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The "Saturated Self": Don DeLillo on the Problem of Rogue Capitalism

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 46, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 78-107 | 10.1353/cli.2005.0017

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Contemporary Literature 46.1 (2005) 78-107

Don DeLillo on the Problem of Rogue Capitalism

Jerry A. Varsava

University of Alberta
In the past decade . . . [t]he dramatic climb of the Dow and the speed of the Internet summoned us all to live permanently in the future, in the utopian glow of cyber-capital, because there is no memory there and this is where markets are uncontrolled and investment potential has no limit.
Don DeLillo, "In the Ruins of the Future"
[T]he dark side of individualism is a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning and less concerned with others or society.
Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity

Even laissez-faire capitalism has its rules. Its fundamental enabling premise is of course the humble contract between the "parties," each of whom has access in advance to pertinent information, each of whom freely consents to the binding terms of the agreement. In jurisprudential terms, tort law provides civil guarantees that the contract will be honored by the consenting parties and sets out formal rules by which disagreements can be adjudicated and resolved. Aside from legalisms, a contract is also built on simple trust between the signatories, and their confident expectation that this and all agreements will be honored in good faith, notwithstanding the specter of lawsuits should nonperformance of one or another of the parties come into play. Laissez-faire capitalism is then founded not only on good laws but also on good will. "Law, contract, and economic rationality," suggests Francis Fukuyama, "provide a necessary but not sufficient basis for both the stability and prosperity of postindustrial societies; they must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust, which are based in habit rather than rational calculation" (11). It is obvious that rogue capitalism violates both the juridical-economic and the ethical-social conditions necessary for the orderly and just society that Fukuyama identifies.

Rogue capitalism is that subspecies of capitalism that seeks special advantage and unfair profit—"rents to favor and position," in the language of economic historian David Landes—through the covert undermining of contracts and, implicitly, of the norms upon which they are based (218). Rogue capitalism amounts, then, to a double assault, one on the immediate agreement at hand, the other on the very system of guarantees and expectations that makes all contracts possible and indeed appealing. Greed, social prestige, and often obscure forms of psycho-emotional gratification serve as catalysts for the misconduct of the rogue capitalist. While we might agree with free-market economist Joseph Schumpeter that capitalism perse is a process of "creative destruction" in that, in stark neo-Darwinian fashion, weak economic forms and practices are decisively eliminated—no more buggy whips, no more iceboxes—rogue capitalism yields, quite simply, chaos and, allowing the tautology, "destructive destruction." It brings with it the violation of trust and the wanton expenditure of a society's most precious commodity, what Fukuyama calls, after sociologist James S. Coleman, social capital, "the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organizations" (10).

Rogue capitalism is coterminous with capitalism itself, and even a casual survey of American economic history over the last century or more brings to light all sorts of infamous examples of it: railroad speculation in the 1870s, the robber barons of the late nineteenth century, the great trusts, the unscrupulous businessmen and fraudsters of early century, the collusive military-industrialist capitalists of the post–World War II period, and, in various incarnations, the financial con artists of the seventies and beyond through to the architects of the great stock-market bubble of the late twentieth century. This rogues' gallery includes such examples of larcenous greed as Robert Vesco and Bernie Cornfeld (mutual-fund fraud in the 1970s), Michael Milken (junk-bond king), Charles Keating (savings-and-loan scandal), Ivan Boesky (insider trading), and, most recently, Sam Waksal (insider trading of ImClone stocks), Henry Blodget (conflict of interest at Merrill Lynch), Scott Sullivan (embezzlement at WorldCom), Andrew Fastow (accounting irregularities at Enron), and Martha Stewart (obstruction of justice). Rogue capitalism has had such catastrophic consequences for American society...

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