Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What is the future of capitalism?

(Originally posted by Pat on 6/27/10)

A review of Richard Robbins' Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism
The book is a weighty tome (it was clearly meant to be a college textbook), so I have not by any means finished it. Yet I am writing this now because right this minute I am clearly in the ideal environment to consider the meaning and future of capitalism, both the good and the bad.
I sit now in Briarwood Mall, with all its glitz and glamour and the ridiculously overpriced jewelry and clothing stores on every corner. I come for the restaurants and the video games, which give me real utility beyond what is “fashionable”, but I cannot help but be drawn into the culture that is conspicuous consumption. There is something beautiful about it all, the young people in bright clothes milling about, the kiosk vendors plying toys and gadgets, even the mindless background music that encourages us to ignore our pains and live in the moment. Moreover, here I am with a 1.3 GHz netbook wishing the WiFi connection was better; I am a part of this culture, and I take great pleasure in it.
But I am not just in Briarwood Mall—I am in a tornado shelter in Briarwood Mall, because the global climate system has chosen this moment to unleash its wrath upon our corner of civilization. I suspect (but of course cannot prove) that this moment is of human doing, that anthropogenic climate change is ultimately responsible for this wave of blistering heat and violent storms.
I can imagine no better place, therefore, to consider the cost-benefit analysis of capitalist culture.

Impeccable timing. The doors have opened, we have emerged from the shelter, and our life as consumers has resumed. I was immediately offered a sample of tea by a smiling and attractive woman as soon as I entered the concourse. As soon as we left the shelter itself, no mention whatsoever was made of the way that we had just faced destructive forces of nature beyond our control or even comprehension. Robbins is clearly onto something when he says that under capitalism, image is everything.
The book is quite overstated—Robbins doesn't take nearly enough time, at least in the portions I have read so far, to consider the good side of capitalism, the ways that market economics really have made us safer, richer, and healthier than any human society has ever been. Like most anthropologists, Robbins harbors far too much love of the hunter-gatherer life. He ignores the fact that in such a life we were at the mercy of disease, predation, and weather. (That tornado shelter may evince the power of nature—but it also offers substantial defense.) Even worse, he ignores the fact that only through this surge of technology and economic growth could he possibly have a job so abstract and cerebral as anthropologist or author.
Yet as I said, Robbins is clearly onto something. Perhaps Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism is a necessary corrective to the excesses of capitalist culture; perhaps by being overstated it attracts our attention in an increasingly ADHD world. Marketing and consumption are altogether too powerful in our modern lives, and there is something casual and hedonistic about our whole existence. We eat tasty food and wear pretty clothes and watch films with beautiful people—but secretly we live lives of quiet desperation, longing for meaning.
My first inclination was in fact to scoff, “This is hippie nonsense, just another anthropologist pining for the imagined savannah. Capitalism (and its altogether kinder child, social democracy) has made the world demonstrably better in so many ways.” Yet when I stopped to consider what I meant by better, I realized that most of the metrics I was using were metrics defined by capitalism. GDP is massively increased, technology is improved, poverty is reduced—but so what? Why are these the things we care about?
There are, however, more objective metrics by which capitalism has improved our lives. We live longer, we suffer less from disease, more of us have enough food to eat and enough shelter to protect us from the weather. As much as I regret that my shoes were most likely made in a Chinese sweatshop, I like the way they feel on my feet, they are good for my posture, and they are vastly better than anything I could have made on my own. Would that they were made by robots—but that is a matter of time and capital, for the technology already exists.
It is debatable whether humans overall have more or less leisure than we used to, but I certainly have enormous amounts of leisure, more indeed than I can financially sustain. (Unemployment is wonderful until your credit cards reach their limits.) Yet only in a society much like this one—and nothing like what we had in hunter-gatherer societies—could I ever consider making my lifebread by writing books and performing scientific research. I would be a terrible hunter and not a spectacular gatherer.
I've been thinking in fact about the Third World, and what it will be like if I decide to join the Peace Corps and teach elementary science in West Africa. I've thought that maybe the experience would change the way I think about life, morality, justice, economics, and especially capitalism. Yet I came to realize that in fact even the Peace Corps is ultimately an outgrowth of capitalism; there could be no Peace Corps without a First World and a Third World, without plenitude in some nations and poverty in others. And the question for me really comes down to this: Is it possible for everyone to have plenitude, or must some always be in poverty?
Though perhaps in later chapters he will change his tune, Robbins seems to think that the latter is true. There will always be haves and have-nots, and if we are to be fair, we must give up what we have so that we too can be have-nots. And perhaps this is right; unfortunately I cannot rule it out. Clearly our credit economy is flawed, and it seems apparent that continuous GDP growth is unsustainable. At some point we will reach the limits of what we can achieve this way, and it is not obvious to me that those limits are large enough to include everyone.
Yet there is so much stuff in the universe! So vastly much energy, material, space, and time. Incalculably, incomprehensibly much stuff. And within us, so vastly much imagination and ingenuity. It is already possible for one human to make more than what one human needs, and our technology makes this more true every day; so why then do we not all have what we need?
Is it, as Robbins supposes, simply our insatiable lust for consumption, fueled by a culture of marketing? Should we learn to live with less? Should I sell this netbook, sell my DVD collection, sell the clothes I do not need to live? Should I eat only vegetables grown in my own garden? Should I do something even more radical still, and move to live in the wild, hunting deer and rabbits naked with wooden spears? Come now, we all know what would happen: I would cut myself and die of septicemia, or else be eaten by a bear. Only a rare few would survive, and they precariously.
Am I just being selfish by continuing to participate in this vast edifice of capitalist culture—does it benefit me at the expense of Chinese children? Or might it be possible, in fact, to share the benefits of wealth and technology with everyone, so that the Chinese children too can have netbooks and designer shoes? Can we make a world where we all labor less and have more?
I think we can. But I haven't the faintest idea how to get there from here. In the meantime I guess I will keep eating at restaurants and writing on my netbook, hoping that I am not pulling the world in the wrong direction.

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