Column: Sucking people dry

Published on December 2, 2008

The new majority in the Senate is built around a nucleus of presidential aspirants (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But wouldn’t Mar Roxas, Loren Legarda and Ping Lacson have done better if they had maneuvered to replace Manny Villar with, say, Nene Pimentel?

As it is, they now have the added burden of distancing themselves from a radioactive Malacañang whose principal Senate ally, Johnny Ponce Enrile, is now Senate president.

Given President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s deep unpopularity, the candidate who will be perceived by many to be her true opposition—to have suffered at her hands, which is a role Villar can easily play by aggressively contrasting himself with Enrile, and thus with the President—should enjoy a sizable advantage in 2010.

To use a term popularized by President Arroyo’s favorite Georgetown classmate, navigating the road to 2010 looks like it will require a whole lot of triangulation.

* * *

My good friend Caloy Conde, who writes for The New York Times and keeps a blog on the GMA Network news website, challenged my defense of capitalism as a cyclical struggle for preeminence between market and state for its insufficient realism. (His view was published on Sept. 24, one breakthrough US election and hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money ago.) Slow to the draw, I nevertheless offer this response, certain that the debate about the future and nature of capitalism in these and other forums will linger, like a particularly bad cold.

“According to John, the true secret of capitalism—a secret that he said Marx and, by implication, communists and leftist activists are completely clueless about—is its capacity for self-improvement and regeneration.”

It is not an original idea. Marx predicted the eventual collapse of capitalism because of the pressure of its contradictions. Only then would history truly begin.

But the orphans of Marx are still waiting, because capitalism has survived. In the ringing words of the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “Capitalism has survived because of the long campaign, mounted by social liberalism in the teeth of capitalist resistance, to reduce the suffering, and thereby the resentment and revolutionary passions, of those to whom accidents of birth or fortune deny an equal chance in life.”

* * *

What I meant by Marx never being “privy to” the true secret of capitalism, Schlesinger (historian of the age of Franklin Roosevelt, friend of John F. Kennedy, critic of Ronald Reagan) summed up in masterly fashion. “What Marx failed to foresee was precisely the ability of the democratic state to nurture this sense of social responsibility. Those who would now have government abandon social responsibility in the name of unbridled individualism are doing Marx’s work for him—and, it may be, more effectively than the wretched host of communist parties has done.”

That is the very possibility that quickens the pulse of Marxists around the world (including our own exile Joma Sison, whom Conde had approvingly quoted): that today’s global financial crisis and looming economic slowdown will do Marx’s work for him. Schlesinger wrote those words during the Reagan presidency, but they apply with greater force today, during the turbulent and true end of the Reagan era.

But, unless I read Conde incorrectly, he believes that capitalism is not only not self-healing; it isn’t worth curing at all. He writes: “The secret of capitalism is its capacity to suck people dry. This is the doctrine that allowed the meltdown on Wall Street to happen in the first place. And this is the same doctrine that is behind the bailout plan.”

No question, greed motivated the bankers who threw caution to the wind and sold sub-prime mortgages, and the credit-rating know-it-alls who then gave these risky loans an indulgent pass. The iconic movie of the Reagan era may be Michael J. Fox’s charmingly materialistic “The Secret of My Success,” but the line from the 1980s that explains the “unbridled individualism” that defined Reagan’s America comes from Michael Douglas’ character in “Wall Street,” who declares infamously, “Greed is good.”

Or, to quote my friend’s thumping conclusion: “The true secret of capitalism is screwing people and getting away with it.”

Greed certainly explains a big chunk of the current mess. It was not only the lack of regulation; it was also and largely the lack of oversight and due diligence in companies run by MBAs who ought to have known better. There is certainly plenty of blame to go around. But would capitalism as we know it now—that is, as an essentially mixed economy, based on capital and driven by profit, but bulked up (to stretch the metaphor) with the airbags and anti-brake lock systems of “social liberalism”—survive the next few years? That is the main question, and my wholly unoriginal answer is yes.

We will see a major change. Today’s global crisis, to use Schlesinger’s terms, means we will see negative government give way to affirmative government. That sound we hear is the pendulum swinging.

* * *

I must point out that, perhaps inadvertently, Conde assumed that the political left is made up only of Marxists.

“Marx and, by implication, communists and leftist activists,” he writes—but surely this can’t be right. There are others to the left of the political spectrum who do not subscribe to the Marxist gospel. Indeed, Marx is not the only genius of undoubted stature the left can lay claim to; there is, to give only one instance, John Stuart Mill. Now there’s a true radical.

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