By Rachel Deal
Pennsylvania (The Hollywood Times) 3/23/22 – To the untrained eye the Viceroy butterfly may be mistaken for a Monarch, but make no mistake, the Monarch holds within it a poisonous toxin that the Viceroy does not. It’s due to that poison that the Monarch has survived natural selection and it’s through the process of imitation that the Viceroy has also survived.
It’s only appropriate that “viceroy” is also the word for “a person who rules in place of a king or monarch.”
So when it comes to the misnomer known as “capitalism,” it’s no wonder I’m reminded of that nature documentary I watched last week. The tendency to imitate and mistake is a common fallacy known to humanity. And in the discussion surrounding socialism and capitalism, the pattern holds.
Here’s what to take away from Hulu’s documentary The Big Scary S Word, directed by Yael Bridge.
It’s tempting to get into a political banter over this documentary. My enneagram is a 4w5, after all. They call that the “free spirit.” And as much as I’d love to don my Braveheart face paint and scream “freedom!” in the streets, I have a feeling it’s going to be counterproductive. The truth is, the documentary talks about the growing dissatisfaction of the American people in a way that is relatable. Its style is entertaining and overall the documentary is well made.
But as much as I want to believe in its narrative, I still cannot.
The documentary creates an argument for a Socialist Democracy—one in which citizens are granted healthcare, jobs, and security, but may live within that system with a fair amount of freedom and choice. The government would regulate business and redistribute wealth as it sees fit, diminishing poverty and dissipating monopolies. The documentary sources several academics from Harvard, Princeton, and NYU. It calls upon philosophy, sociology, and African American studies. It presents its material in a way that no one will disagree, following the lives of Americans who are struggling and demonstrating their battle against a powerful system that seems to bully and deny anyone who isn’t wealthy. The opening sequence of the documentary shows a construction worker talking to the camera. He asks the camera “Why can’t I be rich?”
We’re then transported to the life of Stephanie Price, a school teacher in Oklahoma City who struggles to make ends meet. She has a young son and she is active in the teachers’ union, going on strike to demand more funding for education. The documentary then brings us to Lee Carter, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and a socialist. Carter is an everyman’s man who served as a Marine before entering politics. His story is shown as a grueling battle against the well established capitalistic system.
Price and Carter have stories almost all of Americans can relate to. Price talks about having two jobs but still struggles, despite having a Masters degree. Carter’s story is also a sympathetic journey in which the viewer admires his efforts and his goals to stand up for the impoverished. There’s no question that the American economic system has failed its majority. With the lack of job security and rise of debt, it’s an uphill climb until we feel the American economy is a win for all. From this particular standpoint, it would seem that the system is broken and with growing frustration, the people are now pointing the finger at the few multi-billionaires in our midst.
The Big Scary S Word comments on the top five richest Americans: Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison, pointing out that together “they own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the human population.” It compares this capitalistic system to feudalism, in which nobility lorded over the working class, providing protection in exchange for share of produce.
There are a few things wrong with this narrative, however. In a feudal system, nobility was not elected and neither was the king. In a democracy, all those in government are elected and chosen by the people. In a feudal system, the nobility claimed rights to the land. In a democracy, we are capable of claiming our own land. In addition, Jeff Bezos does not provide protection to the people. He provides goods and services that Americans have opted into buying. Mark Zuckerberg provides Facebook—something we willingly choose to use.
It’s important to note as well that the American system was intended to be a free market system and that it wasn’t until the mid 1800s when Karl Marx started using the term “capitalism” that it stuck. Through Marx, we went from a free market to a capitalistic regime.
If you’re paying attention, you might see how this language manipulates the narrative to resound injustice by those who “capitalize.”
The documentary compares capitalism to our reigning government. It is true that investment companies like Vanguard and BlackRock own an astronomical amount of mysterious wealth and investors are considered to many a fourth branch of government. However, government and capitalism are not the same and should not be recklessly grouped together.
That is the major fallacy of the documentary’s argument, the misnomer, the Viceroy imposter butterfly claiming to be another. And with that ambiguity, persuasion knows no bounds.
In any good debate, the first thing to do is to define one’s terms. The documentary does not define capitalism but rather alludes to monopolies, billionaires, and blends them with the United States government through suggestion. A technical definition of capitalism would state that it is an “economic system in which ownership and wealth is maintained by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrast to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.” Another definition of capitalism is a “free market system.” If anything, defining capitalism negates the claim that governance has anything to do with it and therefore is less of a political issue than suggested. To make the statement that billionaires and monopolies are the tyrants pulling the strings of our society and the cause of American poverty is a straw man fallacy.
If Jeff Bezos is the cause of American suffering, then why not simply boycott Amazon? The man is only as valuable as his contributions and our necessity for them, and forgoing Amazon with another online vendor is as easy as the click of a button. Spreading the word of Bezos and his apparent evils is the next natural step and so on, until Bezos’ power is no longer at its height. Does anyone have the right to claim another man’s money or to suggest that he did not earn it fairly and of his own hard work? That seems to be a terrible attitude of envy.
Furthermore, the documentary appeals to sympathy, calling upon the majority to sympathize with the impoverished black community. While I am in fact sympathetic, it is an oversimplified argument that makes many assumptions about hiring businesses and the white majority. It makes statements about black Americans suffering and not being admitted into a white run town. However, it jumps hoops through time and does not account for the modernization of our culture and the overall attitude of the people in it. It presumes racism in businesses without providing evidence and appeals to sympathy with the claim of racism from years before. If we’ve learned anything through the internet, it’s that generations shift culture in mysterious ways. It would be ridiculous to claim that the black community is not accepted in American society when so many white Americans aspire to act, talk, and dress like black celebrities and black artists. Furthermore, it is a miscalculation to suggest that white people are not also struggling to pay bills.
The documentary vilifies billionaires and victimizes the lower class, bypassing the middle class and failing to acknowledge the taxes that are demanded of the middle class that cause them to seriously financially suffer. The system that is suggested in this documentary talks of sociology and philosophy but little about economics. My question is, how? Where will the money come from? To majorly tax the billionaires only discourages them from pursuing success and therefore diminishes their campaign for it, along with the jobs and resources provided. Tax the middle class and it dismantles the small businesses.
Most importantly however, is the quiet relationship of corporations with our government. The documentary refers to the ludicrous price of the epipen and blames it on our massive drug companies. What it misses is the financing of government and the hand corporations have in our government. Pharmaceutical companies donate more to political parties than almost any other industry in the country. It is through that leverage that they manage to pass bills through our system, favoring one treatment over another and therefore feeding the company further. The great issue is that the American people are beholden to that system and because there is no other option, we may only follow whatever protocol is set. If the healthcare system were not so highly regulated, other practices would emerge, creating ongoing competition and evening out the playing field.
The documentary claims that socialism is as “American as apple pie.” It would be accurate to say that the American system does have socialistic institutions—healthcare and education. Ironically, it points out the flaws of the two institutions that have been the most systemized and regulated by government, which is what socialism encourages. The failure of socialism proves itself in this premise. When Price fights to have more funding for education, the government denies her of it. Why? Because the government does not cater to individual needs in a system, but rather creates a generally failed system that works somewhat.
The problem is the financiers who have secretly funded and held government in a headlock. Rather than categorizing government and the economic system as one and the same, it is more accurate to see them as a marriage. And they rarely pay attention to their suffering children. But socialism is not the solution. It is the problem, just as government is a problem when it grows too large with too heavy a grip on its people through protocol and regulation. When the monopolies beckon, government has but to squeeze a little harder. This was enabled when the people gave the government so much say in how we conduct our lives and invited them to regulate our industries.
Capitalism is not a form of government. It is an economic system.
It is a free market run according to necessity and production, personal evaluation and preference. And the people may still choose to buy locally, lowering prices and funding a holistic community, catering to the individuals in it.
Yes, monopolies have felt like a form of feudalism, but one needs to look closely as to how and why. The documentary does not discuss the legality of monopolies that fund government, the back room bribes, and the secrecy involved. It does not discuss the significance of going off the gold standard and how that allowed Americans to accrue so much debt, or investment banks to grow so large. It overlooks the middle class as well. And it assumes that every American is willing to participate in a social environment. Socialism sounds like a great idea when looking at the struggling families in our system. However, it does not prove itself to be efficient throughout history. Systemizing and institutionalizing is what creates an impersonal environment for patrons and creates a protocol style for employees.
People do not want to be reduced to paper work and a long list of checkboxes, but that is what a socialist democracy will ultimately do. In addition it will not allow individuals to operate as freely and of their own accord.
One needs only look at the growing number of Etsy shops to realize that Americans are innovative artisans who want to create with their own personal stamp. The solution is to step into that small world of the free market. The United States has never truly experienced a free market, after all. Despite its claims to have been one, the beginning of our country was truly feudalistic in the form of plantations and slave owners. That is the fallacy of our Founding Fathers. They were hypocrites, denying the very economic system that they set in place.
In an email correspondence with director and producer Yael Bridge, I ask the director what nation best exemplifies the philosophy expressed in this documentary. Bridge points me to the Nordic countries and their economy, which is sometimes considered a welfare state. These nations of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland offer generous funding to healthcare and underprivileged citizens. I’m well aware of this model, having studied it in school. While some view it as a mixed economy, containing a capitalist economy with significant taxes, other scholars consider the Nordic Model to be a healthy checkpoint to Marxism. It’s ironic, I think, considering that the documentary cites Karl Marx as a launch point for its argument. In some ways I wonder if we’re not getting befuddled with all the nomenclature. All things considering though, these Nordic countries do enjoy a more homogenous people group with a significantly smaller population. They also export less produce and their economy is much smaller than the American regime.
When talking of small and contained economies, I’ll add that the Swiss economy is a free market economy and citizens pay very low taxes in comparison to other nations. Switzerland also has one of the healthiest economies globally and has enjoyed its place as best country worldwide for several consecutive years. In an economic report it was found that “Switzerland has low unemployment, a skilled labor force and one of the highest gross domestic products per capita in the world…”
Considering that Denmark and Finland also landed at the top of that “overall happiness” list, I’ll concede that there is no obvious answer to economic structure. The United States is the largest economy in the world, however. And signing onto a socialist democracy probably will not play out as harmoniously as the Nordic Model has, especially when the battle cry of Americans has been that of “freedom” for centuries. Bridge mentions a socialist bank in Milwaukee through the mid 1900s, as well. While it’s fair that this system did work in this community, once again it was a much smaller model than the United States government. It also was not a long lasting model. What if our government had less power and we handed over that right to smaller communities with its citizens closer to the helm? It’s possible some communities will choose a socialistic approach, while others will choose an individualistic free market approach. Ultimately there is no clear answer to the massively differing cultures, towns, and cities throughout our nation.
I myself will always err in favor of individualism and freedom of choice. I’m willing to manage the discomforts of that independence from a communal system. Maybe that communal approach is not tailored to everyone.
I’m reminded of my former economics professor who repeatedly said in his heavy Armenian accent, “no free lunch!” The red flag for my fellow Millennials might be this expression, many of whom have switched to a socialist belief system. The basic idea, in case you missed out, is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Ultimately someone has to pay for it. My former professor escaped the Soviet Union to freely speak those words to my class years ago. And my take away from the socialist-capitalist debate is that Americans are still trying to decide who has to pay and through what system.
My response to that, however, is why must there be a systemic approach at all? And when will we stop waiting for the system to fix the very problem that it created in the first place?
The true Monarch of this story is the free market.
And both terms “capitalism” and “socialism” are parading around as misnomers and ambiguities that now confuse the conversation. Deregulate and we will find that trading goods is as easy as apple pie. It will open up the market place and encourage citizens to take up the charge, thus reducing prices and providing jobs locally. It will therefore reduce poverty. My great-grandmother did exactly that during the Great Depression, saving her farm and thereafter enjoying a lucrative pie-making business. Maybe that’s what the American dream was initially intended as. And maybe it’s not too late to arrive at it.