Sunday, March 3, 2013

Capitalism on Life Support

There are increasing numbers of thinkers who seem to be coming to similar conclusions about our economic system, i.e., that capitalism, which only a few short years ago was being hailed as the greatest economic system ever conceived, with no rivals and no sign of anything ever replacing it, is now near, if not collapse, then serious revision. The latest foray into this line of thinking comes from Jerry Mander’s latest book, The Capitalism Papers (Counterpoint: 2012). Though Mander outlines several key structural problems with capitalism as we know it (amoral, antidemocratic, dependent on war and inequality, and unconducive to happiness), the most serious problem Mander focuses on is capitalism’s need to grow. Growth is the soft underbelly of capitalism, at least in the 21st century. And the reason growth is problematic, which I’ve addressed before, is that a constantly growing economy—which virtually every politician and economist always calls for as the solution to our problems—can no longer be sustained by the earth. Growing the economy is shrinking the ecology. We are running out of everything that capitalism needs and plunders from the earth—its soil, its fish, its water, its minerals, its fossil fuels, its plants and animals. For centuries, capitalists could steal these natural resources without fear of depletion, because there always seemed to be more. The entire “new world” was a bonanza of new resources, and within a short time of its “discovery” was being plundered for each of them in turn: timber, iron ore, precious and other metals, oil deposits, topsoil itself, and so on. It might even be said that the “discovery” of all this wealth gave the world (i.e. European nations devoted to exploitation) a false sense of security. No one could ever exhaust so fantastic a bounty of natural resources as the north and south American continents possessed.
            Alas, depletion has come to pass. Worse, along with the depletion has come the poisoning of what is left via chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and, with the increased burning of fossil fuels, the menace of global warming due to the accumulation of CO2 as combustion’s inevitable by-product. And all of this depletion is driven to ever more insane levels by the form of corporate capitalism that has prevailed for a century—“never-ending wealth accumulation, laissez-faire governance, the free movement of capital, strict hierarchies, and manipulation of all political contexts that might otherwise seek to control it.” Nor are these simply aspects of some bad apples in the corporate barrel. Mander, who himself spent his early years as a capitalist running his own advertising firm, points out that the structure of corporations demands fealty to one thing only: ever-expanding profit. Even if there were a few corporate executives willing to make moral decisions, they could not do so because their duty to their stockholders demands policies and actions that increase profits and hence stock prices. Mander says it this way: “A corporation is itself essentially a machine…in which human morality is anomalous” (61). Or again, “Whatever the personal feelings and inclinations of employees who work for it, the priorities of the corporate entity are always the same, focused like a laser on profit, growth, self-interest, economic domination, accumulation of capital, and shareholder benefits” (60). In other words, the problem lies at the very heart of corporate capitalism, and this very core puts it at odds not only with human morality and well-being, but with the very Nature upon which it depends for its resources:

            What is exquisitely clear is that the inherent aspects of capitalism, especially when operating on a large scale, make it structurally incompatible with the survival of nature, the well being of humans, and of the society we have tried to build around it. (14)

            Of course, the immediate question becomes, well, if this structure is so productive of negatives, why don’t people or governments change it? That answer, as we all probably know by now, is that corporate capitalism, being the accumulation of capital (money), uses that money to keep itself in place in a very simple way: It buys the government under which it operates. In some cases, it overwhelms whole nations with rules (such as those promulgated by the World Bank and the World Trade Organization) that make it impossible for even a nation to survive unless it knuckles under to the exploitative export economy it might otherwise seek to avoid. Loans from the World Bank are conditioned on turning what might have once been a self-sufficient national economy (with its people feeding themselves) into an export economy focused on cash crops or cheap goods for trade. The beneficiaries are, of course, the corporations that profit from those traded goods. Nations that refuse are targeted as “socialist” or “communist” as in the case of Venezuela or Bolivia or Cuba. Domestically, the power of our billionaires to shape and control legislation becomes so pervasive that democracy degenerates into a sick joke. The Koch Brothers, with a combined net worth of $42 billion, finance not only think-tanks promoting their agenda, and organizations and scientists who cast doubt on global warming science, but also allegedly ‘grass-roots’ movements like the Tea Party to make it appear that the ‘people’ are on their side. Sheldon Adelson buys a politician like Newt Gingrich outright, and singlehandedly keeps him in the running for the Republican presidential nomination. He also, through the millions he gives to Republican senators, all but derails the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense—because of less-than-fawning remarks the latter once made about Israel. Mander tells us a vignette relating to this. Doug Tompkins, who made a fortune with the Esprit corporation, turned his millions to environmental causes by supporting foundations devoted to projects like saving the rain forests. Mander, hired by Tompkins to run one of his operations, at one point gave Tompkins his best advice: instead of investing in think-tanks and foundations, invest in buying a senator or representative or several; then they can carry the legislation you really must have in order to accomplish something. Tompkins was revolted by the prospect, and refused. But the point was clear: the United States government, especially after the Citizens United decision, is up for sale. The people, with their votes, mean hardly anything anymore. The agenda and the candidates are designed, set, activated and accomplished by lobbyists working on behalf of banks, Wall Street brokers, and major players in corporate America.
            The reason, in large part, can be traced to television. Here is where Mander is at his best, because, having worked in advertising for much of his adult life, he knows whereof he speaks. Television now controls almost the entire political (and economic/mental) life of America and the rest of the world. This is because any candidate must advertise on TV if he is to have even a chance to compete for state or national office. The amounts needed to finance TV commercials are staggering. In the last election, President Obama spent nearly a billion dollars to win his re-election. For members of Congress, the demand is equally insatiable: to finance an election, and then a re-election, a Congressperson must begin fundraising for the next campaign the very day he/she is elected. This critical need for money gives big corporate donors the inside track where influence is concerned, and so allows democracy to be bought and sold in broad daylight. It goes without saying that the interests of such big money donors do not usually accord with the health of most human beings or the planet itself.
            Mander’s chapter on the influence of television—not only in securing elections, but in shaping the daily life and thought of the entire planet, and thereby convincing people that corporate capitalism and its useless products offer the best of all possible worlds—is worth the price of the book alone. He calls it “The Privatization of Consciousness,” and what he means is that modern consciousness, far from being shaped by parents or families or a common vision of what it means to be human, is shaped, in private and for private ends, by television advertising. And of course the private ends to which television advertising owes its fealty and dedicates its power is corporate capitalism. It is essentially a one-way street: corporate advertisers speak, and everyone else has to listen. Mander traces this development to the need, right after WWII, of American corporations to make use of factories lying idle with no armaments to produce. What could possibly re-occupy all that production capacity? Consumer goods; consumers would have to be persuaded to buy more and more. The situation was similar to that following WWI, only this time, a new powerful medium was ready to be used: television and the images it broadcast. As Mander puts it, advertising has

effectively reshaped the consciousness of the United States and the entire planet: our self-image, the way we aspire to live, our habits, our thoughts, our references, desires, memories. (175)

In dollar terms, total U.S. advertising amounted to a mere $2 billion in 1940, but by 2010, the total had skyrocketed to $150 billion, most of it dedicated to getting you to buy what you do not need (what you do need, like food, water, basic clothing, requires no advertising.)
Most important of all is Mander’s discussion not only about how pervasive TV viewing is, even among infants, but how powerful it is even with those, and I include myself among them, who think they are immune to its influence. The power lies in the way TV is able to embed images in our brains, unimpeded by either logic or our belief in our ability to resist. It’s evolutionary: we have evolved to believe what we see. Equally important, images do not communicate through the language of logic; rather “Images ride a freeway into your brain and remain there permanently. No thought is involved.” You may say, “I don’t believe this,” but the images remain anyway. This is what Mander’s onetime partner, Howard Gossage, called the “dirty little secret” of advertisers: that their “silly superficial meaningless trivial imagery nonetheless goes into your brain and doesn’t come back out. Once in, you can’t get rid of the images.” To test this, just think “Jolly Green Giant” or “Ronald McDonald” or that little green Geico gecko. And note that the images don’t make any claims about their products nor do they try to persuade you about their value in any way: all is association, imagery, suggestion. As Mander puts it:

…the problem is the image itself. Once it is ingested, it becomes our frame of reference. Over time, we begin to imitate the image. We slowly begin to merge with the imagery…We absorb the advertising. We become what we see. And we share its values. (183)

Of course, when it comes to political advertising, the same principles apply, and are
being used more and more effectively. As an example, Mander cites the case of the swift boating of John Kerry when he ran for president. The commercials planted an image in the public’s mind that had almost no relation to the truth. But the truth didn’t matter. It was the images that mattered, and that Kerry failed to respond to early on, thinking they were so preposterous no one would believe them. He was wrong. The images took hold, unrefuted, and by the time Kerry started to hold press conferences to logically refute them, the game was lost. And he lost.
            Mander’s answer to this is the answer provided in several Scandinavian countries. Paid political advertising is banned in electoral campaigns, and candidates are all provided with equal amounts of free time on television. I have proposed this myself. But as Mander notes, “It would be nearly impossible to implement such a system in the United States, where the television industry depends on the income and has the lobbying power to demand it.” It now also has Citizens United. Still, it’s one of his major recommendations for finding an alternative to our present corporate capitalist system. There are many others, including cooperatives, like those that started in Mondragon Spain, and local businesses that are legally prevented from going anything like global. But it may be that short of a serious crisis and revolution, none of these suggestions has any more chance of working than free TV time for candidates. The power of corporate capitalism is simply too great right now. On the other hand, the residual anger and frustration over the financial collapse and bailout of the very banks who brought it on five years ago, and the increasing public knowledge of how virtually every politician is bought and paid for by corporate cash, may soon start to result in something that no one can prevent. I for one certainly hope so. And just the fact that what would have been anathema a few years ago—the questioning of free markets, globalization, capitalism itself, and the actual mention of heresies like socialism and Marxism—has now become more and more common, suggests that something is happening here, Mr. Jones.  And no one quite knows, yet, what it is.

Lawrence DiStasi 

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