Capitalist cannibalism

“And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory, all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course.”
–David Simon, Festival of Dangerous Ideas Sydney, Australia, November 2013

David Simon is not a politician. He’s not a philosopher. And he’s certainly not a prophet.

He’s a television producer.

So what’s someone in the fl uffy entertainment business doing mucking around in the serious world of pontifi cating the future (or lack thereof) of 21st century capitalism? And why should we pay attention?

Well, for starters, Simon isn’t just any television producer. A former newspaper journalist, he created The Wire, the novelistic, five-season HBO TV series that is, arguably, the most authentic fi ctional portrayal of a social underclass since Dickens.

The Wire’s West Baltimore — home to drug dealers, drug addicts, entitledto- everyone’s-entitlements politicians, politician-cops, nefarious developers, frustrated street cops and doomed inner city kids — is where hope came to die.

During its five seasons, The Wire took us inside America’s failed housing projects, corrupt union headquarters, grafting government offices, under-funded classrooms with their underfed children, newspapers in denial and decline. He showed us those worlds from the inside out.

The ultimate message, in part, was that no one really cared enough to change the situation, so nothing will change. History will replicate itself in the next generation. What saved The Wire from its own terminal nihilism was Simon’s roiling anger at injustice and his desire for a better society.

Little wonder the organizers of Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas invited Simon to come down under to disturb the doo-doo of conventional wisdom.

Simon did not disappoint.

In his talk, Simon argued the economic success of America in the middle third of the twentieth century refl ected the fact that capital and labour were in continuing struggle for ascendancy, but that neither side ever won everything it wanted.

The beginning of the end came with Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election in England followed, a year later, by Ronald Reagan’s in the United States, followed by deregulation, corporate tax cutting, the fall of the Wall, the end of the Soviet empire, the “end of history…” and the beginning of something else.

“People are saying, ‘I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profi t,'” Simon noted. “‘I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the fi refi ghter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me.’ It’s the triumph of the self. ‘I am me, hear me roar.'”

The stark demarcation between the powerful and those left behind has only been exacerbated by the most recent recession, he added. The economy shrugged and started “to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable to the drug war, say from methamphetamine, or they became unable to qualify for college loans. And all of a sudden, a certain faith in the economic engine and the economic authority of Wall Street and market logic started to fall away from people. And they realized it’s not just about race, it’s about something even more terrifying. It’s about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?”

“Capitalism stomped the hell out of Marxism,” he acknowledged, but “the great irony” now is that the annihilation of last century’s hard won “social compact” is sowing the seeds for capitalism’s own ultimate defeat.

Society, he says starkly, will either have to re-find its balance or we’ll reach the point where “there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick.”

Simon isn’t advocating that, or an end to capitalism. “I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefi ts of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.”

It should astonish — and frighten — us all.

1 Comment to “Capitalist cannibalism”

  1. Avatar Doug Keefe // March 8, 2014 at 10:10 am // Reply

    Steve, while I completely agree with Simon’s point. I’m not sure it’s right to completely equate Thatcher and Reagan. And I think the distinction is important. Aside from the fact that one was a simple minded idiot and the other not, as I understand it (and I’m no expert) Thatcher championed competition, small enterprise and self improvement. I seem to recall her major “tax cut” was really a rate cut done in conjunction with the elimination of a whole lot of loopholes and exemptions. It actually brought in more revenue. Her big mistake was to try to balance the budget in a time of economic tightening which caused a lot of unnecessary suffering. That was poor judgement, flowing from trying to balance the books too quickly and at a bad point in the economy. (I am open to being challenged on all this as it was all a long time ago). Regan on the other hand cut taxes & regulations in the simple belief that American business would magically make everyone rich and fill the gap. As a result he ran up huge deficits. Some say deliberately in order to starve the government. But my point is not to defend Thatcher but to lay out that there were really two competing implicit assumptions in the air as the failure of communism began to manifest itself from the late 70’s through to the dissolution of the USSR. Most trumpeted it as the triumph of business over government. Really it was the triumph of competition of ideas (which is only possible when power is distributed) over the concentration of power. We now see concentration happening in our economy all on it’s own. Ironically, when there is an enduring and formal “ruling class/landed gentry” where privilege is obviously an accident of birth we occasionally find at least a pretense of noblesse oblige and sometimes even the reality. While in a society where the prevailing myth is that anyone willing to work hard can be a billionaire of course the opposite is true. Not only don’t you need to help the less fortunate, you would be robbing them of their entrepreneurial drive and thus harming their chances. This of course has the happy consequence of lessening competition and concentrating wealth/power. I’m not saying I like either – I don’t – but, as condescending as it is, at least noblesse oblige supported a social compact of sorts. And that is what Simon correctly identifies as missing today.

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