Judt on inequality

Another terrific piece by Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books. It's a tough-minded review of Robert Reich's new book, Supercapitalism. The key quote:

The facts he [Reich] amasses appear to point to an incipient collapse of the core values and institutions of the republic. Congressional bills are written to private advantage; influential contributors determine the policies of presidential candidates; individual citizens and voters have been steadily edged out of the public sphere. In Reich's many examples it is the modern international corporation, its overpaid executives, and its "value-obsessed" shareholders who seem to incarnate the breakdown of civic values. These firms' narrowly construed attention to growth, profit, and the short term, the reader might conclude, has obscured and displaced the broader collective goals and common interests that once bound us together. But this is not at all the conclusion Robert Reich would have us reach. In his version of our present dilemmas no one is to blame. "As citizens, we may feel that inequality on this scale cannot possibly be good for a democracy.... But the super-rich are not at fault." "Have top executives become greedier?" No. "Have corporate boards grown less responsible?" No. "Are investors more docile?" "There's no evidence to support any of these theories." Corporations aren't behaving very socially responsibly, as Reich documents. But that isn't their job. We shouldn't expect investors or consumers or companies to serve the common good. They are just seeking the best deal. Economics isn't about ethics. As the British Prime Minister Harold Mac-millan once observed, "If people want morality, let them get it from their archbishops." In Reich's account, there are no "malefactors of great wealth." Indeed, he contemptuously dismisses any explanation that rests on human choice or will or class interest or even economic ideas. All such explanations, in his words, "collapse in the face of the facts." The changes recorded in his book apparently just "happened," in a subjectless illustration of the creative destruction inherent in the capitalist dynamic: Schumpeter-lite, as it were. If anything, Reich is a technological determinist. New "technologies have empowered consumers and investors to get better and better deals." These deals have "sucked...social values... out of the system.... The story of what transpired has no heroes or villains."

Judt is our best commentator on contemporary Europe. He's not religious, as far as I know, and his otherwise superb Postwar is tone deaf on the subject. But it's striking, isn't, how closely his analysis of unchecked capitalism straining the common good tracks to Catholic social thought? In that sense he and Benedict XVI seem rather alike.

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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