- Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy
Once again Michael Yates has produced a text that simplifies complex concepts for a general audience. Just as Why Unions Matter explains the labor movement clearly and concisely, his new book Naming the System deconstructs capitalism and its impact on workers around the globe. While many authors have tried to explain how the laws of supply and demand affect the macro and micro-economy, Yates offers a refreshingly direct and transparent look at the economy within a political context.
Naming the System begins by explaining the ideological framework of the economics discipline. This is a logical place to start. Yet shockingly few economics texts begin, or even go there. Yates shows his readers how the supremacy of one particular theory of the economy—what he calls "the neoclassical/neoliberal dogma" has so thoroughly dominated the discourse that it can be difficult to even step outside of it and talk about the economy in different terms. But this is precisely what Yates does, simply and directly. He states that despite the importance of economic issues to our everyday lives, few people have a good understanding of how the economy functions. Even those who have taken college-level economics course are often befuddled about how the economy actually works.
After an overview of the fundamentals of capitalism, Yates goes through some of its most severe failings: persistent inequality among nations and within countries, constant unemployment and underemployment, and no end to bad jobs, low pay, and overwork. These trends are fairly consistent in poor countries as well as rich ones. From there, Yates describes neoclassical theory and how it attempts to explain away the weaknesses mentioned above. He then provides a summary of the basic critiques of neoclassical thought, focusing mostly on Marxist challenges. A chapter entitled "Capitalism's Contradictions" discusses the shortcomings of some radical critiques, for example, why capitalism has not self-destructed or why the working class does not automatically become radicalized with each economic downturn. The book ends with a chapter on alternatives, called "Fighting for a Better World."
The strength of Naming the System is not only in its description of the economy in a global context but also in its clear explanation of the limitations of current mainstream thought. One section that could be stronger is the final chapter, where Yates attempts to lay out some alternative visions to encourage readers to challenge capitalism. While some of the examples are encouraging, like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, [End Page 114] the anti-sweatshop movement, the Landless Workers Movement and Workers Party in Brazil, and the "Poors" of South Africa, not all of his examples—such as the FARC in Colombia and the Maoists of Nepal—live up to his call for alternatives with maximum democracy. And none of the examples really comes close to providing a vision of a "new society." Of course, Yates is limited in his examples by the on-the-ground reality of the movements.
This book is quite useful for teaching about globalization, public policy, unions, labor markets, and the future of work. In each of these areas, it is crucial that students understand how the economy works and the limitations imposed by the pervasive free market fundamentalism dominating economic discourse. The book contains some photos and sidebars with stories, case studies and explorations of perplexing questions that make the book more reader friendly for undergraduates.