In 1978, Jerry Mander challenged the viral contagion of electronic media, in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. In his latest work he raises his sights to unmask the real Mad Men behind capitalism’s buy-now-pay-later economics.
“This book anticipates the final failure of the global economic project that we have lived by … for more than two hundred years,” Mander stipulates, repeating a now-familiar analysis: infinite expansion and wealth cannot be obtained by ransacking the limited resources of a living planet. “We are running out of nature,” he notes. Beset by climate change and the stress of vanishing oil, food, and freshwater resources, the capitalist system has “had its day … it’s time to move on.” Just as there is “natural succession”, it is now time for “economic succession”.
As a former advertising expert, Mander gives an insider’s look at the tools used to subvert the subconscious. Television has become the people’s preferred opiate – an IV tube that provides a slow drip of flickering light to keep viewers transfixed while jolts of advertising keep corporate tills clanging. Mander has some radical recommendations to reclaim the Mental Commons: ban advertising in public spaces, tax advertising and put an end to “the commercialisation of childhood”.
The chapter Propensity Toward War bristles with examples of fiscal pillage disguised as “defense spending”. Mander digs up buried facts and explodes them like land mines: a quarter of the Pentagon budget finances 5,429 military bases in the US and in 38 foreign lands; post-Vietnam military spending has cost more than US$420 trillion; Pentagon spending consumes US$780 billion a year – 45% of America’s discretionary spending; add the unreported billions lavished on “national security”, and the tab tops US$1 trillion annually. Today, the US excels in only one area of economic endeavour: the production and deployment of military weaponry and troops.
The Capitalism=Happiness link? It’s a hoax. For most Americans, happiness peaked in 1956 (at the dawn of the TV Age). The US now leads the industrialised world in divorce, obesity, imprisonments, maternal and infant mortality, rape, armed robbery and wealth inequality. Mander concedes that capitalism “built the world we live in”, but it “also built the conditions for its inevitable collapse, and the oncoming collapse of the natural world”.
Mander demonstrates how capitalism’s intrinsic downsides – short-term profits for the few, structural inequality, the subversion of accountability and democracy – now threaten a “privatisation of democracy”. In 2011, while the world faced recession, job losses and home foreclosures, the number of billionaires increased 20%, leaving four men controlling more wealth than the planet’s 57 poorest nations. The oligarchs understand that “the global economy is starting to die” so, instead of manoeuvring to control vanishing natural resources, they are scheming to control public resources – privatising schools, health, education, and government itself. With the US Supreme Court declaring unregulated campaign spending a form of “free speech”, democracy is now on the same capital-driven path to extinction as coal, oil, forests and fresh water.
The Capitalism Papers concludes with a hopeful checklist of field-tested strategies to rescue us from the death-clutch of capitalism (and sustain us after the house of credit cards crumbles). These Four Megashifts Toward a New Economics encompass biological restoration, direct democracy, worker-owned cooperatives, ‘power-down’ societies, sustainable zero-growth economies, and global declarations establishing the “rights of Nature”.
Abandoning ‘red in tooth and claw’ capitalism is essential, but is it possible in the face of approaching economic and environmental collapse? The jury is still out on that one, but this much is clear: change must come from outside the reigning Establishment. As Mander notes, “we certainly cannot leave it to capitalists to engineer this one; it is not in their DNA.”
Gar Smith is the author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth.
The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System by Jerry Mander. Counterpoint, 2012. ISBN: 9781582437170