Can capitalism save the world as we know it, or is it bringing about the end of it all?
Our planet is falling apart and most of the people living on it are so poor and destitute, they are too busy trying to survive to even notice.
While the world’s average per capita income has increased roughly tenfold since 1820 (from $650 to around $6000 per person), this increase has not been felt across the world equally. Africa and Asia saw incomes increase about 3.5 times while United States’ income increased 22 times over that time. One sixth of the world’s poor remains trapped in poverty, while the wealth of the very rich increased disproportionately to the rest of the world over the past few decades. Poor nations face tragic hardship; the wealthier Western nations face their own diseases of “Affluenza”.
What the hell is wrong with us?
Quite a bit, according to Jeffrey Sachs, Slavoj Žižek, Muhammad Yunus, Oliver James and Peter Koenig. Each has recently written a book addressing some of the world’s woes.
And what are our major problems? In CommonWealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Jeffrey Sachs charts a world in increasing crisis: human pressures on ecosystems and climate will cause dangerous climate change, massive extinctions, and destruction of vital life support functions (if not mitigated); our population is rising at a dangerous pace; one sixth of the world lives in poverty; and we are paralyzed in the process of global problem solving.
In the Selfish Capitalist¸ Oliver James describes a miserable set of westerners. Our “affluence” is destroying our wellbeing. James’s “selfish capitalism” (he’s English, so he predominantly means enduring Thatcherite philosophies, but these are readily expanded to include post-Reagan America and our Howard years) has been going on for about 30 years, and has led to a massive increase in the wealth of the wealthy, with no rise in average wages. Concurrently, there has been a substantial increase in emotional distress since the 1970s. What James describes as emotional distress others call mental illness. It’s caused at several different levels, from the familial to social class and gender, to distress on a national front. And he thinks it’s attributable to a western way of life, one that focuses on materialism, with materialists, for example, being more prone to depression and anxiety.
The aspirations of the neo-cons were just a big con.
And whose fault is all this, anyway? Shall we point the finger at all-pervading, self-serving, immoral, breeding, growing, growling, global capitalism? Is it raw human nature? Is it engineered human nature?
Sachs states that environmental crises now cannot be compared with anything that may have happened in the past, because there’s never in history been such a magnitude of human economic activity large enough to change fundamental natural processes on the global scale.
This year the composition of our planet’s population tips from being majority rural to majority urban, and the UN projects that all of the 1.7 billion population increase up to 2030 will take place in the cities of the developing world. That can’t be healthy.
And there’s China. China’s demand for raw materials around the planet has far-reaching environmental and economic consequences. Who are we in the west to deny the Chinese what we’ve been consuming for decades, even if Oliver James says it’s bad for our mental outlook.
Let’s release the Marxist cat among these liberal pigeons.
Oliver James and Slavoj Žižek are both psychoanalysts, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Slavoj Žižek’s outlook for humanity is not rosy. Violence for him is necessary within our world of struggle: struggle against our corporate capitalist oppressors and the nasty patronage of liberal humanitarians (or “liberal communists”) like Bill Gates and Al Gore.
“While they fight subjective violence, liberal communists are the very agents of the structural violence which creates the conditions for the explosions of subjective violence.”
So, even if you are a philanthropist who gives millions for education against intolerance, you may have ruined the lives of thousands via financial speculation and thus created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance that is being fought. Thus, you are an agent of structural violence. Fight the power.
Žižek introduces the topic of the culturisation of politics, and asks why are global problems “perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle?” He suggests it’s because liberal multiculturalists’ ideology is one of culturisation of politics, to naturalise and neutralize political differences so they can’t be overcome, only tolerated.
Further, the delicate liberal and the violent fundamentalist are closer than we realize. Al Gore, Bill Gates and all those “right-on” minded rock stars trying to live happily today with a conscience – those derided by Žižek as frightened, caring, and fighting violence – and the blind fundamentalist exploding in rage, are two sides of the same coin. For example, when Muslims demand respect for their “otherness” after being offended (such as by racist cartoons) they are accepting the frame of liberal-tolerant discourse. “A plague on both their houses” he proclaims; the problem to Žižek being the liberal acceptance of the rules of global capitalism.
World-Bank employee-turned-expose-writer, Peter Koenig is a leftist ideologue of a totally different flavour to Žižek. In Implosion, a work of fiction with both feet firmly standing in a pile of facts, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund lend money to poor countries seemingly indiscriminately: debtors have to cut food and energy subsidies and restructure or privatize social services, guaranteeing poverty in perpetuity. “Blank cheque” debt results in a disastrous debt legacy and encourages corruption (as opposed to traditional project lending, a practice he says is in decline).
Also within Koenig’s sights are unethical or near-illegal mining practices and the destruction of habitats and poisoning of rivers and people, particularly in Peruand Papua. In Implosion’s extensive notes, Koenig describes the Argentinean economic collapse in the 1990s as a result of globalisation. At a later point within his twitchy storyline, Koenig unravels the politics of the Sudanese situation, which presents another dimension to US power struggles for the world’s hydrocarbon (Sudan’s oil is owned mainly by Chinese, Malaysian, and Japanese companies).
Where Žižek sees capitalism as an evil to be torn down; to Muhammad Yunus, it is a “half developed structure”. What a wonderfully “up” fellow Muhammad Yunus is. Creator of Grameen Bank and pioneer of micro-credit, Yunus is responsible for raising a large proportion ofBangladesh’s poor to levels of comfortable existence. Micro-credit helps the world’s very poor assist themselves, and often delivers them from the claws of crippling moneylending cycles.
In Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, Yunus presents social business as a viable and attractive alternative to profit-making business. He believes the free market offers much more opportunity to create an equal world free of poverty. Social business returns no profit to investors, but reinvests to help the poor. Yet it is not a charity, and aims to compete against profit making organisations.
Why have free markets failed so many? Because unfettered markets in their current form are not meant to solve social problems, and instead can exacerbate poverty, disease, crime, corruption, pollution and inequality. Yunus’s mountain of Grameen companies, providing products and services from telephones to knitwear, all focused on improving the life of the people of Bangladesh. Yunus and Grameen Bank, which focuses on lending to poor women, shared 2006’s Nobel Peace Prize for this work.
He questions the logic of uncontrolled growth: the philosophy of capitalism as assumed by virtually all economists, corporate executives, policy experts, and business writers, which states that profit is all, and that human beings are one-dimensional entities for whom money is the only source of motivation. For the sake of humanity, business must look at social factors (not just as one third of the “triple bottom line” but as stand-alone criteria).
But who’ll invest in a zero-return business? Lots, says Yunus, citing the amount donated to charity every year. Furthermore, he provides concrete examples of where future social businesses may come from. And not just within developing nations: Yunus looks to the 47 million people in the United Stateswho are not currently covered by health insurance as a fertile market for a well-designed and innovative social business. Creating a World Without Poverty describes the specific nuts-and-bolts detail of creating mutual funds with special, social missions.
Sachs’ solutions are even “bigger picture”, almost naïve in their broad scope. He seeks four goals: sustainable systems of energy, land and resource use to avert climate change, mass extinction, and ecosystem destruction; world population stabilization to, at most, eight billion by 2050; poverty relief; and a global approach to problem solving based on national cooperation.
To this end, Sachs suggests seven global funds for sustainable development needs: a fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases; a fund for an African green revolution (expanding sustainable agriculture); an environment facility jointly managed by the UN Development Program, UN Environment Program, and the World Bank; UN Population fund; global infrastructure fund; global education fund, and a community development fund.
Personally, our most important responsibility is to seek truth that is both technical and ethical. And Sachs prescribes eight actions to fulfill the “hopes of a generation in building a world of peace and sustainable development”.
Jeffrey Sachs. Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet
Allen Lane, $32.95
In this big, optimistic, sweeping opus, the Director of Earth Institute and advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Jeffrey D Sachs pulls apart our big, scary global problems: environmental sustainability, overpopulation, water supply issues, and concludes that we can make it all better in not-quite-so-simple steps.
Upbeat but falling short of born-again, this is great pre-req reading fodder for wannabe NGO directors or aid diplomats.
The overall cost of achieving carbon emissions control is less than one percent of annual world income, according to Sachs. Aid outlays in Africa of about $15 per person per year over the past 50-odd years (averaging 0.3% of income of donor countries) provide gains in literacy, life expectancy, disease control, reduced poverty, reduced fertility, school attendance, HIV treatments… all for about one eighth of US military spending over the same period.
Slavoj Žižek. Violence
Profile Books, $35
There are two types of violence, says Slavoj Žižek, subjective and systemic violence. Those who combat subjective violence while still committing systemic violence generate that which they abhor.
Occasionally described as “an academic rock star” and even “the Elvis of Cultural Theory”, Žižek writes from a perspective that is psychoanalytic and radical (he says he comes from the “Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia”).
His analysis of contemporary ephemera mashes popular culture: films of Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock and Lars Von Trier, television shows including Nip/Tuck, and a healthy dose of Bertolt Brecht, leftist political analysis and an unconscious crowded with contemporary philosophy. Even if the result can tend to resemble a rhetorical orgy, let’s concede this: Žižek inspires passion.
At the end of Violence, he concludes “Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.” Well, if Žižek’s an academic rock star, such bland pronouncements are the equivalent of smashing a guitar onstage, and guaranteed to appeal to the same audience of disaffected soundbite-gobblers. Rock on.
Muhammad Yunus. Creating a World Without Poverty
Palgrave Macmillan, $29.95
The microeconomic revolution, Grameen bank, shared the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize with its founder Muhammad Yunus. Corporate idealist Yunus is a charming storyteller. In Creating a World Without Poverty, he retells the Grameen story, then extends it to present his vision of social business. Social business still maximizes profits, but provides no return past initial investment, and is ultimately owned by the poor or disadvantaged.
A large component of the book is based around the case study of Grameen Danone, the first social business/corporate crossover, right down to a Bangladeshi launch involving world football hero Zizou (Zinédine Zidane).
Oliver James. The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluence
Oliver James purports to describe the relationship between selfish capitalist practices and mental ill-health, or what James terms “emotional distress”. Since the 1970s, the wealth held by the very rich has multiplied exponentially, while the rest of us barely tread water, or worse. Selfish capitalist practices have created a race within the English-speaking western world of unhappy materialists.
Selfish capitalism is presented as a form of political economy with four defining features: the profit motive of companies; a strong drive to privatise collective goods; minimal regulation of financial services and labour markets; and the conviction that consumption and market forces can meet all human needs. Although James discusses “unselfish capitalist” societies, he doesn’t actually define them, apart from making vague “western European” comparisons, and eventually his valid reports of correlation between materialism, television watching, and overworking and emotional distress dissolve behind shrill generalization, weak data and hazy anecdotes. Essentially, he’s describing correlation without causality, and he knows it. Then he gets scary when he dismisses virtually all molecular genetic factors in mental health (bar two syndromes), discusses feminism as “encouraging women to be men in skirts” and joins hands with the far right to roundly condemn childcare. There’s not much new ground here: did we need a second-round visit to the grounds of Affluenza?
Peter Koenig. Implosion
Peter Koenig has information he wants to share. His first lesson, unintended and gained before a word of Implosion is even read, is to never ask your spouse to design the cover of your book.
Koenig’s other lessons are much broader in scope, and are shrouded in a hammy thriller. Variously subtitled ‘A novel based on Facts’ and ‘An Economic Thriller based on Facts’, Implosion’s drama revolves around the adventures of PJ, who works for the World Bank inSouth America, and Moni Cheng, a spunky young Andean social activist. They experience kidnappings, bombings, and murder as they strive to expose corporate injustice, the Machiavellian behaviour of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and aUSplan to reintroduce the gold standard and maintain empire.
Cardboard characters and dire dialogue are secondary to the real tale: how the United States is fucking up the world. Koenig draws on his experience as a water resource specialist for the World Bank to inform his readers of tall tales and true.
The world of self-published releases can be a strange place, loaded with vanity and conspiracy theories, bad grammar and cheesy dialogue. Yet perhaps it’s the only place where a disaffected ex-World Bank employee can air his theories and lunchroom rumours. Even if the plot leaves you cold, Implosion is worth reading for Koenig’s notes. Its strength lies in the middle chapters, in snippets of information such as a neat explanation of the GINI factor, and in the detailed portrayal of IMF and World Bank machinations, uncovering an accessible tale of macroeconomic forces and global power play. However, it ends unforgivably, with our hero and heroine gazing off into a new world picture on their large screen plasma TV.