Source: Moore’s Lore
Part two of this post discussed disillusion with the idea of progress and a yearning for a higher purpose. How did we end up in this unsatisfactory situation and is there hope that things will change for the better?
I recently read Robert Reich’s book Supercapitalism. I was impressed with the clarity with which he described economic history, from the “Not quite Golden Age” (between the end of World War II and the 1970s) to the supercapitalism that followed.
Supercapitlaism refers to the technological, globalized, deregulated, and privatized economy of the present. Under supercapitalism, politics is dominated by business firms and financiers who successfully lobby government to act in their narrow interests. Meanwhile, this leaves no one responsible for the broader public interest.
This mess we’re in
Tony Judt, in a review of Reich’s book, argues that modern society has abandoned social concerns and replaced them with the assumption that indefinite economic growth is both the ultimate good and inevitable. He quotes the Nobel economist James Tobin: “If we cannot moderate the extremes of fortune generated by the market and perpetuated by inheritance, the consensual basis of the market economy may not survive.”
Members of the business world express similar fears. BusinessWeek: “If global capitalism’s flaws aren’t addressed, the backlash could grow more severe.” CEO of Pfizer Jeff Kindler: “If we fail to change, the future will not be pretty – for business or for society as a whole. … People have had enough, and the backlash is real.”
Even the ultimate invisible hand/free marketer Milton Friedman expresses concern: In a society where there are two classes, the haves and the have-nots, you can’t have a real democracy because there’s a risk of the have-nots “blowing up the system.”
Tony Judt continues: “If modern democracies are to survive the shock of Reich’s ‘supercapitalism,’ they need to be bound by something more than the pursuit of private economic advantage, particularly when the latter accrues to ever fewer beneficiaries: the idea of a society held together by pecuniary interests alone is, in [John Stuart] Mill’s words, ‘essentially repulsive.’ A civilized society requires more than self-interest, whether deluded or enlightened, for its shared narrative of purpose.”
Some things are too important to exploit
In his excellent book and documentary The Corporation, Joel Bakan makes a similar point, and ends on a positive note:
The corporation and its underlying ideology are animated by a narrow conception of human nature that is too distorted and too uninspiring to have lasting purchase on our political imaginations. Though individualistic self-interest and consumer desires are core parts of who we are and nothing to be ashamed about, they are not all of who we are. We also feel deep ties and commitments to one another, that we share common fates and hopes for a better world. We know that our values, capacities, aesthetics, and senses of meaning and justice are, in part, created and nurtured by our communal attachments. We believe that some things are too vulnerable, precious, or important to exploit for profit. …
No social and ideological order that represses essential parts of ourselves can last – a point as true of the corporate order as it was for the fallen Communist one. We only have to remember who we are and what we are capable of as human beings to reveal how dangerously distorted is the corporation’s order of narrow self-interest.
In the upcoming year, may our dissatisfactions and our yearnings combine to deepen our reflection and motivate our actions. May we join with like minds and pursue the changes we desire.
A generation obsessed with material wealth
This mess we’re in – Part 1
This mess we’re in – Part 2
Why is it so hard to reform health care? Rugged individualism
A reason for health care reform
Tony Judt and the Move for ALS bike ride
Tony Judt: On the edge of a terrifying world
Having wounded the earth, we watch as she bleeds out
(Hover over book titles for more info. Links will open in a separate window or tab.)
Tony Judt, The Wrecking Ball of Innovation, The New York Review of Books, December 6, 2007
Robert Reich, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life
Pete Engardio, Global Capitalism: Can it be made to work better?, BusinessWeek, November 6, 2000
Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power