Good As It Gets?
By Christopher Harrison
In the 1997 film by the same name as the title of this article,
Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall - a successful writer (and
social malcontent) living in Manhattan who is afflicted by
obsessive-compulsive disorder. In an unforgettable scene,
Melvin storms into the office of his therapist, who refuses
to see him on an immediate basis and tells him to make an
appointment. Melvin suddenly stops his ranting, looks at the
other people in the waiting room and says, "Is this as good
as it gets?"
I often find myself asking the same question when I look
at the state of the world economy.
If you were to tune into the evening news two years ago,
you would have thought that the American economy was booming.
People everywhere were investing in the stock market, and
profits were going up, up up. Markets had finally won out
over social liberalism in eradicating poverty.
However, reality tends to paint a very different picture,
Although jobless rates remained low through the 1990's, actual
purchasing power for the three lowest income quintiles - commonly
referred to as the "working class" - actually declined. The
overwhelming majority of stock ownership rested in the hands
of the top 20% of wage earners. Some 40 million Americans
- over half of them children - were left without any type
of health insurance. Since the inception of NAFTA in 1993,
good-paying manufacturing jobs have left the United States
in droves, only to be re-established just south of the Rio
Grande where corporations can find much cheaper labor with
little or no environmental regulation. All the while, the
wealth of the "corporate class" - the top 1% of wealth in
the US - continues to grow at an exponential rate.
This is just the situation in the United States, the richest
country in the world. If you look at the rest of the globe,
the landscape is even more bleak. The Japanese juggernaut
economy has ground nearly to a halt, mired in recession and
economic contraction with no end in sight. South Korea's "mini-Asian
tiger" economy has fallen on rough times since the country
was forced to liberalize its banking institutions. The complete
collapse of the Argentinian economy, a poster child for the
"successes" of the IMF-driven neoliberal economic policies
of deregulation, privatization and austerity, has sent up
red flags all across the landscape. Still, corporate and government
officials preach the same failed policies.
In the developing world, things are much, much worse. Over
1 billion of the world's people live in abject poverty - surviving
on less than $2 per day. Economic growth in Latin America
has slowed incredibly over the past 20 years, while growth
in Africa has actually turned into retraction over the same
period. Despite a global surplus of food, hundreds of millions
go to bed hungry every night. Approximately 8 million people
die of preventable and curable diseases every year.
Corporations dominate the economic landscape around the globe.
Their willingness to do anything in pursuit of profit has
led to a global "race to the bottom" in labor cost and environmental
regulation. They have infiltrated the democratic processes
of every industrialized nation. Their money speaks louder
than the combined voices of concerned citizens. The so-called
"rule of law" has been rigged to permit corporate interests
to consistently win out over citizenry. The end result is
a lowering of living standards and a bland homogenization
of culture with a McDonalds, Gap and Starbucks on every street
Now, we find ourselves embroiled in a global "war on terrorism."
Officialdom and punditry tells us that no cost is too high
for "preserving freedom." Meanwhile, the US military budget
approaches $400 billion per year - an expenditure that exceeds
the combined military budgets of the next ten largest national
armed forces combined. US foreign aid is being increasingly
tied to military hardware. The rights of people to organize
and speak freely are being violently repressed around the
globe, often with the implicit or explicit blessing of the
world's self-appointed "defender of democracy."
Is this as good as it gets?
Centrally-controlled socialism - what could be termed "crony
socialism" from its heyday in the former Soviet Union - has
been denounced as a failure, and rightly so. Although it kept
people from living in abject poverty, it also enabled a government
repressive of free speech and rife with cronyism and corruption.
It is not an experiment that should be repeated.
But it could easily be argued that the same cracks are being
seen in the fašade of modern-day capitalism, which could be
best described as "corporatism." Harvard economist Jeffrey
Sachs - a man who is largely responsible for the economic
reforms in Russia that have resulted in a steadily declining
standard of living and widespread poverty - has acknowledged
that "markets do not serve the poorest of the poor." In light
of this, several questions must arise. First, if this system
doesn't work, why do we cling to it? Second, how do we go
about changing things for the better?
Most people believe in capitalism because it has been equated
with democracy. Throughout the Cold War, we were inculcated
in the belief that it was "Democracy versus Communism." We
were all told that we were fighting on the side of freedom,
while we proceeded to support some of the most brutal dictatorships
on the face of the earth. While no one can argue that Soviet-backed
governments in Eastern Europe were not repressive toward individual
freedoms, it can also be argued that US-supported regimes,
such as the Pinochet government in Chile, were much more repressive
and brutal in their governance. All of this is aside from
the fact that a system of governance (democracy) and an economic
philosophy (communism or capitalism) are actually two totally
different things - "apples and oranges," as it were.
The fall of the Cold War should be opening our eyes to its
real objectives. The "New World Order" exalted by then-President
George H. W. Bush has deteriorated into a period of some of
the greatest global strife and civil war in history. International
corporations, backed by the government officials whose campaigns
are financed by them, are establishing hegemony over even
our daily activities. The right of these corporations to pursue
profits are enforced by state police and military services
throughout the third world, while the citizens of these countries
face possible death for simply organizing or speaking out
against these corporate excesses. Short-term profit is the
one and only goal, as these rapacious organizations destroy
the earth, livelihoods and cultures in their attempt to satisfy
this unquenchable thirst.
Corporations are even promoted as "democratic" institutions.
This is done despite the fact that there does not exist a
more totalitarian structure than the corporation. One person
at the top decides, everyone else down the ladder falls in
line. Free-market ideologues argue that democracy comes through
shareholder voting. Given the fact that a very small minority
of people hold the majority of stock ownership in most large
companies, this type of governance amounts to a plutocracy
in the best-case scenario. Regardless of how you slice it,
an overwhelming majority of people have their voices silenced
in this type of system.
So, what is the alternative to the current system of capitalism?
Can we make things better? I would hope that we can - but
it will not be easy. Changing things for the better involves
taking away much of this power from corporations - essentially
removing them from the policy-making process. Changing things
involves a complete revaluation of our institutions of business
and government themselves. Changing things involves entire
communities of concerned citizens standing up and saying,
"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
We must collectively educate and organize others in our communities
to fight the corporate juggernaut. We must impress upon people
that just because this is the way things are done, it does
not mean there is not a better way. We must spread the word
that the presence of money in politics ensures that speech
is not free. We must stand against the old ways of violence
and militarism. We must make people realize that every tax
dollar our elected officials allocate toward the military
protection of overseas corporate assets is a dollar they take
away from our failing public schools. We must all stand up
and make a difference, first as individuals, then collectively.
All of this is a rather daunting task. As individuals, we
all feel so powerless in the face of such imposing organizations
and structures. But we must start somewhere, and that is through
taking individual action. We must take the steps necessary
to invigorate real grassroots, participatory democracy throughout
the country. The people and institutions in power now will
not give up their absolute control without a long and protracted
fight. But, like many things in history, reinventing democracy
- realizing the dream of true democracy in which citizens
actually control their own government - is well worth the
What other options do we have? To fail to change things now
is simply to invite more hunger, more violence, more suffering
and more despair. Is this the kind of world we want to leave
to our children and grandchildren? Or do the vast majority
of us long for something better?
It all begins by asking, "Is this as good as it gets?"
Christopher Harrison is a Fair Trade Activist in Westchester
County, NY and an overly irate citizen. He can be reached