Popular Again

It’s amazing how quickly things can change. In In Defense of Lost Causes Slavoj Zizek wrote that the success of capitalism was marked by the disappearance of the word ‘capitalism’ from public discourse. Capitalism has become the status quo to such an extent that we no longer recognize it as an economic idea (something made-up, invented, artificial), we see it only as ‘the way things are’ (the reality, natural state of things). Needless to say, the book was published before the crisis of Capitalism we’re currently enjoying. Capitalism is being questioned publicly once again, and with good reason. Still, one has to do a double take when the word appears so frequently on the lips of the British Conservative politician David Cameron. Here’s a couple of choice quotes from his speech at Davos:

“A lot of people are angry with capitalism. Instead of representing hope for a better future, they think capitalism threatens it. This matters because in the future, social, economic and environmental progress will only come from the drive, energy and enterprise of individuals. So if we want capitalism to be a success again, we need to make capitalism popular again.”

“Today, the poorest half of the world’s population own less than one per cent of the world’s wealth. We’ve got a lot of capital but not many capitalists, and people rightly think that isn’t fair.”

“So we must shape capitalism to suit the needs of society; not shape society to suit the needs of capitalism.”

That’s quite a statement from the leader of the party of Margaret (“There’s no such thing as society.” – as Bruce Sterling deftly observes.) Thatcher! Red Tory indeed!
For all his bluster Cameron still clings to tired old Capitalist dogmas:

“Yes, as I’ve said many times, we must stand up for business, because it’s businesses, not governments or politicians, that create jobs, wealth and opportunity, it’s businesses that drive innovation, and choice, and help families achieve a higher standard of living for a lower cost.”

Somehow ‘The Government’ never amounts to anything. It’s as if property laws & regulations, monetary systems, public education and transportation, trade treaties, research subsidies, etc. had nothing to do with the ‘success’ of business. Just as Capitalism disappears into ‘just the way things are’ so does the government. We forget that a lot of the great things Cameron attributes to business (wealth, opportunity, innovation, higher standards of living, etc.) had to be forcibly wrested away in a bloody struggle by several generations of workers and enforced by generations of politicians and lawmakers… yes… the government.

Ultimately, he’s simply a moralist. According to him, the system is fine, we just got too greedy. We just have to shape up:

“Markets without morality. Globalisation without competition. And wealth without fairness. It all adds up to capitalism without a conscience and we’ve got to put it right.”

This call for a new moral Capitalism isn’t as new as it seems. It’s been slowly bubbling up to the surface of politics for years. In fact Zizek already identified its ‘chocolate laxative’ center while discussing another global economic summit in… Davos… in 2001!

This sentiment is echoed in some recent statements from Obama:

“And when I saw an article today indicating that Wall Street bankers had given themselves $20 billion worth of bonuses ‚Äî the same amount of bonuses as they gave themselves in 2004 – at a time when most of these institutions were teetering on collapse and they are asking for taxpayers to help sustain them, and when taxpayers find themselves in the difficult position that if they don’t provide help that the entire system could come down on top of our heads – that is the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful.”

There is an expectation of morally right behavior without creating any incentives that encourages that behavior. But, outside the tough rhetoric, there is little evidence that anything of consequence will happen. Instead the strategy seems to be this: wealthy capitalists need to hit the pause button on excess and selfishness until things are ‘fixed’… then we can return to regularly scheduled programming. At least Cameron, by using the word ‘Capitalism,’ is willing to acknowledge that this is an ideological battle. No such acknowledgment is forthcoming from the ‘post-partisan’ and ‘bipartisan’ Obama administration. This evasion of politics makes it harder to question major economic assumptions and blind-spots that we keep carrying on our backs like the proverbial monkey. Obama is even going to appoint a Republican as a Commerce Secretary. How post-partisan! It only reveals that Democrats and Republicans don’t differ all that much on the basic substance of economic policy. Jacques Monin, the French journalist, has it right [ again via Beyond the Beyond ]:

“You no longer imagine, it seems to me, that there might actually be such a thing as a “choice of society”. Along with New Labour, the very idea of anything resembling an ideology vanished. In France, on the other hand, politics still condition the life of the individual. Rightly or wrongly, my fellow countrymen still want to believe that a choice of society really remains possible. They might resist reform, as you like to point out, but they involve themselves – deeply – in politics.

“Here, however, the boundaries between the major parties have been all but eroded. This drift to the centre, combined with the weakness of the extremes, has anaesthetised British politics. So the British don’t vote very much. They don’t object very much. They don’t dream very much.”

Substitute ‘Americans’ for ‘British’ and that statement still rings true. Of course it doesn’t help when the Global Left is a chaotic mess.

7 Replies to “Popular Again”

  1. Hey Tom, what would you consider to be contemporary examples of countries that have been left-leaning economically over the past decade, and have been fairly successful at it?

  2. Hey Francis, good question! I suppose the corollary question is how do you define ‘fairly successful’? It’s hard to find any countries, left or right leaning, that have been ‘fairly successful.’ Sure many have had boom times in the past decade (the US among them – the late 90s are still only a decade away), but can those boom times be called successes in the light of the current situation? I don’t know. My left-leaning posts tend to be more philosophical and US centric… I find it constantly frustrating that the word ‘socialism’ carries such stigma here, but not pretty much anywhere else in the world‚Ķ despite the fact that many of the gains in quality of life in the US can be honestly described as ‘socialist’ in nature. Eastern Europe and Russia have come to terms (though not always by choice, or with best results) with Capitalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the US has yet to come to term with Socialism. Is Canada successful? Sweden? Not sure. They have their share of problems too. I’m more interested in specific local phenomena like the rise of organic farming in Cuba, or the communist state of Kerala in India‚Ķ and other out of left field hybrids.

  3. Yeah, obviously “successful” in a complicated word, and a lot of it has to do with how idealistic you want to be about the whole thing … I ask because I think I’ve become a bit of a capitalist over the years, and a big part of it is the sense of cultural freedom that it seems to enable. That’s not the same as saying that capitalism is freedom–I think that kind of rhetoric is silly. But I can’t think of a lot of cultures that are really dynamic and multiracial and have economies that are significantly different from the Washington Consensus. Maybe Brazil counts as a notable exception, though I don’t really know that much about Brazil.
    Some of this comes from my admittedly limited experience of being a non-white person in Europe. I could’ve lived in Spain for fifty years and nobody would’ve ever considered me a Spaniard. But in many parts of the U.S., people don’t give a fuck where you come from as long as you can make good money. It’s like we take all the old prejudices and replace them with one big one based on money. Maybe that’s a bargain I’m okay with.

  4. They may benefit from a war profiteering in the 40s, a homogenous culture that emphasis moderation and sharing (“lagom”), and a wealth of natural resources as compared to population, but the Swedes have done alright economically over the last decade. I’m not sure what counts as “left-leaning” but on paper their priorities economically have always been a strong social state (universal health care, free higher education, strict laws protecting workers, etc). Recently the Social Democrats were supplanted by a conservative government which originally promised more privatization but now obviously is scaling back that agenda. But when they say “conservative” in Sweden it still means well to the left of the Democrats here. When I lived there there was an election in which one of the major issues was who was going to increases taxes more, ostensibly to provide more benefit to the aging population. And in the 90s they managed to navigate a banking crisis similar to ours now by nationalizing all their banks and then selling them again to private investors when the bad debt had been culled. And they turned a profit. The scares we’re getting here about government run banks is just laughable when you looks at the casual way the Swedes went about it. It was just the natural thing in their view.

  5. Thanks Tim! That’s a good short summary of the Swedish phenomenon. Sweden is always used as an example of a successful ‘left-leaning’ country, and a model to be emulated. The rhetoric on the other ‘right-leaning’ side tends to see Sweden as an exceptional country, whose success could not be duplicated anywhere else. Especially not in the US. And sure, we may not be able to become Sweden, but I’m sure we can learn something. At the very least, how Sweden coped with their financial crisis.

  6. I wasn’t aware capitalism was unpopular; I see it more as being misunderstood–just shrouded by the disregard and ignorance of the consuming masses.

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