I am away on travel this week. Posting will resume again next week as usual.
– Peter Berger
I’m reading a couple of pieces you wrote on Weber and Pentecostalism. Very interesting, and I take your point that the “Protestant Ethic” encouraged by some Pentecostal movements may lead to increased social mobility among the poor.
Then I came across this sentence:
“One does not have to be a dogmatic ‘neoliberal’ to understand that the major beneficiaries of capitalist growth are, precisely, the poor—in the aggregate if not without exception, later if not sooner, and if the political context is not one in which an élite forcefully hoards the fruits of growth.”
I think you have it backwards: The major beneficiaries of capitalist growth in poor countries are, precisely, the rich, except in those exceptionally rare circumstances under which an elite chooses to share the wealth generated by that growth.
I personally think that Prof. Berger is correct given the conditions listed following the conclusion he made. What you described is exactly what those conditions exclude.
Yes, that’s the disagreement. My contention is that most often the political context in poor countries is “one in which an élite forcefully hoards the fruits of growth.”
The following is from my review of Peter Berger’s book Many Globalizations : Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World posted at Amazon.com in response to some of the comments posted online below at Peter Berger’s Religion and Other Curiousties blog during his absence.
Imagine a field report from ten countries of the many ways that
globalization is occurring, one of which explains globalization in
Hungary in the form of the following common joke, as would the average
person in the street:
“…I feel sorry for the enthusiasts of
globalization too, especially since I have been told the following joke
in Budapest, which ridicules the time/space compression, a favorite
concept of globalization theorists. It goes like this: How much time
would Hungarians need not to stop littering? The answer is, seven
centuries and one second. In the first five centuries we get rid of
the Turks, the Habsburgs, and the Russians, who – as is well known –
mercilessly forced us to litter. Then about one century is absolutely
necessary to define the notion of “Hungarian rubbish” and another one
to copy and then to approve the current German law prohibiting
littering. And what about that additional second? Ah, that we need to
learn how to cheat the new law” (from Janos Kovacs, “Rival Temptations
and Passive Resistance,” chapter 6:173).
Not all the articles in
this compilation contain such amusing and illuminating insights as the
above excerpt. Nonetheless, this is a treasure trove of papers that
avoids the superficiality of the pop studies on globalization one hand
(“Belly of the Beast,” “McWorld”); and on the other hand mostly avoids
the overly academic studies that lose the reader in a number of word
abstractions (“time/space compression”). As one author, Janos Kovacs,
wryly points out, economists may count the growing number of baseball
bats in Hungary and incorrectly conclude that mass consumer sports are
pushing out traditional sports and even religion in the Third World.
The supply and demand calculus of the economist would miss the cultural
fact that baseball bats in Hungary are replacing knives and guns for
street fighting and protection.
The book is the product of a
three-year study that was initially framed in a “challenge-response”
thesis of globalization, which ended up failing to reflect the reality
of the phenomenon, much like rejecting a null hypothesis in science. As
editor Peter Berger puts it: “the goal of every scholarly enterprise is
to blow someone’s theory out of the water. In this instance that
someone was me.”
The field accounts from political scientist
Arturo Talavera on Chile, and Janos Kovacs on Hungary are worth the
price of the book alone. Ann Bernstein’s piece on globalization in
South Africa reads a bit like a national chamber of commerce “promo”
that glosses over the very tragic underside of globalization that is
occurring in that country.
The book punctures the stereotypes
of globalization on either side of the political or ideological
spectrum. That Latin American women gain most under the influence of
evangelical Protestant Christianity runs counter to the notion in
America that woman suffer most under the influence of conservative
religion. That Coca Cola often serves disaster victims in developing
countries faster and better than U.N. aid programs is also likely to be a
mind buster. But no matter what world-view (modern or traditional)
that one might be seeking to affirm by reading this book, it is more
likely than not that it will be disconfirmed (as even the editors
preconceptions were not confirmed). As sociologists David Hunter and
Joshua Yates aptly state in their concluding paper, the complexity and
reality of globalization is likely to “burst the mental bubble,” or
cognitive map, of members of opposing organizations active in
globalizing countries, such as Campus Crusade and Opus Dei on one side,
or Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace on the other.
criticism was the failure of the book to include Peter Berger’s seminal
article “The Four Faces of Global Culture” that formed the skeletal
framework of the study. I would have also liked to see more emphasis on
how globalization, especially immigration, is changing the West as much
as the developing world. Highly recommended.
Benny Moten thinks that in most poor countries the political context is one in which an elite forcefully hoards the fruits of growth. I wonder if he would say that “it is no accident” that capitalist elites hoard wealth. Marxists hold that the immiserization of the proletariat is a
consequence of the capitalist system, which they see as particularly insidious precisely because it does NOT use force to expropriate the fruits of growth from its true creators. In his essay
promoting socialism (“Why Socialism?”), Einstein described anarchic capitalism as a society in which people are “unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful
compliance with legally established rules.”
So Berger is not being cavalier in saying that growth benefits the poor unless it is forcefully stolen by elites, because such theft, when it occurs, IS “an accident.” Berger rejects Marx. But Moten’s analysis implies that such theft is too widespread to be incidental and doesn’t seem to appreciate that Marxists are interested in targeting deceptive capitalism, not forceful bullies. By emphasizing force, he undermines the critique of capitalism.
So, force is NOT what the disagreement is about. It is about whether capitalist growth necessarily harms the poor. Empirical data showing that capitalist growth benefits the poor ends the argument. Growth can’t necessarily harm the poor if it benefits them! Some critics of capitalist growth assume that inequality is necessarily a social problem. They can’t enjoy the fact that the poor are getting richer if the rich are also getting richer. As Johan Norberg points out (“In Defense of Global Capitalism”), such people are more interested in getting rid of wealth than poverty.
Norberg’s book is packed with striking factoids. I’ll share just one: “The Gini coefficient [a measure of
inequality] declined from 0.6 in 1968 to 0.52 in 1997, a reduction of more than 10 percent.” That was obviously a period of increasing globalization.
So, capitalist growth is reducing poverty and reducing inequality. In 1960, life expectancy in poor countries was 60% of that in affluent countries. By 2003, it was more than 80% (Norberg). The “weight of numbers” (Braudel) can be more boring than anecdotes about workers burned to death while locked in Asian
sweatshops, but those who are actually interested in the well-being of the poor must, sooner or later, give up the pleasures of holier-than-thou
Gary Novak brings up several extraneous issues. It does not matter
whether one thinks that elites hoarding the benefits of growth is an
“accident” or not. This is an empirical question, not a theoretical one.
Similarly, it is important to note that the entire issue of Marxism and
socialism that Novak brings up is a red herring. Labeling arguments is
a tactic to avoid responding to them. The straw man also rears his
floppy head in Novak’s post. Note, for example, that Novak ends by
condemning “holier-than-thou-capitalism-bashing,” which no one is doing
here. Moving to the substance, such as it is, of Novak’s post, he
writes: “the disagreement is about whether capitalist
growth necessarily harms the poor.” Again, this is something of Novak’s
own invention. It is not a huge stretch of
the intellect to imagine a situation under which growth benefits
everyone, but rich elites grasp most all gains; indeed, this is what tends to happen. This is the substance of
our disagreement. The Economist, hardly a left-leaning publication, puts it this way: “The huge changes that have swept the world economy since
1980—globalisation, deregulation, the information-technology revolution
and the associated expansion of trade, capital flows and global supply
chains—narrowed income gaps between countries and widened them within
them at the same time.”
I don’t find Moten’s claims about empirical validation that the Capitalist class gained the most from the ongoing economic crash very persuading.
The U.S., and the modern world, is just starting to recover from the greatest wave of wealth transfers to the “proletariat” in the form of sub-prime mortgages in the history of the world. And in the aftermath of the Mortgage Meltdown the Capitalist investor class has had its wealth transferred again to the poor, unions, green power projects, government stimulus, and to bank bailouts via sub-par interest rate returns on their savings and retirement funds. This is to say nothing of the trillion dollars in lost equity in real estate. And how much wealth was lost to the investor class, insurance companies, and government pension funds in mortgage write-downs for underwater and foreclosure properties?
I don’t believe however that such overwhelming historical and financial evidence will persuade Moten otherwise. Cognitive dissonance theory in social psychology has shown how when a person with a strong belief is presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary of that belief that their belief gets stronger and is not abandoned.
We are still experiencing the consequences of the biggest socially engineered wealth transfer from the Capitalist homeowner and stock market investor class to the rentier class in the history of the world (which failed miserably) and Moten believes otherwise. I don’t believe there is much room for honest dialogue if such massive historical and empirical events can be denied.
Benny Moten thinks it doesn’t matter if elite hoarding of the benefits of growth is an essential feature of capitalism or not. It “tends to happen” (“except in exceptionally rare circumstances”). He is not interested in the theoretical question why it tends to happen; he is content to stay on solid empirical ground. (Lusvardi suggests that Moten is not doing so hot in that realm, either.) But, of course, it is very important to understand how wealth is created
and why it is distributed as it is. I assume that Moten is interested in seeing that the poor get their “fair share.” If he doesn’t know how wealth
and poverty came to be in the first place, how will he be able to formulate effective policy to change things?
Does capitalism automatically pile up wealth on the doorstep of the capitalist without the use of force (as Einstein and the Marxists think)? Or, as
Obama seems to believe, does an advanced capitalist economy automatically generate wealth without regard to its distribution? Will the capitalist goose continue to lay golden eggs if subjected to confiscatory taxation and draconian regulation in
the name of fairness? Can we redirect more of the fruits of capitalism to the poor by getting elites to “choose to share the wealth”? Do we need to smash capitalism or appeal to the compassion of the newly-reborn greedy capitalist (who shares a fallen human nature with the selfish socialist)? To dismiss all such theoretical questions as
extraneous is to guarantee that one’s advocacy for the poor will be ineffective. Correct diagnosis precedes effective treatment.
In my first post, I was wondering about Moten’s theoretical orientation. Was he an “it’s-no-accident” Marxist? Was he a holier-than-thou capitalism-basher more interested in striking
a pose than changing the world? I couldn’t tell from his brief posts. So, I probed. I thank Moten for responding, but I am no closer to understanding why he thinks inequality tends to happen.
Incidentally, my earlier mention that poor countries are gaining on rich countries in terms of life expectancy was questioned by Moten on the grounds that inequality within countries can be
masked by declining inequality between countries. I guess the rich in poor countries are now dying at 200 years of age, while the poor continue to drop like flies at 40.