Can We Talk About It?

Talking about capitalism has not been easy. The word is freighted with ideological connotations of conflict. Merely using it raises the specter of Marxism, along with such concepts as “alienation” and “exploitation,” terms that reflect historic struggle.

The preferred term today, seemingly more neutral, has become “market economies” or “free enterprise.” But as the stranglehold of the finance industry on our economy has started to loosen, and we begin talking about the .01%, there has been a decided shift in the conversation.

The term “capital” itself seems indispensible, while “capital accumulation” and “capital investment” seem to be things that actually happen, not just on Wall Street. No judgment implied.

On the other hand, “capitalist” retains its derogatory flavor. It implies someone who simply makes money from money. The alternative “entrepreneur” carries the implication of hard work and risk – but that’s not always warranted by the behavior of the super-wealthy. The preferred substitute has become “investor,” no doubt because, today, though our retirement accounts, college funds and savings efforts most of us have actually become investors. Putting money in the cookie jar or hiding it under a mattress no longer seem viable.

But “capitalist” implies a different scale, beyond the tidy consumption of investment vehicles. The large number of billionaires who live in a rarefied world apart from the rest of us calls out for terms adequate to express our awe and anxiety – and disapproval. A capitalist is not just someone who believes in capitalism. It’s not a creed. A capitalist owns capital — and uses it to make more capital.

More and more books and articles are coming out about “saving” or “reforming” capitalism, even in the mainstream press. Partly this reflects our growing awareness of the financial industry’s destructive focus on short-term gains. Partly it is about the extraordinary and increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Partly it is that our economy is simply not creating jobs as expected, frequently touted in the past as a major benefit of our “free market” system. Nor does capitalism today seem capable of “investing” in education or the health of the workforce. “Capital” and “labor” do seem to be increasingly at odds.

In this climate, “capitalism” is not the only charged term being revived. Recently, Matthew Yglesias, the business and economics correspondent for Slate, proclaimed: “The Class War Has Begun.” He links this to recent political developments: “Democrats want to pare back tax breaks for high-income individuals in order to preserve social services, while expanding a handful of tax credits aimed at the working poor. The GOP concept, by contrast, is to shelter tax incentives for savings and investment from any closure—a move that primarily benefits more prosperous households.”

He adds: “The Republican budget savages programs for the poor . . . . The Medicaid expansion and health insurance exchange subsidies included in the Affordable Care Act will be the largest shift of economic resources to the lower half of the income distribution in generations.”

These points are not new, of course, but he also calls attention to how difficult it is to talk about them: “since neither party seems to really want to discuss its redistributionist agenda, we can’t even debate it properly.”

The old language is somewhat dated and awkward, to be sure – but maybe it will have to do until we find more up-to-date concepts. The greater danger is that we might never get to talk about what is really going on, and the choices we face.