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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’tt 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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