Does Capitalism Have a Soul?

Neo-cons, who used to understand things fairly well when they were Trotskyists, would not think this an allowable question. But Adam Smith would, and I don't mean the guy on TV—I mean the guy wrote wrote Wealth of Nations, who said “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”. It's a fair question, because so often in history, as today, capital has proved unconscious, careless, even reckless with labor, and labor is me. And you, if you work.

The question often arises, “How can the capitalist system possibly work for regular people?” That, too, is a fair question. I think it's important to try and answer that (or switch to a different system); this is apparently what motivated William Greider to write his new book, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy. (Here's an excerpt, and here's a review on his site.)

Chomsky talks about this sort of thing too, in more theoretical terms and with a somewhat less optimistic take. Greider is certainly no Pollyanna; no reader of One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (which prompted the Harvard Business Review to call him “the preeminent American writer on the impact of economics and politics on society”) would disagree. He's catalogued too many depredations, too many fires in factories with locked doors, to have any illusions on this point. Still, he has what he calls “the unfashionable conviction that ordinary Americans have the potential to prevail against the seemingly invincible entrenched powers”.

I should in fairness make it explicit that I've learned a huge amount from Bill Greider's books, and I am therefore predisposed to like anything he writes. But the reason that continues to be true is that he continues to teach me something every time I read him. His Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country is said to be on the shelves of the Federal Reserve itself, despite the fact that it's not a particularly flattering portrait. He can talk about the big picture of some pretty big stuff, whether it's the Fed or globalization, and mix it with the meaning of these things at the level of day-to-day life for normal people. And he has good reason to hope, in part because his hope is for humanity in the long term. He thinks the system has self-correcting capabilities that can be activated if we attempt to do so.

I think if you don't believe that, given accurate information, people will make reasonable decisions most of the time, you can't believe in democracy. Our biggest problem today is the control of ninety-some percent of the major media outlets by six corporations, which have no interest in distributing accurate information, as that would reduce their opportunities for propaganda and theft.

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