Brain Pickings

Capitalism Five Ways, Animated

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What smiling has to do with personal redemption and the economic outlook.

Is RSA the new TED? During the past year, the London-based Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (RSA) has burst onto the scene, offering a steady diet of videos created with a TED-like formula. They’re short. They’re animated and visually snappy. And they’re substantive too. But while TED is all about bringing the inspiration, RSA videos tend toward critique. Take the four videos below. Though varied in focus, they all circle around a common theme — the flaws running through our contemporary capitalist system.

DANIEL PINK: DRIVE

First up, Daniel Pink, the bestselling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, makes the point that traditional motivation schemes — namely, bonuses — rarely achieve their intended results. Research repeatedly finds that the bigger the bonus, the worse the performance. (Hello CEOs.) So what does motivate us? The desire to be self-directed, which Pink distills into a trifecta of success: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: SMILE OR DIE

In the United States, we’re all about positive psychology. Optimism is built into our DNA. But if you ask Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the bestselling book Nickel and Dimed, she’ll tell you it’s not such a good thing. In short, positive thinking keeps getting us nickeled and dimed.

SLAVOJ ZIZEK: FIRST AS TRAGEDY, THEN AS FARCE

Slavoj Zizek, one of today’s most influential philosophers/theorists, picks up where Ehrenreich leaves off. Reworking Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, or that strange relationship between money making and personal redemption, Zizek gives you this observation. Increasingly, modern capitalism tries to blur the boundaries between making purchases and doing social good. We’re made to feel like we’re creating good karma every time we buy. It’s a bit of hoodwinking that keeps us happy and spending, and our eyes off the ball.

STEPHEN DUBNER & STEVEN LEVITT: SUPERFREAKONOMICS

And then to pull this thread along a little further. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of the bestselling Freakonomics, dig into economic research that shows this dark reality: On the economic field, there’s no such thing as altruists. Players that look altruistic are greedy in the end.

DAVID HARVEY: CRISES OF CAPITALISM

What caused the 2008 financial crisis? Many have assumed that the capitalist system somehow malfunctioned. Credit default swaps and liar loans – they piled up and caused an otherwise good system to go down. But David Harvey, a long left-leaning social theorist and geographer, takes things a step further. The crisis was built into capitalism itself, he argues. It was part of capitalism’s internal logic. And, with that, we get the most penetrating critique.

All of these videos are excerpts of longer lectures, each running about 30 minutes. You can watch them in full here: Pink, Ehrenreich, Zizek, Dubner/Levit and Harvey. And when you do, you’ll really see how well the medium enhances the message.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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