Books

There Are Good Alternatives to US Capitalism, But No Way to Get There

Jerry Mander's new book explores the fatal flaws of the "obsolete" capitalist system and strategies for change.

The following is an excerpt from Jerry Mander's new bookThe Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System (Counterpoint, 2013):

Which Way Out?

Let’s start with some good news. There is no shortage of good alternative ideas, plans, and strategies being put forth by activist groups and “new economy” thinkers in the United States and all countries of the world. Some seek to radically reshape the current capitalist system. Others advocate abandoning it for something new (or old). There is also a third option, a merger of the best points of other existing or proposed options, toward a “hybrid” economic model that can cope with modern realities. 

Meanwhile, U.S.-style laissez-faire capitalists, who now dominate the politics and economy in this country, continue to argue that all solutions must be determined by the “free market.” But the free market does not focus on the needs of democracy, or the implications of rampant inequity, or the catastrophic problems of the natural world. The free market is interested in one thing: expanding wealth. That is its only agenda. Nothing else matters, at least until the system collapses. Klaus Schwab had it right. And the situation is not much better abroad.

Ecological economist Brian Davey reported from the Beyond Growth Congress in Berlin (2011) that there was “much talk of the need for democratization to facilitate the post-growth economy. However, there was great skepticism for how much could be achieved. . . . The grip of corporate lobby interests over politics at national [U.S.] and European levels is too great. The state is a weak instrument for the kind of change that has to happen.” (Adbusters, December 2011)

In the same issue, Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy at the New School, New York, concurred: “Citizens still believe that governments represent the interests of those who elect them, and have the power to create effective change. But they don’t, and they can’t. We do not live in democracies. We inhabit plutocracies; government by the rich.”

So, the change will be up to us. And yet the puzzle persists: How do we get from here to there? How do we bridge the chasm from corporate, oligarchic, global dominance of governments, economies, media, and, not least important, military, all driven by the ideologies of consumerism, growth, and “progress,” toward some new set of values and structures?

What struck me most about the Occupy Wall Street movement was the way the Occupiers initially resisted formally articulating the kinds of changes they hoped to see. By their very lack of expression, they deliberately seemed to imply that the problem is more extreme. Systemic. Total. They seemed to say that there was little point in describing ways to modify governance, because all the currently available forms and instruments of power are themselves inaccessible, and no longer valid. One of the precursors of the U.S. Occupy movement, the Indignados (the “outraged”) of Spain—who’ve been doing mass demonstrations in Madrid’s public squares since May 2011—put it explicitly: “You do not represent us!” It’s their complaint about lack of responsive government, but also their desire to break with representation altogether, and to act for themselves. It expresses a loss of faith in the leaders and systems of governance as they now exist.

Living in the United States and watching the near dissolution of our own governance system over recent decades makes it hard to disagree with the perception that government is moribund, bought and sold by a small oligarchic class. As we try to describe good new approaches begging for application toward transformative change, the governing institutions of this society—corporate power, military power, media— continue to control all the levers of change as few systems before have done. These governing institutions are emphatically not interested in our transformative projects. This seems to apply nearly as much to the Obama regime as it does to Republicans. At most, each party gives systemic reform some lip service. But really, they prefer to co-opt, repress, or kill it in order to protect their benefactors.

In June 2011, the Nation published a special issue on “Reimagining Capitalism,” edited by William Greider. In his introduction, Greider asked respondents to “imagine you have the ability to reinvent American capitalism. Where would you start?” Greider acknowledged that the political parties “are locked in small-minded brawls, unable to think creatively even to tell the truth about our historic crisis.” As a result, he said, it would be extremely unlikely for the proposed ideas “to have any traction in regular politics. . . . [But] at some point, it will become obvious that our economy will not truly recover until American capitalism is refashioned, stripped of its self-aggrandizing excesses, and made to serve the interests of society rather than the other way around . . . this will require deep structural change, not simply new politics.”

One response to Greider’s call came from Villanova University professor Eugene McCarraher: “Why should we want to reinvent capitalism? The nature and logic of capitalism are incorrigibly avaricious. As a property system driven by the need to maximize profit and production, capitalism is a giant, ever-whirling vortex of accumulation. . . . Capitalism compels us to be greedy, callous, and petty. It takes what the Greeks called pleonexia—an endless hunger for more and more—and transforms it from a tawdry and dangerous vice into the central virtue of the system. The sanctity of growth stems from this moral alchemy, as does the elevation of market competition into a model of human affairs.”

Certain aspects of capitalism seem okay to me, at least if they’re small and local. For example, I don’t see a problem with privately owned small businesses, in which someone begins an enterprise and it supports him or her, plus their family and community. But by “small,” I mean small! Serving a single community. Rooted locally. No outside controllers. Predefined maximum size. Focused on a single line of products or services. Like the furniture store in the first graphs of this book. Or local farmers. Or the publisher of this book. Or the most marvelous small neighborhood coffeehouse/café located in Japantown, San Francisco, YakiniQ, run by a young woman who is there every day, Christy Hwang, and an ardent and cheerful young staff of students and artists. They are making a little profit but have no wish to be Starbucks.

Scale is paramount. We don’t want Starbucks dominating the coffeehouses of the world. We don’t want bookstores buying other book stores in other towns—and we don’t want any Amazon.com shutting down our local bookstores or turning reading solely into an Internet experience. We don’t want banks buying other banks, or banks buying corporations, or banks or corporations buying governments. We don’t want military contractors like General Electric buying up mass media. We don’t want Rupert Murdoch owning hundreds of newspapers and broadcast outlets. We don’t want some rich guy coming into our neighborhood and buying up all the property and local businesses for himself. We don’t want a few companies like Google or Apple or Facebook dominating global communications in every form, as seems to be rapidly developing.

Some aspects of capitalism could be easily reformed, if only the laissez-faire, anti-government capitalist fundamentalists weren’t depositing gifts into the pockets of legislators. Regulations could be advanced to control pollution and resource use, to prevent banking excess, to stop the buying of all politicians and government, and to promote equity.

Theoretically, we could quickly start mitigating inequity problems. We could require that the wealthy pay taxes at the same rate as the middle class, or at “surplus wealth” rates (graduated rates that went as high as 90 percent) that rose from the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman through Dwight Eisenhower. We could/should have “excess profits” taxes on corporations to cover their externalized costs, or their depletion of the public-resources commons. We could ban tax havens and the many subsidized tax rates on financial transactions and inheritance. We could establish maximum and minimum guaranteed income levels. We could place controls on salary ratios within corporations. That’s all good.

We could have better guarantees for workers’ rights and better public services for everyone—health, education, transportation, childcare, elder care. We could prevent corporations from abandoning local communities and moving to China. And we could establish a new, more realistic relationship with the natural world, one based on equality, mutual dependence, and the full acknowledgment of limits.

Mostpeoplewouldappreciatetheseinterventions.They’re all good. I’m sure they would make us a happier society. Maybe Americans would start voting again and eating less junk food while permitting the natural world a deserved breather and long-term protections. Only oligarchs and “free-market fundamentalists” would oppose them. Unfortunately, however, they are in charge.

Those and a hundred others ideas are all doable by relatively simple acts of Congress and the President. Many other modern countries— like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Iceland, and Japan—already enjoy many of those practices within their own versions of a kind of “hybrid” economics, an active collaboration of capitalist and socialist visions that most of these countries call “social democracy.” Of course, they have problems, too—some of them caused, actually, by U.S. deregulation of finance under Clinton and Bush II— but, according to friends in Europe and members of my own family who live in Scandinavia, as well as the statistics we cited in the last chapter, these countries are in far better shape than we are in terms of public satisfaction, economic balance, environmental awareness, levels of equality, quality of public discourse, freedom from ideological domination, willingness to adapt, and happiness.

Could Americans living in the world headquarters of laissez-faire capitalism do anything like that? Obviously, such changes could happen in the United States only if the powers that be were willing to allow them. They won’t. In the United States, ruled by the most ideologically rigid form of capitalism in the world, any level of government engagement, intervention, or partnership in anything but military adventures quickly gets labeled “socialist” or “communist.” It makes transformation very difficult.

Unless there is an astonishing shift in political realities, or a massive uprising many times larger than the Occupy movement, viable changes would be incremental and politically unlikely. With government and media owned and operated by the super-wealthy, we can’t expect much help from them. They don’t represent us.

So then. What we can do right now is start discussing and creating alternative pathways, so we know what we agree on and what direction to start walking in. Hopefully each new path will fill with walkers and lead to others. Critical mass is the goal.

***

Published with permission from Jerry Mander. 

Co-Founder, International Forum on Globalization
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