Reckoning With Competitive Capitalism [2]

President Kennedy address at Yale

 “President John F. Kennedy explained to Yale’s graduating class of 1962 that ‘the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest —  but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears…. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’”

The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019)

Adverse outcomes often aren’t the result of dishonesty, fraud, or conspiracy; it’s just that things don’t go as projected. The trick is to notice and make adjustments, but often we don’t, especially when the expected outcome has become a cultural myth. In that case, belief makes us blind, conviction replaces vigilance, and contrary data avoids analysis, until one day we find ourselves living in a distressing new normal and wonder how we got here. Often, it takes a crisis to wake us up.

We’ve seen this dynamic before when economic policy morphed into socio-economic ideology. Communism began with an intent to champion the working man but became brutal and imperialistic; the Cold War was “normal” until one day the wall came crashing down and the Soviet Union and its progeny were thrown at the mercy of  capitalism, their ideological rival. The American Industrial Revolution begun by the Robber Barons roared through the 20’s but then crashed into the Great Depression; the era of legal monopolies, unregulated stock speculation, and vast economic inequality was recast into the social programs of the New Deal.

And now we’re seeing the cycle again:  post-Cold War free market capitalism blazed through the past three decades, morphed into its current hyper-competitive version, but now its unfulfilled promise of universal prosperity is becoming too obvious to ignore and there are signs its day of reckoning may not be far off, if not already at hand. That, at least, is the message of a Time Magazine cover story on economic reckoning that ran last month. It begins this way:

“History is the story of conditions that long seem reasonable until they begin to seem ridiculous. So it is with America’s present manic hyper-capitalism.

 “Until recently, it seemed normal that a technological revolution that began with promises of leveled playing fields had culminated in an age of platform monopolies. Normal that businesspeople should try to make as much money as possible by paying as little as possible in taxes and wages, then donate a fraction of the spoils to PR-friendly social causes. Normal that economic security for most Americans was becoming a relic of the past.,,. Normal that bankers could shatter the world economy with their speculating, and that they would be among the few to be made whole after the crisis.”

How the Elites Lost Their Grip: in 2019, America’s 1% behaved badly and helped bring about a reckoning with capitalism, Time Magazine , Dec. 2-9, 2019.[1]

These aspects of “normal” weren’t intended, but they are how things turned out. Along the way, various individuals and movements were vigilant enough to have seen the trends. but their attempts at dissent fell on deaf ears on both sides of the political aisle.[2]

“For years, there have been voices trying to denormalize this state. There were protests in Seattle in 1999, there was Occupy in 2011, there was the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America], there was the World Social Forum to rival the World Economic Forum, there was, eternally, Bernie Sanders saying the exact stuff he is still saying today, there were civic groups trying to organize workers and poor communities, there were outcasts in Silicon Valley warning that Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t really about human connection. But America was in the grips of the ideological consensus… Hyper-capitalism was the intellectual stadium in which the country played.”

Thus hyper-competitive, hyper-privatized, hyper-monetized capitalism became the cultural standard of the American Way as politicians and the public transferred their faith in Post-WWII neoliberal capitalism, which did indeed “float all boats,”  to the new Post-Cold War capitalism, which was supposed to have the same effect but didn’t. Instead of universal prosperity and opportunity, the new capitalism relegated the Public to the left behind, economic precarity and job insecurity took over the workplace, healthcare and other employment benefits were left up to consumers, upward mobility through higher education became the lifelong debtor of a newly nationalized student loan industry, incomprehensible wealth was increasingly concentrated in an incomprehensibly tiny percentage of capitalists, a new meritocratic social class arose… we’ve heard commentators recite the same litany of outcomes time and again in these blog posts.

But the days of complacency are over, the Time article declares:  the year 2019 brought us a wakeup call in the form of the one percenters “behaving badly” in such things as Amazon’s failed expansion in NYC, the college admissions scandal, and Facebook’s $5 Billion FTC fine.

“In response to these scandals and outrages, many in the business world declared themselves newly interested in reform. The most prominent and heralded instance this past year was a statement by the Business Roundtable, an umbrella organization whose members are the chief executives of many of America’s largest companies. For decades, the roundtable has clung to a particular interpretation of the purpose of a business—that it is solely to make money for shareholders. With its new statement, issued in August, the roundtable updated its view.”[3]

“It was inspiring, limited stuff,” the Time article says of these developments, but “what it really revealed was how hard it will be for the old-guard capitalists to change at all.” As JFK told the Yale Class of ’62, allegiance to cultural myths dies hard and, all evidence to the contrary, free market capitalism’s ideological lynchpin remains in place:  what Reaganomics called “trickle down” — the belief that free market capitalism is win-win, that’s what’s good for the elites will be good for the commons.[4]

“If a single cultural idea has upheld the disproportionate power of [capitalism’s winners], it has been the idea of the “win-win.” They could get rich and then “give back” to you: win-win. They could run a fund that made them sizable returns and offered you social returns too: win-win. They could sell sugary drinks to children in schools and work on public-private partnerships to improve children’s health: win-win. They could build cutthroat technology monopolies and get credit for serving to connect humanity and foster community: win-win.

“As this seductive idea fizzles out, it raises the possibility that this age of capital, in which money was the ultimate organizing principle of American life, could actually end.

“The choice facing Americans is whether we want to be a society organized around money’s thirsts, a playground for the whims of billionaires, or whether we wish to be a democracy. The second Gilded Age will end at some point. The question is what comes next.”

Just how that question will be answered remains to be seen.

[1] All quotes in this post are all taken from this article.

[2] Left and right are polarized on various social issues, but beginning with the Clinton administration have been united in their economic free market ideology.

[3] We’ve previously looked at the Business Roundtable’s “Statement of the Purpose of a Corporation” that promotes “an economy that serves all Americans.”

[4] See “Winners Take All” – a combative short video thank debunks the trickle down theory.

The Culture of Law (14): Where Culture is Trending Cont’d.

Continuing with Iain McGilchrist’s predictions about current cultural trends that we began last time:

“The world as a whole would become more virtualized, and our experience of it would be increasingly through meta-representations of one kind or another; fewer people would find themselves doing work involving contact with the real, “lived” world, rather than with plans, strategies, paperwork, management and bureaucratic procedures. In fact, more and more work would come to be overtaken by the meta-process of documenting or justifying what one was doing or supposed to be doing — at the expense of the real job in the living world.

“Technology would flourish…, but it would be accompanied by a vast expansion of bureaucracy, systems of abstraction and control.

“[C]onsiderations of quantity might come actually to replace considerations of quality altogether, and without the majority of people being aware that anything had happened.

“[C]onsciousness changes its nature in work geared to technological production… which means the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organization or production line; “measurability,” in other words the insistence on quantification not qualification; “componentiality,” that is to say reality reduced to self-contained units, so that everything is analyzable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components….

“The impersonal would come to replace the  personal. There would be a focus on material things at the expense of the living.

“[I]individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories:  socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, and resentful of, on another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals and such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people.

“Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm.

“Measures such as a DNA database would be introduced.

“[P]eople of all kinds would attach an unusual importance to being in control. Accidents and illnesses, since they are beyond our control, would therefore be particularly threatening and would, where possible, be blamed on others.

“According to the left hemisphere view, death is the ultimate challenge to its sense of control, and, on the contrary robs life of meaning. It would therefore have to become a taboo, while, at the same time sex, the power of which the right hemisphere realizes is based on the implicit, would become explicit and omnipresent.

“There would be a preoccupation, which might even reach to be an obsession, with certainty and security.

“There would be a complete failure of common sense, since it is intuitive and relies on both [brain] hemispheres working together.

“Anger and aggressive behavior would become more evident in our social interactions.

“One would expect a loss of insight, coupled with an unwillingness to take responsibility, and this would reinforce the left hemisphere’s tendency to a perhaps dangerously unwarranted optimism..

“We could expect a rise in the determination to carry out procedures by rote, and perhaps an increasing efficiency at doing so, without this necessarily being accompanied by an understanding of what they mean.”

More next time, plus commentary and wrap-up.