Jerry Mander’s new book, The Capitalism Papers, has a promising subtitle: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System. None of the hedging of bets there that constrains much progressive social critique in the US. In liberal punditry, the acceptable spectrum of discourse does not even permit use of the word, and in the foundation-sponsored non-profit sector, such talk would be financial suicide. Nor are US trade unions, what’s left of them, anti-capitalist. (In fact their leaders explicitly claim their aim is to get capitalism to work better.) As he correctly points out, there is an unspoken consensus: “it is as if global capitalism” – a human creation – “occupies a virtually permanent existence, like a religion, a gift of God, infallible.”
This unmasking of the unspoken, invisible, assumed, is what Jerry Mander’s books do best, and it is a promising start. He outlines six intrinsic aspects of global corporate capitalism—which he takes pains to distinguish from a localized, petty bourgeois variety (more on that later) that make it fundamentally untenable if we are to avoid worldwide social and ecological collapse. They are:
- Amorality – increase of individual and corporate wealth is the only core principle of capitalism. Recognition of any social concern or relationship to the natural world that transcends the goal of increasing capital accumulation is extrinsic to the system.
- Dependence on growth – capitalism relies on limitless growth, but the natural resources essential to wealth production are finite. Super-exploitation is exhausting those resources and destroying the ecosystems of which they are a part, jeopardizing human survival as well as that of other species.
- Propensity to war – since the only goal is to accumulate rather than distribute wealth, resources that produce wealth must be controlled; therefore war is inevitable.
- Intrinsic inequity – without any constraining outside force or internalized principle of social equity, capital accumulation leads almost exclusively to more accumulation, and capital is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
- Anti-democratic – democracies are corruptible: wealth can purchase most of the representation it needs to get the laws necessary for further accumulation and concentration of wealth. This means that as the concentration of wealth increases, democracy is degraded and ultimately destroyed.
- Unproductive of real happiness – human happiness and wellbeing are demonstrably tied to other factors besides capital accumulation. Extreme poverty is clearly unproductive of happiness, but so is wealth, past a relatively modest level. Happiness is most widespread where there are guarantees that basic needs will be met for all, wealth is more equitably distributed, and bonds between people and the natural environment are still stronger than the desire to accumulate wealth.
These are good arguments, although as Mander himself admits, they are neither new nor exhaustive. But really, he says, and the sympathetic reader agrees: aren’t they enough? His particular focus will be on the second, the paradigm of growth, because it is this, he says, that now risks obliterating the sources of human life itself.
But first, he gives us a synopsis of his own journey through the times during which capitalism has gone fully global and become the overwhelmingly dominant world system. This is another pleasure of reading his work, because he is so thoroughly a creature of the system he has turned against: middle class, upwardly mobile, finally reaching his pinnacle of success in the industry that may best define American capitalism: the ad business. Outsiders and insiders can come to similar critiques of the system, but they experience its workings differently, and one of Mander’s strengths is to show how the insider’s experience comes apart when he or she starts to care about things the system can’t produce. Even after having attained everything the outsiders are denied.
The defense of the six arguments that follows is a disappointment, however. After almost 20 years as head of an activist think tank that has produced many fine reports on the dangers of globalized capital, he seems to have been captivated by statistics. Many of the segments read like simple laundry lists of statistical information. The most successful are the ones that hark back to the themes of his previous work, particularly Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. The old ad man is still strongest when talking about what he knows best from the inside: the effects of capitalism on consciousness. For example, there is the “schizophrenia” that individuals who lead corporations must exhibit, suppressing their own internal ethics when decisions that directly affect profitability are concerned. This is the best description yet of why appeals to individuals in corporate leadership (in our “free” society) will have no better rate of success than appeals to leadership in the Third Reich would have had. This could be the very definition of a system: that which trumps the profoundest individual responses, regardless of an individual’s level of power within it.
Another element of this is what he calls the “colonization” of consciousness, the largely unexamined idea that for all the talk about interactivity in new media, the overwhelming majority of the information we receive runs on a one-way street, no matter who is producing it. And, thirty-five years after the publication of Four Arguments, the main and still increasingly dominant purveyor is television. And the messages have a totalizing effect: not just to get us to do something, but to be something.
Here is his concise description of why this is of transcendent importance: “Ours is the first generation in history to have essentially moved its consciousness inside media, to have increasingly replaced direct contact with other people, other communities, other sources of knowledge, and the natural world […] with simulated, re-created, or edited versions of events and experiences.”
Real experience is different from media experience in the amount of negotiation that goes on. Outside media we are receptors and actors. Inside media we are almost exclusively receptors. With the private sector in charge, the messages we receive have the exact same intent as the communiqués from an Orwellian state, even if the content is different. The intent is to homogenize us into a monoculture. In this monoculture, the prime directive is to consume.
In the capitalist utopia it doesn’t actually matter who or where you are as long as you buy and don’t get in the way of others buying. So you can keep whatever trappings of culture or individuality you have that don’t hinder consumption, commodification, or access to the resources needed to produce the things you are supposed to consume. And advertising will (constantly) instruct you on what those things are, and make you believe your happiness, wellbeing, and most importantly, your identity are based on buying them. (Commensurately, I would say, although Mander does not, the less you can buy, the less important you are. The problem of surplus labor, of endemic poverty, is externalized, and presented as a failure of individual initiative or, perversely, an insufficient amount of capitalism.)
Therefore, not only are personal ethics and a sense of connection to nature extrinsic to capitalism, but, in fact, the idea of a fully developed human consciousness that would prioritize them over consumption is an anathema.
The issues related to consciousness are fundamental, and almost no one else is talking about them. Unfortunately, the other damning aspects of capitalism are not presented with this kind of nail-in-the-coffin approach. Many elements, as I’ve said, are actually undercut by the heavy reliance on a statistical approach. Aside from silencing the imagination, litanies of statistics merely raise the question: what’s being left out? The American Enterprise Institute can marshal statistics too.
And the critique of scale, fundamental to the book, is not really a critique of pure capitalism, as it were. Unlimited economic growth, for all its ecological danger, is not necessarily unique to capitalism—a socialist world without an ecological consciousness might still view nature as infinitely exploitable. But the exploitation of human labor, and the creation of degrading and inescapable poverty are endemic to capitalism, and they are barely dealt with here. The attempt to defend small-scale capitalism as “not the problem,” means that a systemic critique is further weakened. Is it a totalizing system or isn’t it? All capitalism started out as petty capitalism. It will be replaced only by an evolution of society to a place where it is as irrelevant, at any scale, as a system of divine monarchy. We need some thinkers who are able to start envisioning such an evolutionary process, and are not limited by the inevitable cries of how “impractical” that is right now.
The presentation of positive alternatives at the book’s close falls victim to this piecemeal approach as well. It feels somehow obligatory—this wasn’t deemed necessary in Mander’s previous books. But, more importantly, there are category mistakes here. For example, re-localization is a compelling idea, but proposing it as a goal is the cart driving the horse: it will only happen in any meaningful way as a result of the global system’s weakening or breaking down. It is insufficient in any case, as a look at locally governed communities where women are chattel or kids are indoctrinated with religious or racial intolerance, or indentured servitude is practiced will show. If we really want to make the emergence of systems that jeopardize our physical existence, annihilate our habitat, condemn whole groups to degradation, and do violence to our consciousness impossible in future, then it is all of us or none. A larger vision is needed.
More promising is his dictum that any future economic system must recognize that it and all human activity are embedded within nature, and are neither separate nor superior. Simply outlining the core principles of such a system would be a useful thought exercise, and a good way to end the book. But even to begin actually creating that system requires moving consciousness collectively back outside the bell jar, the abstract universe created by technology and media… and that takes us back to the ground that Mander has explored, and explored so well, before.
So what’s most worthwhile in The Capitalism Papers is really what is most powerfully presented in the earlier works. Re-reading those (a pleasure) I saw how comparatively little he relied on compiling statistics as evidence, and how much more he used an accumulation of the ideas of other thinkers. The biggest enemy of comprehension (and mobilization) in the contemporary world is not a lack of information. It is a lack of meaningful synthesis. Where the key battleground is already understood to be consciousness, that should be clear.
Consciousness seeks to make a whole of a disparate, fragmentary experience. Capitalism now flings stuff and information at it relentlessly, numbing it to accept these offerings as the totality of existence. The system’s happy-face, sky’s-the-limit facade imperfectly conceals an enormous vacuum of meaninglessness, and a bonfire of destruction and waste. But even an illusory totality cannot be answered by lobbing fragments back at it.
The Capitalism Papers reads to me like a first draft of the work I still hope Jerry Mander will produce. How about Six Arguments for the Elimination of Capitalism? Those arguments, presented with the same rigorous insight that first deconstructed television and then the whole techno-sphere, ought to be enough. The statistics, if we must have them, could go in the addenda.