Ghost in the Machine

David Moberg

There’s a discordant note in the title of distinguished journalist William Greider’s new book about fundamental problems of American political and economic life. Does capitalism have a soul? No, Greider acknowledges, but he thinks it could and believes very tentative efforts are under way in this country to implant one, even if the host doesn’t want it.

As evidence, he writes, American capitalism produced material abundance but also created inequality, insecurity, anxiety and ecological destruction at home and around the world. Americans have a great deal of certain freedoms, but they are channeled into the consumer marketplace and the model of master and servant still defines the employment relationship. There is formal democracy but no meaningful debate on the country’s future.

If we subtract the negative effects of how America generates wealth, such as destruction of nature and the social costs of inequality, Greider writes, the country would seem a lot poorer. And this leads him to ask: What does it mean to be rich if it destroys the soul of individuals and society?

Despite the clash between contemporary capitalism and social values, Greider optimistically believes these values haven’t been snuffed out by America’s cutthroat corporate culture and that they can be embodied in reformed institutions of capitalism, beginning with financial markets.

Management and ownership were separated with the rise of corporations, but Greider argues that the disconnect between executives and the work of their businesses also has grown in recent years. Institutional investors, such as mutual funds and pension funds, now are the dominant owners of American corporations, and this ownership encourages behavior that, in the long run, is bad for society and many of their beneficiaries. Emphasis on shareholder value” destructively narrowed the focus of corporations at the expense of workers, suppliers, customers and the communities in which they operate.

Greider argues corporations would function better if insiders — meaning workers as well as managers — had more power than fleeting stockholders. Labor unions, especially through member pension funds, are attempting to use their power to steer corporations away from the single-minded, short-term obsession with boosting stock prices, arguing that socially conscious corporations that treat employees well will be more financially successful. Greider profiles a few corporations that have reached such conclusions on their own, including furniture maker Herman Miller and a high-tech network of firms generated by Thermo Electron.

Worker-owned businesses, like a Baltimore temporary employment agency called Solidarity, also provide workers power and self-respect on the job, if workers also control the business. Ultimately, Greider argues,whether they work in professional partnerships, cooperatives or more conventional corporations, workers must be guaranteed ownership of their work in some form as an essential human right. But such self-ownership,” he suggests, also is the basis for creating sound business strategies and for avoiding economic and ecological crisis.

Greider is deeply pessimistic that political action on a national level can address any of these major questions. He believes that community and state initiatives and efforts by nonprofit groups, unions, and innovative and socially conscious investors are more productive ways of finding a soul for capitalism.

Yet he argues for drastic political and electoral reform — proposing fundamental transformation of corporate charters, tax laws and legal privileges (such as revising limits on corporate liability and the definition of corporations as persons”). He argues against corporate subsidies without accountability and for public works investments designed for the public good, not corporate needs. He wants to guarantee everyone the right to a job, decent housing, health care, education and a thriving natural environment, none of which will happen without national political action, however remote it now seems.

It is so remote, Greider suggests, because Americans don’t have an alternative narrative to the corporate capitalist fairytale that is broadly accepted, even by those whose lives are damaged by it. As independent farmers and craftspeople were pushed into work for big corporations in the late 19th Century, they understood there had been an alternative as they railed against becoming wage slaves” and dreamed of a cooperative commonwealth.” But the idea that there might be another way to organize society’s work, wealth and consumption seems incomprehensibly alien to most Americans today — and must grow out of their present conflicts, not a forgotten past.

Greider’s book is an imaginative, passionate and well-reasoned effort to encourage creation of that alternative story about America’s possible future.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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