July 17, 2002

Lullabyes of our Times:
A Study in Damage Control

Sunday's New York Times Week in Review section led with a giant feature by Kurt Eichenwald called "Could Capitalists Actually Bring Down Capitalism?" It's a daring question for the empire's number one newspaper to raise, though the insertion of the word "actually" in the headline tips you off that it doesn't mean for you to seriously consider the question in literal terms. The Times starts dancing away from that ugly proposition right in the headline, in case the timorous suffer a stroke over the Sunday morning croissant. The paper would not dare to mention such blasphemy if it weren't already being raised so blatantly by the calamity brought on by the core of the capitalist power structure, starting with the president, the vice president, and working downward.

It doesn't take a very penetrating examination of the text to see that the writer, or the editors, do not want to seriously ask the question, but only to tentatively allude to the desperate, obvious problem, then dismiss it as quickly and painlessly as possible. It is the kind of treatment you give to an a-or-b proposition when you cannot accept one possible answer and must direct the reader to the other conclusion.

In other words, the Times did not raise the issue, the issue is already raised by the near-catastrophic financial problems brought on by the greed and corruption of the president's cronies and other like-minded elites. The Times is leading us close to the edge, then dashing back quickly to the safety of conventional thinking and the comfort of accepting the status quo as inevitable and stable. Unfortunately it is a status quo that is self-destructing before our eyes.

The article leads with a big cheer for capitalism, in case anyone should doubt the paper's dedication to all that is correct and proper: "Over the last few centuries, capitalism has been the heartiest contender in the global bout for economic supremacy..." Never mind that capitalism is the only context in which "a global bout for economic supremacy" has any relevance. Communism is an idea out of a book that never existed in real life. The Soviet Union was an authoritarian state capitalist bureaucracy far more determined by Stalin than Marx. Socialism is a principle for managing a society, not for global domination. In terms of global domination, capitalism is the only game in town. By leading off with simplistic, categorical uses of these concepts, as if they were teams on a football field, the article is ensured of never seriously considering the real questions now facing humanity.

The life-or-death economic and political questions now facing the world are not simple black-and-white propositions like "who is going to win, capitalism or communism?" but about how to civilize and temper capitalism - to pull it out of the stone age - before it destroys not only itself, but brings down civilization.

(Incidentally, if you don't have the print version of the Times, the first paragraph is all you get online. See The NY Times online. After that tasty tidbit you are told you can purchase the article for $2.95. So you'll have to take my word for the remaining content. It's very appropriate to be charged at the gate for an article about whether capitalism is destroying itself.)

The article goes on to allude to how Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal initiated regulatory devices that saved capitalism from being destroyed by its own degeneration into barbarism, though it significantly never mentions either Roosevelt or The New Deal, but only says that Congress passed the laws that brought about the Securities and Exchange Commission.

These protections "turned out to be as permanent and impenetrable as smoke," Eichenwald says, and "At bottom the system still relied on faith." He leaves out the chapter in which the regulations were dismantled by free market fundamentalists, deregulators and privatizers. The regulations did not turn into smoke on their own. In fact they remained in place for decades and functioned quite well, based not on faith but on the very fact that faith was not warranted when it came to capitalists refraining from corrupt practices driven by greed.

"By the late '90s, as is now becoming clear, that foundation of personal integrity had been eroded by easy profits..." Eichenwald says. In his Cliff notes interpretation of history, it was the overwhelming success of capitalism itself, leading to "easy profits" that led to this critical juncture, not the intentional removal of regulations in order to free the corporations to do whatever they wanted, with a wink toward corrupt practices as long as plenty of the booty ended up in the coffers of the politicians who rigged the game.

Then we get to the greatest disclaimer of all: "The fact that their companies are, in all probability, bad apples among many, many honest corporations makes little difference." Whew! Many many Honest Corporations! What planet is he living on? The double superlative is the verbal equivalent of sweating bullets. He is in some very dangerous territory here actually suggesting the obvious fact that the biggest capitalists in the game have driven the world close to the brink of financial calamity. The unavoidable inference that these corrupt practices are representative of major corporations in general is not a bite that the Times is ready to chew at this moment. Go back to sleep, little darlin's, and mama will sing you a lullabye.

-- By David Cogswell

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