I read on BBC yesterday that the richest 62 people in the world now earn as much as the poorest half, which would be about 3.5 billion people! Although there is some confusion about the methodology, it is clear that the wealth and income have been getting more and more polarized. The rich are certainly getting richer. Income inequality is more acute than ever.
During a recent conversation with him, this client of mine used the word “corporatist” to describe his country (US of A). He said twenty years ago, they were a capitalist country, not a corporatist one. Now, this is a kind of fine distinction that I’d love to talk about. To me, it was a surprising and illuminating distinction, one that cleanly dissects and clears up the economic confusion of our times. And I had to write about it.
Everybody knows what capitalism is. It is the market-driven, private-ownership-centric economic system where selfish motives bring about collective happiness, according to Adam Smith. This way of life has been accepted as the “good” system, and stands in stark contrast with the collective, community-owned economic system with notions of robust social redistribution of wealth — communism or socialism. Although the latter does sound like a better and more moral ideal, at least in principle, it never did pan out that way.
Corporatism is not as well-known as capitalism. At least, I didn’t know that such a word existed. But the moment I heard it, I could guess what it meant. It points to the end product of unbridled capitalism, one with no government control, or even moral hangups. In my view, it happens this way — once you have private ownership, some people get richer than the rest. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is a mathematical certainty. But then, money gives those lucky guys more power, and access to ways in which they can make more money. For instance, they can influence the political system, and through it the fiscal and taxation policies. Also, private ownerships can be pooled together to form economic organisms that can sustain themselves. These organisms are, of course, corporate bodies. They exert power through their collective wealth to an even greater extent than the good old capitalists.
A curious thing happens when capitalists (simple rich folks, that is) get sidelined by corporations. The money and power get separated in a strange way. The board members and CEOs who control the corporate bodies end up wielding power, instead of the owners. They are entrusted with the task of guarding and growing the capital. They find novel strategies to do this, like taking advantage of tax loopholes and tax havens, and engaging in unsavory business practices (like mixing any damn white powder with baby food, for instance). As long as they succeed in their remit of growing the capital, they seem to absolve themselves of the moral implications of their actions. For their services, they pay themselves handsome rewards. Note that the corporatists (the operators) pay themselves; it is not as though the capitalists (the owners) pay them, wherein lies the separation of power and money.
When you bring in the financial system whose primary function is capital management, the separation of power, money and morality takes on a new dimension. So banks, with no intrinsic economic value of their own, turn out to be too big to fail, and the system rearranges itself in such way that even when they do fail, it is the people farthest removed from power and money are the ones who pay for it. The high-flying bankers and senior managers get golden parachutes because they have both power and money. The trickle-down economy envisioned in pure capitalism (an optimistic vision to begin with) only trickles through channels drawn by the corporate overlords.
These unfair trickles did not bother us (the middle class) for a long time because they were not all trickling away from us. Now that they have started to, we are beginning to sit up and protest. I sympathize with my American client. Now that the corporatists are after our little trickles, we hate corporatism.
I feel I have lived through an era of great changes. The pace of change can seem accelerated if you travel or emigrate because various geographical regions act as different slices in time. I have had the benefit (or the misfortune) of multiple emigrations. With that, coupled with my advancing years, I feel as though I have seen a lot. Most of what I have seen fills me with a foreboding of gloom and doom. Perhaps it is merely the pessimism characteristic of an unduly cynical mind, or perhaps it is the true decay of our global ethical standards.
On the positive side, the pace of change is indeed fast and furious. This is the kind of change you like — you know, vinyl to spool tape to cassette to MP3 to iPod kind. Or the land-line to satellite to cell to Skype to Twitter kind. However, along with this positive and obvious track of changes, there is an insidiously slow and troubling track creeping up on us. It is n this context that I want to reuse the over-used allegory of the frog-in-a-pot.
If you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out of the pot and save its skin. But if you place the frog in cold water, and slowly heat up the pot, it won’t feel the change and boil to death. The slowness of change is deadly. So let me be the frog with delusions of grandeur; allow me to highlight the unhealthy changes accumulating around us. You see, along with the technological miracle that we are living through, there is an economic or financial nightmare that is spreading its tentacles over all aspects of our social and political existence, transfixing everything in place in its vice-like grip. Slowly. Very slowly. Because of this invisible hold on us, with every iPod we buy, we (the middle-class) take a couple of dollars from the very poor and give it to the very rich. We don’t see it that way because some of us make a few cents in the process. The Apple store franchisee makes a few cents, the employee-of-the-month gets a token raise, an apple developer may enjoy a nice vacation, or a senior executive might get a new jet, the economy of the country goes up a notch, NASDAQ (and so everybody’s pension) goes up a tiny fraction — all are happy, right?
Well, there is this little question of the packaging material that may have killed part of a tree somewhere, in Brazil, perhaps, where people don’t know that the trees belong to them. May be a little bit of pollution escaped into the air or a river in China where the locals haven’t realized that these resources are their heirlooms. May be some moderately toxic junk ended up in a landfill in Africa somewhere where they haven’t quite grasped the concept of land ownership. It may have cost a developer in Bangalore or a call-center girl in Manilla an hour or two more than it should because they don’t know that their time is a resource bought low and sold high in markets they don’t see or know of. It is from these distant places and phantom people that we pick up a couple of dollars and pass on to the equally distant corporate coffers and stock markets. We take what is not ours from the unknown owners to feed the avarice of unseen players. And, like Milo Minderbinder would say, everybody has a share. This is the modern capitalism of the corporate era, where we have all become tiny cogs in a giant wheel inexorably rolling on to nowhere in particular, but obliterating much in the process.
The problem with capitalism as an economic ideology is that it is pretty much unopposed now. Only through a conflict of ideology can a balance of some sort emerge. Every conflict, by definition, requires adversaries, at least two of them. And so does an ideological struggle. The struggle is between capitalism and communism (or socialism, I’m not sure of the difference). The former says we should lay off the markets and let greed and selfishness run its course. Well, if you don’t like the sound of “greed and selfishness,” try “ambition and drive.” Associate it with words like freedom and democracy, and this “Laissez-Faire” ideology a la Adam Smith is a winning formula.
Standing in the other corner is the opposing ideology, which says we should control the flow of money and resources, and spread happiness. Unfortunately this ideology got associated with nasty words like totalitarianism, bureaucracy, mass murder, killing fields of Cambodia etc. Little wonder that it lost, save for this economic powerhouse called China. But the victory of China is no consolation for the socialist camp because China did it by redefining socialism or communism to essentially mean capitalism. So the victory of capitalism is, to all intents and purposes, a slam dunk. To the victors belong to spoils of history. And so, the socio-politico-economic ideology of capitalism enjoys the mellifluous association of nice words like liberty, equal opportunity, democracy etc., while communism is a failed experiment relegated to the “also-ran” category of ideologies such as fascism, Nazism and other evil stuff. So the battle between capitalism and the occupy-wall-street movements is pathetically asymmetric.
A battle between two well-matched opponents is nice to watch; say, a match between Djokovic and Federer. On the other hand, a “match” between Federer and me would be exciting only to me — if that. If you are into violent entertainment, a boxing match between two heavy weights would be something interesting to watch. but a brawny boxer beating the living daylights out of a two-year-old would only fill you with revolt and disgust (which is similar to the feeling I had during the ’91 Gulf War).
Don’t worry, I’m not about to defend or try to revive socialism on this blog, because I don’t think a centrally controlled economy works either. What worries me is the fact that capitalism does not have a worthy adversary now. Shouldn’t it worry you as well? Corporate capitalism is beating the living daylights out of everything that one might call decent and human. Should we ignore and learn to love our disgust just because we got a share?
Photo by Byzantine_K