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A Pound of Flesh

Interest and Profit

by STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN

They fought about it in Shakespeare’s time.

Shakespeare wrote a play about it. A character emerged depicting the essence of it. Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”—a portrait of capitalism, in the period of transition from the feudal system.

Can you take a pound of flesh and spill not a drop of blood? That was the restriction Portia, the self-proclaimed lawyer, tried to impose on Shylock in Shakespeare’s play. The pound of flesh was the interest Antonio would have to pay if he didn’t return the 3 thousand ducats he borrowed on time. Portia excoriated Shylock’s capitalist greed while defending his right to be a Jew, in a time of intense anti-Semitism.

David M. Boje, Professor of Management at New Mexico State University, says of the play, “this is a critique applicable to today’s global corporate model of financial capitalism …

“…Shakespeare brilliantly portrays a conflict between courtly (feudal) usurer’s capitalism and bourgeois merchant’s capitalism, the triumph of the new forms of adventuring over the old in the 16th century.”

In those times, usury (excessive interest) or even a normally accepted amount was considered a very bad sin in certain Islamic and Christian nations. Today, it’s the normal way of doing business and is one of the pillars of the capitalist system. Money making money.

However, money is only a medium of exchange. It has no intrinsic value. It replaces a barter system. All classical economists, including Adam Smith and David Ricardo, recognize some form of the labor theory of value where the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labor-power that goes into producing it.

Karl Marx brought a new paradigm to the understanding of capitalism with the hypothesis that “profit is derived from the surplus-value that is extracted when workers put in more labor than is necessary to pay the cost of hiring their labor-power’.

This led him directly to the concept of the class struggle, the relations of production between capital and labor. Capitalism can only exist through the exploitation of the working class.

We’re in another period of transition, today—the next stage in our evolving economic system. Will it be socialism or something else?

Can we imagine a society where interest and profit do not exist?

Perhaps it was the road not taken when societies emerged from feudalism, with the lord dominant over the serf. Or even earlier, before the formation of class systems when human societies consisted of hunters and gathers, where members of the tribe were equal in some form of primitive communism.

Well, let’s see. The first thing we’ll have to learn, to achieve such a state on a higher level, is to bring out the best in people, not the worst—and to do that we must recognize that human nature is complex and is made up of both.

Compassion and a desire to serve one’s fellow man is as strong a drive in people as is greed. For a society, the stratagem must be to make the common good the standard behavioral form. The competition is in doing the best for mankind—rather than, “as long as I get mine, the devil take the hindmost”.

In the context of our country, in the failing state of capitalism, how do we save ourselves? Instead of making some pacts with the future, we are clinging to the failures of the past.

Our current attempts at health care reform are a good example.

In a show at providing universal health care for the nation, the people’s representatives dare not let these toxic words—socialized medicine or public option—cross their lips. Apparently, governments are no longer here to help our citizens. Powerful corporate entities, known as the health insurance industry, a part of the oligarchy that runs this country, won’t allow it. They literally own a good many of our Congressmen and Senators, enough of them to stop any kind of meaningful health care reform. Citizens are brainwashed into thinking that what helps the insurance industry helps them.

You can fool some of the people some of the time.

The rest of us are fighting back. The fight won’t be complete until the money changers are driven from the temple. If you can live with the mixed metaphor, we, the people, must take back our Congress, elect legislators that will represent us, not the special interests. Then, we might feel that we have a government that works.

If not, history will do it for us.

Instead of “The Merchant of Venice”, we will have to look to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” or “Richard IIII” for a more violent solution.

One way or another, in Marx’s own words, “Capitalism will dig its own grave.”

STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir is now in print. See www.amahchewahwah.com, e-mail stevefl@ca.rr.com