“Capitalism,” “corporations,” “consumerism,” “profits,” “advertising,” etc. – what feelings do all such words evoke? Sneeringly negative. (Just look at the comments on my 4/09 post, “The Business Ethic.”)
Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Howard Bloom’s book The Genius of the Beast. The “beast” is capitalism; Bloom argues that common ideas about it are all messed up, and provides a sort-of history of the world showcasing a better view.
This is a flawed book. A fair bit concerns how smart and successful Howard Bloom has been. And, when Bloom has an idea he thinks is cool, he likes to say it again. He likes to reiterate it. He likes to repeat it. He likes to hammer on it. And he likes to write in just that style. Done on practically every page, it becomes really annoying. The book’s organizational structure is a mystery. And it could have been far better at half its length.
Nevertheless, this book will repay putting up with. Bloom does present some important and uncommon ideas. In a nutshell, he holds that knee-jerk critiques of capitalism, consumerism, and so forth, fail to grasp what the market is all about. It runs on human emotion, and it feeds our emotions on such a deep level that we can’t even perceive it.
The essence of the market economy is exchange. John gives Mary something Mary values more, and in exchange Mary gives something John values more. It’s not a zero-sum situation with a winner and a loser; both gain. And it’s nonsense to think we are somehow manipulated into buying unnecessary things. The economy is grounded in deep psychological wants and needs that cannot be abolished. (All attempts at doing so, like Soviet Communism, proved catastrophically inhumane.)
One of those key needs is for identity — a huge part of “consumerism.” It comes down to an assertion of self-identity within one’s social milieu which, since we are the most social of animals, tends to be central to one’s life.
We also hunger for novelty. The mind of, say, a cat, is very simple; of a person, very much not. Without regular stimulation we go bonkers. (That’s why “solitary confinement” is so punishing; see also the preceding paragraph). So a further big part of consumerism is striving for novelty.
The sex drive is also very important, and lies behind a lot of human behavior. These are all just some elemental aspects of the human psyche; it’s who we are.
Now, you might consider these human traits embarrassments, and still sneer at what you deem our pathetic efforts to feed them. But here is the kicker, which Bloom also rams home: the effect of all this has been fantastic for humankind. Sometimes the most seemingly trivial and frivolous consumerist things turn out to have, down the road, enormous impacts on human life. Like soap. It’s precisely because we have those deep psychological drives, and the motivation to feed them, with market economics as the vehicle, that we have achieved long lives of comparative health and comfort and pleasure — whereas previously life was (as Hobbes put it) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Bloom recognizes that capitalism has its downsides, its atrocities; but that shouldn’t blind us to its overwhelmingly greater benefits. And yes, some lives today are still nasty, brutish, and short. Capitalism is often blamed. But in truth poverty is not the result of capitalism; it’s the result of insufficient free market capitalism. Bloom shows how capitalism is good for human values – especially for the world’s downtrodden.
Yet still we hear calls for ditching it in favor of some (unspecified) different system – as though we could make human beings something completely different. What foolishness. Again, the essence of the free market system is exchange. Does it make any kind of sense to talk of doing away with this? And the universal human drive for self-advancement renders unworkable all “sharing society” notions. Capitalism’s sanctimonious critics haven’t got a clue for an alternative that wouldn’t destroy everything we’ve achieved in the last 10,000 years and throw us all back to lives nasty, brutish, and short.