Postmedia’s “Capitalist Manifesto” Is a Confused and Embarrassing Mess

Capitalism has created more prosperity and progress for more people than any system in human history. On the 30th anniversary of the official end of the Soviet Union, join the National Post and Financial Post in a series saluting the unfashionable yet awesome power of the free-market system.

So reads the introduction to each article of “The Capitalist Manifesto” — a series by Postmedia, Canada’s premier right-leaning news conglomerate, that ran in several of its properties between December 2021 and January 2022. The series features arguments from Postmedia’s usual foot soldiers, as well as some of Canada’s most infamous right-wing ideologues. Postmedia conscripted the likes of Conrad Black, the megarich National Post founder and fraudster, and W. Brett Wilson, investment banker and Dragons’ Den host, to make the case that we have capitalism to thank for this, the best of all possible worlds.

The enthusiasm of this team of cheerleaders for capitalism is not matched by their ability to marshal convincing arguments in their favor. They instead rely upon stock talking points to make their timeworn case: capitalism leads to innovation, prosperity, longer life spans, and “free speech.” Several of the articles make feints into stranger fare: we should have a national “Capitalism Day,” says one author; corporate social responsibility and sustainability are “subversive doctrines,” says another; maybe we should call capitalism “progressivism,” says one more. Headlines also include “Free markets won in the Cold War, but threats like wokeism are rising” and “Hate capitalism? Here’s how it keeps lifting millions out of poverty.”

The series’ loftier pieces take on the supposed “incompatibility” between democracy and socialism and rebuke China’s brand of “authoritarian” capitalism. Elsewhere, they celebrate Milton Friedman and discuss the Cold War as a battle in which “faith and freedom” were pitted against communism.

On the one hand, the fact that media functionaries feel the need to defend the prevailing order indicates that trust in the system has declined. On the other, there are no Bolsheviks at the gates, and sticking one’s neck out for the rich and powerful is tantamount to applauding a bully. The entire exercise comes off as the overcooked offering of status quo toadies.

The columns try to employ capital-L Logic to pull off Ben Shapiro-ish “gotchas.” The arguments, however, often feel labored and wooden. Capitalism, these defendants sometimes concede, isn’t without its downsides — but compared to Cuba and North Korea, the good far outweighs the bad.

Some revisionist history and selective stat-pulling helps justify their claims: “Weekends were brought to us by capitalism”; “industry has also led to societal benefits, such as hospitals”; “Critics will point to COVID and say it was massive spending by governments that saved the economy. Supporters will point out that it was companies like Pfizer . . . who saved people.”

One video boasts that the planet has blown past the “most important” of the Millennium Development Goals — the reduction of extreme poverty. But as Jason Hickel’s 2018 book, The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets, points out, this conclusion is incredibly misleading. Highlighting the fact that all gains “have happened in one place, China,” Hickel notes that the absolute numbers for measuring poverty — not the proportions that China’s presence inflates — show that “the poverty headcount is exactly the same now as it was when measurements began back in 1981, at about 1 billion. There has been no improvement over thirty-five years.”

And because that measurement only covers extreme poverty — those living on less than a dollar a day — it also disguises the actual level of world poverty. If the measure was changed to $4 a day, Hickel argues, “We would see a total poverty headcount of about 4.3 billion people.”

But the authors of the Capitalist Manifesto columns appear to never have met a rationale for the merits of laissez-faire that they didn’t like, no matter how dubious. This defensive posture taken by Postmedia captures something important: since the end of the Cold War, capitalism has not been treated as a distinct economic system but instead has been normalized into what seems to be the routine unfolding of a spontaneous order. It is the air we breathe — invisible and invincible. It’s a “natural order,” one author in the series writes, “that one does not have to understand to thrive within, any more than you need to read a book on biology to stay alive.”

A renewed interest in socialism and intermittent challenges to the social order over the last decade is clearly stirring anxiety among capitalism’s defenders. “Capitalism may even be more susceptible today” from this pushback, series author Sean Speer writes. “A combination of forces . . . has contributed to its weakened standing in the current moment.”

As the planet hurls toward environmental catastrophe, this combination of forces grows all the more urgent and powerful. The “old left” is “now in alliance with the authentic, if often tedious, conservationists in a holy assault on capitalism as an environmental threat to the future of the planet itself,” writes Conrad Black. Black, who was convicted of fraudulently “siphoning” profits from companies he led, insists that capitalism “is the best system because it is the only one that is aligned with the almost universal human ambition to have more.”

For Terence Corcoran, the socialist train has already left the depot, bound not for Finland Station but the Global North’s seats of power. He points to the influence of French economist Thomas Piketty who, supposedly, is “running the economic show,” influencing everyone “from the president of the United States on down to high school teachers warping the minds of youth, instructing them on the evils of liberal capitalism.”

We shouldn’t expect an all-out “neo-communist” takeover just yet, Corcoran argues, but we’re seeing Piketty’s “fingerprints” all over the political scene: in the popularity of wealth taxes and socialism, for example, or the emergence of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards. “With corporations now attempting to operate under internationally mandated ESG rules, part of Piketty’s participatory socialism is already being installed,” the author writes.

ESG, of course, remains a weak tool for reining in destructive corporations, relying on “conscious” investment instead of outright regulation. Even Amazon — a company whose sprawling supply chains are exacerbating the climate crisis — is a favorite among ESG-guided investors.

Nonetheless, Corcoran, hilariously, sees ESG as an appendage of the Piketty-led onslaught on free enterprise:

The free-market capitalists of the world . . . must begin to see the risks rising on the left beyond their groveling public performances on ESG and other anti-capitalist crusades, and begin to unite against them. There is a pressing need to stand up to the socialist movement Piketty represents.

Peter Foster joins Corcoran’s assault on ESG, celebrating McDonald’s ability to survive such “anti-capitalist” policies. However, Foster, who was “in Moscow in January 1991 for the first anniversary of Moscow McDonald’s,” contends that “greenwashing and ESG funds” are “relatively harmless” examples of virtue-signaling — especially when compared to the “draconian government actions” demanded by the Left. In one extraordinary passage, he asserts that “the Marxist charge sheet of greed, exploitation, inequality and unconscionable corporate power has been expanded to include various ecological ‘crises,’ the main one of which is an alleged ‘climate emergency’ that threatens life on earth.”

Foster’s 2020 book, How Dare You!, took on “junk science, environmental alarmism,” and “the war on Canadian resources,” and was published by the UK-based Global Warming Policy Foundation — one of the country’s largest climate change–denying think tanks. In 2015, Foster and Corcoran were both named in a lawsuit that found the National Post guilty of defaming Andrew Weaver. Foster and Corcoran were part of a group that described Weaver, then a working climate scientist, as an “alarmist” and a “sensationalist” producing climate “agitprop” in 2009 and 2010.

Though some of the Manifesto’s other contributors do point out that capitalism has a problem with “environmental externalities,” that didn’t stop the Post’s editors from foregrounding writers like Corcoran or Foster — nor oil barons like W. Brett Wilson.

Wilson — the famed Dragons’ Den panelist, philanthropist, and investment banker — recently attracted significant criticism after his company Forent Energy left sixteen orphan wells in Alberta. As Jeremy Appel reports, Wilson served as Forent’s director and largest shareholder, and under his guidance, by the time the company went belly-up, saddled the public with “somewhere between $2.1 and $3.7 million in liabilities, largely in the form of orphan wells.” This was on top of the $6.6 million in debt he owed to Alberta’s public bank, the $44,000 he owed in property taxes, and the $1.1 million in “cleanup deposits” he owed to Alberta’s energy regulator.

In 2018, Wilson tweeted that anti-pipeline activists should be hanged for treason. He later qualified the tweet with the proviso that . . . he wasn’t kidding. Today, he continues to accuse environmental activists of being treasonous “foreign-funded eco-terrorists.”

“Capitalism isn’t perfect,” Wilson writes in his autobiographical column, “but my journey from the prairies to Dragons’ Den and beyond is proof of the huge opportunities it offers.” His journey, of course, is fall-asleep-in-your-cereal boring: Wilson earned a degree in engineering, worked in Canada’s oil fields, went back to school for business, then became an investment banker and energy capitalist.

His narrative is not without a redemptive denouement, however. After his dalliances with success and wealth, he became a “capitalist with a heart,” realizing one must “balance” the system out “with non-monetary riches in your life,” such as personal relationships. Wilson closes off his column with a totally real quote from his daughter: “‘Why can’t we define success by the size of one’s smile rather than the size of one’s wallet?”

Postmedia’s unrepentant boosterism for the “free market” is at odds with its eagerness to accept state handouts. Postmedia has received at least four forms of support from government throughout the pandemic. The media giant — which owns over 200 newspapers in Canada — received $63.3 million from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). It also received two phases of separate support ($946,140 and $355,871) as well as $1.3 million from the Canada Periodical Fund. The combined federal and Quebec media tax credits for 2020 will save the company approximately $11 million.

In fact, PressProgress recently reported that, in a message to shareholders, the company described government support as a “key pillar” of its business. Clearly, Postmedia is glad to not have to deal with the vagaries of the “free market” it extolls.

Postmedia’s reliance on government handouts stands in stark contrast with its fervent celebration of capitalism. And it is shamefully hypocritical in light of its relentless denigration of those who received income supports throughout the pandemic. Postmedia’s crusade against COVID-19 supports naturalized the idea of “CERB fraud” — demonizing the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which barely covered rent and food in most of Canada’s cities.

At the same time that they were portraying CERB recipients as free-riding scroungers, Postmedia was happy to have the costs of its own business socialized, receiving government largesse in excess of the $6.46 million paid out to their five highest-paid executives. While taking CEWS payments — designed to keep people employed — Postmedia also shuttered fifteen newspapers and killed seventy jobs. In January 2021, it posted profits of $58.2 million.

What better tribute to the “awesome power of the free market” is there than a perfectly profitable firm funding its exploits with public money? These days, Capitalist Manifesto contributor Matt Bufton writes, everybody hates the word “capitalism,” even its “practitioners.” He is quick to note, however, that this is not because of systemic defects, but because of the enervating effects of nanny-state entrepreneurs. Sure, capitalism’s bad rap is “partly because of the negative connotations” it’s accrued. But it is also due to go-getter businesspeople being “too eager to ask for subsidies and regulations from the government when it will benefit them or hurt their competition.”

The “Capitalist Manifesto”’s raison d’être is to ensure that capitalism — both as a word and a system — is not successfully sullied by its detractors. “For many people, capitalism is a caricature with parades of fat cats, robber barons and 10-year-olds down a coal mine,” a series author writes — referencing a caricature that is at least 140 years old.

Defending the capitalist system may not be a popular job in the current zeitgeist, so it’s to Postmedia’s disadvantage that it evidently didn’t assign its top talent for the job. Savvier advocacy would’ve foregrounded smooth-talking fintech founders, green technology CEOs, or emissaries of capitalism’s “woke” contemporary edge. Instead, Postmedia has tripped on its own penchant for culture war.

To make its case, Postmedia enlisted septuagenarian climate skeptics Peter Foster (age seventy-five) and Terence Corcoran (age seventy-nine); energy baron W. Brett Wilson; convicted fraudster Conrad Black; and a litany of think tank talking heads. And the ironic pièce de résistance is the fact that millions in public cash funded their crusade. If this is capitalism’s best and brightest, the columnists are right: this system is in need of defense.

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