Those of you who, faute de mieux, have been following the current presidential race in the United States, will be aware that Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital has become, both for him and for his critics, a principal subject of discussion. Romney touts his success at Bain as evidence of his managerial abilities as well as of his experience "creating jobs." [His prize exhibit is Staples, an office supply retailer.] The criticism of his performance at Bain actually started quite some time ago, when he ran against Teddy Kennedy in 1994 for the United States Senate. The Kennedy campaign produced some devastating television ads featuring men and women who had lost their jobs as a result of Bain's "restructuring" of their employer. These criticisms resurfaced in the Republican primary campaign when both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry ran scathing ads attacking Bain Capital and Romney [who started and headed up Bain, making himself a quarter of a billion dollars or more along the way.] Perry characterized Bain as an example of what he called "Vulture Capitalism," complete with graphic descriptions of carrion birds eating the carcasses of dead animals.
Now that Gingrich and Perry have been driven from the field, Perry by his own manifest incompetence and Gingrich by a series of Romney attack ads funded by deep-pocketed SuperPacs, the Obama campaign has picked up the baton and is starting to run with ads reminiscent of those used to such good effect by the Kennedy campaign eighteen years ago.
As this plays out in the public square, something quite fascinating and rather amusing is happening. Defenders of Romney, stung by the portrayal of him as a heartless job-killer, have defended him by saying that what Bain does is "just capitalism." The Obama campaign, by contrast, seeks to draw a distinction between good capitalism, the sort of capitalism that has transformed America into a "middle-class" country of good jobs, home ownership, secure pensions, and health insurance; and bad capitalism, the sort of capitalism that sends jobs overseas, strips companies of their assets and leaves them as road kill, and throws the economy into chaos with unregulated financial dealings and obscene executive compensation.
What makes this such fun to watch is that while the critics of Romney have all decent, socially responsible, progressive folks on their side, the Romney supporters are right.
Capitalism does not exist for the purpose of creating jobs, any more than it exists in order to create a demand for coal or linen or aluminum. Labor, like every other input, is viewed by capitalism as a cost of production, to be minimized as much as possible. In the infancy of capitalism, owners resorted to such primitive devices as gimmicking the clocks in factories in order to extract a few extra minutes of work from the labor force [see Marx's lovely descriptions of this in Volume One of Capital.] Capital drove down wages by substituting women for men and children for women as machine operatives. The workers fought back by organizing and withholding their labor, for a while with signal success. Today, with the communications and transportation facilities of the modern age, capital simply transfers its operations to whatever part of the world offers the lowest wages with the fewest regulations, leaving to their own devices millions of workers whose lives are devastated and their futures destroyed.
Mitt Romney has not been subverting or perverting capitalism. He has simply been practicing it as it is supposed to be practiced. The sole and sufficient evidence of his proficiency is his wealth. But the critics of Romney cannot acknowledge this, for to do so would be to call into question the legitimacy of capitalism itself, and that, for the past three-quarters of a century in the United States, has been quite simply unthinkable.
Dare I hope that Romney's thoroughgoing unlikability will spark a new and critical look at capitalism itself in America? Alas, I doubt it.