More on Business People & Politics

(Just thinking out loud here. Another short post metastasizes.)

In Chicago a few months back, visited the Chicago History Museum (where resides, among other things, the bed upon which Abe Lincoln died) and heard this interesting tale: 

German Jews arrived in Chicago in the second half of the 19th century, and rather quickly established themselves in the garment industry. Making clothes became the foundation of the fortunes of a number of Jewish families, and the basis of prosperity for many more.

Then, in the years straddling the end of the century, Eastern European Jews began to arrive, and, along with other non-Jewish European immigrants, got jobs as garment workers, working for the Jews that had arrived a generation or so earlier. The women in particular got the lowest-skilled job – sewing on buttons.

Hart, Schaffner, and Marx, the biggest maker of men’s clothing in Chicago, was owned and run by German Jews. Nonetheless, they repeatedly cut the wages paid to the low-skilled button-sewers, many of whom were fellow Jews, precipitating the 1910 Chicago Garment Worker’s Strike. The strike went on for more than a year, was messy both within and without the unions and was only a step in getting better wages and conditions.

Not picking on the Jews, here, this type of story is hardly unique to them. It was, however, striking how little sympathy the German Jewish immigrants had for the Eastern European Jewish immigrants – having just gone through the whole trauma of immigration and settling themselves in a distant land, one might expect more sympathy for others going through the same experience. But, no – we get the classic fuel for Communist fury: Capital acting on its own, it seems, and doing evil, with the human beings just pawns in the dialectic.

Let’s try to conjure up a little sympathy for Messrs. Hart, Schaffner and Marx. I can hear them say:

Look, when we came to Chicago, nobody gave us anything. We hustled and scrambled to make a buck. Through years of hard work and sacrifice, we built this company, which provides work for hundreds of people – people who didn’t take the risks and make the sacrifices we made. So, you new immigrants show up, and we give you a job – nobody gave *me* a job when I showed up. Then, you all have the gall to complain! Hey, how about you do it our way? How about you  figure out how to make a living, hustle and sacrifice, and start a company? Then you can hire people and see how you feel about them whining about taking a ready-to-go job.

Bottom line: why is it my job to provide you with a job you like at wages you like? Why isn’t it your job to go make your way in the business world like we had to?*

(After I wrote this, I could almost hear my dad’s voice saying it. He was a small business owner, who felt morally obliged to treat his people well, as he understood ‘well’. But he put in the 80 hour weeks and night school and took risks, so he wasn’t too sympathetic to accusations of injustice directed at his success.)

The problem with this argument is not that it’s unreasonable – it isn’t. The problem is that it is un-Christian (and un-Jewish).

For those of us interested in a future for our country, because we are interested in a future for our children, a constellation of related issues present themselves:

– The adversarial relationship between Business and Little People is perhaps the Himalayas of the political landscape. Can workers and  entrepreneurs coexist in peace? Marxism says no. History gives a qualified yes. But it makes a big difference if you seek to make peace with  your adversary or seek to destroy him.

– There isn’t really a middle ground between those who wish for a more ‘responsible’ business world and those who wish to destroy the business world. Yet, politically, those two goals fall into the same camp: those who wish to destroy Capitalism are supposedly working with those who seek to tame and control and ‘humanize’ it. Somebody is using somebody here, and lying about it.  Not sure which way the lying goes – I’d guess both ways – or which side is ‘winning’, or if the mix changes with time.  But it’s there to be seen.**

– There no use in arguing that Capitalism contains within itself some sort of equalizing mechanism. No, Capitalism tends to concentrate wealth, a point Adam Smith was well aware of. But: Capitalism is not a quasi-religion, at least, as initially described and in its pure form. It becomes a quasi-religion when Darwinism or demagoguery are added. Marxism is a quasi-religion: it presumes to answer (or dismiss) all of life’s persistent questions, to provide meaning and to describe the true nature of reality.

Capitalism is not required, in theory, to destroy competing religions; Marxism is absolutely so committed. In practice, this means that it is possible for capitalists to acknowledge that there may be legitimate external constraints on their behavior, a thing impossible for Marxists. This capacity to at least acknowledge the possibility that moral considerations may legitimately constrain capitalist behavior is a large part of Capitalism’s appeal.

– Of course, just because something is possible doesn’t mean it will happen. Have capitalists behaved as greedy, murderous, amoral pigs? Yes, they have. But they do not (excluding social Darwinists and demagogues) claim that such actions are in principle unjudgeable. And so we judge them, and pass anti-trust regulations, set up the FDA and OSHA, and do a myriad of other things to attempt to mitigate the worst effects of capitalism. Such efforts are ongoing by those people who believe workers and capitalists can acceptably coexist. (Note that the urge to burn Wall Street down is present both in Communists *and* in Capitalists, fueled largely by the exact same observations! It’s hilarious hearing the Occupy crowd and the Tea Partiers make the exact same points – but they often do. It’s not the problem they differ on, essentially, it’s what the solution would look like. Thus, the surrounding paragraphs.)

– Marxism, on the other hand, provides no external platform from which to judge it. No one can say a Marxist has gone too far to promote Marxism – that’s not possible, by definition. All you can say within the bubble is if an action tended toward the worker’s paradise, it is good. If an action thwarts the coming demise of capitalism, it is reactionary and bad. That the action might involve murdering women and children is indifferent.

Finally, there’s the one good point Hegel made somewhere: quantitative differences in the extreme are qualitative. We started out this little digression talking about some guys who ran a business making men’s clothes. These guys are not Goldman Sachs. They are not GE. They might conceivably buy a local or even state election or two, but that’s about the extent of their political power. Goldman, on the other hand, runs the Treasury department of the United States of America, from which lofty perch they can at least influence in not out and out call the shots on financial policies (and enforcement of laws) around the world. Wanting to break up Goldman is not wanting to destroy capitalism. Wanting to break up Goldman is a point capitalists and communists can agree on.

* Malcolm Gladwell tells a great story in ‘Outliers’ about a Jewish immigrant family in NYC, how they scrambled and hustled to make a go of it. In America, these entrepreneurs’ story are legion. I think the attitude I describe above is really pretty pervasive among the small percentage of people who really are  entrepreneurs – and among a larger number of  business people who’d like to think they are.

Maritain (I think) points out somewhere the difference between American and French farmers: the American farmer sees farming as a business, and is quite willing to pack up and leave for better land; the French farmer sees his farm as a patrimony. He is tied to it by more than economic ties. The upshot is that the American farmer works hard to see how much he can get out of the land; the French farmer does what he needs to do to keep it all going – and nothing more. I don’t know how true this really is, bit it seems right.

** (Usual disclaimer: I’m of the ‘Pox upon both Houses’ anti-party.) When the Communist Party endorses Obama, for example, they do it because they believe his policies will tend to destroy capitalism. This is not a far-fetched conspiracy theory, or right wing nonsense: this is taking the Communists at their word.  While one could argue, I suppose, that when some business organ with the express goal of enslaving workers – who, exactly, would that be? – endorses GOP candidates, they are doing so because the GOP policies tend to enslave people. This would be all well and good, if business people believed that slavery of workers was, in fact, necessary. However, business people sell stuff, and so need buyers – slaves make poor buyers. So the situation is not symmetrical: It is the highest, purest form of Marxisms to want all capitalists dead. It it the highest and purest form of Capitalism to want as many and as affluent a set of potential buyers as possible. It’s true that workers are merely an input, a raw material, a cost to be controlled in the capitalist model, and that therefore Capitalists are inclined to abuse them. But – big but – Capitalism requires buyers, and, in a bit of cosmic irony, most buyers turn out to be workers. Therefore Capitalism demands, however grudgingly, that workers not be destroyed.

(The work-around here is to assert that Capitalism is just a mask for Totalitarianism – that wealth just seeks power, and so, in complete contradiction to Marx, is willing to reduce wealth to have power. Capital both does and does not act to increase itself at the same time and in the same way – Hegel would be so proud. But, really, this is merely a demonstration of the non-Euclidean character of political space – go far enough Left, and you end up Right, and visa-versa. Totalitarianism seems to be utterly indifferent to which direction it is approached from.)

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “More on Business People & Politics”

  1. “…business people sell stuff, and so need buyers – slaves make poor buyers. ”

    One way to avoid paying the workers enough to buy the product is to do the work in one country and sell the stuff in another. This also creates opportunities for tax and regulatory arbitrage.

    1. Certainly, happens all the time. Insofar as people are ‘human resources’ – inputs for production – business are heavily inclined to ‘control costs’ any way they can. So, third-world slave or near slave labor looks good. But – for this to work, there has to be a rest of the world where consumers have money. So, in a capitalist world, slavery can be used, but it cannot be the universal policy.

      Note that has nothing to do with right and wrong. Slavery is wrong, and that wrongness trumps any merely economic considerations. Also note that any attempt at enforcing right is likewise outside the economic system. It may or may not fall out from economic activity that slavery ends – or continues – for purely economic reasons.

      Or, to look at this another way: the development in the world that gets capitalists large and small the most excited? The emergence of a ‘middle class’ in China and India. Why? Potentially a couple billion new consumers. From a purely amoral money-making perspective, the possibility of a couple billion new consumers far outweighs the potential loss of a couple billion near-slaves.

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