Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few

Two of the prominent front runners of the US presidential election positions themselves as "anti-establishment" and campaigned to take away the power of the elites and return that power to the people. Reich's recent book "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few" (2015) took on many of the issues; essentially questions about democracy, power, law and justice. This book outlines what the rules that structure capitalism are, how they are used, and what impact they have. And, optimistically looks at how different rules better serve the majority.

Reich presents an accessible book, written for a non-expert audience, presenting how the 'rules of the game' of capitalism can benefit a powerful elite or the majority. And, it provides examples from the American context of how these struggles have been navigated in history. In general, the author presents a story of how the rules that govern corporate activity were adjusted to include the majority in the past (not always easily, but in the end). However, in the recent decades, these shifts / re-adjustments have not taken place. Inequality has rapidly risen, earnings (wages) have stagnated for average workers, and a minority of a minority has become extremely, unfathomably wealthy. "My solution" the author writes "and I am hardly along in suggesting this – has been an activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to get ahead, and redistributes to the needy… I've come to believe it overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs" (p. xii-xiii). The way forward: "the only way to reverse course it for the vast majority who now lack influence over the rules of the game to become organized and unified, in order to re-establish the countervailing power that was the key to widespread prosperity five decades ago" (p. xv).

Before delving into some of the specifics of Reich's arguments and evidence, based on the above summary I wish to make the following note: The author does an excellent job identifying the issues and providing concrete examples of what the rules of the game mean and how they are manipulated. While there are ideas about what new rules might look like, there are fewer ideas of how 'the people' will organize and unify to make change. Those that are presented (create/support third political parties, create/support unions) are ones that are difficult to establish because of the way the current system operates. For books that explore in greater detail how power can be disrupted and redistributed, one might read Green's (2016) How Change Happens or Alinsky's (1971) Rules for Radicals.

Throughout much of Reich's book, the author tries to break down the myth that the real issue is more/less government involved in the market. Rather, it is the rules that exist in either case. "The "free market" is a myth that prevents us from examining these rule changes and asking who they serve. The myth is therefore highly useful to those who do not wish such an examination to be undertaken. It is no accident that those with disproportionate influence over these rules, who are the largest beneficiaries of how the rules have been designed and adapted, are also among the most vehement supporters of the "free market" and the most ardent advocates of the relative superiority of the market over government. But the debate itself also serves their goal of distracting the public from the underlying realities of how the rules are generated and changed, their own power over this process, and the extent to which they gain from the results" (p. 6-7).

The book offers plenty of examples of how the rules of the game are rigged. I'll repeat one of them: "Monsanto has the distinction of spending more on lobbying – nearly $7 million in 2013 alone – than any other agribusiness. And Monsanto's former (and future) employees frequently inhabit top posts at the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, they staff congressional committees that deal with agriculture policy, and they become advisors to congressional leaders and the White House. Two Monsanto lobbyists are former congressman Vic Fazio and former senator Blanche Lincoln. Even Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was at one time an attorney for Monsanto. Monsanto, like any new monopoly, has strategically used its economic power to gain political power and used its political power to entrench its market power" (p. 35-36).

The problem is a shift of who has power, and the solution is re-shifting that power. Reich writes: "The underlying problem, then, is not that average working Americans are "worth" less in the market than they had been, or that they have been living beyond their means. The problem is that they have steadily lost the bargaining power needed to receive as large a portion of the economy's gains as they commanded in the first three decades after World War II" (p. 131). "The essential challenge" therefore "is political rather than economic. It is impossible to reform an economic system whose basic rules are under the control of an economic elite without altering the allocation of political power that lies behind that control" (p. 168). The book ends with:

"The coming challenge is not to technology or to economics. It is a challenge to democracy. The critical debate for the future is not about the size of government; it is about who government is for. The central choice is not between the "free market" and the government; it is between a market organized for broadly based prosperity and one designed to deliver almost all the gains to a few at the top. The pertinent issue is not how much is to be taxed away from the wealthy and redistributed to those who are not; it is how to design the rules of the market so that the economy generates what most people would consider a fair distribution on its own, without necessitating large redistributions after the fact. The vast majority of the nation's citizens do have the power to alter the rules of the market to meet their needs. But to exercise that power, they must understand what is happening and where their interests lie, and they must join together. We have done so before. If history is any guide and common sense has any sway, we will do so again." (p. 219)

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Logan Cochrane

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