Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
Fri May 15th, 2009 at 04:51:41 AM EST
John Sanbonmatsu, in Tikkun, lays it on the line:
As of spring 2009, the leading capitalist states in Europe, North America, and Asia have thus either spent outright, or exposed themselves to financial risks totaling, well over $10 trillion-a figure so vast that one searches in vain for any relevant historical parallel. By comparison, the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II cost a mere $9.3 billion (in constant 2005 dollars). According to the United Nations, it would cost $195 billion to eradicate most poverty-related deaths in the Third World, including deaths from malaria, from malnutrition, and from AIDS. So the amount of money committed by policymakers to save capitalism from itself is already fifty times greater than what it would take to save tens of millions of human beings from terrible daily suffering and premature death. If the wealthy nations instead invested that $10 trillion into the economies, health systems, and infrastructure of the Third World, rather than transferring it to the world's richest banks, private financial institutions, and investors, they could usher in a new epoch in the history of the species-a world community in which every human being would be guaranteed a livable life.
That the financial bailout is a colossal misdirection and waste of public resources, however, is not the most scandalous thing about it. What is truly unconscionable is that all this money is being spent to prop up capitalism itself-a mode of economic and social life that has corrupted and hollowed out our democracies, reduced great swaths of the planet's ecosystem to polluted rubble, condemned hundreds of millions of human beings to wretchedness and exploitation, and enslaved billions of other animals in farms that resemble concentration camps.
From the diaries - afew
Capitalism is rightly credited with having unleashed enormous forces of productivity and technology. But it has also reduced much of the world to ruin and squalor. After four centuries of triumph as the dominant mode of global development, capitalism has furnished for itself a world in which one out of two human beings lives on $2 per day or less, and more than one in three still lacks access to a toilet. Most children in the world never complete their education, and most will live out their lives without dependable medical care. As the world economic crisis deepens, already deplorable conditions in the Third World will only deteriorate further.
Meanwhile, our planet is dying. Or rather, its flesh and blood creatures are. At the height of the financial crisis last year, a Swiss conversation group released a study showing that as many as one-third of known mammals on earth face imminent extinction, perhaps in a matter of decades, as a result of habitat destruction and mass killing by human beings. Yet not one of the hundreds of bloggers, news analysts, or politicians at the time thought to connect the dots between this and similar warnings of mass species extinctions and the dominant mode of development, capitalism. Yet it is just this metastatic, expansionist system that has imperiled human civilization and the natural world alike.
In 1997, a group of European academics published a book called The Black Book of Communism, in which they documented the brutality and mass killings committed by totalitarian Communist regimes in the course of the twentieth century. Perhaps a group of academics will one day publish a Black Book of Capitalism. They should. For when a mode of life that subordinates all human and spiritual values to the pursuit of private wealth persists for centuries, there is a lengthy accounting to be made. Among the innumerable sins that have followed in capitalism's long train, we might mention, for example, the hidden indignities and daily humiliations of the working class and the poor; the strangulation of daily life by corporate bureaucracies such as the HMOs, the telecom companies, and the computer giants; the corruption of art and culture by money; the destruction of eroticism by pornography; the corruption of higher education by corporatization; the ceaseless pitching of harmful products to our children and infants; the obliteration of the natural landscape by strip malls, highways, and toxic dumps; the abuse of elderly men and women by low-paid workers in squalid for-profit institutions; the fact that millions of poor children are sold into sexual slavery, and millions of others are orphaned by AIDS; the fact that tens of millions of women turn to prostitution to pay their bills; and the suffering of the 50 million to 100 million vertebrates that die in scientific laboratories each year. We might also highlight the dozens of wars and civil conflicts that are directly or indirectly rooted in the gross material disparities of the capitalist system-the bloody conflicts that simmer along from month to month, year to year, as though as natural and immutable as the waxing and waning of the moon-in places like Darfur, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Iraq, where millions of wretchedly poor people die either at the hands of other wretchedly poor people, or from the bombs dropped from the automated battle platforms of the last surviving superpower. Capitalism is responsible for all this, and more besides. Yet perhaps its most destructive feature-the one that in many ways stands as the greatest single impediment to our own efforts to find a practical and creative solution to the present crisis-is capitalism's fundamental antagonism toward democracy.
An interesting read.
Tikkun is not a communist or socialist rag, but a left/liberal Jewish-American culture/politics mag. Its readers are definitely to the left of, say, the DNC; but then again, they are not a tiny group of muttering sectarians so far out of the mainstream that they've forgotten how to swim, either. So the Question of Capitalism seems to be floating just a wee bit closer to the surface of public discourse, even in the US where capitalism is the state religion and heretics are shunned and ridiculed.
So, it's an interesting question. Knowing what we know about the mismatch between the concept of compound interest and the fixed-return-rate imposed by the natural world with its real, physical limits, do we believe capitalism can be saved? Is capitalism possible without the usury (i.e. compounding interest) that requires a rate of "growth" that in turn demands stripmining of all biotic resources far faster than they can be replenished?
Words of the form XXXX-ism usually mean that XXXX is -- for adherents -- considered the most important cultural idea, the core concept; so Communism allegedly means a belief system in which the commons, the communal, a shared social wealth is the central meme. Capitalism, by its very name, suggests a belief system in which capital -- hoarded currency, liquid assets, private property -- is the central, indispensible meme. (Both philosophies in C20 morphed into industrial fetishism, scientism, and so on, but that's another story.)
What would an alternative philosophy of wealth or social priorities be called? I'm tempted to suggest "biotism" -- a philosophy based on observation, analysis, and understanding of biotic processes/systems and their strengths, weaknesses, and limits. Biotism would hold that the most important wealth of a society is not "capital" (i.e. money, tokens, cowrie shells, dead stuff with symbolic meaning) but biotic systems such as living soil, living rivers, living forests, living fisheries, and so on. It seems pretty clear that a degree of commonism if not Communism would be implied, because (a) so much of what makes the biotic world tick is symbiosis and (b) the biotic world has no hermetic borders.
Anyway, this is drive-by post as I am trying to get my act together for a (sail) racing weekend and should be packing rather than typing. But a friend threw the Sanbonmatsu URL at me and I found it too provocative to ignore. What do you say: Is Capitalism Worth Saving? is it possible to "save" capitalism without kissing goodbye to all our pretences of democracy and egalitarian principles, and perhaps even to a planet viable for human inhabitation? Are we faced with a choice between saving (a) capitalism or (b) ourselves?
Inquiring minds would really like to know :-)
An interesting companion -- or counter-point -- article is found recently at Orion: Curtis White's The Barbaric Heart: Capitalism and the Crisis of Nature. Curtis suggests that capitalism itself is not The Problem: it's just a new face of our ancient, recurring problem... barbarism.
After all, isn’t it true that what corporations and the individuals who run them try to do is something very human and very familiar? Even admirable? They try to be creative (or innovative, as they like to say). They try to grow. They revel in discovery. They delight in complexity. They have always been major benefactors to education and the arts. (For instance, the merchant capitalists of the Italian Renaissance were also the facilitators of humanism. Where the bankers went, the artists were not far behind.) They try to exercise critical analytic skills in evaluating the world in which they act. They try to help their friends. They try to make the people who are most important to them prosper. They have an astonishing capacity for creative adaptation, even if it is only in the name of preserving their own dominance. In short, they try to win. They try to thrive. We should all be so committed to the risk of “living large.” The problem is not with these qualities as admirable human qualities. The problem is with what exactly it is that they’re trying to help thrive.
My claim is that what is behind these activities is not the stereotypical capitalist mentality of cold logic, a lack of normal feelings, and an unbridled appetite for gain. Rather, I see the Barbaric Heart. First, it is important to say that in associating capitalism with the barbaric I am not merely name-calling. This is so because, as I’ve already suggested, there is something admirable about the astonishingly complex world that capitalism has made. [...] Imagine a satellite image illuminating all the activity at shopping malls in the United States on a typical American Saturday afternoon. From a vantage in space, it would look like North America was flowing and glowing with strange life. If you could for a moment exclude the other consequences of this activity (environmental, social, military), you might be tempted to call this vision beautiful. (As in the ambiguous shots of Los Angeles freeways in the movie Koyaanisqatsi. The slow, winding flow of headlights comes to look like a natural phenomenon, like watching the northern lights.)
To say that there is something barbaric at work in these accomplishments is to say that there is also something admirable about the Barbaric Heart itself. The Barbaric Heart is not the opposite of the civilized. In fact, the Barbaric Heart is civilized, for all the good that does it, and has always happily clad itself in the decorous togas of Rome (as the Ostrogoth King Theodoric did), the pinstripes of Wall Street, and the comfy suburbanity of L. L. Bean. The Barbaric Heart has always wanted to look nice even when it didn’t (consider the leisure suit). The barbaric is admirable for its sheer strength, its daring, its energy, and its willingness to take risks. It is taller than we are. It is prouder in the way that a beautiful animal is proud. It is, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, a “blonde beast.” (He mostly thought that was a good thing, or at least better than being a slave.)
Unhappily, beyond its strength and pride and willingness to take on difficult tasks, there is something dangerous to itself and others in the Barbaric Heart. The Barbaric Heart is a great and energetic actor, but it is no better at questioning itself about the meaning of its actions than capitalism is at asking why the unlimited growth of the Gross Domestic Product is good. Capitalism does not ask, “What’s the economy for?” Capitalism merely asks it to grow. (It’s as if the only alternative to “growth” was “recession,” and no one is allowed to be for that.) Nonetheless, questions are in order. The Greek that opens the Gospel according to John reads, “In the beginning was Logos.” What is the logos (the spirit, the logic) of the Barbaric Heart? In short, in what name does it act?
THE NATURAL MODE of reasoning for the Barbaric Heart is simple enough to describe. It was the logic not only of the ancient northern hordes, clothed in animal skins, but of the Roman Empire and the Western civilization that followed as well. (That must be our first deconstructive insight: the barbarian is not an “other” to be driven away in the name of civilized virtue.) For the Romans, virtue simply meant success, usually military success. Valor. That was the heart of Romanitas. For the Roman forces under Scipio Aemilianus at the end of the Third Punic War against Carthage, the routine was well understood: half of the time would be devoted to violence, to killing every human and dog and cat that crossed their path, and half the time would be given to plunder, to the transfer of every valuable material thing back to Rome, especially gold and silver things. Roman violence was above all orderly. As a consequence, as Polybius wrote, Rome “billowed in booty.”
This is the barbaric calculation: if you can prosper from violence, then you should go ahead and be violent. In short order the Barbaric Heart is led to conclude that in fact prosperity is dependent on violence. Therefore, you should be good at violence, for your own sake and the sake of your country. That was Roman virtu. Which is a way of saying that the barbaric itself is a form of virtue, especially if you think that winning, surviving, triumphing, and accumulating great wealth are virtues, just as, in order, athletes, Darwinians, military commanders, and capitalists do. Ultimately, these types are all the same. The athlete, the soldier, and the businessman all want to “win,” and by whatever means necessary.
White suggests that we need to contend with far more than just capital-ism. We need to contend with the barbarism in our own and each others' hearts: we need to defend and demand thoughtfulness and a love and respect for the beautiful:
The idea that we are trying to create a culture whose primary satisfaction is its beauty is not really such an extravagant thought. When we say that we desire a world in which nature is intact and animal life thrives; when we say that we desire human communities in harmony with nature; and when we say that within those communities human beings should be able to live in dignity, so that they can be something more than worker-consumers, we are arguing for a reality that is first aesthetic. Environmentalists argue for such a reality all the time. It is what they propose in the place of a barbaric culture of profit and violence. Even so, we are often seduced by the economic and scientific appeals to efficiency, sustainability, and prosperity, in spite of the fact that we suspect that these appeals are actually part of the problem. But in our heart of hearts we are not fooled. What we want is the beautiful. We say it with a smile on our faces when we go for a hike, or when we visit an “eco-friendly” town full of bike paths and locally owned shops with a mountain vista in the background. We do not say of such places, “I’m grooving on this system’s ecological balance.” Or, “The Green Economy is working well.” We say, “It’s beautiful here!” And yet when we set out to make our most public arguments for nature, we seem almost embarrassed to say that what convinces us is the argument of the beautiful. The thoughtfulness of the beautiful. In fact, I’m embarrassed right now!
What is it that makes such an argument so difficult to make? If what we want is the beautiful, why do we feel that our most persuasive arguments will be made by scientists, environmental engineers, regional planners, and sustainability economists? In part, it is the fact that we have been intimidated by all those who would say that such thinking is “unrealistic,” by which they really mean “does not concede the brutal fact of the enduring triumph of the Barbaric Heart.” By this measure, to be realistic is to say, “We plan to win by conceding the game to our adversaries before the contest has even begun.”
So... where does that leave us?
Historians often wonder what it was like for the Romans to live under the rule of the Goths in the sixth century. Barbarians in the Senate, barbarians in the market, barbarians in the temple, barbarians in the countryside. The constant presence of the violently alien. Well, perhaps it was like living with Best Buy and Costco and Barnes and Noble, in our Big Box world. In both the ancient world and the present, it is like living, in Nietzsche’s mordant phrase, “estranged from house and home in the service of malignant dwarfs.” But somehow when we look on the ugliness that this reality brings, we see a “high standard of living.” Those enchanted by the malignant dwarfs (CEOs? MBAs?) do not think to ask, “What makes life worth living?” The answer is obvious: “The high standards, of course!” A very strange conclusion for a people who are the living witnesses of so much permanent destruction.
Which brings us back to the first question: can capitalism be saved? and should it be? is "saving capitalism" not merely prolonging and perpetuating barbarism?
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