The secret to capitalism's future

The financial meltdown and global recession have given capitalism a black eye. But far from heralding the system's collapse, the hard times provide an opportunity for a return to fundamentals that work. In Howard Bloom's view, civilization will stir again on the productive imagination of capitalists -- not by means of financial tricks. Bloom, author of "The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History," and "Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century," outlines capitalism's hidden imperative in his new book "The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism."


The secret to capitalism's future, the secret to the future of Western civilization and of American civilization in particular, is the recognition of an imperative hidden in capitalism's heart: Be messianic. Save thy neighbor. And save people half a planet away.

What in the world do I mean? In the novels of the 19th century, poor children stand outside the mansions of the rich at night watching the light that spills out of the windows, the light in which the rich dance and banter until dawn. Then the children of the poor return to the darkness of their own homes and try to do the only thing available to them. They try to sleep. Why? Why are the poor plunged into darkness and the rich gifted with light?

Because candles cost a fortune. And lighting a ballroom the size of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles all night could take 3,000 of them.

In 1836, there was a breakthrough: the oil lamp with a cylindrical wick, an innovation that allowed a single lantern to produce the light of ten candles from a single flame.

But there was a problem. The oil that lit this lamp came from the blubber of right whales, bowhead whales and sperm whales. The result? Whale oil cost the modern equivalent of between $32 and $61.60 a gallon. So once again, the new light belonged to just one class -- the rich.

In 1848, three men simultaneously invented a whale oil substitute distilled from a black goop that seemed to spontaneously ooze from rocks -- oil. The new whale oil substitute was called kerosene.
In 1850, kerosene cost 60 cents a gallon -- the equivalent of $14.78. Which may have made it available to a few in the upper middle class. But kerosene, too, had its problems. There were hundreds of suppliers. And those suppliers produced wildly different qualities of the new fluid.

The result? If you set your lamp's controls to handle the kerosene from one refiner, ran out of kerosene a few days later, went to the store, and bought some more, the new jug's characteristics would be so different that your lamp would blow up in your face.

Then came an obsessive -- a man whose youth of poverty had turned him into a passionate penny pincher. He built his first oil refinery near Cleveland in 1863, then worked relentlessly to cut the cost of transport, to buy or sideline competitors, and to standardize the quality of kerosene so that a five-gallon can you bought in one of his early export markets, China, would have exactly the same qualities as the can of kerosene you bought in Canton, Ohio.

This man's zeal for cost-cutting drove the price of kerosene down until it reached a point that made light available even to the poor -- six cents a gallon, the modern equivalent of $1.27.

The result, the master of kerosene was a secular savior. He was a bringer of light who added an extra five hours of illumination a day to the life of the average human being. That's the equivalent of six extra years of waking life.

The messianic capitalist's name? John David Rockefeller. And the name he gave his company? Standard Oil. A name that celebrated the drive for quality control that made kerosene safe.

Capitalism at its worst is criminal. But at its best it does what every system of belief that calls on our idealism claims it will achieve -- it raises the poor and the oppressed. And it's done it over and over again -- with everything from the soap and cotton revolution that added twenty extra years of life to the average Westerner in the mid 19th century to the paperback books, the cellphones, and the laptops that enrich those extra years today. Why? Because capitalism has an unseen imperative: be messianic.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 3, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
Previous: Odes to vanishing thrones, laughs and phones | Next: Homer Simpson and America's energy problem


Please email us to report offensive comments.

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company