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 fluffy entertainment business doing mucking around in the serious world of pontificating 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 fictional portrayal of a social underclass since Dickens.

The Wire’s West Baltimore — home to drug dealers, drug addicts, entitled-to-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 reflected 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 profit,’” Simon noted. “‘I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter 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.

(From the March-April 2013 edition of Atlantic Business Magazine)

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