Howard Bloom, The Genius of the Beast

“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.

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11 Responses to “Howard Bloom, The Genius of the Beast”

  1. spoing Says:

    A few glib comments in this review caught my eye.

    “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.”

    What makes you and Bloom so very sure that extending the free-market capitalist free-for-all to the developing world is going to magically result in eradication of poverty for over 5 billion human beings? Just how is the environment going to bear the load as each of these 5 billion “Americanizes” his or her lifestyle, and as industries already obscenely wasteful and damaging to the environment expand still further?

    To me all this indulgent prattle on Bloom’s part is a kind of magical thinking which would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. In Bloom’s swaggering fantasy, all human beings really need to do to to ensure a happilly-ever-after is let themselves be carried off on a wave of emotion as they continue to lay waste to the dwindling remains of our precious natural environment, safe in the knowledge that “capitalism” will somehow ensure that resources are never depleted.

    You and he should read the history of Easter Island. That is the true future of the human race.

    [FSR: I have indeed read Diamond on Easter Island, and that is not the future of humanity. What wrecked Easter Island was that its people were cut off from the rest of the world, thus unable to trade with anyone for anything.
    I love it when guys like Tony here, probably living a very comfy life thanks to the free market system he so glibly denigrates, want to deny those benefits of a decent life to the world’s poor in the name of saving the environment. Fortunately this “laying waste” trope is a gross oversimplification and the choice between material well-being and environmental utopia is a false one. Dare I say, read my book, The Case for Rational Optimism?]

  2. spoing Says:

    Thanks for your response. Your presumption that I am living a very comfy life is an interesting (not to mention smugly arrogant) one.

    [FSR: Come, come. Smugly arrogant? Spot-on accurate I think, and a fairly obvious inference.]

    You’re essentially saying that all those who happen to have been born into middle class families in first-world countries are implicitly prohibited from criticising the system which privileges them, because this is some kind of hypocrisy.

    But with privilege comes responsibility. With the privileges of education and relative wealth that we enjoy come the responsibility of measuring, understanding and managing the impact and the sustainability of our behaviour in relation to the world. Those of us locked into poverty have neither this privilege nor the attendant responsibility.

    My own life of middle-class privilege has enabled me to gain insight into how the other half lives in a number of places around the world. I have lived alongside the poor in Africa and have observed first-hand the degrading effects of Western economic imperialism on vulnerable people. I have also lived on a commune (kibbutz) for an extended period of time and experienced first-hand the viability of this way of life. Everything in my experience has added to my belief that human beings are able to adapt to vastly different ways of living together and organizing themselves, economically, socially and politically. Not to mention that people do not need an American or even a European lifestyle to be fulfilled and happy human beings. “Standard of living” is not synonymous with “Quality of life”

    Far from wanting “to deny a decent life” to the world’s poor, people who seek to create sustainable economic systems have the intention of providing a decent quality of life to all human beings. Where decent is defined as something rather different than living in the suburbs, driving an SUV and shopping at Wal-Mart.

    Positing trade as a panacea for limited resources (as you seem to be doing re Easter Island) only begs the question, what happens when ALL resources are depleted? I won’t insult your intelligence by raising obvious problems such as vanishing fresh water, fish stocks, easily-retrievable crude, rare earths – and this is only at the beginning of China’s “glorious” economic ascent. Presumably your book clearly and comprehensively addresses these problems.

    People enamoured of “capitalism” like you & Bloom misrepresent humanity’s choices as we make our way forward as a spurious dichotomy between unfettered free-market trade (leading to skyscrapers, SUVs and stripmalls) versus a scary socialist/communist wasteland resembling a cross between 1984 and Dachau.

    Whereas by focusing our energies on planning and regulating our economy intelligently (on a global scale) we can afford everyone – present and future generations – a comfortable quality of life.

    That’s my kind of “rational optimism”.

    [FSR: It’s oh-so-easy to mock “living in the suburbs, driving an SUV and shopping at Wal-Mart” with the familiar tropes of how a “simpler” life can (should) be better and actually more rewarding. I frankly find this somewhat ridiculous given the couple of billion people in the world living on a dollar a day or less. I don’t think your plan (if it can be called one) would do a thing for them. The reality is that to lift all those people out of grinding poverty will take creation of additional wealth — the people who have wealth now are not going to just give it to them. More particularly, it will take giving all those poor people a way to participate effectively in the world economy — producing things of value that others will buy, and participating in global trade to market those products — which his how the rest of us got the opportunity for “living in the suburbs, driving an SUV and shopping at Wal-Mart.” I doubt Zimbabweans living in squalor would share your disdain for these amenities.]

  3. spoing Says:

    You’ve said nothing that addresses the question of how this additional wealth-for-all is going to be conjured into being in a sustainable manner, despite finite natural resources and fragile ecosystems.

    Your sneering dismissal of the “plan” I supposedly put forward (I didn’t) begs the question of exactly how well thought-out your plans are. “Creating” additional wealth – out of what, exactly? High-school physics tells you that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – neither can wealth. All that is really happening is a temporary reappropriation of finite resources by an elite. Ask the average Tanzanian whether they feel that by providing work for a few thousand fishermen and fish-factory workers near the shores of Lake Victoria, and exporting thousands of kilogrammes of Nile Perch annually to fill the maws of Europeans, they have “created wealth” or “given all their poor people a way to participate effectively in the world economy”. I think not.

    Zimbabweans living in squalor would likely envy the lifestyles of the average Cuban. As would many Americans needing decent healthcare.

    So what exactly is the “capitalist plan” extrapolated to its logical end outcome on a global scale? All 9 billion of our grandchildren’s generation living in their local equivalent of beverley hills and driving SUVs down the golden highway to the casino?

    Or – a miniscule elite of super-wealthy trillionaires atop a thin layer of bourgeousie above remaining billions of desperately poor wretches dreaming of a better life … in other words, very similar to the present, except far, far worse due to the larger human population, the reduced environmental resources and the degraded environmental conditions.

    Culminating in a collapse of epic proportions as per Diamond’s Easter Islanders.

    Nothing you or Bloom has said is in any way persuasive in demonstrating how capitalism is going to achieve wealth for all humanity in a sustainable way.

    Peddling twaddle which portrays capitalism and free-markets as the salvation of the human race, without clearly articulating how the hell this is achievable in a sustainable way, is as manipulative as what religionists do when they peddle their gospel of redemption from sin and a heavenly reward, and has about as much to back it up as theirs does.

    [FSR: Where to begin? Oy, oy, oy. Your line about Tanzanians is foolish in the extreme. Yes, I think those Tanzanians who are earning a living for themselves through honest toil doing work to feed other human beings are doing something good for themselves and for others, and I’ll bet they think so too.
    That you can talk about Cuba as some sort of paradise shows you are an ideologue with no regard for fundamental human rights.
    High school physics indeed. I suppose the five-fold improvement in the living standard of the average human being over the last century was some sort of mirage that violated the laws of physics. No — it occurred because people employed themselves productively. That is, they did WORK which produced things that other people wanted to buy. And those people were able to do so because they in turn were producing things too. The problem of the poor is that their labors are not sufficiently productive. It was by a massive improvement in the productivity of human efforts, due to improving and more efficient technology, that the last century’s stupendous improvement in conditions of life for billions of people was achieved.
    Can this be accomplished without using resources? Of course not. But ever since Malthus two centuries ago guys like you have been predicting resource-exhaustion catastrophe. But those pessimists have been confounded again and again and again because they fail to understand that the future will be different from the present in ways no one can anticipate. Enough.]

  4. spoing Says:

    How disappointing. My counter to you, sir, is that YOU are the idealogue, who draws inappropriate conclusions and misrepresents the ideas of others; and rather a shallow thinker to boot. To resort to ad-hominem accusations of “foolishness” rather than actually answering questions and engaging in debate makes that pretty clear.

    I did not say nor imply that Cuba is a paradise. I merely suggested that Cuba is a better outcome than Zimbabwe.

    Improvements in living standards of course do not contravene any law of physics, even a “fool” like me realises that. Clearly we have become more adept at exploiting available natural resources as well as developing technologies to extend available resources. And any idiot understands that productive employment has been key to this also.

    None of this diminishes in any way the fact that the earth is a finite resource. Just as Bloom explains, when we meet the limits of this finite resource, the current massive boom of human capability and human numbers will be followed by a corresponding crash.

    That’s Easter Island. That’s not a good outcome.

    Malthus was right. The pessimists are right. You are wrong.

    [FSR: In fact, you said that many AMERICANS would envy the lifestyle of Cubans. Beyond that, I will let readers judge for themselves which of us is misrepresenting and actually answering points.]

  5. spoing Says:

    In fact you’ll find on careful review that the Zimbabweans got first mention mate.

    I absolutely do assert that many Americans would envy what the average Cuban has access to in terms of healthcare !

    Anyway – the major point of disagreement between you and me centres around your apparent belief that planet earth is a bottomless well of resource which will never be exhausted. You seem to be suggesting that the answer to poverty is in fact to plunder this inexhaustible fund even more effectively by removing barriers to free trade and promoting capitalistic enterprise even further.

    The evidence would suggest otherwise. Though globalization has had the effect of massively increasing GDP as well as increasing the personal wealth of relatively small elites in nations like India and China, it has also greatly increased real poverty levels in both those nations; in terms of wealth per head as well as the number of poor.

    At the same time, economic growth in those countries has been accomplished at enormous cost to the environment – the 3 gorges dam, water resource depletion, industrial pollution, construction of hundreds of new fossil powered power generation sites, species extinctions – the list goes on.

    All this to achieve a temporary, unsustainable burst of economic growth.

    [FSR: Ah, there it is, this belief that economic growth has benefited only “relatively small elites” and “greatly increased real poverty levels” in nations like India & China. You even specify that such poverty has increased “in terms of wealth per head as well as the number of poor.”
    These assertions, so often heard from the anti-capitalist Left, are ideologically necessary (much like religious beliefs) but are diametrically contradicted by reality. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.]

  6. spoing Says:

    I am well aware of the published statistics of e.g. the United Nations Development Report and those of the World Bank (if that’s the tree you’re barking up). What these however do not always take into account when reflecting a positive overall trend (i.e. of personal income) is the uneven rates of growth between different social groups and urban and rural areas.

    For example, poverty rates in Orissa province in India is one of the highest in the world (close to 50% if memory serves). This has only worsened over the past decade.

    Overall poverty rates in India have increased dramatically since 2004:

    http://in.reuters.com/article/2010/04/18/idINIndia-47791820100418

    The more important point I’m trying to make – which you are studiously ignoring – is that the net effect of global capitalistic expansion is primarily to improve the wealth of an elite, at great expense to the natural environment.

    Even in the United States, the “model” capitalist economy, the disparity in wealth between the elite and the common man is staggering, and growing worse over time. This is pretty much common knowledge. For example, the disparity between share of capital income earned by the top 1% versus bottom 80% has doubled between between 1979-2003. Between 1990 and 2005, CEO salaries increased by 298%, versus an average of 4.3% for production workers.

    [FSR: This will be my last response on this. You can cherry pick statistics till the cows come home, from a single province (!) in India or for the whole country for a few selected years, but this does not refute the gigantic reality of stupendous numbers of people worldwide, in India, and especially in China (where the world’s poor are concentrated) moving out of poverty and into more decent living standards over recent decades. (It wasn’t socialism that achieved this.) Yes, it uses natural resources. No, they are not infinite. But human creativity and adaptability to changing environmental circumstances almost is. I am not willing to sacrifice the world’s poor on the altar of your anti-capitalist, anti-progress obsession.]

  7. spoing Says:

    The truth is that you have less faith in human resourcefulness and creativity than I do. The current economic model needs to loot the resources of earth and ocean, trigger mass extinctions and climate change, just to put those few extra dollars in the pockets of Asia’s poor (and megabucks into Larry Ellison’s).

    Great outcome, we should all be dancing in the streets.

    articles like this one below are a daily phenomenon nowadays – you can’t sugarcoat this or pretend that this is not a direct outcome of the current capitalist economic model:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/04/us-climate-sulphur-idUSTRE7634IQ20110704

    I say that human beings are capable of much, much greater things. Human beings are capable of devising entirely new and radically improved social, economic and political arrangements combining elements of both socialism and capitalism, on a global scale.

    This global economy will be carefully managed to supply the basic needs of all humans in an environmentally sustainable way. A much grander vision than the every-man-for-himself free for all in place today.

  8. JohnnyW Says:

    “Capitalism is often blamed. But in truth poverty is not the result of capitalism; it’s the result of insufficient free market capitalism.”

    Really? I’m sorry but that sounds like absolute nonsense. The most successful countries in the world have little things like Minimum Wage and right for their workers. This is obviously in direct contradiction “Free Market Capitalism”. Indeed countries that don’t have these things, and so are closer to having unfettered Capitalism, are amongst the poorest. Without a decent Minimum Wage set the State, you have people working 100 hour weeks just to live in shanty towns.

    Please explain to me why people in this situation, with no help from the state, aren’t thriving?

    [FSR comment: As I have repeatedly pointed out on this blog, “free market capitalism” never means absence of all government regulation; just as individuals are, businesses are subject to laws to control harmful conduct.
    In poor countries, people don’t work hard to live in shacks merely because the state has failed to legislate minimum wage laws!!! Rather, it’s because these countries ARE poor. You can legislate a $7 minimum wage in Zambia — and nobody will have a job (not a legal one anyway). However — poor countries do tend to actually have much more pervasive government regulation and red tape, which exists mostly to provide opportunities for corruption. And that is an important factor keeping them impoverished.
    The closest thing in the world today to so-called “unfettered capitalism” is actually the part of China’s economy not controlled by the government, which indeed is almost totally unregulated. And that “unfettered capitalism” sector has in fact, over three decades, generated whopping economic growth and income improvement, resulting in literally hundreds of millions of people moving up from poverty into more decent living standards.]

  9. JohnnyW Says:

    Before you delve into ad hominen attacks like you did with your last commenter, let me just say that I wish you were right. Taking any worries surrounding Capitalism anyway, would be a fantastic thing. Like if you could prove than the environment was perfectly fine, and I didn’t have to worry about recycling or pollution. I would sleep better if that was the case.

  10. Wyckd-Rus Says:

    I must comment on SPOING’s visceral attack on FSR (glib, capitalism described as a “free for all”, indulgent prattle, magical thinking, and swaggering fantasy). All this pointed wording in his very first step into a supposed “dialogue” indicates a closed mind coming out with a round house right as a first volley. How immature!
    FSR has laid out his views, be they right or wrong. One needs to respond in a respectful and thoughtful manner in order to get others to actually listen to ones position.
    I can imagine spoing, leading a world under his utopian delusions, becoming frustrated with his minions, as such leaders in the past have, and resorted to the totalitarianism needed to make them confirm to his personal and “superior” visions.
    This is sad, since he might have had some interesting ideas to think about if he hadn’t started out with his negative and disdainful attitude.
    Let us pray for calm and rational discourse! That might be a first step to a better world.

  11. rationaloptimist Says:

    Wyckd: Thanks. While I diid respond to “spoing” it was kind of pointless, since it was obvious he was speaking from a deeply embedded ideology, and seeing the world in ways that flatter his cynical posture, rather than trying to come to grips with realities.

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