Volume > Issue > The Triumph of Capitalism — or the Rise of Market Totalitarianism?

The Triumph of Capitalism — or the Rise of Market Totalitarianism?


By Robert N. Bellah | March 1991
Robert N. Bellah is Ford Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, and co-au­thor (with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton) of the award-winning Habits of the Heart. Parts of the above article are drawn from The Good Society (forthcoming from Knopf in September), which he and the same four co-au­thors have written as a successor volume to Habits of the Heart.

Nineteen eighty-nine was one of the most remarkable years in modern history. It saw the collapse of Communism, which just a few years ago many in the West believed had a real possibility of dominating the world. Communism collapsed because, ironically, it did not bring the liberation envisaged by its prophet Karl Marx, but rather a backward, barbarous, and oppressive state.

In the Western world and the U.S. in particular, we are faced with some historic ironies of our own that we overlook at our peril. In spite of widespread unease about many aspects of our own society, the collapse of Communism has tempted Americans to indulge in triumphalism. What more visible expression of the fact that we have “won” the cold war than the fact that there is a new McDonald’s on Pushkin Square in Moscow! But as Fritz Stern has pointed out, it would be the final and unconscious victory of Stalinism “to induce complacency in the United States, to make us think that because they have failed we have succeeded or because they are sick we are healthy…. We deserve to be measured not by the failure of a brutal system in a backward country but by our own standards, by the standards of the American political tra­dition….”

Important though that lesson is, there is more to learn from what has happened in the last couple years. Some of what we have been hearing has an all too familiar ring. This bell tolls for us as well. For instance:

The worst of it is that we live in a spoiled moral environment. We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other, to worry only about our­selves. The concepts of love, friend­ship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimen­sions, and for many of us they repre­sent only some sort of psychological curiosity or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times, somewhat ludicrous in the era of computers and space ships….
Let us teach both ourselves and others that politics ought to be a re­flection of the aspiration to contribute to the happiness of the community and not of the need to deceive or pillage the community. Let us teach both ourselves and others that politics does not have to be the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculating, calculating, secret agreements, and pragmatic maneu­vering, but that it also can be the art of the impossible, that is the art of making both ourselves and the world better.

The words are those of Vaclav Havel in his 1990 New Year’s address as President of Czechoslovakia, but they apply with uncom­fortable directness to us as much as to Eastern Europeans. Timothy Garton Ash has com­mented, as others have done, on the extraor­dinary moral maturity of most of the new leaders. He quotes Havel as speaking of the worst thing as “the contaminated moral envi­ronment” and as saying: “All of us have become accustomed to the totalitarian system, accepted it as an unalterable fact and therefore kept it running. None of us is merely a victim of it, because all of us helped to create it together.” Ash comments:

The crucial “line of conflict,” [Havel] wrote earlier, did not run between the people and State, but rather through the middle of each person, “for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system.” A banner I saw above the altar in an East Berlin [probably Lutheran] church vividly expressed the same basic thought. It said, “I am Cain and Abel.”

That, of course, is a fundamental Christian in­sight, but it is one that Americans, with our great proclivity for blaming someone (some­times even ourselves) as the exclusive cause of the world’s troubles, have not learned very well.

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