Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 1 December 1996; on the web by permission, August 2003

Nowhere but in CNT could these two books be jointly reviewed. In today's publishing economy, they are not competing products. The author of the first is a theologian, now professor emeritus at McGill, and numbered by Peter Newman among the 600 members of this country's establishment. Gregory Baum's book is an eloquent, well-argued tract, a concise exposition of the thought of one of his intellectual forebears, an emigré Hungarian who spent his last years in Canada. Bearing the imprint of a prestigious university press, the book will be ordered by most university libraries on this continent and quite a few abroad. On the other hand, if Cole's or Smithbooks stock it, the buyer responsible may get fired.

The only chairs held by the authors of Get a Life are in their own homes, where they published this book themselves. Roberts holds a Ph.D. in economic history, but abandoned academic life in favour of work for unions, the unemployed, and the natural environment. Similarly, Brandum is described as "involved in the nitty gritty of building green communities." This is the second edition of their weighty book. They tell us the first edition "sold wherever there were lineups for Rocky Horror Picture Show or On Deadly Ground." If the bookstore chains stock this book, it will confirm Lenin's adage about capitalists selling the rope to be used for hanging them. Only two of 23 blurbs printed with the book are from professors. The rest are from more public intellectuals: Jane Jacobs, Richard Gwyn, David Suzuki, Hazel Henderson, John Sewell—most CNT readers know the list.

Yet these two books properly share space in this review because their main arguments coincide: that corporate capitalism is bankrupt, ethically if not quite yet financially, that it is destroying human communities and the only planet available, and that hope lies in small-scale, democratic, ecologically sustainable initiatives.

Granted, the arguments are made in different ways. Baum's priority is simply to capture in words the broad sweep of Western history, to evaluate it critically, and to point a general direction for the future. This quest led him to the work of Karl Polanyi, seized as he was by the same goal. After Baum's move from Toronto to Montreal in 1986, he joined the latter city's Karl Polanyi Institute for the Study of Political Economy, out of which this book was written.

Polanyi understood half a century ago that as capitalism frees itself from limits, turning goods more completely into commodities and people into maximizers of utility, it leads inexorably to authoritarian government and the destruction of the earth. Accurately and compellingly Baum summarizes this argument, as well as the corrective Polanyi proposed. The need is to embed markets in vibrant, democratic communities, where the principle of social protection and cooperation balances the principle of economic liberalism. Only thereby can our species and planet flourish. "Long before the public outcry against the devastation of the environment," Baum writes, "Karl Polanyi was the prophetic theoretician of the ecological movement."

Passion to understand the broad sweep of history moves Roberts and Brandum, too, but in terms less abstract and general. Theoreticians they are not. In a half dozen pages at the start of the book, they divide the history of industrial capitalism into four periods or "waves." The third wave, the "post-industrial, knowledge-based, or service economy," they point out, is "going nowhere fast," benefiting neither people nor the earth. Their book is a factual, hard-hitting compilation of initiatives that define the fourth wave, a "whine-free, take-charge zone" where citizens reclaim their lives.

Get a Life! is an upbeat directory of practical experiments for implementing the corrective Polanyi had in mind. The subtitle is "How to make a good buck, dance around the dinosaurs, and save the world while you're at it." This book emancipates readers from the strictures of corporate capitalism less by abstract reasoning than by graphic description of alternatives that work—from home production of food to ways of escape from the medical system, the housing market, and the money economy itself.

When even Maclean's runs a cover story on "cashing out" (October 28), there is no longer doubt that Canadians in droves are ready to jump off the bandwagon of global capitalism. The question is where to. These two books point essentially the same direction. I hope that readers caught up in Roberts and Brandum's activism will take time to reflect on the wisdom in Baum's book, and that Baum's many disciples will risk practical leaps like those described in Get a Life!