Fareed Zakaria has a painful article in Newseek with the suitably nauseating title “The Capitalist Manifesto: Greed Is Good (To a point).” As someone who’s been on both sides of the editor/writer divide, I understand how headlines get produced and I’m willing to cut a little slack to writers who get stuck with bad headlines – I once opened the paper to see my column titled “Telling The Man How It Is,” so empathy is often in order. However, the content of Zakaria’s article is no better than the headline.
Zakaria is the strange type of pundit who, despite having nothing original or of substance to say, enjoys some caché across the political spectrum. He was a Reaganite whose books somehow find themselves next to Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky on moderate-lefty suburban bookshelves everywhere. New York Times columnists David Brooks and Tom Friedman also feature prominently in this category. Maybe some people assume that anyone with a foreign name and brown skin couldn’t possibly be a supporter of the worst parts of neoliberalism. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true (Dinesh D’Souza anyone?).Zakaria supports a pro-business pragmatism that is intellectually light enough to fly wherever the winds of mainstream sentiment takes it. I won’t go too far into his past crimes, having plenty to focus on in the present-tense, but I will redirect anyone interested to the Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting analysis by Roger Bybee which has the great title “Fareed Zakaria: Spokesperson for the Global Elite.”
In “The Capitalist Manifesto,” Zakaria takes a look at the crazy themepark ride of the financial crisis and comes to the conclusion that we’ll be fine if we all do the same things as before, only a little less so. Implicit in his title is that this piece is an answer to those who see the global financial crisis as a failure of the system of capitalism. One might assume he has some sense of what current anti-capitalist arguments look like. One would assume incorrectly. The foundational problem in Zakaria’s thinking comes midway through his second paragraph, “… over the past few months, even though we’ve had an imperfect stimulus package, nationalized no banks and undergone no grand reinvention of capitalism, the sense of panic seems to be easing. Perhaps this is a mirage—or perhaps the measures taken by states around the world, chiefly the U.S. government, have restored normalcy.” Here’s his big error, the anti-capitalist argument holds that normalcy is the mirage. I am fully willing to admit the U.S. is well on it’s way to reestablishing normalcy, what I won’t concede is that this is in any way desirable.
What this crisis revealed more than anything is that even systems as large as Wall Street and the global financial apparatus can be rotten right below the surface. The housing boom and bust were based on demand that didn’t exist being created through complex financial tools, a whole class of professionals made millions while the mirage seemed real and they seem to be doing okay even through the painful revelation that the new lemonade boutique was a sand dune. I am as confident as Zakaria in the resilience of capitalism, it’s entirely possible that America is in the process of painting over the rotting interior again, but this isn’t is a sustainable plan. Zakaria recognizes that capitalism is “dynamic and inherently prone to crashes that cause great damage,” but that’s different from acknowledging that these crises are inherent to capitalism itself. ‘Prone’ is a careful hedging term, positing a way to remove the crises from capitalism. A system can be prone to do something, but through careful regulation and management, those in charge can derail the predilection. This is not the way capitalism (fails to) work.
Zakaria puts the fault of the crash on the finance system rather than capitalism in general. Unfortunately the two aren’t as inseparable as he would like, and this comes through in his proposed solutions. The biggest one is a return to real financial regulation. It’s true the U.S. has done a fair bit of deregulation since the 30’s, much of it thanks to Zakaria’s buddy Reagan, and it has weakened our resistance to crisis. The question becomes what role did the system of capitalism have in deregulation? We elected pro-business politicians because those seem to be the easiest ones to elect thanks to the way we fund elections – it also helps that they’re in both parties. Business leaders, always considered valued members of every Treasury Department, tend to dislike regulation that makes it harder for them and their friends to make money. Deregulation isn’t something that just happens, it’s a symptom of capitalism. Maybe Zakaria just needs a refresher on C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite to understand why politicians deregulate businessmen (hint: it could be because they’re the same people). Another suggestion, that CEOs start lowering their own salaries, would be laughable if people didn’t buy this bullshit. Zakaria writes,

Perhaps the state should not set the pay of the private sector. But surely CEOs should exercise some judgment about their own compensation, and tie it far more closely to the long-term health of the company. It will still be possible to get very rich—Warren Buffett, after all, draws a salary of only $100,000.

Well thank the good lord, I was most worried that it wouldn’t be possible for CEOs to get obscenely wealthy. Explain it to the steelworker who just lost his job: “I know your house just got foreclosed on, but we need to focus on making sure my CEO friends can still get super rich.” The truth is CEOs are exercising exactly the kind of judgment the system asks them to: “make the most money you possibly can.” To succeed in capitalism the goal isn’t to make enough money so that you can provide for your family or even enough afford a new car. Rather the goal is “make more money,” not “unless it harms people” or “unless it destabilizes the global financial system” or even “unless you have to drive over a meadow filled with the puppies from dog food commercials with a monster truck.” There are no exceptions. That’s why it is a system that “works” for the people on top but doesn’t promote a good society.
Maybe it’s really the left who is to blame for articles like this one. We have a few anti-capitalist thinkers and writers who have entered somewhere near the mainstream, but mostly not. If not even Fareed Zakaria knows what an anti-capitalist argument looks like, how are most Americans supposed to know? I think it’s time for a good demagogue or two. But then again, the media decides what gets published. What interest does Newsweek have in promoting capitalism?

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