The clear reemergence of and spreading interest in anti-establishment politics in the United States (together with the electoral success of left-wing and right-wing parties in a growing number of European nations) can be blamed squarely on capitalism.
As I see it, it’s the combination of the failures of capitalism and the unwillingness of the existing economic and political elites to effectively deal with those failures that explains the rejection of mainstream (center-right and center-left) candidates and policies and the turn to alternatives. The failures of capitalism go back some four decades—including stagnant wages, rising indebtedness, and growing inequality—and culminated in the crash of 2007-08—after which wages remained stagnant, people were not able to rid themselves of debt, and inequality continued to grow. What recovery there has been in recent years has mostly been captured by large corporations and wealthy individuals, while economic growth has remained slow. Meanwhile, economic elites have continued business as usual (moving production and jobs at will around the world, more interested in lowering costs, avoiding taxes, and inventing new labor-saving technologies than anything else) and political elites do everything they can to save large financial institutions and a business-friendly environment and imposing the costs—of the bailouts, the continued opening and expansion of markets, the refugees from war-torn zones, and much else—on the working and unemployed populations of their nations.
From this perspective, it’s no surprise that, in the United States, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have attracted so much support—or, that, in Europe, both the Left (e.g., in Greece and Spain) and the Right (e.g., in Poland and Austria) are increasingly able to challenge mainstream parties.
To be clear, this is not to say that politics—political parties and movements, voter attitudes and behaviors, candidates and coalitions—are solely determined by the economy (or some subset of the economy, like class interests). There’s a great deal more that affects the rise and fall of political ideas and campaigns—from political practices and institutions through discourses and identities to media and communication technologies. Still, the failures of capitalism and the unwillingness of economic and political elites to solve or mitigate the effects of those failures to the benefit of the majority of the population have played a significant role in the current disenchantment with mainstream parties and the success of left-wing and right-wing alternatives in the United States and Europe.
But it is interesting that there appears to be a determined effort to absolve capitalism of any responsibility for these new political events. Both Greg Ip (writing for the Wall Street Journal) and Peter Eavis (for the New York Times) have attempted to argue that “it’s not the economy” that explains politics, but something else. And, if it’s something else, it can’t be the failures of capitalism that are to blame.
For both writers, “the economy” is economic growth, specifically growth in GDP. In Ip’s case, the difference between the 1960s (when social disarray and political dissension were accompanied by solid growth and “shared prosperity”) and now (when similar levels of voter discontent are occurring with slow growth and high levels of inequality) means we can’t make sense of electoral grievances in terms of economic discontent. For Eavis, most voters are currently “doing sort of O.K.” (with thousands of new jobs and a low unemployment rate). Therefore, he argues, this election can’t really be about the economy.
Desperate as they are to make such an argument, both Ip and Eavis miss two key issues. First, the economy is not just GDP growth. It’s also, at least for the majority of the population, about a great deal more: the tradeoff between wages and profits and the level of inequality, the ability of the government to capture portions of the surplus and to use it for social programs, the degree of security concerning jobs and the quality of the communities in which people live and work, and a great deal more. And second, capitalism doesn’t always exert its effects in the same way: in the 1960s, when both wages and profits were rising and the possibility of using part of the surplus to improve society (both for those who had prospered and those who had been excluded from that first. “Golden Age” decade of postwar growth), capitalist success created rising expectations (including the rethinking of aspects of capitalism that had previously been deemed successes); while now, in the midst of capitalism’s multiple, spectacular failures, the opposite is true (as people demand redress for their low-paying jobs, crumbling infrastructure, obscene levels of inequality, and the corruption of democratic politics by large corporations and wealthy individuals).
So, no, capitalism can’t be let off the hook. It creates and perpetuates the problems it claims to address. And even though economic and political elites want to believe otherwise, holding firm to the notion that people should be satisfied with current economic arrangements, recent developments in the United States and Europe suggest they’re not.
Not by a long shot.