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Changing the Face of Capitalism

Some reflections on the latest 10 days to shake the world:

One useful way to think of our century’s history is to envision it as the story of a great European civil war and its aftermath. In essence, that is what two world wars and the Cold War that followed comprise.

Here in the United States, we like to think that we have borne a disproportionate burden in our culture’s internecine struggle. In recent decades that has--at least in economic terms--been true.

But it also is true that this nation has benefited disproportionately from the great convulsion that has wracked European civilization since 1914. To a large extent, the preeminence enjoyed by American scientific, aesthetic and commercial culture over the past 40 years was created by the fact that, in times of trouble, the world’s best, brightest and wealthiest hurry toward our borders--and our currency. Were it not for Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, Berlin, and not New York, probably would have been the capital of the modern world.

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And, as the Soviet Union crumbles into imperial rubble, the question is: Will the United States willingly bear a proportionate burden in meeting the challenges of next era? The most strenuous of these are not the questions of diplomatic or military order. Rather, as Jacques Attali, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, suggests in a forthcoming book, our greatest challenge will be to resolve the contradictions in our own now-victorious ideology.

In a brilliant, book-length essay to be published next month, “Millennium: Winner and Losers in the Coming World Order,” the controversial French writer and economist suggests that the Cold War’s winning combination was not, as is commonly assumed, freedom and market economics, but democratic pluralism and consumerism. To Attali, the distinction is critical.

As Attali sees it, the most “ominous and less visible threat on the horizon” stems from the new world order’s “liberal ideology of consumerism and pluralism. The essence of both democracy and the market is choice. Both offer the citizen-consumer the right to adopt or reject options, whether candidates or commodities, politicians or products. . . . (This) is the principal feature of the culture of choice on which the consumerist consensus rests. . . . We have come to believe that nothing is (or should be) forever. Everything can be exchanged or discarded. Such a principle, however, convenient in the short term, cannot anchor a civilization.”

Moreover, a “nihilistic, alienated consumer society might well trigger a revolt of considerable force and popular appeal. . . . The broad revival of religious fundamentalism, whether of the East or the West, the fanatic rejection of industrial life by radical ecologists, the nostalgia for hierarchical social structures and traditions, raise the specter that the democratic values and market principles inherent in the culture of choice will be constantly attacked, perhaps even overturned. . . .

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“To avert this possibility, the market and democracy will have to be bound. . . . They must be circumscribed not by conservative values that preserve the past, but by conserving values that preserve the future. . . . In order to survive the triumph of our secular ideals, we need a new definition of the sacred.”

Rediscovering a sense of the sacred--whether in a universal notion of indispensable human rights, a rational environmental ethic or ideas of equitable economic distribution--will not be easy. For 70 years, Communism has been the stone against which the West honed its social conscience. To an extent not usually credited, the pressure of competing with Bolshevism’s more seductive promises energized and stiffened the courage of Europe’s Social and Christian Democrats and our own New Deal theorists. Conservative and Tory revisionists notwithstanding, it was their efforts that created capitalism with a human face.

The question now is, what will spur us to discover consumerism with a human soul? It is a question that will not be ignored.

Not long ago, I spoke with Bulat Okudzhava, the celebrated Russian poet whose ill health left him stranded for a time in Los Angeles. Inevitably, we talked of the situation in the Soviet Union. I wondered, rather lightheartedly, if perhaps there weren’t several things about which Marx was right, including the notion that history is economically determined. In the end, I quipped, Communism seemed to be collapsing under the weight of its own economic contradictions.

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Though far from humorless, Okudzhava responded in earnest.

“The center is collapsing not only because its economics have failed,” he said, “but from the criminality of its ideology--from its failed attempt to create a new human being. But, to their great distress, the man they created was not only subservient, but also unable to work.

“My own father was a revolutionary, a fanatic, a person without any scruples--a Bolshevik. He participated in building this criminal society. He helped to create this terrible machine, and this machine destroyed him, along with many others, in 1937.

“What is happening in the Soviet Union today is a vindication of the fact that human nature always takes its revenge against injustice.”

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