to corporations which under capitalism are considered persons.
On the other hand, capitalism’s tendency is to deny the legitimacy of specifically human rights as recognized, for example, by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. For this reason, the United States has never ratified key protocols implementing the Declaration, or other key documents asserting rights beyond the corporate. Moreover, if capitalism’s prioritized rights are threatened, all others are subject to disregard, including the rights to free elections, speech, press, assembly, religion, and freedom from torture. Historical references in the blog entries which follow this one will support that observation.
Similarly, socialism heads its own list with the rights to food, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education. In the name of those rights, socialism relativizes rights to private ownership and the rights to enter binding contracts, and to maximize earnings. If the rights socialism considers basic are threatened, history has shown that it too, like capitalism, will disregard all others.
What’s the “take-away” from all of this? Simply this: capitalism is both a simple and complicated system; so is socialism. Both can be summarized quite simply, as can mixed economies, Marxism, communism, and fascism. Capitalism respects some human rights, while disregarding others. The same can be said of socialism and systems that call themselves “communist.”
Critical thinkers should remember those simple summaries and truths about human rights. Doing so will help cut through many of the misunderstandings and distortions that characterize discussion of today’s key issues.