Jerry Mander begins The Capitalist Papers by referring to Socrates’ statement: “If you are going to remember a thing, you need to name it.” This is precisely what Mander intends to do in this book. To name a thing is to define it – to mark its characteristics. And as Mander ticks off capitalism’s intrinsic features – its amorality, its growth addiction, its inequity, its propensity for war, its anti-democratic practices – he arrives at the inevitable conclusion that this is no way to achieve happiness, ostensibly capitalism’s goal.

But wait, isn’t something missing here? Waste. Like the magician’s slight of hand, capitalism’s so-called progress hides the reality of an utterly wasteful system. Wasteful of the environment, and, no less, of human capacity. It has always been so. Mander’s subtitle – Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System – is in error. Capitalism was obsolete as soon as the landowners and merchants of the 18th Century enclosed the commons and forced workers into their sickening factories. The weavers who, two hundred years ago this year, fought for their communal way of life, the original Luddites, had no illusions about the progress of civilization ushered in with capitalism.

It’s a myth Mander perpetuates, along with many others, that the history of capitalism evolves on a continuum from the small village shop to today’s multinationals. If you accept that this progression exists, then you can play the game of pinpointing when things got out of hand and capitalism became predatory and corrosive of civic values. Accordingly, everything was fine until the middle, or late 19th or 20th Century. This is all rubbish.

Capitalism takes an economic form in a narrow sense, but in the larger context, it is a system of political power exercised economically. The wealthy in alliance with the state destroyed village economies to secure global markets for Imperial Britain. Mander should know this as he has an advanced degree from Columbia in international economics. But like Marx before him, Mander believes that on balance the positives of capitalism outweighed the negatives, until recently.

Aside from this failing, Mander’s systemic analysis of modern capitalism merits pondering. Fortunately, he puts aside the scalpel, otherwise this would be a boring book, to introduce personal asides that bring home his points, sometimes in a hilarious fashion. These are stories from his life in the advertising world, first as a successful promoter of the system and then for three decades as the head of an award-winning public service ad agency, Public Media Center.

Mander takes us on a breezy excursion through the house of capitalism, trailing behind the intellectual wreckage of our visit as he proceeds. And yet, amongst the junk, a component remains in tact – our submission. How come we put up with this system? Mander attempts an answer by describing capitalism’s “privatization of our consciousness.” The $150 billion a year advertising industry is an insidious and pervasive force, that Mander states, first moved “consciousness inside media” with his generation. But is it true, as he says, that television, still the dominant medium, has become the culture, not simply an aspect of the culture? Are we then to accept the common view that television has seduced the solid citizen and transformed him or her into a quisling consumer?

To believe this, slams the door on history, transforming democracy into a spectator sport. Mander doesn’t accept this. Capitalism fails to successfully privatize our consciousness because it can’t deliver the goods. There is still reality. Rent to pay, food to buy. And reality still counts for something even if it is seen through fogged lenses.

And this is why naming the system is important. It is the first step in clearing a path for both personal and social transformation. Without clarity about the system, people are caught up, at worst, in illusory hopes that those in charge will fix what’s wrong, or, not much better, they pursue a course of self-defeating action. The former leads to a spiral of defeatism and self-abuse, by one means or another, and the latter takes many forms, but to name only two: dead-end politics and believing the “bootstraps” hype of the successful entrepreneur.

Mander ends his book with a chapter entitled “Which Way Out?” For a book that many will find enlightening, but depressing, to end hopefully with a few perceptive guidelines adopted by the opponents of capitalism, makes sense. To begin with, and the absolute foundation for all other principles, the grassroots economy puts “nature first.” It is incredible that this simple fact gets lost in the conversation about economics. Where does BP get its profits? Take a look at the ads for the major extractive industries and see how many show you a drilling tower, or a mineshaft. The major oil companies are all about their technical competency as epitomized by their workforce and farsighted executives. Mander states the obvious, that no one wants to admit – economics must be based on natural systems.

The next point follows on from the first: the primacy of scale. This is not simply an economic issue, but also a political one. Democracy begins locally and the commons begins here, not across the state line. The third idea comes from groups re-thinking corporate structure. Historically the corporation was a limited enterprise created by the State with precise, contractual restrictions. It became the monster that it is due to a fatal flaw – it lacked democratic oversight. To accomplish a task, an alliance of like-minded individuals, a new corporation, must be transparent and accountable to the community from which it arose.

The last aspect of a new economy that Mander touches upon is its hybridity, which refers to the complexity of society and the various means that people use to meet their needs. For example, amongst one’s friends and neighbors one form of economic enterprise could work, but be inappropriate in the larger communal context, and still another form might make more sense for global trade, since that will not disappear, even though it might be severely limited. The point is to be flexible and not dogmatic regarding the form, as long as it is popularly controlled.

Mander’s conclusion winds back to the beginning. After all what is the point of an economic system? By defining capitalism’s malevolence Mander suggests what is missing. Capitalism promotes living better, while we need to live well. Living better presupposes a growth economy. Living well embraces conviviality, creativity and cooperation as integral to life. This is the life still to be built.

I cannot end this review without mentioning two significant obstacles that Mander discusses and that set his book apart from a utopian sermon for a new economics. The first is the war economy and the second is poverty. They both undergird the prosperity, such as it is, that this country enjoys. Mander spends a goodly number of pages on America’s war industries – it’s what we do best, as he says. We can’t dream of idyllic sustainable villages while the nightmare of weapons of mass destruction, of our creation, dominates the US economy.

And regarding poverty and inequality, also a result of capitalism, I wish Mander had spent some time detailing efforts like those in Detroit (Boggs Center) or Springfield, Massachusetts (Alliance to Develop Power), where bottom-up economies are developing along sustainable lines amongst the least privileged of us.
I recommend this book to all, but especially for friends and family who are living in a media desert. It’s a seductive polemic.

Bernard Marszalek is the editor of The Right to be Lazy: Essays by Paul Lafargue (AK Press/Kerr Co.) and co-founder of JASecon (www.jasecon.org).