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Hullabaloo


Thursday, October 30, 2014

 

Deprogramming the Prosperity Gospel

by Tom Sullivan

Just because you don't hear the term "free-market fundamentalism" much these days doesn't mean the faith has gone away. More on that in a minute.

Der Spiegel looks at The Zombie System: How Capitalism Has Gone Off the Rails. The wizards of finance are not the choir boys that prove the moral superiority of capitalism, as analyst Mike Mayo believed when he entered the business. Instead, writes Michael Sauga, Mayo found "the glittering facades of the American financial industry concealed an abyss of lies and corruption." Ironically, some the most blessed(?) beneficiaries of the corruption, global financial and political leaders, now say they want to fix capitalism, make it more inclusive:

It isn't necessary, of course, to attend the London conference on "inclusive capitalism" to realize that industrialized countries have a problem. When the Berlin Wall came down 25 years ago, the West's liberal economic and social order seemed on the verge of an unstoppable march of triumph. Communism had failed, politicians worldwide were singing the praises of deregulated markets and US political scientist Francis Fukuyama was invoking the "end of history."

Today, no one talks anymore about the beneficial effects of unimpeded capital movement. Today's issue is "secular stagnation," as former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers puts it. The American economy isn't growing even half as quickly as did in the 1990s. Japan has become the sick man of Asia. And Europe is sinking into a recession that has begun to slow down the German export machine and threaten prosperity.

Sauga's detailed account features several financial experts worried about the future course of a world economy seeing an explosion in private wealth from technical financing tweaks (instead of genuine growth), and a concomitant imbalance of wealth with the rest of society. There is, writes Sauga, "a dangerous malfunction in capitalism's engine room."

In this sense, the crisis of capitalism has turned into a crisis of democracy. Many feel that their countries are no longer being governed by parliaments and legislatures, but by bank lobbyists, which apply the logic of suicide bombers to secure their privileges: Either they are rescued or they drag the entire sector to its death.

But you don't need a financial analyst to know that fixing this mess will require a movement akin to the one that broke up the trusts a century ago. Some hoped Barack Obama, arriving in Washington as the financial crash broke, might have the political capital and the stomach for leading such a movement to bring the banks to heel. We know how that worked out. Still, while a movement may need a leader, a leader also needs a movement.

Lack of accountability and "too big to fail" have meant that top firms are back earning what they did (or more) before the crash, while other "zombie banks" that received bailouts instead of funerals remain too weak to lend money, and now survive only by more speculation:

What distinguishes the current situation from the wild years before the financial crisis is that speculators were once driven by greed but have since turned into speculators motivated by need.

Much of the Der Spiegel account looks at the possibilities for returning the capitalist system to health. Yet, the power of organized wealth, especially as it has the ear of politicians and the ability to, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren repeats, rig the system to its own advantage, will not easily give up its power and deep faith in its own rightousness.

Scientology, Randism, New Age mysticism, or the Prosperity Gospel, cults have a way of morphing and adapting. Internal contradictions are ignored, explained away, or synthesized into fresh doctrines to support the faith. Keeping the free-market faith — patching it, preserving it, defending it — is easier than giving it up cold turkey. Even the losers in the comment threads hold to it as fervently as any fringe evangelical or most committed member of the Comintern.

Which means, perhaps, that any efforts to reform capitalism are premature. A key feature of the kind of self-reinforcing faith one sees among many cults, and maybe characteristic of our culture, is the way money becomes the measure of all things, especially God's grace — making a priesthood of the rich. Before any balance can be restored, before "inclusion" can take place, breaking that spell may be a prerequisite. It suggests that any efforts at re-regulating gilded capitalism may first have to wait until after the deprogramming.