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Want to know why capitalism will always triumph over collectivism? It responds to people’s desires, even those who would consider themselves enemies of capitalism. A case-in-point is the ubiquitous Che Guevara t-shirt.
Anyone who has spent any time walking down a city street will have come across at least one young person wearing Che’s famous likeness. Some leftists have argued that the sheer pervasiveness and popularity of the image is proof of the enduring principles of which Che has sometimes been seen as a symbol. Yet that is not the case.
The Che Guevara t-shirts actually represent the ultimate power of capitalism, the power to transform the most potent symbols in opposition to it into commodities that can be bought and sold in the marketplace. The market does not care about what the symbol “represents.” All that matters is that the symbol can be bought and sold. That is the ultimate neutering of socialism and radical leftism, when the young people who Che might in another time have tried to galvanize to violent rebellion tacitly accept the capitalist system. When Che and his ilk became fashion symbols rather than political symbols, they were finally defeated. That is the real beauty of the free market: its ability to transform an enemy into harmless kitsch.
Supporters of liberty and the free market might understandably be irritated by the nation’s youth running around with the image of a monomaniacal war criminal blazoned on their chests, but they should bite back their bile. Indeed, they should rejoice. As Che has become a popular image, the image has lost all the symbolic power it once might have claimed.
A couple of generations ago, radical socialism was a common part of the zeitgeist of the American youth, with college campuses forming the primary advocates and apologists for the totalitarian regimes of Cuba and the Soviet Union. Today, a lot of leftishness is still there, but it has been beaten down to a softer kind of socialism or social-democratic philosophy. People on the political right often rail against the liberal bastions of academia, and they are not completely wrong to do so. To be sure, the political products of the academic world, such President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren, serve as cautionary tales to voters thinking about giving real power to cloistered professors. But they are nowhere near as threatening as the sorts of firebrand spokespeople produced by the hallowed halls of academia only a few decades ago.
Socialism in America, and around the world, has had to respond and adapt to the overwhelming power of the free market. In the marketplace of ideas, socialism is outdated and doomed to go out of business. In response, socialist thinking has shifted, softened, and come to accept at least parts of the capitalist system as essential to maintenance of prosperity. We should call that a tentative victory for liberty, if not a total one.
The youth of today are not as susceptible to the radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s because capitalism is the only serious game in town. The aspects of it that still adhere are just empty or deflated symbols, like t-shirts featuring half-forgotten political dissidents. Young people represent a fertile marketplace for sellers of the ideas of liberty, perhaps more so than any time in the past 40 years. Before the forces of socialism mutate into yet another dangerous ideological strain, proponents of freedom and liberty ought to claim the territory.