Column

Termites within the ramparts of power

Roderick McQueen September 8 1980
Column

Termites within the ramparts of power

Roderick McQueen September 8 1980

Termites within the ramparts of power

Column

Roderick McQueen

The thing about capitalism is that it’s so easy to attack. Pompous professors study their case histories and solve the dilemmas of the factory floor without breaking a human heart. Bishops sally forth in holy raiment to rail about the need for corporate social responsibility in far-off lands they have never seen. Media-mumblers let their glib tongues flap, forgetful that the very profits they label as obscene pay their own salaries, too. Capitalists are eternally cartooned as cigar-smoking pudgy porkers with bowler hats. They become the corporate welfare bums of political campaigns, said to pray on their knees on Sunday and prey on the people the rest of the week.

In the 1960s, Mark Rudd and the Students for a Democratic Society were a focal point for hatred of the system. The Yippies’ Abbie Hoffman became a talk-show celebrity as

he told people that they shouldn’t work at jobs they didn’t like. “But who,” someone would shout from the audience, “will collect the garbage?” Hoffman would gleefully point at the questioner, just as if the interruption had been expected, and shout jubilantly: “You will, my friend.” Everyone in the studio audience would laugh, siding for just a moment with the outrageous guest who wanted to destroy free enterprise. Radicalism as stand-up comedy, with a funny bone to pick. Such showmanship spelled the beginning of the end for the wrenching rhetoric and mau-mauing tactics of those who would throw stones at class houses.

The final surrender, the peace that passeth all understanding, has taken a little longer. But there he was this summer, former Yippie Jerry Rubin, joining the Wall Street firm of John Muir & Co. as a securities analyst. It was Rubin who went to the New York Stock Exchange in 1967 and tossed dollar bills from the visitors’ gallery to the trading floor below. The traders, no fools they,

stopped their work and scurried to pick up the booty. The Exchange responded with typical overkill and built a bulletproof glass shield to save free enterprise from further embarrassing attacks.

Rubin, minus the rifle and revolutionary garb, has now given up and given in. Says he: “I can be more effective today wearing a suit and tie and working on Wall Street than I can be dancing outside the walls of power.” It

is a public conversion worthy of Saul on the road to Damascus, although there is a different god at work. “Money is power,” admits Rubin. Wall Street, of course, agrees and when the former Chicago Seven defendant went looking for a job, finding one took him less than a week. Not only has the system escaped the silliness of the ’60s, it now magnanimously sweeps in the survivors.

And why not? It was Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations more than 200 years ago that first described a free economy where people pursued profit in an unfettered marketplace, thus, as he wrote, producing “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.” It’s a system that scoffed at the dire predictions of Karl Marx, who said there would be more goods made than the poorly paid worker could buy. Further, free enterprise has responded to tough economic times such as the Depression of the 1930s through the theories of John Maynard Keynes that encouraged governments to pump up purchasing power through tax cuts, heavy

spending and the printing of money. Capitalism has outlasted war, doubledigit inflation, persistent unemployment, declining productivity—even government regulation. By comparison, the long-haired likes of Rubin were but flyspecks on the packinghouse floor.

While the capitalist system has ways of seducing some and destroying others, those easy enemies are usually outside the walls. These days, capitalism should worry about the enemy within. Those insiders do not include United Auto Workers’ President Doug Fraser, now on Chrysler Corp.’s board of directors. He can sup with the rest. Of greater concern is a fellow board member who said: “Free enterprise has gone to hell.” None other than Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca. Not surprising that he would feel that way, considering the $1.7 billion in riskreduced government loan guarantees to his company. Or what - about everybody’s favorite young financier, Conrad Black? An avowed capitalist since he bought his first share of General Motors stock when he was still a tad of 8, today Black sits atop the corporate heap of the reorganized Argus empire. So far, the only blot on that success story is his debt-ridden Massey-Ferguson. After two years of futile rescue attempts and much fine talk, Massey has now turned to the federal government for financial aid, joining Chrysler at the trough of last resort.

No, capitalism needn’t fear outside attack. It has survived the plagues of history; but it may not survive the rot within, the defeatism that grips its supposed proponents who act as if they don’t have both oars in the water. Capitalism is an easy target precisely because there is so much wrong with it. But even when Iacocca and Rubin switch sides and suits of armor to continue the fight for and against, the odds are not much altered, because picking a winner remains easy. It’s the system. By a snout.