The Capitalism Papers: Fatal flaws of an obsolete system

Cash Register

Photo by You as a Machine via Flickr.

Self-interest lies at the root of capitalism. This self-interest is a thoroughly predictable, steadily consistent feature of the human landscape and can reasonably be viewed as a solid foundation upon which to build.

Self- interest can serve as both motivation and a salve for weary spirits.

Kept within commonly-accepted bounds, it acts as a spur against laziness, and a hopeful haven for unrealized dreams. When happiness is the goal, self-interest makes an unerring guide, almost never taking a wrong turn.

When glory and material gain are the goals, your heart will still know the way, and your gut can help you avoid the potholes. Unfortunately, your head can seriously steer you in the wrong direction.

Have It Your Way

 

Capitalism Papers cover

The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System by Jerry Mander, Counterpoint, 256 pp, $16.21.

Jerry Mander’s latest book The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System takes on the task of interpreting and re-interpreting our capitalist economic system while exposing the degree to which we’ve lost our way within it.

Back in the days when enough truly was enough and people didn’t know how to long for more than a sufficiency, capitalism was as close to a perfect economic system as humankind could devise.

But over time, success became equated with material wealth; we learned to need things that previous generations had done just fine without. Our new-born acquisitiveness was made all the more confusing by the fact that, at least during America’s early days, much of what introduced the new, more “modern” way of life really was an improvement over the old. It was genuinely difficult to miss an aching back, or knees too familiar with hard surfaces.

But how shockingly short the distance was between physical comfort and the manufactured need of the idea “because I’m worth it!” When we weren’t looking, self-interest morphed on us, coming to mean an unquestioned self-indulgence.

You Know You Need It

Mander, a reformed ad man, has devoted a lot of time to thinking about the unholy alliance between capitalism and advertising.

He calls part two of his book “The Fatal Flaws of Capitalism,” and advertising is closely intertwined with all the other maladaptive compromises on this infamous list.

What are the maladaptions? According to the author they are intrinsic [corporate] amorality, corporate schizophrenia, intrinsic inequities of the corporate structure, the need for endless growth, a propensity for making war, and privatization.

He’s not wrong, in my opinion, and his explication, which is wide ranging, brings into sharp focus the many elements of corporate malfeasance which have a bearing on our “obsolete system.”

I’d like to take a close look at two of them: globalization and climate change. Like advertising, they constitute recurring themes.  Ultimately, we’ll find ourselves in the middle of a web, because all of these problems are interconnected.

Plays Well With Others

It took two world wars to make Americans draw a line in the sand when it came to Europeans’ relentless dislike of one another. All of the prior thousand years of European history had pointed in the direction of annihilation, and so the inevitable happened. (Any group of people that can fight a Hundred Years’ War — it was actually 116 —  has a major problem getting along.)

The world could not be expected to endure another Teutonic  temper tantrum.

In the place of endless warfare, the United States and its allies decided on a centralized economic system, one in which everyone would have a stake, beginning with the trouble makers. The modern era of globalization had its start in July of 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The impetus for cooperation was the Marshall Plan, a $13 billion aid program for rebuilding Europe. There was one small catch, however: a high percentage of aid money would be spent on goods and services provided by American companies. One hand would wash the other.

Then, in April 1950, President Truman approved a policy developed by the National Security Council, under the direction of Paul Nitze. The policy officially integrated, for the first time, U.S. military goals with its national economic goals.

All along I had thought President Eisenhower was so prescient to have warned our country about the growing military-industrial complex. Now I find out it had already been official policy for eleven years before Eisenhower talked about it!

In the interest of fairness, the president may have foreseen what few others did: the day when virtually all manufacturing in the United States was produced with one buyer in mind — the military.

Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who remarked that it is impossible to prepare for war and peace simultaneously? That, in fact, is where we stand today.

It’s not the Fox Trot

National self-interest has played a disastrous role in climate change negotiations. In speaking of the 2009 Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen, Mander puts it elegantly,

 … we witnessed the most tortured dances by governments trying to avoid the conflicting realities of our time, and to circumvent profound conundrums we face as a society.

( In other words, we’re afraid of our corporate masters.)

Dancers, grab your partners!
One step forward, two steps back.
I will if you will.
I won’t if you pay me enough money not to!

The United States has refused to assume the leadership role it so obviously needs to play, and without strong moral leadership, the situation devolves into every country acting on its own behalf.  No one has exactly covered themselves in glory, though Scandinavia  and Germany continue to set the standard.

You say you want a revolution

Mander concludes by asking, “Which Way Out?”

To his credit, he courageously offers a number of draconian suggestions which — as our weather deteriorates — will look less and less severe.

There’s a heaping helping of common sense in the final section of the book.

Basically, Mander prescribes the revolution Thomas Jefferson said all democracies occasionally require. Boards of directors made up of at least 50 percent workers? A carbon tax to lower pollution? Salary ratios between executives and workers of 10 to 1? No more fractional reserve banking?

As you can see, the author prods us to make a slew of changes, all of them long overdue.

Tough times lie ahead. We’re lucky to have people like Mander lead the way.

–Vicki Lipski, Transition Voice Magazine

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Comments

  1. James R. Martin says

    “Basically, Mander prescribes the revolution Thomas Jefferson said all democracies occasionally require. Boards of directors made up of at least 50 percent workers? A carbon tax to lower pollution? Salary ratios between executives and workers of 10 to 1? No more fractional reserve banking?”

    I like Mander, and this book sounds great. But I also know that the Powers will not allow us to achieve, e.g., “a corbon tax to lower pollution”… or any other sort of re-distribution of power to the sane and reasonable good people who would like to have future generations of happy people in an intact biosphere.

    Nor would most (e.g.) Americans vote to make their lifestyle much more expensive in order that “future generations of happy people in an intact biosphere” is a greater likelihood. Today’s average Americans will probably prefer denial, evasion, or even an honest and direct robbery of future generations.

    So I’m not putting my eggs in the Politics As Usual basket. That’s the basket in which a society can begin to change once it has persuaded a majority to vote differently than it is presently inclined to vote.

    No, I’m following the micro-eutopian path — in which a minority just goes about creating the necessary changes *prior* to a dramatic shift in consciousness in that society. Maybe, by doing so, others will be influenced to do the same — but why wait for a majority? (Eutopia means “good place”. Micro means small. Many small changes can add up to big changes.)

    This micro-eutopian path to revolution seems the only available one. After all, a tiny minority of people cannot impose their “wisdom” on others by brute force, can they?

    If we want to bring down the Juggernaut, we will need to gradually stave him, little by little. This is not a David and Goliath struggle. Instead of a single stone thrown, a hundred thousand David’s just stop feeding the Goliath/Juggernaut. Upon seeing the success of these hundred thousand, several hundred thousand more are inspired to walk away from the feeding process. And so the non-violent revolution goes.

  2. James R. Martin says

    typo correction -

    “If we want to bring down the Juggernaut, we will need to gradually stave [STARVE] him….”

  3. says

    Hi James -

    I think Occupy is a wonderful example of the very thing you’re talking about. Devolution is a messy business, and it will happen in a thousand or more ways. Mander’s ideas might very well constitute a few of those ways.

    Best,
    Vicki

  4. James R. Martin says

    Hi Vicki -

    David Graeber (author, anthropologist, anarchist) was highly influential at the early stages of Occupy Wall Street, and his notion of direct action as something other than mere protest figures crucially in my thinking about how positive change is most likely to come about. As Graeber puts it, direct action (of a certain kind) is direct engagement in the sort of life we desire. It is a postive enactment of what we value, rather than a protest against something we abhor. In an interview, he uses the example of digging a water well, rather than protesting the governing body which fails to provide (or allow) access to good water. I think of Gandhi’s “Salt March” as a particularly good example of this sort of thing. Other examples are: ‘critical mass’ and ‘naked’ bike rides (Google these if you don’t know about them), guerilla gardening, creating ecovillages or community gardens…. Some of these examples are about creating a sort of mass public demonstration while others are simply quiet enactments of hope/love/care … celebration of life/goodness. They have the virtue of being positive rather than oppositional and resistance oriented.

    I think resistance is necessary and good, but insufficient in and of itself. Resistance is mainly a matter of protest, obstruction, and “no”. And that’s good. But we need our “yes!” Any social / political movement which over-emphasizes opposition, protest, “no!” and which offers too little “yes!” will most likely dry up and blow away.

  5. says

    Hi James –

    I’ll definitely read Graeber’s interview – thanks for the link. My son, a bike designer/builder, has participated in Critical Mass in a number of cities over the years. You’re right; resistance is insufficient. While I think Mander may adhere to your views more than you realize, I also think the enactment of positive action is a great addition to the transitional toolbox. What about Bill McKibben’s tour of the U.S. – ongoing as we “speak” – as positive enactment AND protest? When the numbers of people engaged in these activities reaches “critical mass,” then I think we’ll be heard.
    Thanks for writing!

    Best,
    Vicki

  6. James R. Martin says

    Hi Vicki -

    Yes, I think what Bill McKibben is doing is utterly necessary and good. He and his organization are doing great things — informing, educating, organizing…. This stuff is necessary toward encouraging all kinds of responses, including direct action as a response.

    Here’s what Mr. Graeber said about direct action in the interview I linked to.:

    “Well the reason anarchists like direct action is because it means refusing to recognise the legitimacy of structures of power. Or even the necessity of them. Nothing annoys forces of authority more than trying to bow out of the disciplinary game entirely and saying that we could just do things on our own. Direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free.

    The classic example is the well. There’s a town where water is monopolised and the mayor is in bed with the company that monopolises the water. If you were to protest in front of the mayor’s house, that’s protest, and if you were to blockade the mayor’s house, it’s civil disobedience, but it’s still not direct action. Direct action is when you just go and dig your own well, because that’s what people would normally do if they didn’t have water.”

    In that light, I’d like to say that the sort of direct action that most interests me, with regard to the climate crisis in particular would have the effect of empowering people to choose lifeways which depend very little — or not at all — upon the burning of fossil fuels. In other words, direct action directed at the climate crisis should have the main goal and effect of liberating us from the artificial necessity of fossil fuel consumption. So the best examples of direct action I can think of are

    ~ community gardens, yard sharing, cooperative food self provisioning (organic, sustainable, local)

    ~ retrofitting of buildings to make much better use of solar thermal heating

    ~ walking, bicycling… creating off-street bicycle paths or otherwise encouraging bicycle -friendly infrastructure in towns and cities

    ~ abandoning one’s automobile and relying on trains for long distance travel while locating one’s home near one’s employment and shopping….

    ~ and, most crucially and centrally, creating social support “community” and “networks” which support, encourage and honor/respect all of this sort of activity

    Those who insist that individual choices (consumer or otherwise) are woefully inadequate are correct, I think. The necessary challenge is to create “community” in which this sort of cultural ethos is understood and celebrated, organized and talked about, etc…. We’re all in this together. No one stands (or sits) alone.

  7. says

    If the same folks that got us….in this mess …..that means (YouMeWe) as I see it)then how is YouMeWe to expect this same group of humanoids to resolve the situation that THEY in created…sorry not going to happen…..NOT til they clear the decks with Billions and Billions of Deaths…. which is the Agenda 21 plan ???? Manipulated War …..Chem Trail ….Pestilence and Famine

    • says

      Don, you’re letting humanity off way too easily. Each and every day, each and every one of us makes choices. Right living requires choosing the good in all that we do. It doesn’t matter that you believe no one else is making that choice; you would just be wrong. Understand, however, that you are responsible for you. Therefore, choose the good. – Best, Vicki

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