Saturday, January 04, 2014

Capitalism: What went wrong

Famed British documentary film-maker Adam Curtis first made a stir with his four-part 1999 work, The Mayfair Set (subtitled "Four stories about the rise of business and the decline of political power.") I had never seen it until last night. Although this work requires a sizable investment of time, it is never dull...and it is eerily predictive of the catastrophe of 2008. In fact, it has a lot to say about the present moment.

All four parts are available for free, here.

The over-arching theme is that the Reagan-Thatcher revolution redefined capitalism -- although, as Curtis points out, the redefinition really began much earlier. Capitalism is no longer a matter of businesses hiring workers to provide goods and services to customers. Capitalism is now Wall Street (or, in a British context, The City) exercising its freedom to crush businesses, workers and customers alike.

The film reminds us of some counter-intuitive history: The heyday of Keynesianism occurred during the Conservative government of  Harold Macmillan (the man who told Britons "You never had it so good"), while the ultimate triumph of laissez-faire finance capitalism and globalization occurred under Labor leader Tony Blair. Arguably, something similar happened here: Nixon famously pronounced "We're all Keynesians now," while Obama infamously refused to prosecute the Wall Streeters or to impede globalization. 

As I watched Curitis' work, I kept asking myself: What would Adam Smith have made of all this? Would he even have recognized this new system as capitalism?

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