Thursday, January 17th, 2019

Kelchner: New book sells hope with cheap words

Posted on March 29, 2012 in Perspectives
By Kit Kelchner

Kit Kelchner

On March 13,  New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Thomas Friedman recently reviewed the book “Power, Inc.,” by David Rothkopf, in what can only be described as gushing praise. The book examines the increasing privatization of power by way of the rise of trans-national corporations whose revenues now dwarf the GDP of many nations.

Rothkopf’s credentials and the quality of the book, which has garnered praise for its blend of story-telling, historical fact and analysis, are unquestioned. It can be used as a type of economic and political compass by which to orient yourself in the international debate Friedman labels “Capitalism 2012.” But it can equally be used to realize how out of touch that narrative is becoming with the needs of the young.

Anti-Wall Street protestors have sprung up at Ivy League recruiting days at both Yale and Harvard, an expression of the disenchantment students are feeling with the capitalist finance system. Some students are beginning to not buy into a life that leads to corporate greed, exploitation and what increasingly seems a drain on society rather than a meaningful contribution. It is the beginning, for some, of a rejection of the art of modern wealth garnering. Perhaps it is a call of conscience.

In The Politics, Aristotle observed that living well requires such choices, hard as they may be.

This anti-Wall Street sentiment aroused in the younger generation goes without notice for some. Rothkopf focuses on the clash coming between emerging forms of capital (Indian, Chinese etc…) and the traditional U.S. variety, and ignores the anti-capitalist movement. What is intriguing, as Friedman puts it,  is Rothkopf’s conviction that the “21st century will be about which version of capitalism will win.”

Who’s giving out the crystal balls?

This capital-as-king narrative has the makings of a Grimm brothers fairy tale. Capital has defeated communism and emerged from the dark German forest. All is well. But is it?

Many cultural critics, political philosophers and social activists continue to question the fundamental grounds of capital’s claim as the economic model supreme. The spitting and spurting of capitalist economic crashes may not be simply problems that need correcting. Many have pointed out that capital may need such upheavals in order to reinvent itself. The economic nightmares may be endemic to the system. The suffering, bloodshed, exploitation and death may be just the price of doing business.

Rothkopf’s storytelling sells hope that all will be well. In Friedman’s article he lists a number of “grand bargains” that capital must make with the state to ensure this happy ending: the deficit, environmental, infrastructure, education, health care, birth and death, employees and government.

In short, Friedman presents a list so extensive it covers all of society, yet cannot see that something so extensively damaged is not broken. As professor of economics Robert Heilbroner once opined, “One is tempted to ask by what criteria the system would be deemed a failure.”

These grand bargains are reminiscent of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Bargaining is a stage in which promises are made in the hope that a terminal illness or impending death can be delayed, postponed. The promise to a higher power is made in the hopes of gaining more time or absolution.

They are promising they will be good, they will reform, if we just give them more time. Are the lords of capital sensing the approval of society waning? Are the promises just more lies?

That appears to be the case with the resignation of Greg Smith, the former Goldman Sachs executive director. “I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work,” he wrote in his New York Times Op-Ed statement.

Friedman is much more upbeat about capital’s prospects with society. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is quoted to explain what is missing in politics: “technocratic understanding of the facts and where things are working and where they are not working.” Yet, there were plenty of technocratic warning signs all along that the housing bubble was going to crash. The banks knew it — they partly engineered it.

No, Gates, the problem is not creating another interpretation of the facts. Though it is no surprise that a technocrat is seeking a technocratic answer. Maybe this problem is not one that can be solved with rules, laws, machines, processes, and bureaucracies ad nauseam.

Maybe, just maybe, it can be solved by a change in community.

Rothkopf views the rivalry between big business and state power as the key issue in the on-going struggle. Out of view remains the grass roots struggles of the people of the United States, particularly the young, to create their own society outside of the board rooms, ball rooms and back parlors.

Call them the third option.

Kit Kelchner is a philosophy and health sciences major in his senior year.

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