Why Capitalism Shouldn’t Be Saved
Source Dave Anderson
Date 09/05/19/13:29
"Tikkun" May-June 2009
Why Capitalism Shouldn’t Be Saved
by John Sanbonmatsu

FROM ZURICH and Washington to Frankfurt, London, and Tokyo, all the
king's horses and all the king's men-bankers, economists, policy
analysts, and government leaders-are trying to put capitalism back
together again. But none of them has stopped to ask whether capitalism
is worth saving in the first place.

Some will be tempted to dismiss the sort of thought-experiment being
conducted in these pages of Tikkun-attempts to imagine a possible
successor system to capitalism-as so much wishful thinking by a
historically defeated Left. Like the boy who cried wolf, socialists
predicted the end of capitalism perhaps one too many times in the
twentieth century to be taken seriously in the twenty-first. Yet it
would be difficult to exaggerate either the profundity of the
contemporary crisis, or the importance of developing a viable
alternative to the existing order.

Last September, after the United States Treasury injected half a
trillion dollars into the monetary system to unthaw the frozen U.S.
banking system, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve,
privately informed members of Congress "that the financial system had
come perilously close to collapse." Only prompt action by the Treasury
and Fed, he told them, had prevented "disaster" and "full-scale
panic." The following month, while Iceland teetered on the brink of
bankruptcy and Wall Street suffered its worst one-week stock market
decline ever, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, candidly told
reporters that the world economy had indeed been poised "on the edge
of an abyss."

Since last summer, in fact, the governments of the leading
industrialized countries have been engaged in an epic
behind-the-scenes struggle to keep the global financial and banking
system viable. So far, Germany has put up $679 billion to stabilize
its banking system; Britain has spent the equivalent of one fifth of
its national GDP. Meanwhile, by November of last year, the United
States had either spent or assumed financial obligations totaling $7.8
trillion to stabilize the deteriorating financial sector-a staggering
amount equal to half of this country's annual GDP. But even that has
not been enough to stanch the blood of capitalism's hemorrhagic fever,
which has raged on into the new year. In February-even as President
Barack Obama (the national candidate of "hope" only months before) was
bluntly warning of "catastrophe" if Congress failed to approve his
$700 billion economic stimulus package-his new head of the Treasury,
Timothy Geithner, announced a new plan committing the United States to
an additional $2.1 trillion to stabilize the system. The Dow Jones
plummeted an additional 4.6 percent on the news.

As of spring 2009, the leading capitalist states in Europe, North
America, and Asia have thus either spent outright, or exposed
themselves to financial risks totaling, well over $10 trillion-a
figure so vast that one searches in vain for any relevant historical
parallel. By comparison, the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe
after World War II cost a mere $9.3 billion (in constant 2005
dollars). According to the United Nations, it would cost $195 billion
to eradicate most poverty-related deaths in the Third World, including
deaths from malaria, from malnutrition, and from AIDS. So the amount
of money committed by policymakers to save capitalism from itself is
already fifty times greater than what it would take to save tens of
millions of human beings from terrible daily suffering and premature
death. If the wealthy nations instead invested that $10 trillion into
the economies, health systems, and infrastructure of the Third World,
rather than transferring it to the world's richest banks, private
financial institutions, and investors, they could usher in a new epoch
in the history of the species-a world community in which every human
being would be guaranteed a livable life.

That the financial bailout is a colossal misdirection and waste of
public resources, however, is not the most scandalous thing about it.
What is truly unconscionable is that all this money is being spent to
prop up capitalism itself-a mode of economic and social life that has
corrupted and hollowed out our democracies, reduced great swaths of
the planet's ecosystem to polluted rubble, condemned hundreds of
millions of human beings to wretchedness and exploitation, and
enslaved billions of other animals in farms that resemble
concentration camps.

Why Bail Out a Toxic Ship? Capitalism Leads to Poverty and Ecological Disaster

Capitalism is rightly credited with having unleashed enormous forces
of productivity and technology. But it has also reduced much of the
world to ruin and squalor. After four centuries of triumph as the
dominant mode of global development, capitalism has furnished for
itself a world in which one out of two human beings lives on $2 per
day or less, and more than one in three still lacks access to a
toilet. Most children in the world never complete their education, and
most will live out their lives without dependable medical care. As the
world economic crisis deepens, already deplorable conditions in the
Third World will only deteriorate further.

Meanwhile, our planet is dying. Or rather, its flesh and blood
creatures are. At the height of the financial crisis last year, a
Swiss conversation group released a study showing that as many as
one-third of known mammals on earth face imminent extinction, perhaps
in a matter of decades, as a result of habitat destruction and mass
killing by human beings. Yet not one of the hundreds of bloggers, news
analysts, or politicians at the time thought to connect the dots
between this and similar warnings of mass species extinctions and the
dominant mode of development, capitalism. Yet it is just this
metastatic, expansionist system that has imperiled human civilization
and the natural world alike.

So severely has capitalism disrupted the world's climate (the
petroleum economy, let us not forget, has been the main pillar of
capitalist industrial development for the last 100 years) that even if
all carbon emissions were halted tomorrow, scientists now believe that
the earth's atmosphere would warm for another 1,000 years. Hundreds of
millions of people, and billions of other animals, will be displaced
by rising sea levels, or will starve or suffer malnutrition as a
result of flooding, drought, and fire, or else will die from illnesses
caused by new plague vectors opened up by sudden climate change and a
gravely weakened world health system.

In 1997, a group of European academics published a book called The
Black Book of Communism, in which they documented the brutality and
mass killings committed by totalitarian Communist regimes in the
course of the twentieth century. Perhaps a group of academics will one
day publish a Black Book of Capitalism. They should. For when a mode
of life that subordinates all human and spiritual values to the
pursuit of private wealth persists for centuries, there is a lengthy
accounting to be made. Among the innumerable sins that have followed
in capitalism's long train, we might mention, for example, the hidden
indignities and daily humiliations of the working class and the poor;
the strangulation of daily life by corporate bureaucracies such as the
HMOs, the telecom companies, and the computer giants; the corruption
of art and culture by money; the destruction of eroticism by
pornography; the corruption of higher education by corporatization;
the ceaseless pitching of harmful products to our children and
infants; the obliteration of the natural landscape by strip malls,
highways, and toxic dumps; the abuse of elderly men and women by
low-paid workers in squalid for-profit institutions; the fact that
millions of poor children are sold into sexual slavery, and millions
of others are orphaned by AIDS; the fact that tens of millions of
women turn to prostitution to pay their bills; and the suffering of
the 50 million to 100 million vertebrates that die in scientific
laboratories each year. We might also highlight the dozens of wars and
civil conflicts that are directly or indirectly rooted in the gross
material disparities of the capitalist system-the bloody conflicts
that simmer along from month to month, year to year, as though as
natural and immutable as the waxing and waning of the moon-in places
like Darfur, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Iraq, where
millions of wretchedly poor people die either at the hands of other
wretchedly poor people, or from the bombs dropped from the automated
battle platforms of the last surviving superpower. Capitalism is
responsible for all this, and more besides. Yet perhaps its most
destructive feature-the one that in many ways stands as the greatest
single impediment to our own efforts to find a practical and creative
solution to the present crisis-is capitalism's fundamental antagonism
toward democracy.

Capitalism's Anti-Democratic Tendencies

Capitalism's antagonism toward popular rule is structural-it is built
into the political DNA of capitalism itself. By nature, if not by
design, capitalism is a system in which a small minority of
individuals controls the wealth, labor, production, political power,
and cultural expression of the whole of society. Under capitalism, the
demos is permitted to exert only the mildest, most indirect of
influences on the direction of state and society. All of the truly
important decisions-the ones that concern what kinds of technologies
and commodities get produced, what kinds of laws will be passed, and
which wars should be fought (or whether any should be fought at
all)-are effectively left in the hands of a small clique whose members
are drawn from the ranks of what C. Wright Mills famously called "the
power elite." No matter how many finance reform laws are passed in
Congress, the enactment of new laws alone will never be sufficient to
neutralize the tremendous discrepancy in power between the wealthy few
and the ordinary many.

Secretly, we all know this. None among us is so naive as to believe
that an ordinary plumber, teacher, or transit worker commands the same
respect or influence on Capitol Hill, or in the Bundestag or the
Knesset, as the chief executive officer of Siemens or Bechtel. And
while we may profess to be "shocked" upon learning that this or that
politician (or presidential appointee) engaged in corrupt activities
at the public's expense, in truth we are seldom surprised at all.
Plato warned 2,500 years ago that "in proportion as riches and rich
men are honored in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonored,"
an observation that holds as true today as it did then.

The rich will always be with us.... That phrase, rather than the more
familiar one from Matthew 26, is the one that haunts us deep inside,
the one we truly heed. The rich may not be like you and me, as F.
Scott Fitzgerald put it, but that doesn't keep us from identifying
with them, or from feeling strangely grateful for remaining forever at
their mercy. The steel worker is grateful "to have any job at all."
The waitress smiles at having received a tip. The university president
is so relieved that her fawning attentions to a wealthy patron have
paid off that she doesn't mind naming the new science building after
him. Like hostages taken prisoner by anonymous masked figures, we thus
come to identify with our own kidnappers. Capitalism is the Stockholm
Syndrome made into a universal condition of humanity.

Thus, when a coalition of progressive unions and grassroots
organizations took out a full-page advertisement in the Times in March
2009, calling for a rally to protest drastic cuts in New York's health
and public services, the group's sole demand was for "a modest
increase for the top 5 percent of taxpayers." As if worried that even
this demand might seem too forward, the group added: "After three
decades of tax cuts, it's the fair way to avoid harsh cuts that will
hurt all of us." All of us-because the wealthy will also suffer when
their garbage isn't picked up, or the police respond slowly to a
break-in because of cuts in public safety. Even the grassroots Left
(the New York coalition included locals of such groups as the SEIU,
the UAW, Acorn, and the Working Families Party) has grown so
accustomed to seeing the power structure as inevitable and natural
that it believes its only practical recourse lies in begging more
crumbs from the tables of the wealthy.

Much Has Changed Since the 1930s

No one can know how the present crisis will play out. It is possible
that the United States will continue to benefit from an inflated
currency, as money from around the world continues to shelter in what
is still the safest investment haven around-U.S. Treasury bills. In
that case, it is possible, if unlikely, that the Obama administration
will be able to ride the tiger and keep things from falling apart
utterly. But it is also possible that some unforeseen event or
sequence of events might induce foreign investors to suddenly pull
their money out of the United States. If that were to happen, the
dollar could become worthless and we might see a replay of the
Deutsche Mark in 1923, when ordinary Germans paid for loaves of bread
with wheelbarrows of money. Either way, the structural contradictions
in the world system are profound, and they are not going to go away
any time soon.

Unlike in the 1930s, when the advanced industrialized nations
essentially spent themselves out of depression, either through massive
state investment in public works, coupled with a new social compact
with labor (as in the United States, with the New Deal), or through a
massive arms buildup and military expansionism at the direction of a
corporatized (fascist) and authoritarian state (as in Germany, Italy,
and Japan), the capitalist states have far fewer resources at their
command this time around.

First, the state sector already accounts for a large portion of the
national economies of the United States, Japan, and Europe. (The
United States alone already spends half a trillion dollars per annum
on war-making-and that's not counting its wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan.) In the 1920s, the U.S. national debt (relative to GDP)
was flat and even declined, while GDP per capita grew at an
extraordinary rate, ushering in higher wages, improvements in
agricultural productivity, and vast improvements in quality of life
for millions of Americans, including electricity in the home,
increasing availability of rail travel, and the introduction of
automobiles into everyday life. During the latest economic expansion,
by contrast, debts public and private soared at every level of
society. The national deficit grew, banks and corporations assumed
mind-boggling amounts of risk (often in the form of obscure financial
instruments like derivatives), and ordinary working people piled up
trillions of dollars of debt in the form of home and car loans and
credit card debt. At the same time, wages and quality of life fell. It
is therefore difficult to see how the United States and other nations
will be able to spend their way out of the present crisis, when, even
before the collapse of Lehman Brothers last year, the population was
already tapped out, and government expenditures hovered near record

A second factor likely to confound policymakers this time around is
what might be termed the objective natural and political limits of the
system. As I have indicated, capitalism has savaged the earth, leaving
billions of people without a decent livelihood, and the ecosystem in
tatters. But the social and ecological costs of "doing business" are
about to grow exponentially greater. Even without a world financial
crisis, we can anticipate more, and more devastating, natural
disasters, which in turn will mean disruptions in agricultural
production, flooding of cities and entire countries, mass starvation,
increasing migration pressures, and so on. All of this will in turn
exact an increasing toll on the legitimacy of the liberal nation
state. The late sociologist Charles Tilley described the modern nation
state as functioning like a "protection racket": the state agrees to
protect us from harm (most typically, from real or imaginary threats
generated by the state itself), in exchange for our consent and
obedience as subjects. However, as economic, political, ecological,
and hence social costs mount, the state will become less and less able
to protect us from harm.

As a result, the state is at risk of losing its legitimacy in the eyes
of its citizens. (Already, polls have shown a steady decline in the
rate of democratic participation around the world, increasing cynicism
toward government, and greater openness to extreme ideologies, whether
in the form of religious fundamentalism or extreme nationalism.) This
in turn will compromise the ability of state leaders to muster the
broad political mandate they would otherwise need to make meaningful
and urgently necessary macro-level changes in the organization of
society and economy. This structural problem in part explains the
recent authoritarian turn of the United States under the Bush
administration. Bush's seeming indifference to the effects of U.S.
actions on foreign and domestic opinion grew out of the Neocons' sense
that the state no longer needed the consent of the governed, whether
at home or abroad. Bush was, of course, wrong-American hegemony cannot
survive long without at least the perception of legitimacy, both at
home and abroad. It remains to be seen, however, whether even as adept
a politician as Barack Obama will be able to return the ship of state
safely to the status quo ante-i.e., to a centrist, liberal, social
democratic capitalist order-in the face of a full-blown economic

Regrettably, notwithstanding President Obama's otherwise admirable
sympathies for the union movement and for some meaningful social
democratic reforms, his administration is doing everything in its
power to preserve-and strengthen-corporate monopoly capitalism, in
spite of that system's moral enormities and its ever-widening
structural fissures. Though the political Right has taken to vilifying
the president as a "socialist," Obama has in reality surrounded
himself with economic advisers groomed from the most elite ranks of
capitalist finance.

Government Sachs-Then and Now

Nowhere is the new administration's basic ideological harmony with
finance capital more evident than in its close links with current and
former members of Goldman Sachs, the formerly über-bullish brokerage
house. While anti-Semitic websites have had a field day depicting
Obama as the public shill for a "Zionist conspiracy" run out of
Goldman Sachs's plush New York offices, Sachs's extraordinary
influence on government policy in fact began in earnest with President
Bush's appointment of Henry Paulson, then Sachs's CEO, to the position
of treasury secretary in 2006. (Paulson involved so many former and
current employees in managing the financial crisis late last year that
insiders began referring to the firm as "Government Sachs.")
Nonetheless, the influence of Goldman Sachs has not diminished in the
early hours of the Obama presidency, perhaps because Sachs was the
single largest private contributor to Obama's 2008 campaign. When the
president picked Timothy Geithner (a technocratic capitalist who had
originally headed up the flagship of the Federal Reserve system, in
New York) to be the new head of the Treasury Department, Geithner
naturally chose a former lobbyist and vice president of Goldman Sachs
to be his head of staff. But this was only one of the more conspicuous
examples-many other former Sachs employees remain involved directly or
indirectly at all levels of the Obama administration.

What makes the involvement of Goldman Sachs in cleaning up the current
mess surreal is that of all the investment firms in the world, Sachs
alone enjoys the dubious historical distinction of having played a key
role in bidding up the world stock markets to unsupportable heights
not just once, but twice. To be sure the most recent speculative
bubble on Wall Street can be traced back to the decisions of
lawmakers, beginning with Paul Volcker's decisions at the Fed back in
the late 1970s, on through the Congress's repeal of Depression-era
laws such as the Glass-Steagall Act in the late-1990s, i.e. in federal
laws and monetary policies that collectively had the effect of pouring
gasoline on already inflamed markets. Nonetheless, certain players
were particularly key in fomenting this madness, and Goldman Sachs-now
playing Rasputin to Obama's Nicholas II-stands out even among the many
aggressive firms on Wall Street for having promoted "irrational
exuberance" ceaselessly for decades. What is doubly ironic is that the
firm played much the same role in the 1920s. During the Depression,
when Congress held public hearings on the "culture of greed" that had
led to national calamity, Goldman Sachs's chairman was one of the
first to be brought to the carpet to account for his firm's ignoble
role in driving the speculative frenzy. (When similar hearings were
held in the Congress in 2008, Goldman Sachs was naturally excused from
having to testify.)

In March of this year, Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor,
asked rhetorically, "could it be, given these tangled webs" between
the White House Branch and Goldman Sachs, "that-innocently,
unintentionally, perhaps even subconsciously-the entire bailout effort
was premised on saving these companies rather than protecting the
public? Or that the distinction between the two was lost, and still
is?" Indeed, a few weeks after Reich penned these words, we learned
that after the U.S. Treasury handed $180 billion over to the insurance
giant AIG to keep it from collapsing, the company had turned around
and transferred a sizable portion of the public's largesse to the
firm's counter-signing parties, the banks that had helped underwrite
AIG's risky credit default swap operations. Among these were some of
the biggest and richest banks and investment firms in the world,
including foreign institutional giants such as Deutsche Bank, Barclays
of Britain, and Société Général of France. But topping the list was
Goldman Sachs, which received the lion's share, $13 billion, despite
the fact that it was already swimming in money ($100 billion in cash

Whatever one makes of the Obama-Sachs connection, it is at least clear
that President Obama and his advisers will challenge the underlying
prerogatives of financial capital only with great reluctance, and as
an absolute last resort. As political theorist Sheldon Wolin observes,
the president's plan for rescuing the nation's banks "does not bother
with the structure at all." When all is said and done, "the basic
systems are going to stay in place." Ironically, however, the
administration's essentially conservative handling of the crisis-its
unwillingness to take on the power of the banks-may prove to be its
own undoing. This spring, the liberal economist and writer Paul
Krugman criticized the administration for continuing to "believe in
the magic of the financial marketplace and in the prowess of the
wizards who perform that magic." Citing "the failure of a whole model
of banking," Krugman faulted the administration in particular for
trying to preserve a model of "securitization"-i.e., the process by
which banks have essentially commodified risk by carving up loans and
debts and selling them as obscure instruments on the market. "I don't
think the Obama administration can bring securitization back to life,"
Krugman wrote, "and I don't believe it should try."

What Krugman and others fear is that the administration's temporizing
maneuvers may only end up creating the conditions for an even bigger
economic collapse later on. As Marx noted a century and a half ago,
capitalist elites typically deal with severe economic crises "by
paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by
diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented." Just as the
Reagan Administration's monetary policies sowed the seeds for the
storm we are reaping today, the Obama administration's failure to
grapple with the structural contradictions of capitalism may be sowing
the seeds for an even more cataclysmic day of reckoning in the future.

The Failure of the Liberal Intelligentsia

Wolin suggests that while Obama may be "well meaning ... he inherits a
system of constraints that make it very difficult to take on these
major power configurations." The forces resisting change appear to be
"too powerful to be challenged." While that is true, it is still only
an appearance. These forces could be overcome-if only there were
sufficient pressure from the grassroots to do so. The question,
though, is whether anyone is challenging the defenders of the status
quo at all.

Certainly conservatives aren't-they would like to see less government
regulation of the market, not more. Nor, however, are liberal
intellectuals, who as a body have taken pains not to call into
question the fundamental structures of the existing order. Even Paul
Krugman, notwithstanding his aforementioned call for an end to
securitization, has called for only modest reforms, urging the Obama
administration to rally to the call of a kinder, gentler
capitalism-chiefly by adopting a new New Deal, a Keynesian strategy of
massive public investments infrastructure and education, coupled with
the imposition of more stringent regulatory controls on the financial
sector. The economist Robert J. Shiller, similarly, writes that the
"best thing that ... Obama can do is to set up permanent new
structures to harness the innovations of finance to improve people's
lives on Main Street."

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that even more radical thinkers
on the left have said little about the need for an alternative to
capitalism. In a recent article for the radical economics journal
Dollars and Sense, for example, economist Marie Duggan argues that we
need to "fix the financial sector," not do away with it. "Yes," she
writes, "the United States needs a functioning financial sector so
that small businesses, students, and even GM have access to credit.
But not one as large as it was before the crisis." Similar
perspectives have echoed throughout the alternative media-a
willingness to reform the tax code, or to increase government
regulation, or to reform the Federal Reserve, but not to challenge the
true prerogatives of the powerful, nor to question the basic division
of the world into owners and workers, haves and have-nots.

In fact, the Left has yet to organize a single significant conference
on what a successor system to capitalism might look like. Nor has
anyone begun to make the case for why such an alternative is desirable
to the public at large. In 1982, the Nuclear Freeze movement inspired
1 million people to march against nuclear war in Central Park.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the National Organization of Women and
other liberal feminist groups sponsored pro-choice rallies in
Washington that regularly drew hundreds of thousands. During the
ramp-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, millions of people
staged anti-war rallies around the world. But where are the
demonstrations today against the bailout of the banks and brokerage
firms, let alone against the capitalist system that is ruining our
planet? Who is out there trying to build a vibrant, broad-based
socialist movement? Ironically, the unfolding crisis directly or
indirectly encompasses every conceivable social movement issue the
Left could ever care about-war and peace, individual liberties,
feminism, ecology, labor, and animal rights. Yet the Left as such is
dead-or might as well be. As Sheldon Wolin laments: "The left is
amorphous ... I despair over the left. Left parties may be small in
number in Europe but they are a coherent organization that keeps
going. Here ... we don't have that. We have a few voices here, a
magazine there, and that's about it. It goes nowhere."

What's Ahead

Alas, the disappearance of vibrant social movements from the field of
history could not come at a more tragic time: for the first time in
seventy years, after decades of unquestioned supremacy over every
aspect of human and natural life, capitalism is beginning to suffer
its own "legitimacy crisis." The German philosopher Georg Hegel
famously wrote that the Owl of Minerva would only take wing at dusk.
That is, only at the end of history would Reason and divine Spirit at
last come to be reconciled, in human self-consciousness, human
self-knowledge. Today, however, as the Marxist James O'Connor has
ironically remarked, the Owl of Minerva folds its wings at
daybreak-closing up shop, as it were, just when things at last start
to get interesting.

Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian theorist, observed that severe
economic disruptions can "lead in the long run to a widespread
skepticism" toward the existing order as a whole. When that happens,
even the most seemingly entrenched political and social arrangements
can disappear overnight. In 1997, when foreign traders suddenly
pulled the plug on the "Asian miracle," devaluing currencies such as
the Thai bhat and Indonesian rupiah, mass protests and riots spread
through the region overnight. Within a year, the democracy movement
had toppled the authoritarian government of President Suharto in
Indonesia, a nation of over 200 million. A year after that, the East
Timorese at last overcame decades of repression by the Suharto regime
by declaring their national independence. The traumatic economic
dislocations of the 1920s and 1930s, by contrast, prepared the ground
for even more intensive and extensive social upheavals. When Gramsci
spoke of popular "skepticism" toward an older regime, he knew of what
he spoke, having himself been thrown in jail by the fascist leader,
Benito Mussolini. If fascism and world war were the products of the
last depression, what will the next one bring?

As the world economy deteriorates, as hundreds of millions of people
lose their jobs, and as the state scales back on social welfare and
public services, we may see a widening crisis of confidence in the
economic and social order as such. That worry seems to have been on
the mind of George W. Bush last autumn, when he felt compelled to
defend the capitalist system by name. ("The crisis [is] not a failure
of the free-market system," he insisted, "and the answer is not to
reinvent that system.") Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, offered
up similarly fervent demonstrations of his faith in capitalism. But
Germany's finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, struck a more ominous
tone. In a revealing interview with Der Spiegel, Steinbrück warned
that the corporate and banking scandals that had plagued Europe and
the United States in recent years had threatened to undermine faith in
the system as a whole:

We have to be careful not to allow enlightened capitalism to become
tainted with questions of legitimacy, acceptance, or credibility. This
isn't merely an issue of excessive salary developments in some areas.
I'm talking about tax evasion and corruption. I'm talking about
scandals and affairs of the sort we have recently experienced,
although one shouldn't generalize these occurrences. But they are the
sort of thing the general public understands all too well. And when
they are allowed to continue for too long, the public gets the
impression that "those people at the top" no longer have to play by
the rules. There have been times in Germany when these elites were
closer to the general population. Some things have gotten out of
control in this respect.

Steinbrück, a leading light of the conservative Christian Democratic
Union party, stunned his interviewer by invoking the spirit of Marxism
to explain what was occurring in the international markets. "Overall,"
he said, "we have to conclude that certain elements of Marxist theory
are not all that incorrect." The reporter from Der Spiegel objected,
"And you, of all people, are saying this?" Steinbrück replied: "Every
exaggeration creates, in a dialectic sense, its counterpart-an
antithesis. In the end, unbridled capitalism with all of its greed, as
we have seen happening here, consumes itself."

If capitalism is indeed beginning to consume itself, the same way it
devoured the minds, bodies, and labor of countless human and nonhuman
beings over the course of centuries, then for the first time in
generations, perhaps ever, we may have a brief opening, a caesura in
the long, breathless tale of capitalism and its violence, in which to
imagine and to set the terms for a new way of organizing human society
and economy. In 1940, not long before he was driven to his death by
the Gestapo, the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote:

It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future.
The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in
remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who
sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did
not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For
in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah
could enter.

Benjamin was reflecting on the temporality of socialist revolution-on
the way that systemic crises open up unexpected utopian fissures in
the seemingly impenetrable rockface of modernity. Such a historic
rupture, a "narrow gate" through which those who envision a better
world might suddenly pass, may be opening up beneath our own feet
today. If so, we have come to the threshold of Hope.

But we cannot wait to find out. The dangers are incalculable. Should
we squander this historical moment through inaction or despair, it may
soon be too late for us to do anything, except to watch from the
sidelines as world events spiral out of control.

John Sanbonmatsu is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Worcester
Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He is the author of The
Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory and the Making of a New Political

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