"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Playing ‘Monopoly’–Why This Capitalist Tool Is More Popular Than Ever

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Denise Flanders was a member of the Washington DC Progressive Alliance, a group of like-minded people who aggressively pursued and promoted a radical social agenda.  Theirs was a big tent, open to all comers, and it was soon filled with advocates against global warming and for the causes of oppressed minorities, the ascendency of women in all spheres of American life, the redistribution of America’s wealth, and an inclusive gender spectrum.  Her particular fix was wealth and the concentration of it within the elitist, white cadres of the One Percent.

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Such concentration of wealth was morally wrong, she felt, and all institutions, laws, and regulations which promoted or defended it should be dismantled and a new, fair system of wealth sharing should be created in its place.  No longer would there be the impenetrable bastions of Wall Street, de facto secret societies more secretive then Skull and Bones and cabals of financiers plotting to pillage the poor for private profit. 

When pressed on how this would be done, Denise was quick to answer “Redistributive taxes on the wealthy; punitive restrictions on capital investments, ownership, financial instruments; transparent accounting and reporting; limits on corporate salaries; and benefit packages no more generous than those offered to workers”.

How the board game Monopoly got into the basement closet Denise could not remember, probably in the remnants box, the grab bag of incidentals which in a frustrated moment, she had simply scooped up; and the tinker toys, dolls, purses, stuffed animals, and games that had never been given away were shoved into the back of the rental van and forgotten; but which reappeared again when her eight year old twins found it, loved it, and played it every afternoon after school.  The basement was their place – even children needed a secure refuge – and unless Denise heard a ruckus, they were left alone.  “Clean up!”, a carryover from pre-school, and shouted down the stairs from the kitchen, was all that was needed for the twins to carefully replace the shoe, the race car, the thimble, and the iron in their compartment; to shuffle and neatly order the deck of deeds, the miniature houses and hotels, and the Do Not Pass Go and Get Out of Jail Free cards. 

Image result for images original monopoly game parker bros

It was a while before Denise saw what her well-behaved children were doing in the basement, and she was appalled – not at what the twins were doing (they were just children after all) but that she had not destroyed and burned the vile thing before it ever saw the light of a Washington day.  How could she have been so stupid and so careless!

“Mommy would rather you not play that game, dears”, Denise said as calmly but as confidently as possible.

“But why”, Lizbeth whined.  “We like to play it”.

“It isn’t…”; and here Denise stopped to carefully choose her words.  How could she convey to eight year olds the absolute inappropriateness of a game which glorified capitalism, greed, and ambition.  “Well”, she said, “it’s, well, inappropriate”.

“What’s that mean?”, asked Jack; and for the first time in a long while Denise was tongue-tied.  She was used to using words like ‘inappropriate, inclusive, diverse, systemic, access, social justice’ and not having to explain what they meant.  She had taken a course on Deconstruction at Brown and remembered how at first she bridled at the invented words of Derrida and Lacan, but then elided quite nicely into their prose.  Her term papers, unintelligible to all but those few students who had persisted with Bernstein’s course, Meaning, Un-Meaning, And Invention – The New Language Of Social Dissection, won praise and high marks.  Bernstein himself offered to write her a recommendation for admission to Duke for graduate study in semiotics.

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How, then, to explain the exploitative capitalist system – so embodied in Monopoly and so hated everywhere else – to her young children?  “Try to find something else to do, please”.  Denise, in keeping with her political philosophy, tried to be just as inclusive, respectful, and supportive of her children as she was of black people and abused women, and never issued ultimatums or gave orders; so the children quite naturally continued to play; and play with gusto they did.  They howled with delight when one of them was sent off, yipped with delight when they built another hotel or send the other into bankruptcy.  There was a thrill to the game that the Parker Brothers, who sold it on a commercial scale beginning in 1933, knew well.  After all 1933 was a year in the heart of the Great Depression and the game still sold brilliantly.  Far from a hated ‘capitalist tool’ as Denise was fond of saying, adults and children from the Dust Bowl to the hollers of West Virginia loved it. 

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“How could that be?”, wondered Denise, overlooking the thrill of competition, winning, acquisition, and victory – human nature, and the imperishable desire to be on top.  Ironically the earliest known version of Monopoly, known as The Landlord's Game, was designed and first patented in 1904.  Its designer Elizabeth Magie  a follower of Henry George, originally intended the game to illustrate the economic consequences of Georgist progressive ideas based on the belief that people should own the value they produce themselves, but that the economic value derived from land should belong equally to all members of society.  The poor man would turn over in his grave if he had seen how the Parker Bros. had perverted Magie’s original, reasonable, sane notions.

Be that as it may, Lizbeth and Jack played the game at every turn, and every day Denise could hear their yips and shouts and happy shrieks.  Perhaps it was time to revisit George, progressive socialism, and anti-capitalism and to deter the twins from playing such an insidious, morally corrosive game.

Yet every time she tried to introduce a core concept of socialist progressivism – sharing of wealth, cooperation and collaboration, and a flat, classless, non-competitive society, she was met by bored, impatient faces.  “Just let us play, Mommy”, Jack said. “Don’t you talk about that stuff at work?”

On Saturday afternoons, the children heard their mother and her political tea party friends reliving the lives of George, Gompers, La Follette, Henry Wallace, Susan B. Anthony, and Upton Sinclair and shouting about Black Lives Matter, the glass ceiling, the pack of Wall Street wolves, the rightness of Noam Chomsky, and the socialist ideals of farmworkers.

“Just take it away”, they heard one woman say to their mother.  “Give no quarter, especially to your own children”.  The woman in question had also had a ‘Monopoly experience’ but doused it in lighter fluid, tossed it on the Weber grill, and watched it incinerate as her children yelled and cried. 

It didn’t surprise Denise that the children of wealthy Republican families were members of a Monopoly Club, but she was dismayed to learn that there were children from families like hers – committed, dyed-in-the-wool progressive Democrats – who were almost as numerous.  “Oh yes”, said the After-School Activities Supervisor, “the children love it.  It is more popular than Dungeons and Dragons ever was.”

The Supervisor went on to praise the game.  “It teaches the children fundamental economic principles”, she said, “and no matter what your political persuasion, knowing how to navigate the complex world of supply and demand is important”. 

Image result for Images Supply and Demand. Size: 219 x 204. Source: www.britannica.com

Denise couldn’t believe her ears – this drivel, this uniformed, retrograde nonsense coming from someone in charge of children! “As much as we try to limit the competition and bullying on the playground”, the Supervisor went on, “we can’t.  Children will always be children.

“Some degree of girly bitching and little boy machismo will always be there.  Oops, I shouldn’t be saying all this”, the Supervisor giggled. “So better they get it out around a board game.”

Some version of Monopoly had been around for over a hundred years, Denise unhappily thought.  What does that mean?  It was popular during the Robber Baron brutally exploitative era of laissez faire capitalism, during the Depression, during the high-flying Eighties, the hippy Sixties, and now in the most progressive era the country has known since the 30s.  Is there something I am missing?  Would life always be buying and selling?  Haven’t we progressed at all?

The progressive meme was that progress was indeed possible, that there was a Utopia, a light at the end of the tunnel; and the fact that the world was as pathetically competitive and aggressively capitalist was because of too little progressive investment. Human nature has nothing to do with it, nothing at all.

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The Monopoly game was never fully retired.  It got put away as other interests intervened; but it was pulled out of the toybox by the twins in late childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. It had perennial appeal, she now knew, because buying and selling, competitive advantage, supply and demand, advantage and disadvantage, victory and defeat were indeed hardwired, ineluctable, and permanent.

So in the end, Monopoly was what derailed her progressive express.  Her heart was simply not in the panoply of liberal causes.  The big, diverse, inclusive tent, had gotten overcrowded and stuffy – bad air, blandishments, and cheerful, playful optimism.  It was time to leave, and leave she did, and never looked back.

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