System Failure

The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System
By Jerry Mander
Counterpoint, 2012, 250 pages

In many ways Jerry Mander may be the ideal candidate to write a book about the profoundly unsolvable social and environmental problems associated with late-stage capitalism. A former advertising executive, Mander was the longtime executive director of the International Forum on Globalization, which he founded in 1994. He continues to serve on its staff as a Distinguished Fellow. He is also the program director for Megatechnology and Globalization at the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

Perhaps best known for his 1977 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Mander also worked with Earth Island Institute founder David Brower back in the day, designing many of the Sierra Club’s successful advertising campaigns, including the landmark newspaper ads against the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon.

In his latest book, book cover thumbnail The Capitalism Papers, Mander details, without a lot of fluff, some irrefutable arguments against capitalism, which he says is based on the premise of limitless growth on a planet with ultimately limited resources. Globalization and the concentration of capital, along with the endless growth mentality, have combined to create a system of governance in which democracy has been held hostage by private interests; where militarism and war are viewed as mature economic strategy; and exploitation of the intellectual and natural commons has wreaked serious harm on the planet’s life support systems.

Capitalism as a global economic system may have worked in the 1900s, but to continue with it now is “calamitous,” Mander writes. “It is the rankest absurdity to advance human-created economic systems that do not acknowledge the carrying capacities of the planet. Growth beyond carrying capacity is suicide and ecocide,” he states.

Mander’s sharpest critique comes as he examines the social consequences of our present day system on the United States. Today we are among the top nations globally in the rates of divorce, adult and childhood obesity, incarceration, murders, rape, armed robbery, and wealth inequality. Meanwhile, our voter turnout, life expectancy, and home ownership rates are lower than many other Western nations. Our greatest achievement appears to be the ability of our economic system to create incredible wealth for a small minority of the population, Mander argues.

Fortunately, he doesn’t simply deliver a critique of this dominant global economic system; he also suggests many hopeful, compelling solutions and calls for a redesign of the corporate system that provides for greater human and environmental accountability. Mander cites already proven and reliable new economic models and strategies such as worker-owned cooperatives, regional and steady state economics, the trend for greater localism, resilient economic planning, and the effort to redefine what we mean by prosperity, growth, and economic and social wellbeing.

In the final chapter, “Which Way Out,” he quotes ecological philosopher John Michael Greer, author of The Long Descent, who says: “To reverse course will require abandoning the core narrative of this society ... the narrative of progress – the story that defines human existence as a single great upward trajectory from the caves to the stars, and insists that the present is better than the past and that the future will inevitably be better still, and that capitalism is [the] instrument for its achievement.”

Mander believes that scale is paramount. He says the long-term answers to our present global dysfunction will be found in the evolution of a new “hybrid” model – a model that would contain many proven ideas and practices offering human-scaled solutions. He agrees with the avowed “eco-socialist,” Indian-born economist Saral Sarkar, that no capitalist can willingly accept a low-level, steady-state economy. Sarkar has called for a new sort of modified socialism, developing a multiplicity of solutions such as worker co-ops, state ownership, and the continued private ownership of small, local businesses, along with autonomy for local economies.

At the end of Mander’s well-written treatise, he concludes on a rather positive note that, “the chasm is still very wide from where we need to go, but we begin to see across to the other side. So let’s put aside our ideologies, stay open, and keep talking.”

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