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07 December 2008 @ 01:43 pm
The Crumbling of Capitalism  
During my flights this week, I read (among other things) Business Civilization in Decline by Robert L. Heilbroner. It's about how capitalist business society is bound to collapse. Now, it's trivial to predict the downfall of something; everything in the observable physical world is finite. It's Heilbroner's arguments for why failure is inevitable, and how capitalism will be replaced, that truly struck a chord with me.

Take a look at this scarily prescient quote. Keep in mind that this book was written in 1976:
"The unavoidable curtailment of growth... threatens the viability of capitalism by removing the primary source of the profits that have been the sustenance of a business system. But suppose that profits are removed? Suppose that capitalism becomes, by degrees, a highly planned bureaucratic state in which corporations more and more resemble socialist trusts- according considerable privileges to their upper echelons, but no longer dependent on profits for survival?" (108-9)
This is exactly what we're seeing today. Financial firms make bad loans and can't recover their money, automobile manufacturers can't profit due to a decrease in market share and constant obligation to shareholders and unionized labor force. What happens? These beacons of capitalism, who would otherwise balk at having anything to do with the government, petition the government for taxpayer money. And they get it. And most of that money stays with the "upper echelons."

True capitalism would force these firms out of business because they can no longer compete. Now, it seems a big business's survival in America no longer hinges on its ability to make a profit, it hinges on how effectively they are able to petition government to step in and save them. With the success that the financial, airline, and automotive sectors have had in negotiating bailouts to keep them afloat, how long do you think it will be until more struggling businesses begin sending representatives to Congress?

Heilbroner's main argument is that- contrary to the opinions of those like Marx- capitalism won't go down in a giant, bloody revolution. Instead, businesses will get so big, and so many people will benefit and rely on their services, that when an inevitable shrinkage of growth or collapse occurs, the government will have to step in as a matter of public good. A recent example would be the public transit strike that almost occurred in Pittsburgh. Had the union gone on strike this December, and buses or trains stopped running through the city, every commuter would have been hit hard: not just those who rely on public transportation, but also regular drivers, as there would be more cars fighting to get through the tunnels and struggling to find parking. The City of Pittsburgh almost certainly would have stepped in and provided buses, at minimum, during the strike. If not, then at least people would have been begging them to.

Little by little, government is going to become more enmeshed in the economy. As mentioned, we're already seeing this in our time. Whether this leads to classic socialism, or something completely new, Heilbroner doesn't wish to speculate.

I'd like to make clear that I'm a fiscal conservative who'd prefer a minimum of governmental influence in the economy, but I recognize that some influence is inevitable and necessary for our long-term well being. Take any case where market forces dictate that a business do something that is actually harmful to the public interest. For instance, it's cheaper- and therefore more profitable- to dump my industrial waste in this river behind my plant than it would be to carton it up and dispose of it responsibly. Now we need environmental regulations to force industry to act in a responsible manner.

Heilbroner essentially argues that the government bailouts- as infuriating as they are to me and other taxpayers- are just as inevitable as environmental and market regulation. From there, he envisions government branches specifically dedicated to economic and business planning, to ensure long-term business growth and prosperity without causing harm elsewhere. This definitely seems possible, if industries aren't out-and-out federalized.

Another interesting part of Heilbroner's argument is how the culture of capitalism is likewise unsustainable. People have already decried ad nauseam- rightfully so- our culture's emphasis on acquiring and consuming things, and how that hasn't really made us happy or fulfilled. Heilbroner also points out the pervasiveness of modern advertising, and how "cynical" it makes us:
"How strong, deep, or sustaining can be the values generated by a civilization that generates [in advertising] a ceaseless flow of half-truths and careful deceptions, in which it is common knowledge that only a fool is taken in by the charades and messages that supposedly tell us 'the facts'?" (114)
Additionally- and this one really gave me pause- Heilbroner points out that our culture lauds the ends of an economic venture (namely, profit) while ignoring or disparaging the means (you and I busting our asses at the office). We "wage slaves" already know how little the executives of our particular firms actually care about us, or about the tasks we do, or the hell we put up with, that ultimately earns them their mansions and nice cars and yearly bonuses. There's more of us than there is of them, and that gap- along with our bitterness- grows every year. How is that possibly sustainable?

From Heilbroner's arguments centering on work, I got to thinking about other pursuits that our culture ignores or disparages unless they lead to profit or fame (and thus profit). How about pure scientific research? How about writing, music, and artwork? How many of us "amateur" artists have felt our work is "inadequate" or "inferior" or "unprofessional" because it hasn't been published, and we're not making money off of it? How many brilliant people are ultimately discouraged from creative or intellectual pursuits because of numerous rejections, or from hearing that "There's no money in it?"

Now, I don't mean to lump myself in with true creative geniuses, because I'm not one of them, but I have been known to dabble in music, art, and writing from time to time. For the longest time, I felt bad about not having a published something-or-other. I felt like nothing I did was "good." Now I look at Heilbroner's arguments, and I look at the utter dreck that does get published or made into films, and I don't feel as bad.

Then there was my ex-husband, who dabbled in creative pursuits specifically to turn a buck off them. If he couldn't think of a way to throw it up on a website and try to make money off of it, he didn't bother with it. Cynicism, indeed.

It's really sad that we don't encourage kids to branch out and explore science or the arts, for the personal rewards and potential public benefit as opposed to fiscal. We just tell them to memorize this specific list of facts, because they're on the test. In this culture, we need children who can shut up and follow directions from authority or advertising with no better justification than "Because I said so." Skepticism and independent thought need not apply. If they can't sit still long enough or show too much individuality or curiosity, we claim that they have an attention disorder, shove Ritalin down their throats, and that's that. This insanity can't possibly be sustainable, either.
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Miusheri: spoon too bigmiusheri on December 8th, 2008 05:31 pm (UTC)
Definitely worth checking out. It's Remy's book, but I doubt he'd mind lending it to you.

Post-scarcity would be fantastic, but it seems like a total pipe dream if we continue to live upon, and off the resources, of just this planet. Population keeps increasing, life expectancy and standards of living keep increasing. We know how to use fewer resources to accomplish the same goals, we know how to renew some of them, and how to grow more food, but I don't know if we could ever meet demand, much less overcome it. Plus, the latter endeavor is undermined by the ZOMG PESTICIDES/GE CROPS morons. Yeah, let's switch to 100% organic farming, see how well that works out.

In general, there's been a scary anti-intellectual/anti-science push in America and abroad that undermines our progress as a species. I worry about whether we're in for another Dark Age.