Folks: Capitalism is broken.

I hate to be the one to tell you, and it’s really a bummer that you’re learning about it for the first time in a comic book review on the internet, but capitalism–the most dominant socioeconomic system from Boston to Bangladesh—isn’t really working out for the planet, or for the people living on it. It’s poisoned the environment, corrupted our entire political system, and destroyed the lives of billions; and the only people who it’s paid off for are a handful of sociopathic creeps who would feed you and your loved ones into a wood chipper if it meant an extra tenth of a penny in their bank accounts.

Probably I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. The degree to which you are already aware of the failures of capitalism is likely to the degree to which you are already one of its beneficiaries. So you may not need to be told that you’re fucked, but maybe it can’t hurt to find out exactly how fucked you are, and why; if that’s the case, you might find yourself reading Hypercapitalism: The Modern Economy, Its Values, and How to Change Them, the latest effort by edu-cartoonist Larry Gonick (best known for his Cartoon History of the Universe), this time in collaboration with fellow academic Tim Kasser. The book is divided into two sections—the first identifying the history, theory, and effects of capitalism on our stricken age, and the second a series of suggestions about what we might do about it.

The first part is better than the second, albeit more depressing. The nature of capitalism is a pretty ugly one, after all, and provides no lack of material for even the most casual historian. Unfortunately, ‘casual historian’ is exactly what Kasser is, and it shows in a number of ways; important developments are glossed over, sins of omission abound, and what is explicit is implicit while what should be text is subtext. Put simply, Kasser and Gonick have approached the problem of runaway capitalism from a reformist’s perspective, and the result is an often toothless and ineffectual attack on what is literally a life-or-death problem. There is little here that questions the idea that our current system is anything but rational and inevitable; it gives only the slightest analysis of issues like incorporation and imperialism, despite their centrality to the issue; and the labor theory of value—inescapably important to any understanding of the nature of capitalism—is referenced with a hand-wave in a single panel.

This is more than a personal objection. One can no more write a book about the problems of capitalism without reference to the alternatives than one can write a book about the problems of rain without mentioning the sun. Adam Smith gets a whole section in the book; Ronald Reagan makes repeated appearances; there are cameos by David Ricardo, Ayn Rand, and even Ted Cruz. All of which is fine, but, astonishingly, the name of Karl Marx, who is the yin to Smith’s yang in terms of articulating the nature of capitalism, does not appear once. Neither do any of his economic, political, or social theories, or those of any of his inheritors, or anything they might have to say on the subject of hypercapitalism. No reference to socialism appears anywhere in the book, nor is there any discussion of how alternatives to capitalism have been tried anywhere else in the world; communism is referred to only once, in a single panel about the Soviet Union’s objections to the Bretton Woods Conference. Even if Kasser and Gonick aren’t wild-eyed radicals, this is approaching the subject with one eye closed.

More than this, though, Kasser approaches his subject in a way that is, frankly, insufficient to the task. For one thing, he is a psychologist by training, not an economist, and his perception of the problems of capitalism is made through that lens.  There is, therefore, a lot of talk of ‘values’ instead of ‘ideology’; a distracting amount of what Jean-François Lyotard called “phrases in dispute” (like a lot of liberal academics, for example, Kasser has a severely hobbled understanding of the meaning of power); and a nearly metaphysical focus on what are almost spiritual problems, rather than the essential materialist struggle between labor and capital. By the time the book arrives at its ‘solutions’, it is no surprise that they are inherently reformist Band-Aids like fair trade, sustainable business models, simple living, and other ‘mindful buying’ nonsense that do very little to address the problems at the heart of capitalism. (No ethical consumption under capitalism, guys.)

In making this critique, though, I’m ignoring an important rule that critics should almost always follow:  review things for what they are, not for what you wish they were. Does Hypercapitalism succeed on its own merits? For the most part, yes.  Gonick is 72 now, but he’s still operating at near-peak performance; this is him at his technical best, imaginative and skilled at caricature, and not the lazy, rough Gonick whose work resembles Gilbert Shelton in a big hurry. Kasser seems like a decent enough writing partner for Gonick, and while he can be super corny (the embodiment of the government is called ‘Paul Itticks’, a name that wouldn’t pass muster in a children’s book or a Mr. A comic), it fits the tone of the material well enough.

For all my complaints about their wishy-washy reformist approach to hypercapitalism, there are moments in the book where they excel. The section early on about income inequality is very nicely done, even if it’s sadly familiar territory, and many of the historical examples are well-drawn. There are some splash pages that are definitely impressive; it’s usually the ones that depict some Goyaesque horrors-of-finance concept, recalling the revolutionary art of a departed century.  (One of the best visual metaphors in the book is Gonick’s depiction of “the entrepreneurial spirit” as a louche, cigar-chomping djinn.) There’s even an occasional good joke, which is necessary if stuff like this gets your blood up, which it should. 

One element of the book is perhaps worth discussing here. One of the most common problems with contemporary comics, especially ones that have a pedagogical or polemical quality, is that they fail to integrate text and image together in a way that deserves the name of comics. Huge blocks of explanatory or expository text in front of a static image isn’t comics; it’s illuminated text at best. As cartoonist and author Jon Morris, who knows a thing or two about the subject, puts it, “If the text is still perfectly coherent when divorced from the artwork, then you have fucked it up; if the artwork exhibits no conceivable narrative when divorced from the text, then you have also fucked it up.” Hypercapitalism fucks it up in this way more than once, but Gonick’s inventive layouts avoid the pitfall with a respectable batting average; more importantly, though, he pioneered this sort of thing, and so it’s easier to be indulgent. Many of the worst offenders grew up in what we might call a post-Gonick world, and he shouldn’t have to bear the blame for that.

In the final  tally, Hypercapitalism could fairly be called a sermon for the choir. If you happen to agree with Kasser’s belief that capitalism needs reform and not revolution; if you share his personal hobby-horses, like the belief that advertising directed at children is a singular evil; if you agree with him that things like “the maker revolution”, peer-to-peer sales, and “socially responsible mutual funds” are a way out of the evils of the market and not just a way deeper in, then it will definitely be a rewarding read.  But if you think the solution to the problems of capitalism can never be more capitalism, or a different kind of capitalism, you may want to look a bit further to the left on the shelf.


2 Responses to Hypercapitalism

  1. Malcolm Greenberger says:

    I’m curious how this compares to Economix, which is less about capitalism specifically and more of an overview of economic theory… though it definitely ends up being a not-so-subtle critique of capitalism, or at least America’s flavor of it- by the end. Michael Goodwin is also not an economist, but he is a writer who read stacks of economics books for this gargantuan task, and he does a great job distilling the various theories throughout history. Yes, it has a liberal bias, but one founded in historical fact and statistics. Is Hypercapitalism more of a rant than a useful historical tool? Could I refer to it when arguing coherently about our current economic state, or would any expert see right through their economic claims? Enquiring minds want to know.

  2. Hi, Malcolm –

    “Hypercapitalism” is definitely more of a polemic than it is a history lesson. It’ s not that the creators didn’t do ANY research, it’s that a lot of it is pretty abstracted. It’s much better on how we got to where we are than why those systems arose in the first place, and if you were talking to a real economist, its gentle two-stepping around a materialist analysis would probably earn you some scowls. If your argument was centered on the reality of our present economic condition, it’d be a pretty good source, but not if you wanted to talk in much depth about the actual mechanics of the thing. And, as noted, its ‘solutions’ are all still pretty market-based.

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