Otto von Bismarck was known as the “Iron Chancellor,” first of Prussia, then after 1871 and the Prussian victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War, of the unified German state. Shortly after the bourgeois revolution of 1848 had swept through a number of European countries (and succeeded in a few of them like France), he said: “The social insecurity of the worker is the real cause of their being a peril to the state (Sigerist, H.E., On the Sociology of Medicine, New York: MD Publications, 1960, p. 127). In 1881, Kaiser Wilhelm I, in a speech to the German Reichstag (parliament), written for him by Bismarck, said: “. . . the healing of social evils cannot be sought in the repression of social-democratic excesses exclusively but must equally be sought in the positive promotion of the workers’ welfare” (Sigerist, p. 129). Building on this view of the social structure and how to best preserve its control by the then German ruling class, in 1883 Bismarck succeed in ushering through the Reichstag the world’s first national health insurance plan, built on various existing bits and pieces and adding major new ones.
Imagine that! The first instance of that commie menace, national health insurance, appeared in Germany when it was still a monarchy. Just goes to show you. The Kaiser, and Chancellor Bismarck too, must have been secret commies, probably not born in Germany, either of them. Actually, what we had there was an early appearance of what can be called National Interest Capitalism. In it a wing of the capitalist ruling class figures out that in order to keep social peace and to keep the workers working rather than striking or worse, they do have to do some sharing. Indeed they may have to even borrow certain pieces of various programs that various center and left-wing parties of various hues may have been championing.
In doing so, in a nation that has the democratic process, that wing does on occasion gain power. They are not socialists and they are certainly not communists. But they think that they have a better chance of remaining in power for the long run by seeking “the positive promotion of the workers’ welfare” than by seeking “the repression of social-democratic excesses exclusively.” This approach to maintaining political and economic control can be called National Interest Capitalism. It is in the interest of the capitalists who support it but also in the interest of the nation in which it occurs because it leads, for some period of time at least, to a broadening of prosperity and advances in health, education, research, science, technology, and the national infra-structure.
Opposed to National Interest Capitalism is the Corporate Power. It sees that the only good is to be found in advancing the interests of the corporations, which under capitalism means growing profits, the singular goal of capital if it doesn’t take any other interests than its own into account, by whatever means necessary. It also means less and less sharing of the financial resources and productivity of the nation in the pursuit of profits and a larger percentage ownership of the wealth of the nation and a larger percentage of its national income. If this means exporting national capital from the home country abroad to earn higher profits, they do it. If this means reducing taxes on the wealthy that could be used to provide certain benefits for the workers and even for themselves, they do it. If this means . . . well you know the drill.
In the 20th century at various times National Interest Capitalism took control in many of the advanced capitalist countries, not only in Europe and Japan, but to a lesser extent in the United states. It happened to a greater extent in those countries with strong labor movements, like Germany still has, to a lesser extent where the labor movement was weaker and then further weakened by the ruling class over time, as has happened here. It reached its peak in the U.S. of course under the New Deal. But the Corporate Power here never gave up fighting National Interest Capitalism, from fighting every piece of New Deal legislation in the courts at the time, to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which began the process by which they crippled the trade union movement, to the appearance of their first open Presidential candidate in 1964, Barry Goldwater. When the last National Interest Capitalist President, Lyndon Johnson, got himself waist deep in the Big Muddy of Viet Nam, it was essentially over. Nixon and Ford were to some extent National Interest Capitalists, but the next Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, didn’t know what he was and he paved the way for Ronald Reagan. The Corporate Power was in the driver’s seat and has remained there, through both GOP and DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) administrations.
With the advent of full GOP control of the Congress (the Democrats having controlled the Senate in name only during the first two years of the Obama Administration: Mitch McConnell has really run the show as he said he would as far back as December 2008), we will now see the Corporate Power in full flower, even more so than under GW Bush. And they are taking the nation downhill just as fast as their ideology and total self-interest can carry them: ever-increasing debt, ever-decreasing social services, an ever-crumbling infra-structure, an ever-increasing export of capital, ever worsening climate change due to its retrograde but highly profitable energy policies, the creation of a permanent army of the unemployed, and the evermore open use of anti-African-American and anti-immigrant racism, and homophobia, to maintain its power among the dwindling white population.
The current Democratic leadership does little to stop this headlong dash towards major national decline and the Corporate Power is so full of itself and so full of its successes, that it cannot see beyond the end of its nose and will just keep on going. The only possible way out of this mess, at least in the short time, is for the National Interest Capitalists to make a comeback. The first thing they have to do, as I have been saying on these pages for some time now, is to split the Democratic Party. “Primarying” (boy, have Americans never met a noun they would not like to verb or what?) President Obama won’t do the trick. He would win. And then if he went on to win a second term we would just have more of that neat DLC cover for GOP policies on the important matters. The Democrats have to split over the issue of the Corporate Power just as the Whigs did in the 1850s over the issue of the Slave Power. At that time the National Interest Capitalists of the Whig Party decided that they could no longer work with the pro-Slave Power elements of that party and established, you guessed it, the Republican Party. Indeed it became the National Interest Capitalist Party of its time (although after the end of Reconstruction, it quickly became the party of Corporate Power. But that’s another story.)
I will be dealing more with this and related issues in upcoming commentaries. In the meantime, I wish everyone a Happy New Year and hope for better days ahead.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for Truthout/BuzzFlash (http://www.truth-out.org/, http://www.buzzflash.com), Dr. Jonas is also Managing Editor and a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to Op-Ed News.com; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.