Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 7 January 1996; on the web by permission, August 2003

Two kinds of social commentary are especially recommendable. One kind identifies hopeful signs on the horizon and points the way to a better world. Think of E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful or Ivan Illich's Tools for Conviviality. These books are not wishful thinking. They brim with examples of economic practices in varied corners of our world that are richer, more sustainable, and more fun than the mainstream economy.

In coming months I will be calling the attention of CNT readers to some important new books of this genre. Most are from small, out-of-the-way publishers. Their authors are not usually professors, more often self-conscious reformers able to think and act at the same time.

Teeple's new book falls in a different but no less recommendable category. This is the kind of commentary that looks the mainstream social and economic order square in the face, and describes how it works. The priority is on realistic analysis, not the search for signs of hope. Books like this let utopians know what they are up against.

The author is a 50-year-old sociology professor at Simon Fraser University. For a quarter-century he has been trying to make sense of why capitalism is unfolding as it is. These 200 well-written pages summarize the sense he has made, and the prospects he foresees on the basis of current trends.

What Teeple sees on the horizon is bleak indeed. This book's final sentence runs like this: "Here, largely unfettered by political considerations, is a tyranny unfolding—an economic regime of unaccountable rulers, a totalitarianism not of the political sphere but of the economic."

Teeple's starting point is the sweep of rightist, neo-liberal politics across almost all the capitalist countries during the past decade or so. Why, he asks, is the welfare state being dismantled in one jurisdiction after another?

No resident of Klein's Alberta or Harris's Ontario can doubt that a process of dismantling is indeed underway. But Teeple's vision penetrates beyond party politics to the economic realities that constrain any government these days, whatever its ideology. His analysis illuminates not just the Tories' "common sense revolution" but the NDP's inability to follow through on social democratic principles even when in power. Granting the vagaries of party politics and variations in pace across jurisdictions, the welfare state is on its way out.

The reason, Teeple explains, is that the normal workings of capitalist economics have led to a global marketplace in which the competing actors are enormous corporations more powerful than national governments. In a trenchant fourth chapter, he explains how the process of globalization has occurred.

The welfare state of the postwar era, with its roots in Keynesian theory, was a compromise between labour and capital, devised within national borders and administered by national governments. Tariffs and other trade restrictions still defined boundaries on the pursuit of profit.

Gradually, however, corporations outgrew their national homes and pressed for relaxation of all barriers to trade. Government regulations, moreover, could not keep up with the new, computer-driven technologies developed by corporations to control the production process. The result is that no national government, much less a provincial one, is any longer a match for the economic forces by which goods and services are produced and consumed. The economy has escaped political control. Capital no longer needs to compromise with any country's working class.

Teeple devotes a few pages near the end of the book to movements of resistance to global capital: cooperatives, self-help groups, unions of the unemployed, old-age advocacy coalitions, and so on. He is pessimistic about their prospects, so long as the capitalist economy continues to provide a tolerable standard of living to the majority and so long as corporate interests control the main agencies of culture and politics.

At the same time, he predicts that resistance will spread, as environmental destruction becomes more obvious, as political legitimacy declines, and as people's needs go unsatisfied. What lies in store is probably a growing polarization between haves and have-nots, the welfare-state compromise having gone by the board.