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Reading Jerry Mander’s The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System (Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2012), I recalled lessons from my first Marxism class at the university. Capitalism has no morality, but must constantly grow. It creates inequality, exploits labor and nature and fights wars. Mander sees no way for all these negative qualities to lead the world to happiness, or even survival. Some keen observers noted these qualities of capitalism more than 150 years ago. But only good can come from reiterating basic truths and Mander has written a readable and snappy critique of the economic and political system that governs our lives and he offers good reasons to get rid of it and find a healthier – non-utopian — way to live together under a different economic and political system.
Capitalism has produced a world of things, but in doing do so it has destroyed hunks of the environment, and made a mess of human relations. Karl Marx saw this in the 19th Century; Mander in the 21st.
To dramatize the lessons he wants to teach Mander offers funny stories from his former life as an advertising executive and promoter of capitalism. After that he headed the Public Media Center, a public service ad agency.
The book takes readers on an insightful tour of the system’s ills. By the fourth chapter I asked how anyone in his right mind would not revolt against the nightmare conditions of our system.
To answer that question, Mander offers a chapter of how capitalism has privatized “our consciousness.” Television imagery,” he writes, “rides into your brain as a vast potpourri of mixed image forms that is not experienced anywhere in life. Dozens of categories of information are strung together as though they were all in the same domain of reality.” TV, for decades the dominant medium, has not only taken the culture but has become the center of it. By the time kids become teenagers they have witnessed more than 200,000 murders on TV. But TV has not hopelessly captured all citizens and morphed them into avid believers — consumers. TV has misted our view of the world, but we still know when the rent check is due and when prices rise in the supermarket and that, from experience, buying commodities advertised on TV does not induce instant happiness and bliss.
Reality counters TV’s make believe world. So, capitalism cannot privatize all of our consciousness because it can’t bring us the happiness it promises.
By demanding that people wake up and understand they live inside of a pernicious system, Mander’s book helps citizens open their eyes to the possibilities of taking action that would transform their lives. Mander wants them to join others with similar inclinations.
Mander shatters the myth that becoming successful in business will cure all woes (most people have no capital to invest in businesses). He throws rays of clarity on the system, and about people caught up in illusory hopes that those in charge will fix what’s wrong.
In Mander’s last chapter “Which Way Out?” he argues for the Nature First economy (aren’t humans part of Nature?) as our system heads rapidly into decline. This should not shock anyone after NASA scientist James Hansen said global warming has gone further than he anticipated and we had better act quickly. So far, no world leader has made any significant move to stop greenhouse gas emissions. Mander pleads for an economy based on natural systems. Hey, human beings are also part of Nature!
He also wants to reduce the scale of economic controls. Since democracy begins locally, so should the economy. Restore the commons. The third idea involves reform of corporations, returning them to that entity created by the State two centuries ago to accomplish certain needed tasks and with democratic oversight. The new corporation must be transparent and accountable to the community from which it arose.
In the new economy Mander wants to the complexity that makes up society to organize to meet their common needs. For example, friends and neighbors in place. A form of economic enterprises that could work, but be inappropriate in the larger communal context, and still another form might make more sense for global trade, since that will not disappear, even though it might be limited. The point is flexibility, not dogma regarding the form, as long as it is popularly controlled.
Mander’s idea of living better does not presuppose a permanent growth economy. Rather, he pictures conviviality, creativity and cooperation as integral features of the good life if we change our system.
Although some of his ideas reek of green, New Agey prose, Mander also says we can’t dream of idyllic sustainable villages while the nightmare of weapons of mass destruction dominates the US economy.
Mander thinks of capitalism as now obsolete, but this romanticizes its past. In the early 19th Century Ned Ludd, a young worker supposedly smashed two factory machines. Those who destroyed factory machines as their answer to the conditions imposed by early capitalism were called Luddites. Historian Eric Hobsbawm called Luddism “collective bargaining by riot.”
Ludd became a hero, an urban Robin Hood who even reputedly lived in Sherwood Forest. The Luddites, English textile workers, could not easily wage an effective strike since factories were spread though disparate areas. So they often destroyed the new mechanized looms to protest against the Industrial Revolution’s disastrous impact on human life in England.
Mander’s subtitle – Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System – assumes a capitalism that did not exist in the age of 18th Century. History shows that the landowners and merchants of that era enclosed the commons and forced workers into their torturous factories. Was this somehow better?
In fact, capitalism became predatory and corrosive of common values from its inception. Recall the monstrous trading companies in England and Holland. It has, however, to become worse in scale. The book offers good detail, a coherent argument and an inspiration to those on the edge of action to get off their asses and play a part in transforming the social drama of our time.
Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP will screen at Portland Oregon’s Clinton Theater, Sep. 13 – sponsored by Counterpunch