A superficial solution to a deeper problem

A Brief History of Neoliberalism - David Harvey

A Brief History of Neoliberalism - David Harvey

Democracy Now have an interesting interview with David Harvey about the G20 summit and the bailouts. He makes the point that the billions of taxpayer dollars that have been funneled into bailouts are merely preserving an economic system that is fundamentally flawed.

Capitalism almost collapsed entirely in the 1930’s, played a large part in the rise of Hitler and the Second World War and went through another serious crisis in the 1970’s.  This cycle of boom and bust is set to continue until the current brand of neo-liberal capitalism is replaced with something more sustainable. One suggestion Harvey makes is that we have to move towards a “zero-growth” economy i.e. one where profit is not the single motivating factor behind the economy. In other words, simply existing should be enough and factors other than profit – such as the environment, jobs, education and human wellbeing – should be the focus.

Harvey however doesn’t pretend to offer any blueprint as to how such a society would look like and critics would no doubt jump to point out that such a system would not foster progress or innovation. In capitalist society, profit is the basis behind innovation and without a financial incentive, no individual or company would invent or design anything new and mankind would effectively stagnate. However, maybe it could be argued that much of what passes for “innovation” and “progress” – such as bigger cars, more sophisticated marketing and advertising industries, cheaper electronics and travel – constitute the wrong kind of progress anyway.

Before a zero-growth economy could be conceived, there would have to be a fundamental shift in human thinking about what profit and progress should really be all about.

Incidentally, David Harvey has uploaded videos of his classroom lectures plus you can read excerpts from his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

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4 thoughts on “A superficial solution to a deeper problem

  1. Great to see some good quality writing about the failings of capitalism.

    One of the biggest problems with our current economic system is that it pushes the ‘instinct’ of acquisitiveness. It substitutes our natural desire for self-identity and inner-understanding with an insatiable want for the things that only money can buy. It encourages an outlook of seeing your fellow man or woman as little more than a social-economic competitor. It reduces something as mystical as a feeling into a shallow impulse that exists just so it can be hosed-down with a purchase…only to be quickly replaced with another equally empty buying event.

    Capitalisms’ “free market ” manufactures the tawdry lie that you need a new car, a bigger house, or a breast implant because they are the kinds of things that will finally bring you the happiness that you are looking for. It takes out everything else from awe-inspired, ambitious striving for wisdom, and slots-in “materialism.” It sustains life through paid work for the fortunate, but robs so much too.

  2. Thanks for the comment and thoughts Brett. I think you’re right that capitalism thrives on creating hungry consumers – without them it would simply collapse because there would be no profit to be made on anything. It’s absolutely natural that people want to better themselves but as you say, the marketing machine that drives the system tends to encourage people to see this as only possible in material terms and live way beyond their means as illustrated by the credit crunch.

    I think it’s also true that capitalism has “hijacked” many natural instincts as you say – such as that of self identity and belonging – and successfully sold them back to us in material form. Indeed, this has been one of capitalism’s major triumphs – being able to take almost any human feeling and emotion, bottle it up and sell it.

    The psychology behind what has made capitalism so successful is worth understanding. It’s obviously not all bad otherwise it wouldn’t have been around so long. I’ve found the writings of Erich Fromm particularly useful in this aspect.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Fromm

  3. Thanks for the reply, Nicholas. I think you’re right to say that capitalism is “not all bad otherwise it wouldn’t have been around so long.” Communism was the alternative of the last century but turned out to just be a nice idea. A good idea can quickly become a bad one when it bumps up against the physical world and human nature.

    I’ll have a look at Fromm. One of the better things I’ve seen online on this subject was by Eduardo Galeano:

    http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Global_Secrets_Lies/WorldGoneMad_Galeano.html

  4. The idea behind both communism and capitalism are noble enough but the way they have both been put into action are not. The type of Communism we saw in Russia and Eastern Europe was always doomed to failure because it suppressed individual freedom in the crudest way – i.e. by physical and political oppression. The type of capitalism we have now has survived longer because it grants people far more freedoms although I think many people are starting to question exactly how free they are under it. I’m talking in terms of the widespread disullisonment with politicians who all appear to be the same despite the choice available and the same goes for the mainstream media. That’s not to mention economic factors which obviously have a big bearing on how free someone is. I think that in our society, people are subject to far more psychological restrictions and conditioning – mainly through media, marketing and the education system – than the physical restraints we saw under communism. Those kinds of restrictions are far more difficult to be aware of than the crude physical restrictions exercised by the former communist regimes.

    Thanks for the Galeano article – I’ll look forward to reading it later.

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