Sunday, October 28, 2007

Robert Reich's Supercapitalism is the best big-picture book I've read in years. Dispassionately, it cuts through partisan noise and pinpoints the competitive pressures that have driven global business to serve us all supremely well in our capacities as consumers and investors -- while simultaneously eroding democracy and community. Reich locates a technological tipping point in the mid-to-late 70s that destroyed big businesses' insulation from global competition and made managers answerable to institutional investors ever-ready to move capital to any competitor who maximizes profitability.

These pressures produce great products, low prices, and high-return investment vehicles in which the majority of Americans have some share. The same forces also produce constant downsizing and outsourcing, relentless downward pressure on wages, culturally corrosive media and entertainment, and denuded downtowns. Even more dangerously, supercapitalism drives a lobbying arms race, in which each company and industry strives for competitive advantage on the legislative front (as in every other arena). Companies lobby not because they're conspiring to squeeze out the public interest, but to fend off rivals' attempts to gain advantageous legislation. The result is near-complete corruption of the legislative process as companies compete to buy legislation.

Reich's argument is compelling in large part because he convincingly debunks the vilification of individual actors -- Wal-Mart, lobbying corporations, corrupt politicians, right wing ideologues. The fault, such as it is, lies with all of us. Insofar as we seek the highest quality goods at the cheapest price and highest possible returns on our investment, we are all cracking the whip that keeps wages low, insecurity high, compensation for those who deliver the goods astronomical, and money flooding our political system.

Reich's account of a 'supercapitalism' that is eroding democracy constitutes a compelling challenge to the neo-Hegelian thesis of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, which suggests that after the collapse of communism, human society worldwide has nowhere to go (or grow) but into democratic capitalism. These days, as we obsess with the Islamic backlash against globalism, it's fashionable to laugh at what's perceived as Fukuyama's triumphalism in that 1992 look forward. But Fukuyama's detractors are laughing at a caricature of his work. Fukuyama never suggested that the path to worldwide democracy would be smooth or swift or that it could not be derailed by irrational forces. Like Reich's, Fukuyama's argument is essentially Darwinian: he sees sheer competitive pressure driving underdeveloped societies, first toward capitalism, and then, as economic growth creates a middle class, toward democracy As wealth accumulates in an authoritarian free market country, Fukuyama suggests, a critical mass of people acquire both the means and the motivation to ensure that they can't be robbed or stymied by an unaccountable government.

Fukuyama is one of a long line of thinkers who sees democracy as an outgrowth of free markets and wealth accumulation. What's troubling -- and truly new -- about Reich's thesis is that it may be the first clear look at the next phase -- when hypercompetition, i.e. supercapitalism, begins in turn to erode the democracy already achieved. Reich is at pains to demonstrate that ills appearing first in the U.S. -- widening income inequality, Walmartization of commerce, political sclerosis induced by massive lobbying, uncontrollably obscene and mindless mass culture and entertainment -- are also at work in Europe and Japan.

Reich is much better at diagnosing the problem than at proposing solutions. Indeed, the cumulative impression is that supercapitalism is a juggernaut that overwhelms everything in its path. Reich's proposed solutions boil down to two: genuine lobbying and campaign finance reform, and a new regulatory regime that reins in supercapitalism's steroidal competitive excesses.

But which of us will bell the cat? It's a chicken-and-egg question that Reich does not really address: how can a corrupted political process regain the autonomy and authority to rewrite the rules of the game? The implied answer, I think, is the exhaustion of the parties themselves. Businesses are not reveling in their lobbying prowess -- in fact, they are sick of legislative death matches and of being shaken down by politicians. The recent stirrings of large industry groups calling for serious dialog about health care reform may be a bellwether. Perhaps there will be a twenty-first century magna carta, in which the lords of industry hammer out a truce (or long series of truces) with legislators and agree to a kind of lobbying arms control.

Reich's other implicit remedy is knowledge. I for one found his book something of a revelation with regard to how we are all to greater or lesser degree cracking the supercapitalist whip. If there is new insight emerging into the way that the pressures of global capitalism are eroding democracy, community and security -- in short, commonwealth -- there may be a new will among competing interests to hammer out solutions. It is refreshing and useful in this regard that Reich does not vilify (or credit) Republicans and right wing theorists for unleashing forces we are only beginning to understand.

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