Showing posts with label Capitalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Capitalism. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I will not attempt to formally “review” Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as it justifiably has been thoroughly reviewed and highly praised since publication. But having recently read it, here is my opinion. It is a tour de force of our times covering the entire canvas of American culture, politics, and the forces that now shape our personal relationships and our society. It is stunningly and ingeniously written, with a fresh originality, a postmodern view of who we are and how we got here. In so doing, Franzen excoriates the worst aspects of American culture.

It is a story about the enmeshment of relationships, the extent to which we create our own hell (or heaven) having been dealt the hand of the families we are born into. Do we assume the roles of our parents or rebel against them? To what extent do we really have free will or become victims of abuse and misbehavior inflicted by prior generations? It is about competition and power, survival of the fittest, fathers vs. sons, almost echoing the Darwinian themes of Dreiser. It
is about the conflict of personal freedoms and the need to protect the environment and control population growth. Will “the American bourgeoisie…voluntarily accept increasing restrictions on its personal freedoms”?

It is also a novel about a unique development in American life, new generations not having it better than previous ones, perhaps the consequence of having too many choices. As Franzen writes about the main character, Patty, “she was struck…by how much better off and more successful her parents were than any of their children, herself included.” Her mother cursed her husband’s genes “for her kids’ weirdness and ineffectuality.” At times the characters are “bludgeoned by depression,” another leitmotif of the novel and certainly characteristic of our
Prozac plagued times.

I couldn’t help but think of Updike’s Rabbit novels, written about every ten years, capturing the Zeitgeist of each decade, and Franzen, now, encapsulating the state of the first decade of the millennium. There is also the eerie coincidence of Patty being a basketball star in her youth, like Rabbit Angstrom. In many respects, there is a decidedly Updikian feel to the novel.

The novel is a shot across the bow of a society that values the culture of American Idol and the
worst aspects of capitalism more than the environment and intelligent political choices. At one point Patty’s son, Joey, wishes “there were some different world he could belong to, some simpler world in which a good life could be had at nobody else’s expense,” summing up the modern conundrum.

While it is a novel of social commentary, it is also a page-turner with memorable characters, ranking with the best in American literature. The writer who shared similar concerns in the early 20th century, Sinclair Lewis, said America is “the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.” I think Franzen would agree

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Waiting for someone to explain it

The global financial crisis: life imitating art? It’s hard to see the connection, but as with any great work of music or literature, we could be smack in the development section, when themes or characters, introduced in an earlier time, are permanently changed and emerge as something very different. This period in the financial crisis is being played out with the dissonance of a Shostakovich, or the absurdity of postmodern literature. As Eugene Ionesco wrote in the program notes for his play The Chairs, “as the world is incomprehensible to me, I am waiting for someone to explain it.” Perhaps we all feel the same way about the global financial crisis. It would indeed be an absurdity to conclude that after these convulsions, it will be business as usual.

But the day-to-day machinations of the market, bailouts, and politics obfuscate the possible outcomes. Are the capitalistic underpinnings of the new world economy at an inflection point, to be changed for better or worse after this economic turmoil has passed? For some insight into a speculative, but well argued bigger picture I give a hat tip to my friend Bruce who put me onto the article After capitalism written by Geoff Mulgan and published in the UK Prospect Magazine.

Capitalism, in spite of several boom and bust cycles has survived, although the US economy has changed drastically, abandoning some of its manufacturing capabilities to cheaper overseas labor, focusing on intellectual capital, and becoming more of a service oriented consumer economy. It is now just a part of a highly interconnected world economy dominated by multinational corporations. With an insatiable appetite for goods and energy, however, we’ve become a nation of borrowers, living on leverage and the largess of countries willing (still) to buy our debt.

At the same time the nature of capitalism has changed. The financial institutions that once existed to solely support industry are now an industry onto itself, trading derivatives and exotic financial instruments and, with this fundamental change, perhaps we’ve arrived at another precipice of “creative destruction,” Joseph Schumpeter's term for the consequence of radical departures.

Mulgan argues that capitalism is sure to change but will not disappear. Instead, it will not dominate in our culture as it did in the “greed is good” era. Capitalism has been adaptable but in some ways has sown seeds of its own destruction. He cites the “collapse of the savings rate—to around zero by 2007 in the US when it needs to be closer to 30 per cent to cope with ageing…a stark symptom of a capitalism that has lost the ability to protect its own future.”

Then, in retrospect, the Great Depression can be seen as both “a disaster and an accelerator of reform. One implication of [Carlota] Perez’s work, and of Joseph Schumpeter’s before her, is that some of the old has to be swept away before the new can find its most successful forms. Propping up failing industries is in this light a risky policy. Perez suggests that we may be on the verge of another great period of institutional innovation and experiment that will lead to new compromises between the claims of capital and the claims of society and of nature.”

Mulgan postulates, “If another great accommodation is on its way, this one will be shaped by the triple pressures of ecology, globalisation and demographics.” This will lead to changes away from consumption to savings and will underscore capitalism’s need to come closer in balance with nature rather than its destruction. Capitalism, in effect will become the servant rather than the master. But “it remains to be seen what political visionary will seize upon ‘servant capitalism.’ (Obama should be ideally suited to offering a new vision, yet has surrounded himself with champions of the very system that now appears to be crumbling.)”

Where today’s seismic financial activity will settle is still a black hole of the unknowable, but for an interesting macro view on the future of capitalism, check out Mulgan’s piece.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Early in the Morning

It is early in the morning on the eve of President-elect Obama’s inauguration – in fact very early, another restless night. When it is so early and still outside, sound travels and I can hear the CSX freight train in the distance, its deep-throated rumbling and horn warning the few cars out on the road at the numerous crossings nearby.

Perhaps subconsciously my sleeplessness on this, the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, relates to the incongruous dreamlike images of the bookends of my political consciousness, from the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957, the freedom marches that culminated with the march on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King’s historic "I Have a Dream" speech, to the inauguration tomorrow of our first Afro-American President. All this breathtaking demonstration of profound social change in just my lifetime.

Much has now been said comparing Obama to Lincoln. In my “open letter” to Obama that I published here last May I said “Your opponents have criticized your limited political experience, making it one of their main issues in attacking your candidacy. Lincoln too was relatively inexperienced, something he made to work to his advantage. Forge cooperation across the aisle in congress, creating your own ‘team of rivals’ as Doris Kearns Goodwin described his cabinet in her marvelous civil war history.”

The Lincoln comparison is now omnipresent in the press, not to mention his cabinet selections indeed being a team of rivals. But I am restless because of what faces this, the very administration I had hoped for: a crisis of values as much as it is an economic one. The two are inextricably intertwined.

I am reading an unusual novel by one of my favorite authors, John Updike, Terrorist. One of the main characters, Jack Levy laments: “My grandfather thought capitalism was doomed, destined to get more and more oppressive until the proletariat stormed the barricades and set up the worker’ paradise. But that didn’t happen; the capitalists were too clever or the proletariat too dumb. To be on the safe side, they changed the label ‘capitalism’ to read ‘free enterprise,’ but it was still too much dog-eat-dog. Too many losers, and the winners winning too big. But if you don’t let the dogs fight it out, they’ll sleep all day in the kennel. The basic problem the way I see it is, society tries to be decent, and decency cuts no ice in the state of nature. No ice whatsoever. We should all go back to being hunter-gathers, with a hundred-percent employment rate, and a healthy amount of starvation.”

The winners in this economy were not only the capitalists, the real creators of jobs due to hard work and innovation, but the even bigger winners: the financial masters of the universe who learned to leverage financial instruments with the blessings of a government that nurtured the thievery of the public good through deregulation, ineptitude, and political amorality. This gave rise to a whole generation of pseudo capitalists, people who “cashed in” on the system, bankers and brokers and “financial engineers” who dreamt up lethal structures based on leverage and then selling those instruments to an unsuspecting public, a public that entrusted the government to be vigilant so the likes of a Bernie Madoff could not prosper for untold years. Until we revere the real innovators of capitalism, the entrepreneurs who actually create things, ideas, jobs, our financial system will continue to seize up. That is the challenge for the Obama administration – a new economic morality.

Walt Whitman penned these words on the eve of another civil war in 1860:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it would be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day--at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs

It is still early in the morning as I finish this but the sun is rising and I’m going out for my morning walk. Another freight train is rumbling in the distance. I hear America singing.