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Hullabaloo


Monday, June 24, 2013

 
A rightwing 1950s PSA about income inequality can teach us a lot

by David Atkins

While doing some research on income inequality, I came across this little noticed 1955 PSA on income inequality in America. It was produced by the "National Education Program," an institution created by conservative red-baiter George S. Benson. The whole thing is worth a watch:


There is an entire book's worth of social and economic analysis to be gleaned from careful study of this bit of propaganda compared to our current situation.

The first key point to note is how hilariously overt and campy is the propaganda about the American capitalist system. The supposed shock of a "British socialist" that Americans can actually buy food at supermarkets is a sign of just how ignorant policymakers supposed Americans to be about standards of living around the world. Modern viewers are far too sophisticated for such simplistic jingoism, and far too cognizant of the flaws of the system.

The second important point to note is that while the paeans to the beauty of free markets and capitalism could have come directly from the mouth an Austrian economist, they were being delivered about an America that despite the horrors of racism, sexism and homophobia prevalent in the 1950s, was far more socialist in its distribution of wealth than it is today.

Which brings us to point number three: the remarkably even distribution of wealth shown in America starting around minute 4:30 of the video. Benson the anti-communist felt the need to defend the American system not by pointing to its comparative freedom, but by pointing to its comparative justice and proper distribution. Compare those relatively even figures to those of America today:



Wealth in the 1950s was far more evenly distributed than it is today. That's no surprise, of course. But what should shake us somewhat is the fact that hardcore conservative activists ranting against socialism and communism back in the 1950s were compelled to defend the virtues of the American system by pointing to its equitable distribution of wealth. Not even Benson dared to begin blathering about Objectivist fantasies. Modern conservatives, by contrast, don't even try to defend the justice of the system because it is so obviously unjust. They have been forced to shift to plainly immoral, sociopathic arguments straight out of Atlas Shrugged to justify the predations of modern free market economics.

The reality of modern income inequality in America makes the final statement of the 1950s PSA darkly ironic:

The truth about the distribution of wealth under American capitalism makes Karl Marx the world's worst prophet. Marx, the socialist founder of capitalism, prophesied that under capitalism wealth would be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer, while the great majority of people would suffer increasing poverty. The fact is that American capitalism has set a new standard for human welfare. And if we keep its basic principles strong and vigorous in the years ahead, the opportunity of every American for a still-better living standard will certainly be enhanced. And perhaps even the disciples of socialism and communism will comes out of their shadowy pipe dreams and join us in the march for human progress.
Communism may well have been a pipe dream. But it's equally obvious that the old vision of free market capitalism as a pathway to general, equitable economic justice has also failed. It was the New Deal and dreaded "socialism" that created the very conditions of which the old conservatives bragged.

Yet the world is still so fearful of making the same mistakes of old communist regimes, and political leaders so bought off by the interests of financial elites, that few are daring to step forward and imagine what a just 21st century economic system would look like. Instead, income inequality continues to grow not just in the United States but all around the world--making a mockery of all those who mocked Marx' predictions.

International corporate power has destroyed the ability to nations to stand up to the grinding labor arbitrage of global capital. The plutocratic class can pick and choose where it lives and who shall manufacture the goods from which it profits. Machines are increasingly doing the work humans used to do, a trend that will rapidly accelerate in the years ahead. The old neoliberal model of capitalism's rough edges softened by safety nets is no longer working.

But that doesn't mean a new model for social and economic justice isn't waiting around the corner to be seized by those with the courage to do so.


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