Book: Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?

Author: Robert Kuttner 

Review by: Ahmet Bozer, a non-executive board member and retired executive vice president and president, Coca-Cola International. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University.

Ahmet Bozer

This history of humankind is full of twists and turns, ups and downs. Where are we today? What part of the story are we playing right now? What does that mean to us as citizens, families, businesss, politicians and professionals?

Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism points out that our lives are most heavily influenced by the political systems that define our governance, economic policies that produce and distribute wealth, our social fabric and technological development. Politics, economics, social fabric and technological advancement influence each other and collectively determine quality of human life locally and globally.

The title of Kuttner’s book calls our attention to the interdependency between our prevailing preferred economic and political systems here in the U.S., asking whether they are mutual exclusive. 

I recognized this tension in earlier readings tracking the thought of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, who sought to determine the right economic system for a very young nation with a long history. 

In his writings, Atatürk recognized two fundamental interdependencies. First, free-market economics went hand in hand with democracy, and second, the economic system of a country is part of a bigger whole which includes culture, politics and international relations. For a country to move forward, it all had to work together.  

What we are experiencing now requires us to revisit that bigger picture and understand the connections between global capitalism and democracy.

The neo-liberal economic policies of the 1980s brought substantial economic growth and lifted millions out of poverty, but it also brought more economic inequality and risks to environmental sustainability. The 2007-08 financial crisis was a wakeup call.

Since then steps have been taken to mitigate systemic risk to prevent reoccurance of a similar crisis, but the underlying problem didn’t go away. While the world was able to resume economic growth (albeit at slightly lower rates), inequality continued. A very small portion of the population captured the majority of the additional wealth created. Large chunks of the population could not improve their economic position. Their dissatisfaction created a fertile ground for change and anti-establishment feelings and ideas. Two of the most important outcomes of this were the heavily polarized elections in the U.S. and the Brexit referendum.

The question of whether the results of those elections will address the needs of the masses is out there, and if it doesn’t, we could get to a point where a global economic system that can’t address the needs of the masses starts threatening liberal democracy.  

The book provides a great account of the economic landscape throughout history, starting with pre-World War One where laissez-faire global capitalism prevailed. It talks about the controlled capitalism of the Roosevelt administration in the U.S. and post-World War II efforts to design a global economic system that is based on free enterprise but more “controlled.” 

It then takes us to the growth challenges of the 1970s, the neoliberal policies of the ’80s to address these challenges and finally, to our current times. During this evolution, the impact of global trade, fomation of the EU, Europe getting more aligned with the global capitalist system, the left-wing politicians conforming with such economic systems and the eroding power of the unions lead us again to a laissez-faire global capitalist system.

This continues to create economic inequality, dissatisfied masses and polarized politics, which positions nationalism and religion against liberal democracy. While these concepts can live together in a society, political polarization creates an ever-greater chasm, which in turn creates even more disruptive politics. How we get through this part of our history remains a question.

There is little doubt in my mind about our ability to create economic value and reconcile our values. I hope and wish that we are able to evolve our global economic system so that more people can benefit from that economic value creation and have better quality dialogue so that liberal democracy to flourish. 

For that to happen, our society needs to significantly shift thinking from “I” being the epicenter to “We”. 

Editor’s note: This review is part of Global Atlanta’s annual project asking influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued each year since 2011. Purchases through the Amazon affiliate links at top will provide a commission to Global Atlanta. All reviews were written independently with only mild editing from our staff.

Ahmet Bozer is a former executive vice president of the Coca-Cola Co. and president of Coca-Cola International.