Sunday, January 16, 2005

Martin Luther King, Social Security and Capitalism

With all of the talk these days about privatizing social security, and with the King Holiday coming up on Monday, I thought it would be an appropriate time in this week's King diary series to give a quick overview of Dr. King's thoughts on capitalism, trickle-down and the free market.

Would Dr. King have favored privatization of the social security system?  The answer is, probably not. In notes he took during a graduate school course on Christianity and Society, Dr. King had the following reflections on American capitalism:

"I am convinced that capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America but in the entire world. It is a well known fact that no social institution can survive when it has outlived its usefulness. This, capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses."

Before the above gets misconstrued, let me firmly state that Dr. King was not a communist. In his article, "How a Christian Should View Communism", Dr. King stated:

"Communism and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible. A true Christian cannot be a true Communist, for the two philosophies are antithetical and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot reconcile them."

Dr. King was first and foremost a pastor, and as such his objections to communism were based in ethics and theology. In "How a Christian Should View Communism", Dr. King gives three reasons for his opposition to a communist government:

"...First, Communism is based on a materialistic and humanistic view of life and history. According to Communist theory, matter, not mind or spirit, speaks the last word in the universe. Such a philosophy is avowedly secularistic and atheistic. Under it, God is merely a figment of the imagination, religion is a product of fear and ignorance, and the church is an invention of the rulers to control the masses...

...Second, Communism is based on ethical relativism and accepts no stable moral absolutes. Right and wrong are relative to the most expedient methods for dealing with class war. Communism exploits the dreadful philosophy that the end justifies the means. It enunciates movingly the theory of a classless society, but alas! its methods for achieving this noble end are all too often ignoble. Lying, violence, murder, and torture are considered to be justifiable means to achieve the millennial end...

...Third, Communism attributes ultimate value to the state. Man is made for the state and not the state for man. One may object, saying that in Communist theory the state is an "interim reality," which will "wither away" when the classless society emerges. True--in theory; but it is also true that, while it lasts, the state is the end. Man is a means to that end. Man has no inalienable rights. His only rights are derived from, and conferred by, the state. Under such a system, the fountain of freedom runs dry..."

Much of King's analysis in these matters was based in Hegelian thought. Hegel appealed to King in that the concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis envisioned a middle road, which was rooted neither in one of two extremes but found the truth in both positions and created an original third option. This world view exhibited itself most strongly in King's views on capitalism and communism. As King said in his speech, "Where Do We Go From Here?":

"What I'm saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. (Yes) Capitalism forgets that life is social. (Yes, Go ahead) And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. (Speak) [applause] It is found in a higher synthesis (Come on) that combines the truths of both. (Yes) Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. (All right) These are the triple evils that are interrelated...

... A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them and make them things. (Speak) And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. (Yes) And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. (Yes) [applause]."

These are not the words of a man who would buy into the concept of "trickle-down", or the belief that by making rich people richer the poor will eventually benefit. Indeed, King believed in "economic justice", turning the minimum wage into a "living wage", massive government programs to address the needs of the poor and a very large social net so that those at the monetary bottom of our society might still be able to claim that they were viewed as being created "equal".

Indeed, one of King's biggest problems with the war in Vietnam was that the increased military spending was draining money from government programs at home, which left him very disillusioned with Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives. As King said in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech:

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote these words would probably take a very dim view today of our expenditures in the war in Iraq, our under-funding of "No Child Left Behind", and the President's tax cuts and ongoing initiatives to give increased tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. I think it would be fair to say that King minimally would be skeptical of a social security privatization scheme, if not reject the idea outright.

King was assassinated in the midst of planning a Poor People's March on Washington, where he envisioned poor Americans of all races congregating at the nation's capital in a nonviolent direct action to demand economic justice from their elected representatives. Some, including King family attorney Dr. William Pepper, believe that the United States government was responsible for killing Dr. King because he was re-directing his efforts, and calling for a radical, systemic reordering of the national priorities, including pulling out of the war in Vietnam and reigning in our capitalistic system. In remembering Martin Luther King's legacy on Monday, it would be good to keep in mind his views on wealth, poverty and economic justice, especially right now during this ongoing debate about social security privatization.

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