Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

Yves here. Real News Network is running an eight-part series on capitalism and democracy, with Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin as interlocutors. I thought the second segment in the series, which is historically focused, to be particularly strong. It seeks to trace the evolution of what they call corporate capitalism, or what we’ve sometimes called Mussolini-style corporatism.

At least in the segments I’ve seen, there’s a tendency for Hedges and Wolin to describe “capitalism” as if it were unitary, when in fact it comes in different flavors. For instance, Michael Hudson has depicted the German industrial capital model versus the English (and now American) finance driven capitalism. The Japanese variant of capitalism even now places creating and preserving employment as a much more important goal than profit.

Another issue I haven’t seen them address as crisply as they might is Dani Rodrik’s trilemma, which he first described in 2007:

Sometimes simple and bold ideas help us see more clearly a complex reality that requires nuanced approaches. I have an “impossibility theorem” for the global economy that is like that. It says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.

Here is what the theorem looks like in a picture:

To see why this makes sense, note that deep economic integration requires that we eliminate all transaction costs traders and financiers face in their cross-border dealings. Nation-states are a fundamental source of such transaction costs. They generate sovereign risk, create regulatory discontinuities at the border, prevent global regulation and supervision of financial intermediaries, and render a global lender of last resort a hopeless dream. The malfunctioning of the global financial system is intimately linked with these specific transaction costs…..

So I maintain that any reform of the international economic system must face up to this trilemma. If we want more globalization, we must either give up some democracy or some national sovereignty. Pretending that we can have all three simultaneously leaves us in an unstable no-man’s land.

From what I can tell, the choice among policy-makers has been to continue to favor greater economic integration, even though going further in that direction is almost certain to produce less rather than more prosperity. Trade is already substantially liberalized; even if you believe more open trade creates net winners, as opposed to redistributes who gains and loses. Recall that the oft-neglected Lipsey-Lancaster theorem says that moving toward an unattainable idealized state (and that is what “free trade” is) doesn’t necessarily make things better and can readily make things worse. You actually have to evaluate the various specific end states to determine whether the result in net gains, which no on appears to do, preferring to rely on faith. Even worse, high levels of international capital flows are strongly correlated with more frequent and severe financial crises, so more financial integration is likely to be a bad thing.

CHRIS HEDGES, PULITZER-PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST: Welcome back to part two of our discussion of the state of American democracy and the rise of corporate capitalism, inverted totalitarianism, with Professor Sheldon Wolin.

Professor Wolin, we were talking about the freeing of corporate capital, because of the Cold War, from internal democratic restraints. And that freeing saw corporate capital really make war against participatory democracy, democratic institutions. Can you describe a little bit what the process was, how they began to hollow out those institutions and weaken them?

SHELDON WOLIN, PROF. EMERITUS POLITICS, PRINCETON: Well, I think you really have to start with the political parties themselves.

The Republicans, of course, have never had much of an appetite for popular participation. The Democrats have had a checkered history of it. Sometimes very sympathetic, and other times indifferent. But during the ’60s, and really even during the ’50s as well, movement toward democracy began to take shape with the realization of the kind of voter restrictions, the most elephant elementary kind of restrictions on democracy, prevalent especially, of course, in the South, and especially involving the disfranchisement of African-American voters, so that that kind of development–and, of course, the attempt on the part of Freedom Riders and others to go into the South and try to help African-Americans organize politically and to defend their rights–created a kind of political context, I think, probably which had never existed before, in which there were fundamental arguments about franchise, election, disenfranchisement, race, and a range of related issues that simply called for a kind of debate that, as I say, had scarcely been raised for decades. And it meant that a certain generation, or a couple of generations, had had a political exposure that was truly unprecedented in recent American history, not only the Freedom Riders who went down, but practically every campus in the country was affected by it, and not only because various faculty and students went to Alabama and elsewhere, but because it became a standard topic of conversation, to learn how the movement was doing, what kind of obstacles were being met, and what we could do, and there were marches and marches and marches, so that it was a political experience that was, I think, as I’ve said, unprecedented in terms of its intensity and in terms of the huge number of citizens being involved of a younger age.

HEDGES: And yet, when we look back at the nine 1930s, what I think marked the so-called New Left was that it was not coupled with labor.

WOLIN: No, it wasn’t. No, it wasn’t. The ’30s were kind of a peculiar thing. I mean, it shouldn’t be simply dismissed, because it did have lasting influence, because it showed, to some degree at least, that it was possible to get a progressive administration, that Roosevelt, whatever his failings and shortcomings, had shown that with sufficient popular support, you could manage to make some kind of dent in the kind of political privileges that existed in the country and help to benefit the economic plight of most people. And he did make serious attempts. It, of course, ran into all kinds of problems, but that’s the nature of politics. But I don’t think it can be underestimated, the extent to which the New Deal influence spread throughout the society. I think it had an extraordinary effect, long-run effect in terms of igniting ideas about popular participation and its possibilities.

HEDGES: And yet it was really a response to the breakdown of capitalism.

WOLIN: It certainly was. I mean, it had its limitations.

But I think there’s a very real question about how far the country was prepared to go at that time. It’s important to remember that the early ’30s–meaning by that from 1932, say, on–was not only a period of New Deal ferment; it was also a period of reactionary ferment, and that one mustn’t forget such things as the Liberty League, and also, and above all, Father Coughlin, who was an extraordinary figure, someone who began as a defender of the New Deal and ended up as a bitter anti-Semite and had to be disowned–or at least throttled–by his own church, he had become so extreme.

But there were a lot of things percolating in those years, and on both sides, because, I’ve said, the New Deal and the liberal resurgence also would cause the reaction that I think led to a kind of permanent–I want to say permanent conservative realization that it had to develop a kind of standing set of its own institutions and foundations and fund-raising activities all the year round, not just to wait for elections, but to become a kind of permanent force, conscious conservative force in American politics from the ground up.

HEDGES: And that started when, would you say?

WOLIN: I would say it started with the reaction to the New Deal, which would mean in about 1934.

HEDGES: And so, essentially they’re building antidemocratic institutions to burrow themselves into what we would consider the fundamental institutions of an open society–universities, the press, political parties. Would that be correct?

WOLIN: Yeah, that would be largely correct, yes. They did realize that those institutions were porous and that they lent themselves to an influence of money and the influence of the kind of people who had big money. And so they waged a counter campaign. And the result was, I think, a sort of permanent change, especially in the Republican Party, because remember, the Republican Party was not a reactionary party in the early ’30s, and even as late as the 1936 election with Alf Landon, who was very much a moderate–and he only won Maine and Vermont, but still he was significant–and that Wendell Wilkie was a power in the party until at least 1940, had a very important liberal wing. So it took a while for the evolution of the Republican Party to becoming the kind of staunch and continuous opponent of New Deal legislation with leaders who by and large were committed to rolling it back and to introducing conservative reforms in education and economic structure and social security systems and so on.

HEDGES: We’d spoken earlier about what you term inverted totalitarianism. When did that process begin? Would we signal the beginning of that process with those reactionary forces in the 1930s? Is that when it started?

WOLIN: I think in the broad view it would start back then. I think it didn’t gain full steam until you had those parallel developments that involved such sophisticated public relations powers and political party organizations that were round-the-year operations, that with a conscious ideological slant and an appeal to donors who wanted to support that kind of slant, so that politics–while all of those elements had been present, to be sure, for a long time, they achieved a certain organizational strength and longevity that I think was unique to that period.

And one has to remember that the ’30s was a very troubled political period, because not only of the New Deal and the controversies it raised, and not only because of the reactionary elements at home, but Europe was clearly heading toward some uncertain future with Hitler and Mussolini, and then the specter of Stalin, so that it was a very, very worrisome, nervous period that had a lot to be nervous about.

HEDGES: Do you have a theory as to why Europe went one way and America went another?

WOLIN: Well, I’m sure there are lots of reasons. One that I would emphasize is the failure of governments in that country to be able to capture and mobilize and sustain popular support while introducing structural, economic, and social changes that would meet the kinds of growing needs of a large urban and industrialized population. I think that was the failure.

HEDGES: You talk in–I think it’s in Politics and Vision–about how fascism arose out of Weimar, which was essentially a weak democracy. And yet you argue, inverted totalitarianism, certainly a species of totalitarianism, can often be the product of a strong democracy.

WOLIN: It can, in the sense that that strong democracy can do what its name implies. In the pursuit of popular ends, it develops inevitably powerful institutions to promote those ends. And very often they lend themselves to being taken over and utilized, that–for example, that popular means of communication and news information and so on can become very easily propaganda means for corporate capitalism, which understands that if you gain control of newspapers, radio, television, that you’re in a position to really shape the political atmosphere.

HEDGES: You write in Democracy Incorporated that you don’t believe we have any authentic democratic institutions left.

WOLIN: I don’t. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but I think–in terms of effective democratic institutions, I don’t think we do. I think there’s potential. I think there’s potential in movements towards self-government, movements towards economic independence, and movements towards educational reform, and so on, that have the seeds for change. But I think that it’s very difficult now, given the way the media is controlled and the way political parties are organized and controlled, it’s very difficult to get a foothold in politics in such a way that you can translate it into electoral reforms, electoral victories, and legislation, and so on. It’s a very, very complex, difficult, demanding process. And as I’ve said before, democracy’s great trouble is it’s episodic.

HEDGES: Right.

WOLIN: And that just makes it easier for those who can hire other people to keep a sustained pressure on government to go the other way.

HEDGES: You talk about how democratic institutions which have essentially surrendered themselves to corporate power have pushed politics, if we define politics as that which is concerned with the common good and with accepting the risks, the benefits, and the sacrifices evenly across the society, that essentially that has pushed political life, to some extent, underground, outside of the traditional political institutions.

WOLIN: I certainly think that there’s something to be said for that, because I think if you look strictly at our political parties and the national political processes, you get a picture of a society which seems to be moribund in terms of popular democracy. But if you look at what happens locally and even in statewide situations, there’s still a lot of vitality out there, and people still feel that they have a right to complain, to agitate, to promote causes that would benefit them. And this still remains, I think, a strong element in it.

But I do think we’re facing a period in which economic uncertainty is such that, particularly for younger people, in the sense that we don’t really know anymore, with any degree of high certainty, how to prepare young people for a constantly changing economy, so that young people, in a certain sense, who are the sort of stuff of later political movements and political support systems, that young people are in a very real way puzzled and, I think, confused, and sort of don’t know where to go, and are being propelled in certain directions that don’t really add up to their long-run benefit. And it starts with, I think, the secondary education, and it continues in college. The plight of liberal arts education is just extraordinary today. It’s so much on the defensive and so much on the ropes that it’s hard to see what, if any, place it’ll have in the future.

HEDGES: It’s hard to see you in most politics departments at American universities today. It was probably a lonely position even when you–.

WOLIN: Oh, yeah, because most American–most political science departments have become in effect social science departments and much more addicted to seeking out quantitative projects that lend themselves to apparent scientific certainty and are less attuned–in fact, I think, even, I would say, apprehensive–about appearing to be supportive of popular causes. It’s just not in the grain anymore. And the more that academic positions become precarious, as they have become, with tenure becoming more and more a rarity–.

HEDGES: Thirty-five percent now of positions are actually tenured.

WOLIN: Yeah, I would believe it. I would believe it. I mean, and that becomes a problem in terms of finding people willing to take a certain risk, with the understanding that while they’re taking a risk, it won’t be so fatal to their life chances. But I’m afraid it is now. And it doesn’t bode well, because it seems to me, in a left-handed sort of way, it encourages the kind of professionalization of politics that results in the kind of political parties and political system that we’ve been warned about from the year one.

HEDGES: And a political passivity, which you say–you talk about classical totalitarian regimes mobilize the masses, whereas in inverted totalitarianism, the goal is to render the masses politically passive. And you use Hobbes to describe that. Can you speak a little bit about that?

WOLIN: Well, Hobbes is interesting because he writes in the so-called social contract tradition, and that had been a tradition which grew up in the late 16th and 17th century. The social contract position had furthered the notion that a political society and its governance should be the result of an agreement, of an agreement by the people as to what sort of government they wanted and what sort of role they wanted to play for themselves in such a government. And the social contract was an agreement they made with each other that they would create such a system and that they would support it, but they would reserve the right to oppose it, even rebel against it, if it proceeded to work contrary to the designs of the original contract, so that that became the sort of medium by which democratic ideas were carried through the 17th century and into much of the 18th century, including the American colonies and the arguments over the American Constitution as well–and especially, I should add, in the arguments about state constitutions and government.

HEDGES: And that fostering of political passivity, you have said in your work, is caused by what you were speaking about earlier, the economic insecurity, the precariousness of the position, which I think you go back to Hobbes as citing as one of the kind of fundamental controlling elements to shut down any real political activity.

WOLIN: Yes, I believe that very strongly. I think if you go back way to the Athenian democracy, one of the things you notice about it is that it paid citizens to participate. In other words, they would be relieved from a certain amount of economic insecurity in order to engage actively in politics. Well, when we get to our times and modern times, that kind of guarantee doesn’t exist in any form whatsoever. We barely can manage to have an election day that isn’t where we suspend work and other obligations to give citizens an opportunity to vote. They have to cram a vote into a busy, normal day, so that the relationship between economic structures and institutions and political institutions of democracy are just really in tension now, in which the requirements of the one are being undercut by the operations of the other. And I don’t see any easy solution to it, because the forces that control the economy control to a large extent public opinion, modes of publication, and so on, and make it very difficult to mount counter-views.

HEDGES: Well, in fact, to engage in real participatory democracy or political activity is to put yourself in a more precarious position vis-à-vis your work, your status within the society.

WOLIN: There’s no question about it. And that’s true of, I think, virtually every activity. It’s now certainly frowned upon in academic work, and certainly in public education it’s frowned on. And there’s no effort made to really make it a bit easier for people to participate. And the intensity that economic survival requires today leaves most people exhausted. There’s–and understandably. They don’t have much, if any, time for politics. So we’re in a really difficult situation, where the requirements of democracy are such that they’re being undermined by the realities of a kind of economy and society that we’ve developed.

HEDGES: Which you point out Hobbes foresaw.

WOLIN: He did. He did indeed. And his solution was you surrender your political rights. Yeah.

HEDGES: Thank you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. diptherio

    What to do? I keep coming back to the apparent pointlessness of trying to break into official, national politics—much less of having any actual effect there. Even on the state level, it seems an increasingly hard thing to do.

    I’ve got two solutions. I don’t know that either would be effective, but I don’t see that what we’ve been doing up to this point has been real effective either, so….

    1) Ignore the bastards—seeing as how those at the top depend on the compliance of the rest of us in order to carry out their agendas, the most effective revolt may be one of simply refusing to play along. Disregard illegitimate authority, and support those around you in doing the same. The hand-wavers will no doubt claim that this is a sure-fire route to anarchy (who decides what legitimate authority is? it will be chaos!) but I don’t think what we’ve got now is anything worth protecting—just ask the folks in Ferguson or Detroit.

    The practical expression of this might be a tax-strike. Every time I mention such an idea, I’m warned off by well-intentioned liberals: “you might get in trouble!” But I refuse to live my life or make my decisions on the basis of fear and cowardice. I was taught as a child that what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right; I was raised to do the right thing, even if it is difficult, even if it will get you into trouble. That stuck with me. I actually believe that. Others may be willing to go along with evil because they are afraid of the consequences of resisting it, but not I. Yes, I do prefer to die on my feet rather than live on my knees, and not because I want to be a martyr, but because I have yet to lose my self-respect. In time, I think more people will be coming around to my way of seeing things. In the meantime, maybe we could try

    2) Radically outside-the-box political organizing. Again, something I bring up repeatedly and which never gets much traction, but given the results of doing things by-the-book, I don’t see what we have to lose. If we don’t feel like it’s a good idea to write-off state power entirely, we may as well try something “crazy.”

    One of the basic principles of all martial arts is that you meet your opponent’s force with space and you attack where they are not defending. This is called using your opponent’s strengths against them. In typical political contests, both sides try to out-raise and out-spend each other and third parties try to break in using the same strategies as the legacy parties. This is everyone meeting everyone else’s force with their own: a rather mindless shoving match.

    Conventional wisdom says that it’s expensive to run a campaign (even for local elections, much less national) and so everyone starts their campaign with fundraising and continues it incessantly right up to election day. Conventional wisdom says you need a charismatic candidate, so each party tries to find the best actor they can come up with. Instead, run insurgent campaigns purposely on as little money as possible—don’t accept donations over $20, don’t worry about big ad buys—and make this the major selling-point for the campaign. Find someone to run who has a history of real public service (as compared to public deception), but crowdsource their platform from supporters. Make the candidate merely a cypher for the democratic will of the rank-and-file, a true representative of the people rather than a leader. A political party that runs on participatory democracy, imagine!

    Those are just a few suggestions, but you get the idea. Don’t try to fight the enemy where they are strong (money, pretty rhetoric), focus your attack where they are not bothering to defend. I know there are cleverer people than myself reading this that can probably come up with some even better ideas.

    1. James

      I’ll go for door number one Monte [Hall]!

      The problem with door number two is that it presumes we’re actually dealing with legitimate political organizations as part of a legitimate legal system playing by the actual rules that it fairly sets up. Trouble is we aren’t. The law is wholly whimsical where it’s applied at all and the corporate captured established political organizations who made it that way in the first place [It is what we say it is)!] are simply organized criminal empires. Their time is coming of course, but not soon enough for most of us. As Occupy found out the hard way, they’ll tolerate a certain amount of silliness in the name of a good circus, but after that the iron fist will make its appearance every time. And as people all over the ME and Ferguson MO are finding out at this very moment, the iron fist don’t play!

      Radical political organizing if it ever happens will first be met with indifference, then bought, then threatened, then squashed.

      1. Min

        “Radical political organizing if it ever happens will first be met with indifference, then bought, then threatened, then squashed.”

        Just like it was in the 19th century. Oh, wait! :)

      2. Banger

        That’s right which is why political organizing without also economic organizing is impossible and a waste of time. Unless you can feed, clothe, and provide health care and some recreation for activists they will have to lose interest as they fall in love, have children and try to find housing and work to live. Unless a political organization can provide for ALL needs including self-defense there is no point. If anybody wants to organize a real power-group that is willing to go to the mattresses I’m not in the least bit interested–been there, done that as have my Occupy young anarchist friends.

        1. Massinissa

          What youre describing sounds sort of like the old Black Panthers.

          And they were RUTHLESSLY crushed. Their leaders publicly assasinated by police, etc etc.

          1. Banger

            Well, the Panthers were active during at a very different time and they did not emphasize making sure they created a economically viable community and instead were very out front about battling the state–the state took that as permission to wipe them out. Today the situation is different authority is far more fragmented and a cohesive group has a better chance of getting heard and getting traction in today’s world where parts of the authority structure are beginning to wonder about their mission. People were very reactive, angry and fearful over the Civil Rights movement and the urban riots.

          2. Ulysses

            The mere fact that so many resistance movements are ruthlessly crushed shouldn’t deter us from resisting injustice. When John Brown was executed on December 2, 1859, many drew the lesson that the abolitionist cause had been so effectively crushed it could never be revived. Yet the Emancipation Declaration was signed less than five years later!

            I had the great honor to meet the daughter of a Philadelphia area Panther who still languishes as a political prisoner in Pennsylvania. Her spirit and will to resist is still strong, despite all of her family’s suffering.
            “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”– Bertrand Russell

            1. psychohistorian

              My preference would be to mount a single issue attack.

              The issue: The global rules of ongoing inheritance.

              Its all about who has the money the longest.

    2. Banger

      Well, diptherio, I prefer your advocacy for cooperatives. I think democracy is dying and, on a national level, pretty much dead though it could be revived if there were power changes, if communities began to emerge that had, as their goal, something other than monetary gain.

  2. not_me

    and render a global lender of last resort a hopeless dream. Dani Rodrik

    As if that’s a bad thing! I’ll hazard right now, before I read any further, that a global lender of last resort would be a very bad thing because making banking more stable makes it less just and vice versa so that if long term global injustice is the goal then let’s have a global lender of last resort.

    And would it work anyway since eventually the victims will no longer have the income to buy the new goods and services their stolen purchasing power was used to finance with?

    Yes, there are different variants of capital, but as far as I can see, ethical capitalism has never been tried except maybe under the English with their Tally Sticks before the Bank of England.

    1. diptherio

      Well, I don’t know that you can really count tally-sticks as capitalism…

      Ethical capitalism has never been tried because capitalism has never been about ethics, in the same way that feudalism and slavery weren’t about ethics. The ethical justification for capitalism was never more than an ad hoc overlay on a system of exploitation. That system’s raison d’etre is the enrichment of a small minority. It is only in order to maintain their status and their riches that capitalists have presented their (spurious) ethical arguments for the system.

      1. skippy

        Well said… a couple of hundred years of societal mores and ethics pretty much puts those silly notions to bed.

        Marital disputes fought out in public with the male in a chest deep pit and female operating from tight ringed radius with clubs. Maids that got pregnant from wealthy married masters were judged by church flock and made to stand in church door way asking forgiveness.

        Skippy… Hell was it Elisabeth that started the first poor house as a blow off valve, keeping things from getting out of control….

        1. not_me

          As bad as our system is (in the US, UK and the EU), and it is very bad, there has been no better one that has lasted very long and not for lack of trying very hard either.

          Now the Scandinavians, probably among the finest people on Earth, may have a system that works for THEM and perhaps the Japanese do too because they are very socially cohesive but note that even these systems are variants of capitalism and the reason their systems are better than our system is because they are LESS principled about their form of capitalism than we are about ours and are willing to make pragmatic or even ad hoc adjustments to relieve suffering.

          We (in the US, UK and EU) have a much more principled form of capitalism EXCEPT when it comes to banking and then ALL principles are thrown away for the sake of expediency. But because we nevertheless think we are principled (TINA) then we cruelly fail to do what’s necessary to relieve the inevitable suffering resulting from a system that only appears principled but really isn’t.

          Now, before you throw up aboriginals as having some kind of sustainable culture, they don’t. One day the Earth will be faced with a danger that could sterilize the planet of everything but bacteria living deep underground and it won’t be aboriginals that prevent or escape it. It will take a large, well organized, technologically advanced culture to do so so we had best start laying a sound, principled foundation for that culture.

          1. cwaltz

            Perhaps you aren’t paying attention but this oh so great system just allowed 10,000 people to die because there was no PROFIT in creating a vaccine for ebola. This same fantastic system basically polluted the gulf because it was more PROFITABLE to not have a back up plan should an underground oil pipeline fail. It’s now heck bent on destroying the Earth’s plates. Why you may ask? It’s PROFITABLE. I got news for you the Earth is already facing a danger. It’s called greed and it’s mother’s milk is the well organized, technologically advanced “culture” of capitalism. If you are banking on a capitalistic system saving you from disaster then I heavily suggest you take a look at what the main motivators for war and what has actually caused destruction lately and then start thinking about something else as the means to save society. Unless we actually start putting some regulation in place to ensure our form of capitalism benefits more than a select few I suspect we won’t be nearly as “well organized and technologically advanced” either. The system as it is set right now is unsustainable. People aren’t going to get education if they know their “reward” will be to be paid peanuts while a select few amass more and more under the guise of “I deserve it because I’m so awesome and mommy and daddy always said I was their special snowflake.” We either need to adopt more aspects of socialism(which essentially means the government pays for schools and food and a bunch of other stuff that if you haven’t noticed it’s already starting to do ironically enough) or we start changing the parameters of this capitalist system by redistributing some of the capital from the top to the bottom and creating a system with some checks and balances that doesn’t allow the guy with the most money to make all the rules. I’m sure there is some imaginary third option the GOP or libertarians have come up with but I can pretty much guarantee it ain’t going to turn out the way they think it will. It never does.

            1. not_me

              or we start changing the parameters of this capitalist system by redistributing some of the capital from the top to the bottom and creating a system with some checks and balances that doesn’t allow the guy with the most money to make all the rules. cwaltz

              We are not in much disagreement there. I advocate, besides the elimination of all privileges for private credit creation, the equal redistribution of the common stock of all large companies to the citizens of their countries along with perpetual land and other essential resource reform.

              The problem with our current system, fascism (government for the rich) is that it can create wealth but not justly distribute it so it is ultimately unstable, brutal repression notwithstanding. The problem with communism is that it can distribute wealth but not create it very well so it is ultimately unstable too, brutal repression notwithstanding. We need to quit oscillating between these extremes and instead implement ethical capitalism.

              1. Code Name D

                Actually no, it doesn’t create wealth at all, it consumes it. By wealth, I mean a healthy environment that is free from pollutants or security threats, where we can all be happy and healthy to the best of our abilities and live fulfilling lives.

                The common notion of wealth is just money, and our current ideals of capitalism demands that you make the most money by consuming resources as fast as possible. This doesn’t just turn the middle class into the impoverished class, but dooms future generations to environmental change and resource scarcity. And for what, so we can ship cell phones half way across the world only to be obsolete within a year?

                We are trying to think in the spans of thousands or even million of years of sustainable economics. Capitalism can’t see past the next quarter.

                1. cwaltz

                  The actuaries can’t even predict decades ahead. I wish you lots of luck spanning thousands or millions of years from now. I’m pretty sure the universe you’re trying to protect will all to gleefully throw a wrench in any long term plans. It’s been my experience that it generally works that way.

                  I’m not saying conservation isn’t a noble effort but I think there probably can be a midway between conserving and mindless consumption so one guy can have 7 houses, a private jet, a diamond dog collar, 30 cars, 15 motorcycles, etc,etc.

                  1. Code Name D

                    I don’t care about the universe, only about the ongoing survival of the human race. The universe shall most assuredly throw a wrench into that works. That is why we say that we have to fight for survival.

                    1. cwaltz

                      You’re left with the conundrum of fighting the very thing you are bound and determined to save(Humanity in all it’s glory is not just sunshine and rainbows. It’s stubborn and greedy. I think you’d probably be better off trying to save the universe. ;)

          2. James

            One day the Earth will be faced with a danger that could sterilize the planet of everything but bacteria living deep underground and it won’t be aboriginals that prevent or escape it. It will take a large, well organized, technologically advanced culture to do so so we had best start laying a sound, principled foundation for that culture.

            So says the mantra of the secular humanist technologist. A hundred years ago no one alive (well, maybe a handful) would have been presumptuous enough to make a silly statement like that.

            1. not_me

              So says the mantra of the secular humanist technologist. James

              Actually, I’m a Christian, and simply stooping to the presumptions of non-believers (ie. no loving Creator) to argue that a retreat from technology won’t save the Planet. That should be undeniable.

              1. cwaltz

                I think it’s unusual that you think that capitalism won’t cannibalize itself to a point where technological advances fail to occur. I just mentioned the ebola vaccine that didn’t get made because it wasn’t PROFITABLE. The reality is a system that bases itself on profitability(which is one of the main tenants of capitalism) is a crap shoot at best. Throw in the human component that gets to determine which levers to push and pull to regulate the for profit market and you could have something good or a train wreck waiting to happen. I’m pretty sure you can guess which direction I think the lever pullers are pushing us towards at this moment.

          3. skippy

            You missed a key observation from another post today, the Lipsey-Lancaster theorem, which I just boil down to: spurious rationalization will always be trumped by reality.

            As far as aboriginals go, it was a comment that refuted your premise on the day, that is all. You seem to extenuate it to a degree never intended.

            Skippy…. quire… going full AnCap in your quest for purity?

      2. not_me

        It’s the system that is at fault, raising up one generation of oppressors after another and that’s why it is so successful since it is based on a meritocracy of sorts, a meritocracy of the greedy.

  3. JTFaraday

    I love Sheldon Wolin. Pedagogical in the best possible sense, which is to say, he is good to think with.

    I haven’t read this yet, but I plan to.

  4. Min

    Rodrick’s trilemma contains an important phrase which is often left out when it is repeated.

    Rodrick: “It says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.”

    It’s the “in full” part that is necessary, but gets cut. All three components of the trilemma, democracy, national sovereignty, and global economic integration are fuzzy. They are matters of degree. They are mutually incompatible only in their unalloyed forms. It is important to realize that we can’t have it all, that tradeoffs must be made. But that is true of much of life.

    Rodrick: “Pretending that we can have all three simultaneously leaves us in an unstable no-man’s land.”

    Really? Are there no workable tradeoffs and compromises? Is there no balance? I fear that Rodrick’s “simple and bold idea” is too simple, and perhaps too bold. To reach his conclusion of an unstable no-man’s land requires that politics and diplomacy are hopeless. Well, maybe. But that remains to be seen.

    1. susan the other

      So yes, they can exist with a dash of socialism. But that’s not the half of it. Capitalism is such a voracious beast it eats up the planet and has no sense of balance. What would a sustainable balance look like in a world of equals? Corporations, especially multinationals, would have to realize that they are superfluous without society. Society would realize it is an oxymoron unless it starts thinking critically and behaving in a sentient, democratic fashion. And the sovereign state would have to stop being a gutless wonder-war monger travesty-of-justice institution. But other than that, everything is hunky dory.

  5. wbgonne

    If one accepts, as I do, that fascism is he merger of government and corporate power, then we live in a fascist country. One may subdivide fascist states by considering the nature of the government-corporate bond: Which is predominant? By how much? What is the role of the the citizens? And then we see that ours has the characteristics described above: a docile, insecure populace manipulated politically and used for wealth extraction. We can call this inverted totalitarianism but why? It is neoliberalism and, to me, that term serves perfectly well to describe the species of fascism we now have. Neoliberal fascism only seems possible in advanced, late-stage capitalist countries like ours so I have no problem accepting neoliberalism as the descriptor. Since neoliberalism is already a widely accepted term, using it and including its fascist connotations will also act to discredit the neoliberal movement.

    As for the structural political problems, it seems pretty clear that a small but powerful group has voided our social contract. As diptherio discusses above, that opens up all sorts of possibilities as valid responses. One note: the Founding Fathers were generally extremely hostile to political parties, referring to them as “factions,” and deeming them highly-destructive. On this, the Founding Fathers have proved prescient. Our political duoploly is now the primary vehicle for sustaining neoliberal (fascist) power. But there is nothing in our Constitution that provides for political parties or mandates them. Maybe real reform of the political system is possible.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Both of Diptherio’s suggestions will be put into practice as our fascist so called democracy slowly collapses upon itself, but things need to reach a critical mass. People in large numbers have to overcome agonizing fear and powerful misconceptions or have their back against the wall to such a degree that the effects of fear and propaganda are simply short circuited.

  6. Jim

    Yves raises a profound issue in her introduction to the Hedges, Wolin series.

    She states “At least in the sections I”ve seen there is a tendency for Hedges and Wolin to describe capitalism as if it were unitary, when in fact it comes in different flavors.

    Why are there these different capitalist flavors? To properly answer that question perhaps one has to start with culture rather than economics.

    Maybe Marc Bloch was right when he stated that “it is human consciousness which is the subject matter of history. The interrelations, confusions and infections of human consciousness are for history, reality itself.”

    And perhaps there is a particularly modern form of human consciousness (whose history can be traced) which believes in the fundamental equality of those considered members of the nation and that also believes that such a national community is self-governing and the source of law and authority—-this form of consciousness is nationalism and this spirit of nationalism may account for the different flavors of capitalism.

    Is it conceivable that American nationalism is responsible for the unprecedented position of the economic sphere in American society?

    Is it conceivable that nationalism, viewed as a form of collective human consciousness, is one primary source of the spirit or motivation of capitalism?

    1. cwaltz

      I personally try to avoid as many of the -isms as I possibly can. I can’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that nationalism and American exceptionalism were relatives to sexism, racism and classism but it did dawn on me that those -isms could be utilized to divide people in the same way that those other social confines are meant to divide us.

      1. Jim

        But CWaltz what if the history of economic growth is largely a byproduct of the collective rivalry inherent in nationalism?

        What if nationalism implies international competition?

        And what if, in order to weaken the grip of nationalism, it now becomes necessary to develop a new cultural paradigm– to replace, in this case, such an “ism” as nationalism?

        1. cwaltz

          I suspect much of economic growth has been and continues to be because of international competition.

          I’d love to see a better paradigm. Although, cynic that I am, I find it doubtful that we could replace international competition with international cooperation. I’m inclined to believe there are too many powerful people invested in the status quo. Exhibit A) The military sequester went bye bye after it was determined we needed to help the Syrian rebels kill those that support Assad and head back to Iraq to fight ISIS.

  7. Banger

    Democracy in its ideal form is just not possible given the values and mores of today’s society. All the indicators are pointing towards some form of feudalism dominated by an aristocracy. I believe this is what most Americans want. There is great love for stories that feature hereditary aristocracy, the cult of celebrities, the obsession with Princesses and royalty. the nostalgia reflected by such programs as Downton Abbey and countless other dramas that feature the adventures and misadventures of “nobility” like Game of Thrones. Or we have adventure stories about people who serve both the benign nobility and the evil nobility.

    The idea of having people who can see us, not as numbers, not as facts and figures on a spreadsheet or resume, but as real complex human beings who cannot be reduced to paperwork will, I believe, be the driving force for a new form of life, government, ethics, and economic life. Democracy whether capitalistic or not doesn’t fit into our current situation which is why, on a national level in the USA it is, as a practical matter, nearly dead. Just look at the lack of interest in the upcoming election because people suspect it may not mean very much. As for me, I simply don’t know–Washington is more confusing and divided than I’ve ever seen it so I can make no short or medium term prediction about at GOP victory. But long-term we are headed toward neo-feudalism so we might as well prepare–a change in that direction if you look at our culture, it’s arts and so on don’t show us anything other than that direction.

    As for the subject of capitalism and the inverted totalitarianism–of course that is true. If money talks then those that have it rule as we have seen. The more time goes on the more power the oligarchs have. Our only chance is that they are now beginning to fight each other–which should be an interesting show at minimum and, at maximum, an opportunity to carve out “free cities” within the battling barons.

    1. Ed

      Didn’t feudalism historically involve the top people having some sort of defined responsibilities, plus practical and legal limits on their behavior?

  8. Jim

    “All the indication are pointing towards some form of feudalism dominated by an aristocracy. I believe this is what the American people want.”

    To me, the really interesting question, taken your description of current cultural trends, is why the American people would endorse and support such trends.

    It may be that there is much about modern life which is creating, at a minimum, profound psychological discomfort and people are beginning to endorse the trends you describes as a way to alleviate such discomfort.

    It may be the case that the nature of this discomfort centers around the difficulty in forming a personal identity in our modern cultural environment. In days of old individual grew up in a strongly religious and and rigidly stratified societies where everyone’s position and place were largely defined by birth and divine providence.

    Today there is little cultural guidance of any sort and most everyone feels adrift yet supposedly in charge of his or her own destiny– each bearing the complete burden of deciding their fate.

    It may be that our modern values of equality and self-realization in which every individual is his own maker are contributing to an ever increasing pandemic of mental diseases like depression, manic-depressive behavior and even schizophrenia.

    Any future cultural political movement will probably have to speak directly to this type of psychological discomfort and begin to offer solutions. Of course the left is largely blind to such thinking because culture and politics are only seen as shadows of the economy.

        1. skippy

          Economic costs of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

          Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), classified as a severe mental illness by the National Advisory Mental Health Council, affects 2.1% of the population annually, as shown by the Epidemiological Catchment Area surveys. This study, using the human capital approach, estimated the direct and indirect costs of OCD. The total costs of OCD were estimated to be $8.4 billion in 1990, 5.7% of the estimated $147.8 billion cost of all mental illness, and 18.0% of the costs of all anxiety disorders, estimated to be $46.6 billion. The indirect costs of OCD, reflecting lost productivity of individuals suffering from or dying from the disorder, were estimated at $6.2 billion.

        2. skippy

          The economic burden of personality disorders in mental health care.
          Soeteman DI1, Hakkaart-van Roijen L, Verheul R, Busschbach JJ.
          Author information

          Some evidence suggests that personality disorders are associated with a high economic burden due to, for example, a high demand on psychiatric, health, and social care services. However, state-of-the-art cost studies for the broad range of personality disorder diagnoses are lacking. The present study examines the direct medical costs, as well as the indirect costs, of patients seeking mental health treatment with DSM-IV personality disorders.

          The 1740 subjects included in this study were recruited from March 2003 to March 2006 from 6 different mental health care institutes in the Netherlands specializing in the psychotherapeutic treatment of personality disorders. The direct and indirect costs were assessed using the Trimbos and Institute for Medical Technology Assessment Questionnaire on Costs Associated with Psychiatric Illness. Personality disorders were diagnosed using the Structured Interview for DSM-IV Personality.

          The mean total costs of the personality disorder group in the 12 months prior to treatment were 11,126 euros per patient. Two thirds (66.5%) of these costs consisted of direct medical costs, while the remaining costs were related to productivity losses. Borderline and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders were uniquely associated with increased mean total costs.

          Treatment-seeking patients with personality disorders pose a high economic burden on society, a burden substantially higher than that found in, for instance, depression or generalized anxiety disorder. These high societal costs present a strong argument in favor of prioritizing effective personality disorder treatments in reimbursement decisions.

  9. ewmayer

    A friend sent this fairly unexcpetional item, except in the “actions vs words” aspect, as exercised by most purveyors of such codes:

    Casio Group Code of Conduct

    Here is the short flashcard version — this applies to most big US corporations, and more or less all multinationals:

    1.Enabling Value Creation

    All the others, insofar as they do not interfere with #1.

    For those who actually believe the warm, fuzzy elements of such codes, as legendary circus impresario P.T. Barnum might have said, “there’s a CoC sucker born every minute.”

  10. TheCatSaid

    Re: democracy, what happened to Porto Allegre, Brazil?
    In “Natural Capitalism” it’s mentioned as an example of a large metropolitan area (1-2 million IIRC) that is governed using direct democracy rather than representative democracy. This approach led to rapid improvements in public infrastructure (e.g. clean drinking water), rapid literacy, and rapid decline of corruption.

    I do not know how things are going now. It does indicate that direct democracy can work, when the will is there.

  11. TheCatSaid

    Whenever democracy is mentioned, I wonder about direct vs representative, as per my comment above.

    I also wonder what kind of decision making is implied. In most places, a majority-takes-all form of voting is used–which is the least democratic of all possible options. A more truly democratic approach would be Consensus Voting, such as what Peter Emerson describes here:

  12. TheCatSaid

    More forms of genuine democracy in action are implemented by the businesses comprising Semco (Brazil). Ricardo Semler wrote about this in his 2 books. (“Maverick” describes its evolution.)

    Further approaches are Alan Savory’s “Holistic Management” approaches which involve all stakeholders in a genuine way. He’s got a new books coming out soon specifically focusing on how to implement this in government / policy-making situations. See

    Just as there are infinite forms of “capitalism” there are infinite forms of “democracy”.
    The USA political form of so-called “democracy” is so undemocratic in both design and implementation that calling it a “democracy” only muddies the water.

  13. RBHoughton

    I think there is a confusion of terms here. America made a revolution and established democratic government two centuries ago; then France emulated America. Those were democratic adminstrations.

    We British then fought a twenty year war against first one then the other country. In France we reinstated a King who knew the correct way to administer a population in an orderly fashion; In America we found people like Alexander Hamilton to front our version of debt-based finance as a form of control. Democracy existed for about 30 years in total and incrementally expired through the first half of the 19th century.

    What we Poms provided instead was the Whig principle of the Sovereignty of the People. That was how democracy was defeated – we substituted the Benthamite idea that man on coming into society surrenders some natural rights in order to secure the others. Once we had got all that constitutional stuff hobbled in that way, we could assert we too were democratic and thus it has been ever since.

    If we were to revert to a genuine form of democracy there can be no conflict with a genuine form of capitalism, by which I mean along the lines identified by Adam Smith.

  14. RanDomino

    The “Corporate” in Fascism doesn’t refer to “corporations” but rather comes from the Latin root “corp-” meaning “body”- meaning the “body” of society, with various parts (unions, businessmen, the military, etc) acting like various organs. When Mussolini said Fascism is the merger of State and Corporate power, that’s what he was talking about. It helps to understand the difference to have some background knowledge of National Syndicalism, which was a sort of bridge movement between Syndicalism and Fascism. Syndicalism is an economic philosophy of a planned economy with the means of production owned by the working class via a trade union federation, with economic decisions made by a central committee of either elected representatives (who are empowered to make decisions on behalf of those they represent) or appointed delegates (who are only empowered to report the decision of those who sent them), with a healthy dose of Worker Power rhetoric. National Syndicalism is a union of Nationalism (Italy, like Germany, had only been unified for a few decades) and Syndicalism. Mussolini’s Fascism is a merger of National Syndicalism and bourgeois capitalist democracy.

    Also, fuck Chris Hedges.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Franklin D. Roosevelt gave approving speeches and remarks about Mussolini up until 1936, when Mussolini directed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act was modeled on Mussolini’s Fascism. Back in the ’60s, when New Left Radicals referred to LBJ Democrats as “fascists,” they were on to something.

      As far as inconvenience of voting goes: voting was always meant to be inconvenient. The people who passed the laws didn’t want you to vote. Did you ever wonder why elections are held on Tuesday? It was because that was the most difficult day of the week to get farmers to go back into town. The idea was that they had come back on Sunday, and would have to turn around and go back in the middle of the work week. If politicians had wanted them to vote, they would have held elections on Sunday when the farmers were in town. (And don’t tell me about religious objections to Sunday work in the early days of the republic. Post offices were open on Sundays in the earliest years of the federal government.

Comments are closed.