Everybody knows, wrote the old maestro Cohen, “everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody knows the fight was fixed: the poor stay poor and the rich get rich, that’s how it goes, everybody knows.” But though we know it, though we feel it and see it, we might not know the how or the why. Robert Reich wrote Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few for this very purpose, to show us how it is and ask us, pointing his finger out of the book towards our nearby faces, “now whadaya gonna do ‘bout it?”
From property rights to contract law, from monopoly busting to bankruptcy procedure and wage determination, Reich deconstructs the base of capitalism piece-by-piece, revealing to we the readers a man-made system of market governance which favours an ever fewer few who reap the lion’s share of the produced benefits. What he wants you to see is that economics is not a simple choice between what they call the free market and tyranny, but between a market that benefits the few and a market that benefits the many.
He writes this of those who lose out on the bargain:
The vast majority who work hard for a living, and struggle against currents that are often pulling them backward and causing them to fear for themselves and their families, are not blameworthy, nor are they alone. Their voices, however, have become muted and many have grown disillusioned or cynical. The labourer who told me that he could have earned more if he “had the brains for it” saw his low pay and lowly status as the product of his own failings rather than an economic system that has failed him by denying him sufficient bargaining power to do better. Meanwhile, the poor who cannot find their way out of poverty are not losers or failures, either, although that is how many of them view themselves. The far more significant fact is that they are utterly powerless in society.
A powerless mass of citizens with no economic nor political sovereignty over their own lives: this is the negation of the great hope of democracy, that of power – political and necessarily economic power – of and for the people, revealing it to be, at best, a myth, and at worst, a lie. You exaggerate, says the reader. Greece, I say. For in Greece the limits of power in the twenty-first century were revealed, unashamedly, in 2015 when the birthplace of democracy was remade a Eurozone protectorate.
Humanity’s entry into what has been described as the anthropocene – a wholly new geological era defined by the homo sapien’s impact upon planet earth – means that we must urgently reflect on the very ideas of growth, consumption, and comfort.
Lives and Times
Reich’s book is, by Marx’s definition, both radical and not, “grasping things by the root”, yet not ripping it out. He is not proposing the abolishment of private property (just its redefined demarcation, limited appropriation, and increased redistribution), but yet his proposals would no doubt provoke night tremors in the peaceful sleep of the gilded elite should they hear them mentioned. Such are the times we live in that things once thought of as wise and prudent – such as anti-monopoly law and enforcement – now are condemned as “populism!”. Consider the following words of the US Claymore Antitrust Act of 1914, which with these words exempted labour unions from being broken up by the same legislation designed to break up banks and other agglomerations of capital: “the labor of a human being is nor a commodity or article of commerce.”
Loses point for its US-centric analysis and occasional lack of explanation on certain legal and economic concepts.
Though it may not be the most stirring writing, Reich has clear expression and no academic jargon.
You cannot read this book and put it down without learning something new or seeing the world in a much clearer light.
Indeed, this instruction booklet on how and how not to build a just society makes the social democracy look like an attractive option again. For those radicalised by radical times, for you who have seen your wages lowered, your friends unemployed, your family struggling, your health and education devalued and defunded, for you who were scandalised by the now decade-long crisis of 2008-2018, by the subsequent ‘bail-outs’ of the bankers and the abandonment of the mortgagers, Reich wants us to believe that we can have it all again, that the great golden age of capitalism following 1945 can be revived, that in this dawning twenty first century we can create an economy of mutual benefit once again. As much as you may disagree with his claim that “there is nothing about capitalism that leads inexorably to mounting economic insecurity and widening inequality”, you will find yourself believing again in social democratic promise and practise.
The policies he suggests for attaining this are the following: a basic minimum income, a tax on the inheritance of land, share schemes which grant every newborn citizen a stake in the future economy, reforming corporate law to recreate corporations as stakeholder organisms rather than shareholder ones, encouraging the formation and growth of cooperative businesses, and naturally, revoking the deregulation which has literally fixed the system in favour of the few. But one wonders, one worries, will even this be enough, Robert?
Humanity’s entry into what has been described as the anthropocene – a wholly new geological era defined by homo sapien’s impact upon planet earth – means that we must urgently reflect on the very ideas of growth, consumption, and comfort, lest we want to deal with the catastrophic consequences of peak-oil, climate change, and water scarcity. Should a politician ruminate on degrowth, utter austerity in the true sense of the word, or should they contemplate practical and prudent solutions for a gradual transition away from capitalism, then she or he may expect ridicule and radical reaction from the agents and institutions of power. Remember Greece, always remember Greece.
If capitalism does not survive, few tears will be shed, but if capital brings democracy down with it, then that will be a true human and historic tragedy.
Lives and Times
Until we reconsider these essential truths of our age, one doubts out ability to forge such a path and return to a truly social state. Because the twenty-first century will not be like the twentieth, and the technological upheaval which we are living will not soon abate. Because of these challenges, mass unemployment and growth stagnation may be a continual feature of the coming decades, heralding an era in which conflict is constant; class conflict almost certainly, bubbling over to full blown civil and international conflicts.
That’s why Reich goes to such lengths to emphasise that to avoid such a catastrophe what is needed is an urgent construction of what he calls counterveiling power. This is what makes his book valuable, as he shows that in the past it was only the enormous efforts of civil society – made up of unions, farmers federations, veterans associations, cooperative movements, small businesses, credit unions, community banking, and so forth – that allowed for a more or less palatable capitalism to be built.
The risk that the current inequality erupts into violent revolt or conflict is absolutely not abstract in a world in which the wealthiest 1% on this earth possess more wealth than the remaining 99% of the human population.
Lives and Times
In this coming century, he hopes, the new nodes of counterveiling power will come from the many sectors of the population who are now losing out: students burdened with lifetime debt-sentences, small business owners struggling to compete, franchisees trying to get a fair go with the franchiser, homeowners with impossible mortgages, artists seeking to build independent audiences, consumers wanting a fair price, the working poor, small credit unions, family farmers, pension fund contributors, individual shareholders – all of whom could find common objectives and mutual interests.
The task of forging such coalitions of counter-power will not, however, be easy. It may take many years, it may indeed fail, but there is, like there has always been, no other choice but to fight. Reich issues his learned warning: “Absent some means for sharing the increasingly large rewards that will otherwise go to a few people and their heirs fortunate enough to possess ownership rights to [the new] technologies, the middle class will disappear, and capitalism as we know it will not survive.”
If capitalism does not survive, few tears will be shed, but if capital brings democracy down with it, then that will be a true human and historic tragedy. The risk that the current inequality erupts into violent revolt or conflict is absolutely not abstract in a world in which the wealthiest 1% on this earth possess more wealth than the remaining 99% of the human population. This figure, arrived at by Oxfam in the year 2016, was, I believe, the tipping point, beyond which crisis has now become inevitable.
Lives and Times… Writing on the World Around Us…
Subscribe to Lives and Times here to receive passionate, critical writing on these modern times…