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Darwinism manifests on the plains of the African savanna every time a lion targets a juvenile zebra that can’t keep up with the herd, or when a pack of hyenas overcome a powerful wildebeest. These illustrations of “survival of the fittest” comprise a primal ecosystem that is both violent and relentlessly terrifying for every link of the food chain.

Capitalism in America works the same way.

The king carnivore of the retail world, Wal-Mart, subsists on a steady diet of small businesses that sell everything from groceries to hardware, while the financial hyenas on Wall Street collude to devour the incomes of a large consumer base through deceitful practices ranging from predatory lending to swipe fees.  Sadly, the ecosystem (i.e. economy) that has resulted is no less vicious or unforgiving than what is witnessed in nature.

This comparison is not hard to demonstrate or grasp, and that should say something about its validity. However, for a long time many Americans have been hesitant to criticize a system capable of creating so much wealth for so few and so much poverty for so many. For some reason, it was deemed anti-patriotic to exercise one’s first amendment right with the intent of critiquing capitalism. Perhaps it was the insulation of a thriving middle class. Perhaps it was a bequeathed paranoia that would make Joseph McCarthy feel justified in his grave.  Perhaps it was the power of one word.

For decades, the label of socialist (and its cousin: communist) has efficiently stigmatized individuals with aspirations of economic reform. To this day, hypersensitive conservatives continue to use the moniker as an ad-hominem counterattack whenever their economic philosophy is challenged.

Of course, a vehement defense of capitalism is to be expected from its most affluent beneficiaries, but the shortcomings of the American economic model are beginning to make its other defenders appear like clueless puppets of the one percent. The heavy reliance on the “socialist” slur by these protectors of the status quo is backfiring.  By the conservatives’ own haphazard rhetoric, a socialist is now anyone that offers alternatives to pure capitalism–but alternatives in the midst of a prolonged recession are no longer taboo, and the people being demonized by some as socialists are seeing their ideologies gain in popularity.

According to a Rasmussen poll of U.S. voters, even after the Republican Party officially decried the Affordable Care Act as socialist in 2009, approval ratings for the legislation have hovered around 43%. This indicates that condemning policies and people as socialist no longer has the slandering power it once did. Twenty years ago 43% of Americans would not have publicly supported the National Football League, let alone a public policy, if prominent politicians defamed it as socialist (Side note: the NFL, with its revenue sharing program, actually is quite socialist).

Public opinion is changing, and it might just be because some tax-funded government programs and services—despite their bureaucratic flaws—are better serving the entire electorate than profit-driven private sector options. The military, public education, and law enforcement are just some examples of how the government can provide critical services to all Americans, no matter their income bracket. Other private enterprises on which Americans rely (particularly banks, for-profit colleges, and health insurance companies) have proven their destructive power when left to operate in the untamed free market. These industries have debased the capitalist platform and generated public outcry for a better economic system which does not bankrupt the country and its citizens.

Regardless of the reason for the current change in political climate, contemporary critics of capitalism are by no means pioneers.

Well before it was socially tolerable for an American to do so, the prolific author Jack London denounced capitalism and glorified socialism in a poignant essay titled “What Life Means to Me.”  In the essay, London unabashedly recounts how he “discovered that [he] was a socialist” after unsuccessfully attempting to climb “the colossal edifice of society.” Before he came to embrace socialism, he found that his will to work was met only with an employer’s will to exploit his naïve ambition. The promised opportunity of capitalism never materialized for London, despite what he details as a grueling effort to play the capitalist game.

It is hard to imagine that the current economic recovery plan of capitalists will offer more than the empty promises that Jack London found in his quest to earn the American dream. Corporate giants are buying political influence and legislative favor at a level that was never before legal. This seems highly likely to result in the exploitation of the underprivileged and the further division of a nation.

Such is the current state of capitalism.

It is painfully ironic that a country claiming a foundation on the concepts of freedom and equality employs a system that produces such financial bondage and economic inequality. The law of the jungle has become the law of our land, and consequently we have been reduced from the only creatures on Earth capable of compassion to merciless animals in an economic food chain.  The gradual acceptance of socialist components may be the only viable way for America to evolve beyond Darwinian economics and discover the “warm faith in the human, glowing idealism, sweetness of unselfishness, renunciation, and martyrdom” that an enlightened Jack London knew was possible more than 100 years ago.

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