Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Crony capitalism is bad, but cronies are very good

Work is just one of many ways that we satisfy our needs as people living in relationships with other people - and one of the most sinister aspects of capitalism, Marx argues, is the way that it severs this direct link between work and our relationships.

When I make a widget, for example, I rarely do this because I need one, or because my friends or family need one. When I work in cooperation with someone, I am not doing this as a personal favor for them, and if they compensate me, that's not personal either. These kinds of personalized social interactions - doing things for people because you care about them, building relationships around trust and intimacy, and so on - these are all deeply a part of what it is to be human. But under capitalism, all of my labor is just input into a giant impersonal machine that outputs money, which I can then put back into the machine so that it will output something that satisfies some personal need. None of this really involves empathy or intimacy of trust or anything of the sort: as Marx puts it, the "immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor...is the estrangement of man from man."

This is why I suspect that in a better world, nepotism and cronyism wouldn't just be permissible - they'd be the rule. Work would be a natural and direct extension of our relationships with other people. Helping people succeed in their goals would be an obvious thing that friends do for friends. The problem one runs into so frequently under capitalism is that the powerful try to have it both ways:

This is from an exchange published by Wikileaks in which John Podesta attempts to secure a job at the Center for American Progress for the daughter of a friend. The problem here is that even as Civic Ventures maintains that "helping Sarah get access is what we do for the kids of our friends," its founder, Marc Freeman, calls for "labor market efficiency" (Encore, 177) and decries when workers are "skilled...yet out of the labor market" (Prime Time, 115); even as Podesta pulls strings for his friend, he decries "crony capitalism" (The Power of Progress, 7) and insists that we can "save capitalism from its worst excesses" (The Power of Progress, 26); and even as Tanden apologizes to Podesta for failing to hire his friend, she declares that "what distinguishes America from every other country is this investment we have in meritocracy, that anyone can do well based on their own hard work." (CSPAN, 2/2012).

In other words: socialism for me, but not for thee. The rich and powerful get to escape from the "estrangement of man from man" imposed by capitalism; they have the privilege of helping each other like any friend would. But at the same time, they are all fighting for a world where none of us can do the same: they hoard wealth for themselves, and insist that they earned it through an impersonal system of merit which must be kept in place. As a result, of course, the rest of us live in a state of austerity and precarity, and can barely take care of ourselves, much less each other.

The rich have done everything they can to give "cronyism" a bad name, but faced with so-called crony capitalism, we should ditch the capitalism and keep our cronies.