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Book Reviews


    * World of buying and selling
    * Sick society

World of buying and selling

The Manipulators by Jeffrey Robinson. Simon and Schuster, 1998, £17.99.

More than 40 years ago an American journalist, Vance Packard, wrote The Hidden Persuaders. In it he revealed how the advertising industry was mass producing customers the same way manufacturers were mass producing goods for the market. Now along comes Jeffrey Robinson to update us on the same theme. Short sentences. Racy style. The blurb is a fair summary of what buyers get for their money. Robinson unveils:

    * The new sciences that are being developed to turn the ads we see into magic bullets which can penetrate our defences.
    * How modern retailers are following hot on the advertisers' heels with their own sleight-of-hand to snap off any lingering resistance to buy.
    * How we unwillingly contribute to our own commercial seduction.
    * How the worst is yet to come, as the internet and television combine to create a monster whose sole function will be to pick us off, one by one, and make us buy.

A truly scary scenario. One, you might think, that would provoke a call to oppose such a bleak future for homosapiens. Not a bit of it. Robinson's tone and lack of critical comment amount to saying "Don't worry about it—it's the real world—just accept it".

Most of the book is a series of sound bytes (or sound gnaws, as someone recently called them) about the tragi-comic world of advertising. They range from the disturbing to the tacky. Apparently people are employed to put tiny cameras inside frozen-food compartments in supermarkets to chart the eye movements of shoppers in the hope of determining better placement for high-margin items. My favourite quote is "In the ad biz, sincerity is a commodity bought and paid for like everything else".

American authors are quite good at writing books about how badly the mass of people are treated and treat each other. Over the years Galbraith has excelled at being a "friendly" critic of capitalism. Don't expect even that much from Robinson. He doesn't mention capitalism, let alone say anything against it. The closest he comes to questioning the status quo is his sub-heading "It's them against us, and the thems are winning". Enigmatically, the last two sentences of his book are:

"It is not that Big Brother will have won. It is, rather, that we will have become Big Brother."

To which socialists can only reply "Speak for yourself, brother!"



Sick society

The Cancer Stage of Capitalism by John McMurty, Pluto Press, 1999.

In the UK, one in three people will suffer from some form of it. At most about 5 to 10 percent of cases are caused by defective genes, the rest have their cause not just in the natural environment but—as oncologists are increasingly becoming aware—the social environment. (How long before the Chief Medical Officer issues the health warning: "Capitalism seriously damages health"?) McMurty takes the argument much further and identifies the causes of the world's social problems in the global market, which in the last 30 years or so has developed a cancerous state. He argues that the global market is "a profound perversion" of the market, "much as a diseased cell formation is a perversion of a healthy cell formation, but succeeds in invading its host by masking its nature as the normal 'self' of the body". Money no longer has a direct relation to wealth creation. Within the global market transnational corporations in particular make money out of money. Corporations "create credit and thus increase domestic money supply with no restriction on the amount of new currency demand so created in the host economy". This is the carcinogenic disorder within the global market.

McMurty claims that the global market and the new role of money is a development that Marx did not foresee, and that "the gold standard, and therefore the dead-labour basis of money value which Marx supposed as money's stable yardstick, was eliminated in 1974". However, Marx's theory of money, which explained the prices of commodities by the value of gold using a fully convertible currency, is not the same thing as the Bretton Woods gold standard which McMurty refers to, which was concerned mainly with international exchange rates between currencies. If McMurty were correct in his claim that transnational corporations make money out of money, mainly through the creation of credit, then this would be incredibly inflationary. In fact, in recent years in the UK and US and a number of other countries, inflation has declined while globalisation has continued apace. Furthermore, no corporation would go bust in this scenario. If in difficulty, corporations would merely pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by "creating money". McMurty's grasp of what constitutes capital is decidedly shaky: "wealth that can be used to produce more wealth". In which case your garden spade and many other inanimate objects become capital. It would have made more sense if he had added: "for sale with a view to profit". But then this would have altered his argument about the dynamics of capitalism and this would have been a very different book.

Is the prognosis for capitalism terminal? With enough political momentum, McMurty argues, internationally enforceable legal limits can be established so that money "returns to its proper value function". This begins the eradication of the carcinogenic disorder and markets then serve the common interest. If you believe that, then you don't understand the economics of capitalism.