Posts Tagged ‘legitimacy’

Finally, in this season of the gift, something other than the usual, tired discussion of “deadweight loss” by mainstream economists.

Deborah Y. Cohn explains that “sometimes people give bad gifts on purpose.”

Although it seems nonsensical to give someone a gift that will damage a relationship rather than strengthen it, some people deliberately do just that.

Not only are these returns a drag for businesses, they harm friendships and fray family bonds.

Of course, historically there are plenty of examples of mean-spirited, even violent gift-giving. Potlatch in the Pacific Northwest is a good example—of chiefs giving away or destroying goods in order to create or reinforce relations of unequal power within and between clans, villages, and nations.

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The Republican tax bill, which President Trump signed last Friday, is another example of the violence of the gift. With one exception: whereas in potlatch the hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods to everyone else, “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” will mostly benefit a small group of corporations and individuals that already capture and distribute to themselves most of the surplus.

Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan may be using the rhetoric of a gift to the middle-class but, according to a recent poll, most people remain unconvinced. They know they’re only getting pennies on the dollar of tax cuts to those at the top.

the NBC/WSJ poll finds 63 percent of Americans who think the Trump tax plan was designed mostly to benefit corporations and the wealthy, compared with 22 percent who believe it was designed to help all Americans equally.

Just 7 percent say it was designed mostly to help the middle class.

The question is, will the tax-cut gift serve to demonstrate the power of large corporations and wealth individuals or will it undermine their legitimacy?

At least right now, most people seem prepared to refuse the mean gift.

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I have been arguing for some time on this blog that contemporary capitalism faces a profound legitimation crisis. It has failed to deliver on its promises, and therefore is being calling into question.

As it turns out, Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, has also sounded a warning about the ongoing legitimacy crisis. But for him it’s a bit different. The problem, as he sees it, is the tension between democracy and capitalism.

A natural connection exists between liberal democracy — the combination of universal suffrage with entrenched civil and personal rights — and capitalism, the right to buy and sell goods, services, capital and one’s own labour freely. They share the belief that people should make their own choices as individuals and as citizens. Democracy and capitalism share the assumption that people are entitled to exercise agency. Humans must be viewed as agents, not just as objects of other people’s power.

Yet it is also easy to identify tensions between democracy and capitalism. Democracy is egalitarian. Capitalism is inegalitarian, at least in terms of outcomes. If the economy flounders, the majority might choose authoritarianism, as in the 1930s. If economic outcomes become too unequal, the rich might turn democracy into plutocracy.

Historically, the rise of capitalism and the pressure for an ever-broader suffrage went together. This is why the richest countries are liberal democracies with, more or less, capitalist economies. Widely shared increases in real incomes played a vital part in legitimising capitalism and stabilising democracy. Today, however, capitalism is finding it far more difficult to generate such improvements in prosperity. On the contrary, the evidence is of growing inequality and slowing productivity growth. This poisonous brew makes democracy intolerant and capitalism illegitimate.

One can find plenty to pick apart in Wolf’s story, starting with the idea that there’s a “natural connection” between democracy and capitalism. There’s nothing natural about it, although clearly there is a historical relationship—complex, fragile, and contested—between democratic political structures and capitalist economies.

But Wolf does understand that today’s capitalism is global:

Left to themselves, capitalists will not limit their activities to any given jurisdiction. If opportunities are global so, too, will be their activities.

And while Wolf forgets or overlooks the fact that capitalism has been global from the very beginning, he demonstrates his awareness that the disappointing recent performance of global capitalism (“not least the shock of the financial crisis and its devastating effect on trust in the elites in charge of our political and economic arrangements”) has once again created tensions between capitalism and democracy. One source of tension is the rise of a global plutocracy (“and so in effect the end of national democracies”), the other is the rise or illiberal democracies or outright dictatorships (“in which the elected ruler exercises control over both the state and capitalists”).

Wolf is most worried about the danger to democracy, and therefore has come around to the view that the continued pursuit of international trade agreements (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which “tightly constrain national regulatory discretion in the interests of corporations,” needs to be curtailed and rethought.

The alternative, of course, is to safeguard and strengthen the future of democracy—in which, in Wolf’s words, economic policy can be “orientated towards promoting the interests of the many not the few”—by doing away with capitalism itself.

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A few days ago, I made the argument that—however haltingly—we might just be finally emerging from the shadows of the Cold War.

And then I read Andrew O’Hehir’s [ht: sm] latest, in which he confirms exactly that:

Bernie Sanders is not going to be president. But in defeat he has accomplished something extraordinary, probably something more important than anything he could have achieved in four or eight frustrating years in the White House. For the first time since the end of the Cold War — and perhaps since the beginning of the Cold War — large numbers of Americans have begun to ask questions about capitalism. Questions about whether it works, and how, and for whose benefit. Questions about whether capitalism is really the indispensable companion of democracy, as we have confidently been told for the last century or so, and about how those two things interact in the real world.

Large numbers of Americans, especially large numbers of young Americans, are questioning capitalism in ways that were literally unimaginable for all but a tiny minority of people during the Red Scare. No, Sanders did not invent that questioning but, certainly, the unexpected success of his campaign reveals the deep cracks and fissures in capitalism’s legitimacy right now.

The rest of O’Hehir’s analysis is well worth reading. But, perhaps even more remarkable as a sign of these times, is his attempt (in this and in a previous piece) to draw an analogy from Lenin and the October Revolution—perhaps the ultimate Cold War taboo.

As O’Hehir explains,

Sanders perceived the decrepit Democratic Party roughly the way Lenin saw the crumbling Russian state, as an apparently powerful institution that in reality was ripe for revolutionary takeover.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks remain intriguing today, not to mention frightening, because of their abundant contradictions: How did a brilliant analysis of global capitalism in crisis, which seems almost eerily trenchant a century later, lead to such a dismal outcome? If capitalism is no longer to be viewed as the unalterable end-stage of history, and socialism is no longer an untouchable concept, maybe we can also get past the superstitious notion that every idea and insight that fed into the Russian Revolution inevitably produced the nightmarish Soviet state that followed. I feel quite sure that Bernie Sanders does not envision the overthrow of all political institutions or the seizure of all private property. His real relationship to the Bolshevik founder is a rhetorical and analytical one, and I find it implausible that Sanders is unaware of this. . .

Bernie Sanders served as accidental midwife at the birth of something thoroughly unexpected, the first faint glimmers of what the Marxists would have called a revolutionary consciousness. Where that will lead is anyone’s guess, but don’t be too sure that it leads nowhere and that the normative political order will soon be restored. Defenders of the system have mounted a forceful counterattack, but their confidence is too high and their vision of the future too limited. The threat of “political revolution” can no doubt be dispelled, for now. But the conditions that produced it — the intertwined failures of capitalism and democracy, as described by two socialist leaders a century apart — present problems that President Hillary Clinton cannot hope to solve.

For the old Cold Warriors who remain out there, that must really burn.

 

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No, that’s not the democratic socialist candidate for the Democratic nomination. It was actually Al Capone who once said that “Capitalism is the legitimate racket of the ruling class.”*

That racket—and, with it, challenges to the legitimacy of capitalism—was evident in a wide variety of news stories yesterday.

life span

First, there was the issue of health. Once again, we’re learning that the capitalist racket is affecting health. In particular, the gap in life span between rich and poor is widening. The top 1 percent among American men live 15 years longer than the poorest 1 percent; for women, the gap is 10 years. These rich men and women have gained three years of longevity just in this century.

And for some groups—especially white working-class men and women—death rates are actually rising.**

Public health experts say the rising white death rate reflects a broader health crisis, one that has made the United States the least healthy affluent nation in the world over the past 20 years. The reason these early deaths are so conspicuous among white women, these experts say, is because in the past the members of this comparatively privileged group have been unlikely to die prematurely. . .

[Anne] Case said that the whites who are dying are not America’s elites.

“They may be privileged by the color of their skin,” she said, “but that is the only way in their lives they’ve ever been privileged.”

Second, consider the problem of international trade. Michael Riordan challenged Carrier Corporation’s recent decision to transfer its Indianapolis plant’s manufacturing operations and about 1,400 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico.

The transfers of domestic manufacturing jobs to Mexico and Asia have benefited Americans by bringing cheaper consumer goods to our shores and stores. But when the victims of these moves can find only lower-wage jobs at Target or Walmart, and residents of these blighted cities have much less money to spend, is that a fair distribution of the savings and costs?

Recognizing this complex phenomenon, I can begin to understand the great upwelling of working-class support for Bernie Sanders and Donald J. Trump — especially for the latter in regions of postindustrial America left behind by these jarring economic dislocations.

And as a United Technologies shareholder, I have to admit to a gnawing sense of guilt in unwittingly helping to foster this job exodus. In pursuing returns, are shareholders putting pressure on executives to slash costs by exporting good-paying jobs to developing nations?

Even Lawrence Summers, desperate (like most mainstream economists) to maintain free international trade and global integration, had to admit that the globalization agenda has been a racket by and for those at the very top:

The core of the revolt against global integration, though, is not ignorance. It is a sense — unfortunately not wholly unwarranted — that it is a project being carried out by elites for elites, with little consideration for the interests of ordinary people. They see the globalization agenda as being set by large companies that successfully play one country against another. They read the revelations in the Panama Papers and conclude that globalization offers a fortunate few opportunities to avoid taxes and regulations that are not available to everyone else. And they see the kind of disintegration that accompanies global integration as local communities suffer when major employers lose out to foreign competitors.

Finally, when coupled with the revelations in the Panama Papers, there’s the growing suspicion that the 1 percent are both abandoning the rest of society (by hiding their money and avoiding taxes) and remaking the rules of the game (by using their money to influence elections and legislation). As Aditya Chakrabortty explains,

the Panama Papers confirm that the super-rich have effectively exited the economic system the rest of us have to live in. Thirty years of runaway incomes for those at the top, and the full armoury of expensive financial sophistication, mean they no longer play by the same rules the rest of us have to follow. Tax havens are simply one reflection of that reality. Discussion of offshore centres can get bogged down in technicalities, but the best definition I’ve found comes from expert Nicholas Shaxson who sums them up as: “You take your money elsewhere, to another country, in order to escape the rules and laws of the society in which you operate.” In so doing, you rob your own society of cash for hospitals, schools, roads…

But those who exited our societies are now also exercising their voice to set the rules by which the rest of us live. The 1% are buying political influence as never before. Think of the billionaire Koch brothers, whose fortunes will shape this year’s US presidential elections. In Britain, remember the hedge fund and private equity barons, who in 2010 contributed half of all the Conservative party’s election funds – and so effectively bought the Tories their first taste of government in 18 years.

Capitalism, of course, has always been a racket of the ruling class. Now, it seems—with revelations about unequal health and life spans, the costs of globalization, the ability of a tiny group at the top to exercise both exit and voice, and much more—its legitimacy is being called into question.

 

*Chicago’s most famous gangster was no anticapitalist radical. On the contrary:

“Listen,” he said, “don’t get the idea I’m one of those goddam radicals. Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system. The American system…” As though an invisible chairman had called upon him for a few words, he broke into an oration upon the theme. He praised freedom, enterprise and the pioneers. He spoke of “our heritage”. He referred with contempuous [sic] disgust to Socialism and Anarchism. “My rackets,” he repeated several times, “are run on strictly American lines and they’re going to stay that way”…his vision of the American system began to excite him profoundly and now he was on his feet again, leaning across the desk like the chairman of a board meeting, his fingers plunged in the rose bowls.

“This American system of ours,” he shouted, “call it Americanism, call it Capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.” He held out his hand towards me, the fingers dripping a little, and stared at me sternly for a few seconds before reseating himself.

**Consider this extraordinary statistic:

Compared with a scenario in which mortality rates for whites continued to fall steadily after 1998, roughly 650,000 people have died prematurely since 1999 — around 450,000 men and nearly 200,000 women.

That number nearly equals the death toll of the American Civil War.

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Contemporary capitalism has a big problem. And no one seems to be able to refute it.

The problem, as Robert J. Gordon sees it, is that economic growth is slowing down, it has been for decades, and there’s no prospect for a resumption of fast economic growth in the foreseeable future. After fifty (from 1920 to 1970) years of relatively fast growth, and a single decade (the 1950s) of spectacular growth, the prospects for continued growth seem to have dimmed after 1970.

In the century after the end of the Civil War, life in the United States changed beyond recognition. There was a revolution—an economic, rather than a political one—which freed people from an unremitting daily grind of manual labour and household drudgery and a life of darkness, isolation and early death. By the 1970s, many manual, outdoor jobs had been replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by machines, darkness was replaced by electric light, and isolation was replaced not only by travel, but also by colour television, which brought the world into the living room. Most importantly, a newborn infant could expect to live not to the age of 45, but to 72. This economic revolution was unique—and unrepeatable, because so many of its achievements could happen only once. . .

Since 1970, economic growth has been dazzling and disappointing. This apparent paradox is resolved when we recognise that recent advances have mostly occurred in a narrow sphere of activity having to do with entertainment, communications and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress has slowed since 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

From what I have read, Gordon appears to privilege technical innovation over other factors (such as dispossessing noncapitalist producers and creating a large class of wage-laborers, concentrating them in factories and cities, and so on). He also seems to argue that the fruits of past economic growth were evenly distributed and that the drudgery of work itself has been eliminated.

Still, the idea that rapid economic growth took place during a relatively short period of time dispels one of the central myths of capitalism, much as the discovery that relative equality in the distribution of wealth and constant factor shares characterized an exceptional phase of capitalism.

And that’s a problem: the premise and promise of capitalism are that it “delivers the goods.” It did, for a while, and now it seems it can’t—which has mainstream commentators worried.

They’re worried that capitalism can no longer guarantee fast economic growth. And they’re worried, try as they might, that they can’t refute Gordon’s analysis. Not Paul Krugman or Larry Summers or, for that matter, Tyler Cowen.

All three applaud Gordon’s historical analysis. And all three desperately want to argue he’s wrong looking forward. But they can’t.

The best they can come up with is the idea that the future is uncertain. Thus, as Cowen writes, “many past advances came as complete surprises.”

Although the advents of automobiles, spaceships, and robots were widely anticipated, few foretold the arrival of x-rays, radio, lasers, superconductors, nuclear energy, quantum mechanics, or transistors. No one knows what the transistor of the future will be, but we should be careful not to infer too much from our own limited imaginations.

Indeed. We certainly don’t know what lies ahead. But, since the 1970s, we’ve witnessed growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, which resulted in and in turn was exacerbated by the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s. Capitalism’s legitimacy, based on “just deserts” and economic stability, was already being called into question. Decades of slow economic growth and the real possibility that that trend might continue for the foreseeable future mean that capitalism (not to mention those who spend their time celebrating capitalism’s successes and failing to imagine alternatives) has an even bigger problem.

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That’s right: during the first three years of the current “recovery,” the top 10 percent captured 116 percent of all income gains. That’s because incomes actually fell for the bottom 90 percent, even as they rose nicely for those at the top.

1 percent gains

Even more striking is the fact that 95 percent of the income gains during the same period went to the top 1 percent, with only 5 percent left for everyone else.

In other words, the fruits of the current expansion have been captured almost exclusively by those at the very top—in contrast to every other period of economic recovery in the postwar period.

We have to face the fact that capitalism’s crises have become increasingly severe, and the solutions to those crises have increasingly involved redirecting the income gains to a tiny minority at the top. Everyone else is being left behind. Is it any wonder that the current economic system is facing a legitimation crisis?

 

Heinrich Kley, "Sabotage" (Betriebsstorung)

Heinrich Kley, “Sabotage” (Betriebsstorung)

I have long argued (e.g., here and here) that capitalism involves a kind of pact with the devil: control over the surplus is reluctantly given over to the top 1 percent in return for certain promises, such as just deserts, economic stability, and full employment.

In recent years, as so often in the past, we’ve witnessed those at the top sabotaging the pact (simply because they have the means and interest to do so) and now, once again, they’ve undermined their legitimacy to run things.

First, they broke their promise of just deserts, as the distribution of income has become increasingly (and, to describe it accurately, grotesquely) unequal and the tendency toward high concentrations of wealth has returned, threatening to create a new class of coupon-clippers. Then, they ended the Great Moderation with speculative decisions that ushered in the worst economic crisis since the First Great Depression. And, now, the promise of full employment appears to be falling prey to the prospect of secular stagnation.

That’s the worry expressed in a new ebook edited by Richard Baldwin and Coen Teulings published by Vox. While secular stagnation can be defined in different ways, the basic idea is that, for the foreseeable future, economic growth—and therefore the prospect of full employment—is probably going to be much lower than it was in the decades leading up to the global crises of 2007-08. Moreover, what little growth is expected will most likely be accompanied by great inequality and financial stability.

If it becomes a reality, secular stagnation represents the end of the pact with the devil. It’s going to be impossible to keep any of the promises—just deserts, economic stability, and full employment—that have maintained capitalism’s legitimacy.

I don’t know if the members of the 1 percent are aware of or concerned about the extent to which secular stagnation may be their undoing (because, in fact, they may hold out the hope that more austerity can successfully be imposed to keep pumping out the surplus). But, to judge from many of the contributions to the Vox volume, the prospect of secular stagnation certainly appears to be worrying mainstream macroeconomists.

Why? Because their own promise was to analyze the uneven and shifting patterns of the macroeconomy and to devise the appropriate set of monetary and fiscal policies to ensure the continuation of the pact with the devil. However, secular stagnation—including the idea that the real rate of interest would have to be negative to maintain an equilibrium of savings and investment—calls into question the efficacy of the kinds of macroeconomic policies that have long held sway among mainstream macroeconomists. Now, they’re not sure they’ll be able to maintain the promise of creating a just distribution of income, avoiding financial instability, and creating enough jobs to ensure every able-bodied person who wants a decent, well-paying job can have one.

Actually, as we’ve seen, they haven’t been able to fulfill that promise for the past 7 years. And now, the threat of secular stagnation means they won’t able to do it anytime in the near future.

There just may not be a happy Disney ending to this one. . .

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Clearly, U.S. capitalism continues to face a serious legitimation crisis.

According to new Pew survey [ht: db], 62 percent of Americans now think the existing economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and 78 percent think too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies. The only group that thinks otherwise—on the Right or the Left—are “business conservatives.”

Here’s the breakdown according to the political categories devised by Pew:

fairness

Most Americans, then, believe current economic arrangements are unfair.

That should invite a robust discussion—in the academy, in the public sphere—of alternative ways of organizing the economy. We can and should be debating how to create more economic fairness and how to change the way corporations are organized so that, instead of wielding excessive power over the rest of the economy, their power might be democratically exercised by their employees and the communities in which they operate.

But we’re not there yet. Capitalism’s legitimacy continues to be called into question but alternatives to capitalism are still, for many people, hard to imagine. As Antonio Gramsci wrote during the last Great Depression, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

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I have been arguing all along (e.g., here) that, after the crisis of 2007-08 and in the midst of the Second Great Depression, capitalism faces a legitimacy crisis.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider the words of Mark Carney [pdf], the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, who is worried that capitalism is eating its own children.

Inclusive capitalism is fundamentally about delivering a basic social contract comprised of relative equality of outcomes; equality of opportunity; and fairness across generations. Different societies will place different weights on these elements but few would omit any of them.

Societies aspire to this trinity of distributive justice, social equity and intergenerational equity for at least three reasons. First, there is growing evidence that relative equality is good for growth. At a minimum, few would disagree that a society that provides opportunity to all of its citizens is more likely to thrive than one which favours an elite, however defined. Second, research suggests that inequality is one of the most important determinants of relative happiness and that a sense of community – itself a form of inclusion – is a critical determinant of well-being. Third, they appeal to a fundamental sense of justice. Who behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance – not knowing their future talents and circumstances – wouldn’t want to maximise the welfare of the least well off?

This gathering and similar ones in recent years have been prompted by a sense that this basic social contract is breaking down. That unease is backed up by hard data. At a global level, there has been convergence of opportunities and outcomes, but this is only because the gap between advanced and emerging economies has narrowed. Within societies, virtually without exception, inequality of outcomes both within and across generations has demonstrably increased.

Occupy Wall Street

More than 5 years into the Second Great Depression, capitalism continues to suffer from a legitimation crisis.

How do we know this? Two recent examples give evidence of the fact that capitalism’s legitimacy remains in question.

First, those who believe austerity needs to be imposed as a way of saving capitalism continue to search for an example of where such a set of policies has worked. And, once again, they are trying to point to Latvia as a success story. At least that’s what the lead-in to the New York Times story would have us believe.

When a credit-fueled economic boom turned to bust in this tiny Baltic nation in 2008, Didzis Krumins, who ran a small architectural company, fired his staff one by one and then shut down the business. He watched in dismay as Latvia’s misery deepened under a harsh austerity drive that scythed wages, jobs and state financing for schools and hospitals.

But instead of taking to the streets to protest the cuts, Mr. Krumins, whose newborn child, in the meantime, needed major surgery, bought a tractor and began hauling wood to heating plants that needed fuel. Then, as Latvia’s economy began to pull out of its nose-dive, he returned to architecture and today employs 15 people — five more than he had before. “We have a different mentality here,” he said.

But the information supplied toward the end of the article undermines that rosy view.

Economic gains have still left 30.9 percent of Latvia’s population “severely materially deprived,” according to 2011 data released in December by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, second only to Bulgaria. Unemployment has fallen from more than 20 percent in early 2010, but was still 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, according to Eurostat, and closer to 17 percent if “discouraged workers” are included. . .

Since 2008, Latvia has lost more than 5 percent of its population, mostly young people, to emigration. The recent exodus peaked in 2010, when 42,263 people moved abroad, a huge number in a country of just two million now, according to Mihails Hazans, a professor at the University of Latvia. . .

Alf Vanags, director of the Baltic International Center for Economic Policy Studies here, is skeptical. “The idea of a Latvian ‘success story’ is ridiculous,” he said. “Latvia is not a model for anybody.”

As it turns out, Latvia is a better example of the shock doctrine than it is of the proposition that pain pays.

And then there’s the Wall Street Journal worried about “How Capitalism Can Repair Its Bruised Image.”

One of the alarming effects of the global financial crisis has been the widespread erosion of confidence in capitalism itself. Doubt has grown that capitalist societies offer everyone as much chance of success as risk of failure. Better government policies might help accelerate economic recovery, but only business itself can restore faith in capitalism.

The need is acute, because the general public’s sense of disenfranchisement goes well beyond the Occupy Wall Street movement or protesters on the streets of Athens and Madrid. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 70% of white working-class Americans, 78% of blacks and 69% of Hispanics believe that the U.S. economic system “unfairly favors the wealthy.” And according to the latest Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project survey, support for capitalism since the 2007-08 financial crisis is down in nine of the 16 countries surveyed, and in none—not even in thriving China or Brazil—has support risen.

But the best they can come up with is a few suggestions about how “companies should invest in workers and business relationships” in order to restore faith in capitalism.

The fact is, capitalism’s legitimacy continues to be questioned in the United States and around the world. And, to be honest, that’s not because of its longstanding critics but because of the pain and suffering capitalism itself has wrought.