Mom and Pop Capitalism?

by John Spritzler


That there is something very wrong about American society today is clear to growing numbers of Americans. But what exactly is wrong? On this there are lots of different opinions.

Libertarians like Congressman Ron Paul, Justin Raimondo (of antiwar.com) and Alex Jones (of PrisonPlanet fame) say that what's needed is to restore America as "a republic, not an empire." They talk about the good old days when the Constitution was honored, when our foreign policy followed George Washington's advice to avoid meddling in the affairs of other nations, when we had "true capitalism" with small government, no military-industrial complex, and capitalism was about entrepreneurs producing good products, not bankers speculating as parasites on the productive economy.

Theirs is a vision of a "mom and pop" capitalist world that is very attractive. People are friendly and honest. The competition is about making "a better mouse trap," not "dog-eat-dog" competition to pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom. Nobody is extremely rich or poor. The needs of all are met for the most part. It is not hard to see why decent people are attracted to these ideas.

The problem, however, with "mom and pop" capitalism is the principles on which it is based and the kind of social relations that follow from those principles, and the dynamic that these set into motion. The principles are those of capitalism: capitalists own the means of production and their hired workers do not; people compete against each other instead of working for shared goals; instead of making the welfare of everybody the purpose of the economy, products and services are produced only to be sold for profit to those who can afford to buy them; it is considered natural and proper that some people are wealthier than others and should enjoy the benefits of socially produced wealth more than others.

When a society is organized around these capitalist principles, it inevitably enables some individuals, like the original John D. Rockefeller, to emerge and transform it eventually from a "mom and pop" world to a world of extreme inequality and corporate disregard for the values that decent people cherish. Mom and pop capitalism always and everywhere grows into corporate capitalism. This is the inevitable logic of the system that has landed us where we are today.

In the beginning of this process, the individuals like Rockefeller enjoy legitimacy and freedom of action because they operate within the principles of capitalism. But then they begin to grow. The competitive logic of capitalism cannot fail to produce winners and losers, and drive the winners to compete against each other resulting in ever larger and fewer winners. They buy up other companies until they dominate the industry, such as oil or railroads. With this economic power they gain power over the government like old John D. did and the railroad barons who had the government give them vast tracts of public land did.  Soon the economic and political power of the biggest winners dominates the land. The rise to power of the Rockefellers and our present day plutocracy and their military-industrial complex and wars based on lies and vampire bankers like Goldman-Saches were not flukes; they were the full development of the social dynamics of a long ago seemingly benign "mom and pop" capitalism.

Creating (or re-creating) "mom and pop" capitalism does not get to the root of the problem, which is capitalist social relations. Trying to make a truly better world based on equality and mutual aid by creating "mom and pop" capitalism is like trying to rid a lawn of crabgrass by merely mowing the weeds down instead of uprooting them entirely. It may produce a lawn that doesn't look too bad initially, but the roots of the weeds remain and will eventually make the lawn ugly again.

Capitalism itself needs to be replaced by something very different, and this will require a fundamental social revolution. A new kind of economic system needs to be created based on the principle that people contribute according to ability and take according to need, in a moneyless society in which things are shared, not bought and sold. And a new conception of democracy needs to emerge, in which lawmaking power exists only at the local level in assemblies that all who support equality and mutual aid may attend, with social order on a larger scale deriving from voluntary federation of local communities and workplaces.

As is becoming increasingly obvious to the American public, the problem in our society is a very big problem. And very big problems require very big solutions. Mom and pop capitalism is not a big enough solution to work.