On March 27, the Student Alumni Ambassadors at Lewis & Clark held a forum, chaired by three experts in entrepreneurship, titled “To Eat the Rich or Be the Rich.” The forum aimed to teach students about “how the capitalist world works.” This unexpectedly direct language caught the eye of a number of LC students and has sparked conversations about LC’s relationship with capitalism.
LC is, without a doubt, a capitalist institution. Students pay thousands of dollars to go here for the purpose of receiving an education that will deliver them to a well-paying job. The majority of our students come from upper middle class families and are far better off than average Americans. Nonetheless, openly supporting capitalism on this campus is about as popular as deliberately infecting people with COVID-19.
LC is not an outlier in this respect. It is perfectly emblematic of a 21st-century American truth: Nobody hates the rich like the rich.
An early 2020 poll for The New York Times found that Americans are more likely to support a wealth tax if they are white or have a college degree, statistics that often correlate with relatively high income. The same poll showed that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who of all the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates may have had the most aggressive stance on wealth redistribution, commanded the most support from college-educated white people and far less support from less-educated individuals. Other polls have continued to show this basic relationship: Wealthier people are more likely to have negative views on the acquisition of wealth.
If this sounds counterintuitive, that is because it is. Hoarding wealth is in the best interest of the rich; redistributing it is in the best interest of the poor. But there is an explanation for this divide, and it is not the common, condescending explanation that low-income people simply educated enough to recognize how the system is stacked against them. People who have actually struggled with housing or food insecurity, low wages or any of the other myriad of social issues in America tend to understand how their issues could be fixed with decent policy. People who have not struggled to that extent see these problems as structural issues that can only be solved by overthrowing the current system.
No matter how hard they try, upper-class leftists cannot identify with being poor, but they can connect with something they and the working class have in common: hating those who are richer than them. Since wealthy, educated individuals naturally have more influence and control over the national narrative, this means that progressive movements at places like LC tend to focus less on improving policy and social programs for the working class, and more on punishing those who are ultra-rich and the system by which they made their millions. Consider, for instance, the recent opinion article in The Pioneer Log in response to the Fred Meyer food waste controversy, which suggested growing a garden for food (which would take time and money) rather than shopping at supermarkets which make corporations rich.
Referring to things like income inequality, housing discrimination and expensive healthcare as “structural issues of capitalism” is almost reminiscent of the famous recurring headline in The Onion, reposted after each mass shooting, which reads “No Way To Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Certainly, these problems are not unique to the United States, but there are numerous countries, from Norway to New Zealand and Taiwan to Ireland, where these issues are blunted by a robust social safety net — and nobody but a lunatic right-wing radio host would suggest that these countries are not capitalist.
There are, without a doubt, issues inherent to capitalism, and I continue to hold onto hope that someday, there will be a workable alternative system. But for now, talk of overthrowing capitalism is just a distraction. It allows well-off leftists to feel better about themselves while ignoring the real changes that need to be made, changes that are far more granular than blowing up the entire political and economic system.
So, are LC students hypocritical when they denounce capitalism? Maybe. But in our pursuit of a more equitable, meritocratic world, the conversation could be improved by not focusing so much on capitalism, whether in good or bad terms.
This article presents opinions held by the author, not those of The Pioneer Log, its editorial board or those interviewed for background information.