Desperately seeking capitalism's soul

William Greider has faith that we can inject morality into the free market. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but still, ya gotta believe.

By Andrew Leonard

Published September 16, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Americans need a new narrative, declares William Greider in "The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy." We need to tell ourselves a different story about what is possible. We need to stop despairing over our corrupt, hopelessly co-opted government, stop believing in corporate self-serving free-market-über-alles rhetoric, and start reorganizing ourselves in the service of new visions for how ordinary citizens and workers can reshape society. Above all, amoral American capitalism must be instilled with a progressive spirit.

That's a tall order, and even Greider takes pains to note that much of what he calls for is wishful thinking, speculation, and unlikely to be realized anytime soon. The obstacles are huge and progress is infinitesimal. Just daring to voice a manifesto like Greider's at this particular point in time, during a presidential administration that is more dedicated to -- and successful at -- rolling back progressive advances than any other in living memory, carries with it a strong whiff of Don Quixote. And Greider isn't even personally tilting at windmills. All he is saying, is that eventually, over the long run, windmill-tilting might become practicable.

For decades, Greider has been a fearless reporter dedicating himself to documenting and exposing deep structural ailments in the way American politics and economics work. His monumental tome "Secrets of the Temple" revealed in impressive detail how the Federal Reserve controls the economy. His follow-up "Who Will Tell the People?" made a convincing case for how special-interest lobbying has fundamentally broken the political system. His record of reporting makes his dewy-eyed optimism -- that during the next century Americans will reformulate society in a more equitable fashion, that they will infuse capitalism with moral values -- all the more quirky.

His confidence that "someday hence" Americans "will be talking again about the fundamentals, asking themselves if it is possible to alter the system in various ways and how they might proceed" is both off-putting and inspirational. Spotting hopeful liberalism of Greider's ilk is like catching sight of a woolly mammoth while on safari. You were sure the animal was extinct, but that doesn't mean you're not ecstatic to see it.

Greider says that his purpose, "at a minimum," is to "show people that it's now okay to think and talk critically about capitalism's own shortcomings. At this point in history, it may even be the patriotic thing to do." Again, at first glance, especially to those us of who came of age during the Reagan presidency and have watched organized labor steadily lose ground while the forces of economic deregulation reign triumphant, who are aghast as major environmental advances are undermined and rolled back by the current coterie in power, and who see virtually no organized resistance to the principle that whatever benefits the stock price of a Fortune 500 company is by definition the correct economic policy for government to pursue, Greider seems hopelessly atavistic.

But that's missing his point. He isn't actually striving to critique capitalism in the classic manner of a fire-breathing radical. Instead, he is setting out to give us new ways to think about how things can be perceived and changed. So, for instance, instead of dwelling on the defeats suffered by Big Labor and calling futilely for more union organizing, he asks us to look at the growth of employee stock ownership plans, and ponder what the ultimate influence of growing levels of worker ownership of corporations might be. Instead of decrying the corruption of Wall Street and calling for more regulation (which, as he notes, would be hopelessly compromised by the political process before ever being enacted into law), he devotes time to pointing out the potentially vast influence pension funds (swelling with hundreds of billions of dollars that belong to ordinary middle-class Americans) could have if they made their investments contingent on socially responsible corporate behavior.

Some of Greider's ideas are radical in the best sense. For example, he points out that a truly free market would incorporate every cost into its calculations -- the costs of ecological destruction and worker degradation. Instead of simply saying capitalism is wrong, Greider is asking us how to make it more right. Above all, he is expressing a profound faith in the American character, in the restless curiosity and endless innovation inherent in the national fiber. Just because we haven't yet figured out how to equitably share the abundance our economy is capable of generating doesn't mean it's always going to be this way.

Greider provides few examples of grass-roots organizations or corporations that are suffused with an ethos of social responsibility and yet still manage to operate effectively in the marketplace. There's Solidarity, a temp-owned-and-operated temp agency in Baltimore, and Herman Miller, the manufacturer of Aeron chairs. There are a handful of socially responsible mutual funds, and a few communities that have dared to make quality of life a factor in whether they offer tax incentives to corporations to come and set up shop. They hardly represent a trend -- if you went so far as to call them a drop in the bucket, you would still be guilty of extreme hyperbole.

But they serve Greider's purpose, which is to demonstrate that there are success stories, that progress is possible. It is useful, as Greider does at the beginning of his book, to step back and consider what has been achieved since the not-so-distant past. The end of slavery and the rise of civil rights. The end of brutal child labor, the right of women to vote. Vast increases in life expectancy, in quality of housing, in environmental protection.

The relatively high standard of living enjoyed by citizens of the United States is in part due to the vigor of capitalism, but it is also due to people believing that higher standards were possible, Greider stresses. Somewhere, he suggests, the average American has lost that sense of possibility. Whether he or she has been beaten down by rhetoric that suggests that any restriction on the capitalist engine will undermine the economy and mire us all in command economy poverty, or whether the obvious corruption and failure of government to serve the interests of the people first have disillusioned us about the ability of our institutions to work in the future, isn't necessary to determine. The point is that our national character, eventually, will demand that we ask for more.

It is easy to criticize Greider for being overly optimistic -- and perhaps overly U.S.-centric. It's an open question whether the standards of living in the United States can withstand the pressures of globalization that are a consequence of unrestrained capitalism. Or, to take another example, the progress made incorporating ecological protection into American capitalist practices may not mean much when placed against the havoc that a fast-developing Chinese economy is set to wreak on the world.

Getting pension funds to leverage their potentially awesome power in the service of social responsibility is going to be a titanic fight against those who believe that the highest duty of an investor is to achieve the highest rate of return. Struggling to restrain the behavior of giant corporations when the federal government operates at their beck and call is an equally formidable task. There are, indeed, plenty of reasons for dismay and dejection.

But, as Greider concludes, "people everywhere have the ability to alter social reality, at least in their own surroundings. When they decide to act on their convictions, sooner or later the politics will follow. A meaningful minority can change the nation ... Every small advance is a signal to others that change is possible, that maybe they too are licensed to entertain doubts and curiosity."

Why not agree?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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