Fixing Capitalism Bit by Bit To Build Us All a Better World

The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy , by William Greider. Simon and Schuster, 366 pages, $28.

Not long into the last century, Cicero McClure, a farmer in Western Pennsylvania, started a second job as a night watchman. After a hard day of plowing and tilling the fields, he would take himself off to the electric-power substation it was his nightly duty to guard. Before he began putting in these phenomenally long hours, McClure had been a director of a local community bank he’d also invested in. The bank folded during the great panic of 1907, and McClure took the night job so that he could repay the depositors who’d lost their money. The law didn’t require this, but his sense of honor and pride did. And it is with honor and pride that William Greider relates Cicero’s small but startling story in The Soul of Capitalism . McClure was Mr. Greider’s great-uncle, and he stands as a kind of spiritual emblem of the book’s main theme: He’s capitalism’s soul-a soul that has long since departed the body in question. Cicero’s story, Mr. Greider writes, “would be unthinkable today-but [it] does suggest how much our system of personal values has been degraded by the conventions of modern capitalism.”

Degraded, though not dismantled. Because the purpose of Mr. Greider’s seductive, suggestive new book is to “sketch the outlines of a promising new story for our future-and to make it sound plausible for ordinary citizens, if not to their leaders.” Capitalism is far from being all bad. For one thing, unlike most other political systems, it works. As Mr. Greider puts it: “The United States has solved the economic problem.” Hunger and scarcity are no more. Americans and others fortunate enough to live in the most advanced nations inhabit a world of regal abundance. The only thing they’re short of is time. On average, Americans work between 300 and 400 more hours a year than people in other leading industrial economies. In Europe, too, working hours are on the increase. All the money thus earned buys people products-pre-chopped vegetables, TV dinners-to make their non-working time more leisurely. Unfortunately, these goods give them none of the satisfaction that comes from preparing and cooking a proper meal.

John Maynard Keynes, in many ways the hero of Mr. Greider’s book, predicted all this back in the 1930′s. He saw capitalism as a great machine for freedom, but he saw too that capitalism’s emphasis on the material, on the here and now, rendered it incapable of solving the big puzzles of life-the puzzles that confound you no matter how comfortable you are. Freedom, in other words, turns out to be another trap: What do you do with it once you’ve got it? We don’t know. And so, divorced from the everyday contingencies of material reality and working for ever more aggressively managed companies, we grow more and more anxious about our lives. The world, we feel, is out of our control, and neither of the political parties is going to do anything to change it. Hence our retreat into the private, into those four-walled worlds which we can control-if only by spending more and more money on draping and decorating them.

All this may sound familiar to grad-school lefties, but The Soul of Capitalism is far from being a slab of Marxist rant. Though Mr. Greider wants to reinvent capitalism, he’s insistent that the reinvention must be done “little by little, to make more space for life.” Mr. Greider is a gradualist, not a utopian dreamer. Indeed, he says, it’s the right-wing neoclassical economists with their Wild West fantasies of unbridled competition who are the real utopians-economists like Milton Friedman, who once said that as long as they stay within the law, corporate executives have no responsibility other than making money. As Mr. Greider points out, if we all lived by such a code, the result would be anarchy. And he loves his country too much for that: These days, he insists, talking critically about capitalism “may even be the patriotic thing to do.”

To start with, then, we need to change the way we think about work. The master-slave relationship that still holds sway in the average office needs rethinking-not just because it’s demeaning to the slave half of the equation, but because it allows the slaves to abnegate responsibility for their lives. Mr. Greider approvingly quotes Elaine Bernard of the Harvard trade-union program, who says: “Workplaces are factories of authoritarianism polluting our democracy. Citizens cannot spend eight hours a day obeying orders and being shut out of important decisions affecting them, and then be expected to engage in a robust, critical dialogue about the structure of our society.” Nor can they be expected to engage in a critical dialogue about the best working practices at their places of employ. When two workers at an Alcoa mill recommended important money-saving changes to a visiting professor, he asked them how long they’d had these ideas. “Fifteen years.” Why had they kept quiet so long? “Those sons of bitches never asked us before.” The answer to such mulishness, Mr. Greider believes, is worker co-operatives. Not only are people happier in co-ops, but co-ops tend to promote thinking about the future rather than futures. Interested in conserving their community and ensuring there are jobs for their children, they play a longer game than monopoly capital has time for-a game in which everybody wins. At which point (and not for the last time), you find yourself thinking: Well, maybe .

Certainly, there’s no gainsaying capitalism’s tendency to see the future as no more than an arena of potential profit. Short-term gains take precedence over long-term good; chop down the rain forest today and you’ll have tempests and floods tomorrow. Fortunately, Mr. Greider argues, capitalism lets us make our own weather. We might not realize it, but we are the major shareholders in the economy. Capitalism recently entered a new age, an age in which fiduciary institutions-our pension plans and trust funds-own more stock than the leading shareholders. Even very wealthy people are now dwarfed by the likes of you and me, because we can choose where to invest our money-and as right-thinking long-termers, we will choose to invest it with companies who share our aims for the future. Well, maybe.

As Mr. Greider is elsewhere at pains to point out, choice is one of capitalism’s great chimeras. Though we’re told this is the age of competition, it is in fact, says Mr. Greider, the age of the oligopoly. Fewer and fewer firms are chasing our money. The only reason companies want to grow these days is to swallow up or kill off the smaller, more innovative companies who are out to take them on. General Electric, for instance, used to be an innovator, but is now no more than “a diversified holding company that acquires companies already dominant in their sectors, then dumps them if they lose their commanding position …. The ‘new’ General Electric raises irresponsibility to a proud creed.”

It’s hard to disagree with this-and equally hard to believe that Mr. Greider’s calls for broader ownership and co-ops can do much to change things. He’s such an optimist that even an empty glass looks half-full to him. The Soul of Capitalism is the work of a man drunk on his (admittedly intoxicating) dreams. Alas, a bar is not the best place to get a grip on the world. Not once does the book countenance the thought that things might be the way they are because we are the way we are. “He that lives upon hope will die fasting,” said Ben Franklin in The Way to Wealth . William Greider’s book is a shaming, soiling, bruising read, but it will still leave level heads hungry for hope.

Christopher Bray is a commissioning editor at London’s Daily Telegraph .