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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Few books have been as widely read and cited as Orientalism (1978) by Edward Said. Reading Orientalism now, it is hard to understand its importance because so many of Said's ideas have become part of a broader cultural and post-colonial critiques. Despite its influence, in a 2003 Preface, the author writes: "The disheartening part is that the more the critical study of cultural shows us that this is the case, the less influence such a view seems to have, and the more territorially reductive polarizations like "Islam v. the West" seem to conquer" (p. xxiii). More people understand the message, but it appears to carry less weight. One may disagree with the book, or specific points made within it, but it should be on everyone's essential reading list.

Said writes of a deep history wherein the study of others – specifically Arabs and Muslims – has entrenched ideas of superiority, and for centuries portrayed Arabs and Muslims as lesser than human, irrational, evil. "These contemporary Orientalist attitudes flood the press and the popular mind. Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose underserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being" (p. 108). Importantly, these portrayals are means of self-definition – what "they" are, and what "we" are not; what "we" are, and what "they" are not. Said begins his book in stating that the "Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience (p. 1-2).

At its core, this is a book not about portrayal of others, it is a book about what that portrayal means when the individual, group, nation or Empire conveying it has power and authority. "There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it established canons of tastes and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgements it forms, transmits, reproduces. Above all, authority can, indeed must, by analyzed" (p. 19-20). That power and authority, in the realm of ideas, can be reinforcing: "If one reads a book claiming that lions are fierce and then encounters a fierce lion (I simplify, of course), the changes are that one will be encourages to read more books by that same author, and believe them" (p. 93)

In the portrayal of others, Said argues, there is something more than incorrect information. These portrayals of others as lesser than human serves a purpose, it is a tactic and a tool that is intentionally utilized: "My whole point about this system is not that it is a misinterpretation of some Oriental essence – in which I do not for a moment believe – but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting. In other words, representations have purposes, they are effective much of the time, they accomplish one or many tasks" (p. 273). Consider the author's assessment of Arabs and Muslims in the media – and recall that this is Said writing in 1978, not 2016:

"the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. He appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low. Slave trader, camel driver, moneychanger, colorful scoundrel: these are some traditional Arab roles in the cinema. The Arab leader (of marauders, pirates, "native" insurgents) can often be seen snarling at the captured Western hero and the blond girl (both of them steeped in wholesomeness), "My men are going to kill you, but – they like to amuse themselves before." He leers suggestively as he speaks: this is a current debasement of Valentino's Sheik. In newsreels or newsphotos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world. Books and articles are regularly published on Islam and the Arabs that represent absolutely no change over the virulent anti-Islamic polemics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance" (p. 286-287).

In the 2003 Preface Said speaks of a responsibility – not of one's choosing but of "force of circumstance" – of those who cross boundaries and can transmit and translate ideas between worlds: "For those of us who by force of circumstance actually live the pluri-cultural life as it entails Islam and the West, I have long felt that a special intellectual and moral responsibility attaches to what we do as scholars and intellectuals. Certainly, I think it is incumbent upon us to complicate and/or dismantle the reductive formulae and the abstract but potent kind of thought that leads the mind away from concrete human history and experience and into the realms of ideological fiction, metaphysical confrontation, and collective passion" (p. xxiii).

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Pathologies of Power

Paul Farmer's (2005) "Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor" is a "physician-anthropologist's effort to reveal the ways in which the most basic right – the right to survive – is trampled in an age of great affluence" (p. 6). However, Farmer covers much more than the right to survive, this book "is about the struggle for social and economic rights, the neglected stepchildren of the human rights movement. Because social and economic rights include the right to health care, housing, clean water, and education, they are sometimes called the "the rights of the poor."' (p. xxiv). It is highly recommended for academics and practitioners, and I also highly recommend Farmer's book Infections and Inequalities.

For those new to development studies, academics who assume development practitioners are non-reflexive positivists, and for practitioners looking to be more critical of the processes within international development, Farmer's books are essential reads. In the opening pages he sets the tone: "It was not the silence that rankled. It seemed to us that the exercise was demeaning – the participants, having survived genocide and displacement, were now being treated like children. They were being asked to respond to an agenda imported from capital cities, from do-gooder organizations like ours, from U.S. universities with the "right" answers to their every question. No harm done, perhaps, and the topic was important – but how helpful was this exercise, with its aim of changing the mentality of the locals, who were, after all, the victims of the previous decades of violence? A change in mentality was needed, certainly, but it was needed in the hearts and minds of those with power – and they were not here" (p. 3-4).

It is not just the 'others' with power; as a physician, Farmer writes that many "physicians are uncomfortable acknowledging these harsh facts of life and death. To do so, one must admit that the majority of premature deaths are, as the Haitians would say, "stupid deaths." They are completely preventable with the tools already available to the fortunate few" (p. 144). Yet, it is not simply more "development" that is required: "Developmentalism not only erases the historical creation of poverty but also implies that development is necessarily a linear process: progress will inevitably occur if the right steps are followed. Yet any critical assessment of the impact of such approaches must acknowledge their failure to help the poor" (p. 155)

Weaved throughout the book, Farmer expresses his concern with a changing set of norms and values: from rights, respect and dignity to costs and value for money. He writes: "many of the concepts currently in vogue in public health – from "cost-effectiveness" to "sustainability" and "replicability" - are likely to be perverted unless social justice remains central to public health and medicine. A human rights approach to health economics and health policy helps to bring into relief the ill effects of the efficacy-equity trade-off" (p. 18). This view is not just challenged as an opinion, but as an affront to the practice of health care: "the flabby moral relativism of our times would have us believe that we may now choose from a broad menu of approaches to delivering effective health care services to the poor. This is simply not true. Whether you are sitting in a clinic in rural Haiti, and this witness to stupid deaths from infection, or sitting in an emergency room in a U.S. city, and this the provider of first resort for forty million uninsured, you must acknowledge that the commodification of medicine invariably punishes the vulnerable" (p. 152). This book was published in 2005, and parts published earlier, and Farmer foresaw a challenge that has grown (while also shifting names from cost-effectiveness to value for money, to assessments of quality-adjusted life years, and as metrics in results and impact reporting): "As international health experts come under the sway of the bankers and their curiously bounded utilitarianism, we can expect more and more of our services to be declared "cost-ineffective" and more of our patients to be erased. In declaring health and health care to be a human right, we join forces with those who have long labored to protect the rights and dignity of the poor" (p. 159).

For those who work with marginalized and vulnerable people, who voices are excluded, it is challenging to convey experiences to others. In Farmer's earlier book Infections and Inequalities he used vignettes of people's lives as an attempt. In this end, however, "the experience of suffering, it's often noted, is not effectively conveyed by statistics or graphs. In fact, the suffering of the world's poor intrudes only rarely into the consciousness of the affluent, even when our affluence may be shown to have direct relation to their suffering. This is true even when spectacular human rights violations are at issue, and it is even more true when the topic at hand is the everyday violation of social and economic rights" (p. 31). It is both a depressing conclusion – the reality of a lack of concern – and a call to action. The systems that create and entrench poverty, as well as those that ignore suffering when plan to see, will continue lest things change, and change necessitates informed, critical engagement.

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Post-doc: Power, Poverty & Politics

​The International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam the Netherlands is seeking to fill three full-time (100%) vacancies for the position of Post-Doctoral Researcher for a two year period from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2018. We welcome applications from prospective postdoc researchers who are interested in doing operational research on gender, governance and development in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The researchers will be part of the research project 'Power, Poverty and Politics (PPP) in DRC', a subproject of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium led by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. The project is financed by UK Aid for the UK Government. It comprises a network of partners and research under the project is set up as close collaborations between international and Congolese universities and research institutes. 

This two-year research program (1 January 2017- 31 December 2018) aims to deepen existing research on governance, service delivery and economic growth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to examine the details of policy implementation from national to local levels, to generate lessons from what works in promoting positive change and how to measure change. The PPP will do this by tackling a range of sector specific topics that link closely to Department for International Development (DfID) programs and policies and are thus chosen for their potential to contribute practical operational knowledge.

  1. Women, power and society. This project concerns the question of how the changing roles of women in DRC affect their power relations, with a particular focus on social accountability and decision making. It will be based on case studies of development programmes that incorporate social accountability mechanisms (including community scorecards and local community committees), and seek to assess the broader impact of these programmes on gender relations. 
  2. Everyday politics and practices of family planning in DRC. Promoting and protecting women's reproductive rights and health is key to women's empowerment and gender equality. This proposal concerns current policies and practices of family planning; debates on policy and perceptions of people regarding family planning and the role of societal stakeholders. It takes a 360 degrees, mixed methods look at family planning services. 
  3. Mining reforms and the changing roles of women in mining communities. The artisanal mining sector constitutes a vital source of income for many poor women and men - a substantial part of the population in DRC. In the course of the past decade,several attempts have been made to promote good governance in the mining sector. This study will focus on the gendered implications of ongoing reforms for the women and communities involved in artisanal mining in (Eastern) DRC.

More details.

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Logan Cochrane

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