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Punching Holes in so-called Free Market Economics

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This piece co-authored by Stewart Acuff & Bill Fletcher, Jr.

We have found ourselves wondering why President Obama is being 'red-baited' by the political Right. Any reasonable person looking at the policies of this administration could never come to the conclusion that it is anything close to socialist in nature. While there have been certain progressive initiatives taken by the administration, the pro-corporate orientation would be evident to a ship in a fog. The hesitancy, for instance, of this administration to debunk the myths surrounding the national debt, its willingness to promote off-shore drilling (prior to the Gulf Coast disaster), the pulling back from an active and vocal support for the Employee Free Choice Act, the continuation of wars, the failure to challenge the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and, on a different scale, the fact that Larry Summers remains a close economic advisor to the President show that the objectives of this administration are as distant from socialism as Earth is from Alpha Centauri.

So, despite the rhetoric of Newt Gingrich, why the red-baiting? It actually has almost nothing to do with the person or beliefs of President Obama and his administration. It has to do with the vulnerabilities of capitalism at this moment in history, vulnerabilities that scare the political Right to its core. As a result, there is an effort at demonization by the political Right of any one or any group that suggests that there may be something very wrong with the current system, something that must be addressed by a redistribution of wealth and a real shift in power. For the political Right, Obama just becomes a convenient target due to his, ironically, limited efforts at some level of economics redistributionism. Thus, the Right smears all levels of economic redistribution, regardless of how milk-toast, as socialism.

Opinion polls in the spring of 2009, and then just over the last several weeks, demonstrate a phenomenon that caught many people flat-footed. A significant percentage of the population indicated an interest in socialism! While it is unclear what the respondents meant by socialism, what is clear is that growing numbers of people in the USA have, at the minimum, significant questions regarding what some theorists call, actually existing capitalism.

None of this should actually surprise us. Consider the following. More than a month has passed since the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killing eleven workers and unleashing the greatest oil disaster in US history. Yet this would more than likely never had happened had there not been such a cozy relationship between the oil companies and government, with the latter allowing the former to cut corners.

There is the case of Massey Energy which fought the United Mine Workers union, as well as fought OSHA rules and fines, ultimately leading to the deaths of twenty-nine mine workers due to lack of fresh air and the accumulation of gases and coal dust. The elimination of regulations plus the ability of companies to avoid accountability has shown to equal injury and death for hundreds of workers each year.

We still have a double-digit unemployment rate, while the political Right and many cowardly Democrats worry more about the national debt and deficit, rather than worrying about putting people back to work. Many of these same right-wing politicians and pundits remained as quiet as church mice when President Bush blew up the debt through his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, in the middle of the so-called Great Recession, these same hypocrites warn of a cumbersome debt for our grandchildren rather than concerning themselves with workers who are losing their homes or have to decide between healthcare and food for their families.

Income inequality is worse than at any time since the Great Depression. Internationally, two hundred twenty-five people have more wealth than the bottom forty-seven percent of the world's population. In the USA, the top ten percent controls roughly seventy percent of the country's wealth. This situation demonstrates a basic lack of fairness, but it has also led to great instability, particularly as those on the bottom rings--that is, those who are not rich--fight each other for the crumbs dropping from the tables of the plutocrats.

And, if all of that were not bad enough, we find ourselves in the middle of a global environmental crisis, a crisis that too many people want to deny, but can be seen all around us with the disappearance of the North Pole's ice cap being one very big example. Added to this are bizarre weather patterns resulting in increases in desertification on the one hand, and floods on the other.

Millions of people in the USA are watching this and experiencing the results. Yet the facts never speak for themselves; people speak, and people draw conclusions. Without a popular analysis that is actively promoted, the average person can draw myriad of conclusions. They can decide that the economic crisis is the result of this or that ethnic or racial group. They can decide that it is actually not capitalism that is creating the environmental crisis but some sort of natural phenomenon, perhaps a precursor to the so-called "End Times."

Yet the dramatic economic and environmental changes have opened the minds of many people to begin to question the status quo. There needs to be an organized effort to provide just that analysis, not to mention to suggest a path forward. One danger that arises is that simply presenting the facts can lead to dismay and despair, after which people may fall prey to depression, denial, and demobilization. An analysis of the criminality and barbarity of capitalism, however, provides for possibilities for positive action.

Taking up an analysis critical of capitalism certainly brings with it risks. This is a country that, since well before the Cold War, permitted the persecution of progressive and anti-capitalist activists, labeling them everything but children of God. Yet the failures of capitalism--rather than the failures of government--stand for all to see. The story line needs elaboration in order to tie these failures together in such a manner that the average person understands that the problem does not rest with an individual, e.g., Bernie Madoff, or a particular company, e.g., BP Oil, or a particular administration, e.g., the Bush OR Obama administrations.

It's the system... And this is the dark little secret that we have been taught to avoid recognizing, let alone discussing, including within otherwise progressive social movements.

The time has certainly arrived to call things as they are. So whether it is the union movement, the environmental movement, global justice initiatives or community-based organizations, we can all see pieces of ourselves and our existence in the eerie portrait originally painted by the likes of Adam Smith, but also Henry Ford and Sam Walton. The point is not to simply recognize ourselves in this portrait, but to understand the meaning of the entire painting, in this case, to understand that what ails us is not a policy, or a mean-spirited individual, but actually a system on autopilot which, left to its own devices, will lead us off the cliff.
Stewart Acuff is the Chief of Staff and Assistant to the President of the Utility Workers Union of America. As the AFL-CIO's former Director of Organizing, Acuff engineered the largest growth union membership in a generation. He can be reached at Bill Fletcher, Jr. is on the editorial board of and a co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal. He can be reached at

Stewart Acuff is the co-author of "Getting America Back to Work." See: or

Bill Fletcher is the co-author of "Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice"

Check out the Youtube interview regarding Solidarity Divided:

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