The professor and author discusses ongoing inequality and alternatives to capitalism.
Professor and Author David Schweickart
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome David Schweickart to this program. The philosopher and mathematician from Loyola University in Chicago wrote the seminal text, “After Capitalism” and has been teaching students about market socialism and economic democracy for more than 40 years now. I am honored to have him on this program. Professor, thanks for your time, sir.
David Schweickart: My pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Let me jump in with this. The text that you wrote prior to this was “Against Capitalism” and then comes the following book, “After Capitalism”. The “Against Capitalism” I understood, but when I first saw this one, “After Capitalism”, I didn’t know exactly where you were going with this. That title means what exactly?
Schweickart: Let me explain a little background of that even.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Schweickart: As you say, I started out my career as a mathematician, taught for a year at the University of Kentucky, and then Kent State happened, and I had this kind of conversion. I don’t want to teach math. You know, I want to do something more meaningful with my life. I’m just teaching. Engineers are going to do the military industrial complex route and so on.
And in between, I read Marx and I was just really stunned by this. I read as the mathematician, worked through every equation, read all the footnotes. In fact, you will notice the cover of this book actually — I don’t identify it anywhere, but that’s the influence.
But what Marx did for me was convince me that there’s something wrong with capitalism. I’d never thought about that before, you know. I knew that other things were wrong, but the problem was what’s the alternative, okay?
Marx doesn’t tell you and that becomes my research project. I developed that early on in a book called “Capitalism or Worker Control”. But it was clear we needed a vision of an alternative. Marx didn’t have — I don’t fault him for that. There weren’t any other alternatives out there, no data.
But 150 years later, we got to know what an alternative would be, and the Soviet Union didn’t look very attractive, right? So it’s like another form of socialism, not that. So I wrote this one book and then comes the collapse of the Soviet Union and everyone saying end of history, there is no alternative and so on.
I wrote against capitalism kind of as a defiant response to that. It was like there is an alternative. We may not have the power to ever get there, but don’t say there isn’t an alternative. It would work, it would be viable, it would be better than what we’ve got now. Then everything seemed calm for a period of time, end of history, and then the anti-globalization movement took place. The Battle of Seattle in 1999.
It’s like, whoa, wait a minute. Things are happening again, and that’s where the title changed to “After Capitalism”. It also went from a more technical book aimed at economists and philosophers to a more general public, but there is something beyond and there is a movement developing that may be able to take us there.
Tavis: To those who say that “After Capitalism” is presumptive, you say what?
Schweickart: Well, I’d say, first of all, the existing order is not sustainable. There’s going to be something after what we’ve got now. The question is, is it going to be something a lot better than we’ve got now or something a lot worse than we’ve got now? And it’s important to me. There is a movement. More and more people know the present order isn’t working, you know.
The long-term prospects are really terrifying in many ways, okay? Is there an alternative? And I think we need a vision. In fact, Naomi Klein who’s been on your show and her argument, “No is Not Enough”, is what resonates. You got to have a vision of something that would work, that would be better, you know.
And that’s the project. It’s to lay out a model of something that would work. It would be efficient. It would have preserved some of the strengths of capitalism because capitalism has major strengths, but without all the negatives. That’s been the project.
Tavis: I was looking at a house the other day and the house needs some work, but I said to my realtor, “The house has some good bones. It’s got good bones.” So what are the good bones of capitalism before we come to the negatives?
Schweickart: Well, the good bones have been the huge amount of innovation, technological development that’s taken place, okay? And the discovery of this mechanism — and it’s interesting, it’s provocative on the socialist end of the market, you know — the invisible hand. Having competition and that that actually encourages enterprises to be efficient and to search for innovative things and so on and so forth.
And the model of economic democracy sort of wants to preserve that. That isn’t the fundamental problem, this competition versus cooperation. We got to get a better balance, but preserve that, okay, and do some fundamental changes that at one level are very dramatic, another level it’s not going to change much right away. You won’t maybe not notice it. But, you know, it’s huge and it can solve the massive problems that we have.
Tavis: And the negatives?
Schweickart: The negatives of capitalism, massive inequality and it’s now getting worse and worse and worse, you know. It’s built into the fact you’ve got capital, you get a return on the capital. It just generates more and more money. You don’t have to work. You can die. Your heirs get it, you know, that kind of thing. You’ve got this poverty in the midst of plenty.
I mean, back in the 70s when I first started working on this, it wasn’t long after President Johnson had declared war on poverty. I mean, you got all this poverty. We’re the richest country in the world. We shouldn’t have poverty anymore, not in the United States, not in our cities, not in Appalachia. Nobody even talks anymore about eliminating poverty.
Then you get this paradox of unemployment. You got all these unemployed people and then almost everyone that has a job is working longer than they wish they were working. So why don’t we have a system that says let’s spread the work around. Let’s give people more leisure time. We don’t get that. There’s no motivation under capitalism to do that.
And then the big one right now, the most immediate, is this need to keep growing against the environmental constraints, against the issue that’s just incompatible with really dealing with climate change, these kinds of issues. It can’t do that.
Tavis: So Gordon Gekko — make that Michael Douglas — infamously said in “Wall Street” that greed is good. How do you ever balance these issues that concern you so long as there is this thing called greed that drives so much of capitalism?
Schweickart: Well, I mean, that’s why I think we can have an economic system that still has competition, but it’s not greed-driven that way. So, for example, the basic structure. One of the things we’re going to have are democratic workplaces, okay?
Now democratic workplaces compete with each other, you know. It’s still a market and so on and so forth, but you don’t have a desire to drive the other company out of business.
Now individuals may be greedy, but the whole system isn’t based on that. In fact, in a democratic enterprise, everyone’s well-being is tied to the company doing well, okay? So what’s good for you is good for the other people working with you and so on. You get a sense of cooperation.
Tavis: How do you have a dynamic conversation, an authentic conversation, about fixing what’s wrong with capitalism when you can’t have a real conversation about raising the minimum wage? I mean, this Fight for 15 has certainly gained ground and gained traction across the country, but it’s happened very slowly city by city by city.
We can’t seem to get traction on a real national conversation about raising the minimum wage across this country. So if you can’t do that, just raise the minimum wage, how can you have a real conversation about the alternatives to capitalism?
Schweickart: Well, as I say, when it becomes clearer and clearer that the problems out there have not been resolved and they’re going to get worse. And lurking in the not too distant future is another economic crisis because we did not solve the problems below, which we really had something like that since the Great Depression and then 2008.
So the gradual spreading realization that we need a fundamental change, that my sense is, you know, consciousness can change. Political climate can change very rapidly, you know. I mean, having grown up in the 60s and 70s and see how, for most of that period, the country was behind the war in Vietnam. We got to stop the communists. They’re going to take over the world.
And then it didn’t take much. Kent State was a triggering thing, but suddenly, whoa, majority opinion is shifted the other way, okay? So, I mean, I think my sense is — because there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.
That was true then, that was true with the civil rights movement long before, you know, the Martin Luther King and the things were getting all the coverage and so on. There were people on the ground working, struggling and so on and so forth, and that’s definitely going on now. Millions of people are actually out there involved in things.
Tavis: Let me play devil’s advocate. I hear your point about the Vietnam War and some powerful examples, so I’m wrestling and noodling with what kind of pushback I can give you for the sake of argument. I think the best argument I can come up with is probably this, that it’s hard to imagine alternatives to capitalism.
It’s hard to imagine a serious conversation about what’s wrong with capitalism so long as the folk who are responsible for making those changes in Washington are there because they are propped up by the powers that be. So whether you’re Democrat or Republican, they all get their money more often than not from the same places.
It’s the same problem Hillary Clinton had. It’s hard to tell folk one thing when they saw you talking to Goldman Sachs and taking money, and I love Hillary Clinton. But my point is, if all of you were there because money rules everything in Washington, then who are you looking to to address the issue?
Schweickart: Well, I mean, that’s a big debate going on right now. The People’s Summit, you know, in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, okay? That was one of the issues. How do we change the Democratic Party or do we go outside the Democratic Party?
But everyone knows we’ve got to start now working at the grassroots level, getting political power. You know, the Tea Party did it with the Republicans. Why not have something like that on the left that gets a genuine alternative?
Because we saw — I mean, a lot of the things that Trump was saying appealing to people were right. I mean, the system is broken, you know. These trade deals weren’t any good, that sort of thing. But if you have a vision of what’s wrong and an alternative out there, that’s why I think it’s important.
You know, when Naomi Klein says no is not enough, yes, she’s right about that. We’ve got to have this vision and I think it can be laid out. We need democratic workplaces. We need to get rid of Wall Street and have public banking. There’s been a lot of research done on all of these sorts of things. They work.
I can say more about them, but it’s a system that would still be dynamic, but wouldn’t require constant increasing consumption, constant growth and so on and so forth, would give people more leisure, more democratic control over their lives, more ability to do the long-term planning that we’re going to have to do if we’re going to deal with climate change. It’s doable.
Tavis: Naomi Klein last week did say on this program that no is not enough. And this week, Professor Schweickart says there is also something after capitalism. That is the title of his text by David Schweickart, professor at Loyola in Chicago. Again, the book, “After Capitalism”. Professor, good to have you on. Thanks for sharing your insights, sir.
Schweickart: Thank you.
Tavis: Up next, actress Jenny Slate from the film, “Landline”. Stay with us.
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