Alex Blaze

Moving Beyond Elizabeth Warren

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 12, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: capitalism, Elizabeth Warren, left, politics, right, socialism, taxation

A couple weeks ago a video of Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren went viral. Elizabeth-Warren-Maddow.jpgYou've probably already seen it, but if you haven't here's the meat of her argument:

"You built a factory out there? Good for you," she says. "But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

Of course, liberals had a collective orgasm over this - someone was finally articulating the liberal argument for taxation and the government. And good for her. Someone should be making that argument.

But someone should also be making the argument from the left, if for nothing but to remind people that liberals aren't the left. In the context of American politics, liberalism should be the center, so when someone says that X politician is to the right of liberals, they're saying she's on the right. Here's why.

There are basically two ways to earn money: through your time or through your money. Some people work, others invest.

It's a fundamental conflict that Europeans describe as that between labor and capital while Americans prefer to call it "Main Street vs. Wall Street." In the Occupy Wall Street protests it's the 99% vs the 1%. It's supposed to line up with the political left and the political right - the right protects the interests of capital (and other members of the aristocracy) and the left protects the interests of labor (and the poor).

In the beginning of her argument, Warren starts out with an idiomatic expression that's bothered me since as early as the age of nine when a friend of mine talked about how his father "built" their home. "Really?" I asked. "That's so cool that your dad built a house by himself!"

Well, no, that's not how it worked. His father just paid someone else to do it (or, more likely, paid a contractor who organized sub-contractors and workers to build the house). To me, that's a big difference. If you want to say you built something, you should actually have a hand in building it. (Also, this kid's mother wasn't dead, she raised the father's children while working full-time, and she also lived in the house, but her contribution to the building process went unnoticed.)

So when Warren starts with "You built a factory out there," she's referring to someone having paid for a factory to be built by other people, or someone who organized other investors to provide the money to build a factory. The actual acts of laying bricks, soldering metal beams, installing plumbing, and making sure the construction is up to code were all done by other people.

In our current conception of private property, the act of providing the money for a project is what determines ownership. But you can see how that formulation leaves a large part of the population out of luck. The people who actually built the factory? Well, they don't own the place. The people who work in the factory? They don't own the place. Only the people who live several states over and sent some cash (before being handsomely repaid for their investment with money that could have gone to benefit the people who actually worked on and in that factory) are said to own the factory.

That's the system we have now, and if you're going to write a comment in defense of the status quo, at least acknowledge that that's the system you're defending. It's capitalism's basic formulation - that money, not work, entitles someone to ownership of things - and it inherently places more value on having money than on actually doing something productive. Sometimes those two things line up, but not always.

There are other possibilities, and some people might see property as just one of many tools used to equitably distribute resources instead of a relic to be worshipped at an altar, and that collective ownership of things like factories makes sense if it provides more people with better lives than our current dominant ideology that says, "If I paid for something, then I alone am entitled to the good that something provides."

Moreover, even though Limbaugh-type conservatives peg someone like Warren as a radical, but they should remember that her argument leaves the fundamentals of capitalism in place and isn't calling for any sort of radical change to the way we run this country. Calling any sort of taxation "socialism" or "communism" betrays a lack of understanding of what socialism and communism actually are.

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...Which is sort of like how the shirt you paid for isn't yours, it's the property of the person who made it?

I'm not sure this a very good argument. If you believe that work = ownership, then why is anyone being paid to work? Work = ownership when a person puts their own resources into creating what they work on and want to own. Ultimately, someone putting down money to have a private space built is paying for the plot, paying for the materials, and paying for the recurring taxes on that finished space. Workers are being paid for their manual labor.

It's like suggesting that I commission a local knitter to make me a scarf, buying the wool, the needles, and paying for the hours it takes to make the scarf and then when he finishes, the scarf belongs to him. What?

The only way you can own something is to make it yourself? Your own paper? Your own pencil? Your own computer? Your own blogging server? Is a paid computer programmer the owner of the website he makes for a client?

I think the argument stops at the means of production - that is, mills, factories, offices, etc. I've never heard of a socialist going to someone's house and using The People's Toothbrush.

There are things about this theory of private property that wouldn't work in today's world. But it's important for people to know that it's out there, especially so that Warren isn't the left bookend of American politics.

Ah, that clears it up a bit more.

However, if you perceive a space, or rather, a building, as a product (a pool, a sunroom, your house) as a product (and indeed, you could theoretically build a house yourself, or hire one man to build a house, or a small team to build a house, albeit incredibly slowly), why is ownership suddenly in question?

Why a distinction between personal objects that, for example, we wear and products that are big enough that we can live in them?

Is a house automatically the People's House unless it's built by one person/a private group? And if not a house, what distinguishes it from the People's Factory?

I would say you are correct that we have no left , in the European sense, in this country. Labor/socialism/communism is absent from our politics. And it is no coincidence that poor and/or working people are getting so utterly screwed, since their interests are not actually represented in our political life.

Americans have been so successfully propagandized to neo-liberal orthodoxy, that for the most part we no longer envision or imagine a politics of the left at all. Popular discontent is co-opted by right wing populism, libertarianism, millenarian/religious hysteria, and/or revanchism against despised groups, thus neutralizing its' potential to threaten corporatist hegemony.

Without a left, our political landscape is essentially proto-fascist: military and corporate interests rule unchecked and unopposed, their propaganda never questioned but instead adopted as popular national and cultural self-understanding. And now that we are experiencing widespread hardship due to a crisis of capitalism more severe than at any time since the 1930s, there is danger of this rightward tilt taking on a yet much more virulent and violent character,( as unchecked rightward tilts tend to do...)

So thanks for bringing in a little bit of an actual left perspective. Desperately needed...

Just re-read, and I do agree with myself, but with two corrections:

It's not accurate to say "labor" is absent from our politics. What I meant was, we have no European or Latin American style Labor, Socialist , or Communist Party fighting for the economic interest of poor and working people. Nor any visible political figure even articulating such a position.

Also not true that military and corporate propaganda is "never" questioned. But sadly it is true that such propaganda is very widely embraced as popular political and cultural self-conception amongst 'liberals' and 'conservatives' alike.

I have a couple of observations.

First, collective ownership does exist in our economy in a very real way and it is called the ability to tax. That ability has been under attack for decades. That is why Herman Cain resonates when he says don't tweak the current tax codes but trash them and replace them with something easier to understand that has no loopholes. I'm just not sure his 999 way of doing it will achieve equitable distribution of purchasing power. I sense that we need a reset because right now way too much wealth is in the hands of very few people. No business can be profitable without customers and to be a customer requires some level of income or resources. Henry Ford understood that very well but today's plantation owners seem oblivious to it.

The 99% do hold some real economic power but they waste it every time they buy foreign made goods. We don't need tariffs and trade barriers to keep jobs in this country we simply need for people to recognize that buying a $5 shirt made in China supports the Chinese economy while buying a more expensive U.S. made product supports the U.S. economy. I read today that the trade imbalance with China reached its highest ever deficit last month. The 99% are committing economic Hara-kiri.

On the contrary, Cain's 9/9/9 would be a massive tax break for corporations and the top 1%, while instituting a major tax jump on people whose marginal income is so low that they're typically exempted (0%). And that's on top of things like scrapping social security, which is a part of that 9/9/9 proposal.

No Mercedes that is not contrary to my position. Evidently I did not state it clearly enough. We need a radical reset. That means scrap the current code, go after the 1% and I don't think Cain has an effective plan for the very reasons you cite. The idea is there but the plan stinks.