Even Karl Marx, who saw Capitalism as a production system governed essentially by inescapable laws, acknowledged the key role of special actors who made it their job to advertise the benefits of the market. The market, a political project, needs these people to create the “right” environment. Marx often called them “sycophants”, an ancient Greek word denoting servile persons who would flatter potentates, and even denounce their own peers, in order to garner favour.

Christoph Deutschmann’s fascinating new book, which analyses Capitalism as equivalent to a modern secular religion, also sees these actors performing an important function. He views many economists and business “experts” as performing for the market a role equivalent to that of priests in the Christian church – to interpret the signs given by the deity and to make predictions based on them.

Be they high priests or sycophants, the PR workers of global Capitalism (those who haven’t, at least temporarily, defected to the pro-government side, so long as it subsidises business) are getting in gear again – they literally have a world to lose. However, in this present crisis, neither the numbers, nor the facts, nor people’s everyday experience, really speak strongly for the priests’ side. So some turn to a rather “liberal” treatment of the facts.

Take for instance the statement that luxury goods are cheaper than ever thanks to mass-production. True. But most people in the world haven’t had much from this, while they are getting a taste of the flipside; the massive rise in grain prices over the past years is literally causing riots and civil wars in the South (Haiti, Sudan, Congo…).

Grain Prices

Yesterday’s special business section in the German broadsheet “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ) opened with a bleeding-heart appeal for more faith in the market, based on the view that everything isn’t so bad after all. If Capitalism has served us so well for so long, why rebuke it just because of this crisis? Maybe we can bring out the sun simply by wearing sunglasses?

I wear my sunglasses at night

“We’ve never had it as good as today,” the chief business editor of the FAZ, proclaims. He supports his argument with numbers produced by Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer (which Shleifer himself doesn’t source), claiming that the proportion of people living on less than a Dollar a day halved between 1970 and 2000 from 38 to 19 percent.

At face value, this figure might sound impressive. But the numbers are a bit questionable.

First, are they real or nominal? We aren’t told. Second, if they are real numbers (that is, controlled for inflation), they don’t take into account the fact that, while TV sets may be getting cheaper, grain prices for example more than tripled from 2004 to 2007. That Dollar a day isn’t buying the poor much food. Third, these figures hide the fact that overall inequality is growing – 98 percent of investable assets now belong to 1 percent of the world’s population.

Twisting Oliver Twist

What about the other claims? The FAZ states: “It was Capitalism which released people from the slave-owner world of Oliver Twist”. But it fails to mention that Capitalism brought them into that world in the first place, through the Industrial Revolution. And was it really Capitalism that released them, not self-organisation and power-struggles fought via the state?

The next sentence reads, “Since the origins of financial Capitalism at the beginning of the 19th century, productivity rose in all European countries.” This is a remarkable argument, since it implies that any rise in productivity would make a mode of production legitimate. I wonder whether the writer is aware that the greatest annual percentage rise in productivity of the entire 20th century in Europe occurred in Russia during the first decade of the USSR?

“Financial Capitalism has made it possible for people to free themselves from boring, tiresome or difficult work and instead turn to mentally challenging work.” Indeed, this is correct in a sense; financial Capitalism has truly allowed many brilliant minds to work in the difficult world of high finance – accumulating fairy-tale riches in return for producing what, actually? – while the rest of humanity has to remain contented with “mentally challenging” jobs at supermarket tills; or in the factories and mines of the global South.

Bringing the transnational back in

In current mainstream discourse, the solution for the crisis is that national governments should regulate financial markets more strongly. Besides wondering whether most mainstream discussants would have been of the same opinion a year or two ago, I beg to differ: Capitalism isn’t a national policy, nor can it be tamed by national policies. It’s a transnational system of productive relations which can’t be harnessed for national projects by national laws.

If “our” system of production systematically overproduces, and I believe that that is the true root of the crisis, then simply regulating finance isn’t a solution. If we want to understand capitalism, we will have to keep our eye on the transnational level; that’s where the elites which govern it operate anyway (as Brooke Harrington’s most recent project on offshore investment shows; forthcoming).

Any real solution to the current, deep (deeper than we think) crisis will take more than a bunch of national governments meeting at events like the G-20 summit in London this week to bicker over regulatory smallprint and who questions of who subsidises whom by how much. Maybe the recent protests across Europe are a sign that ordinary people are beginning to organise for a better future; that’s where hope lies.

(phil mader)

All German-language quotes translated into English by me; apologies for any mistranslations.