Sunday, February 24, 2008

Supercapitalism

I read an interesting op-ed piece published by The Shanghai Daily yesterday. The column was part review of Robert Reich's book "Supercapitalism" and part essay on American capitalism since World War II from a Chinese perspective. The criticism was, for the most part, right on the mark on both subjects.

"SUPERCAPITALISM: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life" is essentially a glorification of the success of US capitalism.

Incidentally it also seeks to explore how the democratic capitalism has developed into a supercapitalism where corporations and market forces effectively neutralize input from American middle class, the bulwark of American democracy.

"The last several decades have involved a shift of power away from us in our capacities as citizens and toward us as consumers and investors," says author Robert B. Reich. ...

Reich explains that the development of US capitalism between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s depended on the balance achieved among three pillars: corporations, labor and government.

But unlike the self-contained and self-sufficient agrarian society, capitalism is never a closed system.

Classic Chinese scholar Qian Mu, in characterizing US capitalism, said Western capitalism centers on two dominant urges: the urge to make others poor; and the urge to kill others.

The first urge is self-evident given capitalists' natural voracity, for wealth is always a relative concept and enriching oneself must always come at the expense of others.

The second urge stems from the fact that, in Qian's words, "the first purpose of the greenback is to fabricate atomic weapons." Of course, today a host of other more lethal forms of weapons are being developed.


While I can't agree with Mr. Qian's second part, he does have a point with the first. Even when corporations, labor, and government are in balance (which rarely happens), the primary beneficiaries of that balance are the corporations, not the middle and lower class workers. When either labor or government, and especially when both, are factored out of the three part balance, corporations continue merrily on as the workers are marginalized even further. We are seeing that in the US at the present time.

And the columnist makes a solid point when he notes that Mr. Reich overlooks an important source for the success of corporations, most of whom are multinational or at the very least are international in the scope of their business dealings (e.g., Wal-Mart).

Reich fails to see, or finds it inconvenient to admit, that this has all been made possible by globalization.

Under the facade of co-prosperity, US supercapitalists can secure energy and goods from other countries cheaply, without having to shoulder the burden of pollution.


And therein lies the rub with corporate entities. For all the rights granted them by the US government, they really are not "persons," and moral considerations do not enter into the equation beyond the lip-service required for public relations purposes. The only thing important to corporations is making money, as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

But Reich does perceive this from a domestic point of view when he observes that companies whose only standard for success is the market have been known to pump pollution into the air and water, sex and violence into the media, and money into politics.

Even for this uncomfortable fact the author shifts the blame to consumers: if consumers did not buy, no one would sell; thus, the enemy is not the corporations, but their customers.

The author does not seem to realize the kind of control modern corporations can exercise over the consumers. ...

If Reich pursued this further, he might discover that decisions become much easier when the grab for money becomes the ruling passion, and moral deliberations have never been a disabling factor in the success of capitalism.


I haven't read Mr. Reich's book, but I think I will after this review. If this man, for whom I have had respect since he came onto the scene in the Clinton administration, has in fact written a paean to "Supercapitalism," I may have to adjust my attitude.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we all need to make major adjustments to our attitudes!
Take this paragraph:

"Even for this uncomfortable fact the author shifts the blame to consumers: if consumers did not buy, no one would sell; thus, the enemy is not the corporations, but their customers"

True. We must stop feeding the beast if we do not want it to continue to eat us. Boycotts, consumer sentiment, and silly plastic junks has got to hit home soon to Americans.
We have to reconsider how truely wealthy we are. We don't need to spend our hard earned money on stupid plastic crap. We don't need to buy our way into feeling good about ourselves. We really are a great nation and great people. There is no need for a crutch of goods to show how great a people we are.

The wealthy don't run to Wally World on a weekly basis and spend half their wages. Neither should you or I.

PeasantParty

10:48 AM  
Anonymous larry, dfh said...

Well at least one Chinese agrees with what I've been saying for years: it's all about the pollution. We've been told for years that it's the wages, but now that salaries are at par, at least in India for PhD organic chemists (my particular blind alley)I don't see any chemical business returning to the US. None. We desperately need a national, or at least regional industrial pollution regimen. I mean we do it for human waste; we have sewage treatment facilities. We used to have just septic fields, or ditches. But everyone realized the need to really manage human waste, not just allow everyone to put it into the ground in their own individualized fashion. So should it be for industrial waste. And I don't mean a bunch of laws saying don't do this or that shit. Because the result of that is having all industry flee the scene. As it has largely done. If we decide we want industries here, and we know that they generate waste, we have to do more than grant pollution waivers or issue pollution credits. We have a national highway system, which is pretty good but needs repair. We have a national air-traffic system, which works pretty well (I'm not talking about the individual airlines). We have a pathetic national rail system imposed on a totally for-profit boondogle rail network, and it sucks. We need some sort of national waste-handling system, because the air and water are ours, at least for the time being.

11:17 AM  

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