10 Jul 2018

Graphic novel takes aim at Hypercapitalism

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 10 July 2018

Humanity is pitted against the perilous psychology of hypercapitalism in a new graphic novel produced by Psychology professor Timothy Kasser and cartoonist Larry Gonick. 

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Photo: Scribe

The pair use Prof Kasser’s research on the topic to lay out - graphically, and sometimes humorously - the problems they see in a system that promotes consumerism and materialism. 

Comic book: Hypercapitalism; the modern economy, its values, and how to change them

Their long-form comic, Hypercapitalism: The Modern Economy, Its Values, and How to Change Them seeks a better system, based on better values. Kasser says he has been writing about materialism and consumerism since the early 1990s, and has been trying to write this book about Capitalism for at least the last 10 years. 

“I would say about 10 years ago it was very difficult to utter the word capitalism without a lot of pushback, and I think that things have changed enough now that you can start to talk about capitalism and discuss that taboo topic and hopefully we did it in a way that will be interesting to people. 

“I do think that the book is very well timed and timely in that sense.”

After some attempts at writing, he approached Gonick - who was known for writing a long 30-volume comic about the history of the universe - to help. 

Gonick says Kasser had needed to find somebody who was angrier. 

“Cartoonists as a breed cower behind our drawing boards and throw these satirical bombs out into the world because we’re basically disgusted and furious,” he says.  

He was drawn to the idea of writing about capitalism after the work he had already done. 

“My motivation when he called me was I had been doing this sort of veiled form of history for a many years and also a number of science books.

“History textbooks are really dull, and they tend to be written in an impersonal way, and the illustrations tend to force you to think of historical figures as dead - which they are, but they weren’t when they were alive. 

“History is the story of all the passions and interests and scheming that goes into modern-day politics ... and I wanted to make that plain and make historical figures come back to life. 

Moral criticisms

51533453 - profit-seeking concept with businessman running on a treadmill for a bag of money hanging on a fishing tackle.

Photo: peshkov/123RF

Gonick says they’ve produced something that adds a moral critique to the usual economic critique of capitalism. 

“I think the question that’s implicit in the book, is why on earth would you want to put your society in the hands of people who are dedicated to extracting the maximum amount they can out of the earth and turning it into products to sell it for a profit.”

“It makes people feel bad, it’s bad for the planet and this is something where I think I get more heated than Tim, it’s got to be stopped. 

Kasser says hypercapitalism is when materialistic, consumerist values begin to crowd out other values. 

“Capitalism requires people to be focused on these materialistic values in order for the system to run effectively,” he says. 

“What materialistic values do is they crowd out other worthwhile values, and one of the values that they crowd out is the value of freedom, is the value of choice. 

“Definitely after World War II was you saw an expansion from sort of a contained capitalism to a real hypercapitalism, where it not only became more normal for businesses and governments to support those commandments but more possible.

“People are walking around, they’re feeling empty, they’re feeling unfulfilled, and capitalism provides the solution ‘you just haven’t the right thing, you just haven’t made enough money yet, go work harder, go buy these other things’.  

“And that’s what keeps people on that treadmill, keeps people working harder and still having empty lives and buying stuff which helps make companies profit, which helps make governments have tax revenue and economic growth." 

Plastics wash ashore on the tide.

Plastics wash ashore on the tide. Photo: paktaotik2/123RF

He says there’s also an ecological cost, with research clearly showing that nations with high economic growth and affluence are the ones using up resources unsustainably. 

“So we’ve got the climate change, we’ve got pollution, we’ve got plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and we’re undergoing the sixth mass extinction of the species.” 


Kasser says US President Donald Trump is the logical conclusion to a lot of the things that have been unfolding under capitalist values for some time - a particularly bad conclusion, he says - but he only appears twice in the book.

President Donald Trump blowing out a candle on his birthday cake.

 President Donald Trump blowing out a candle on his birthday cake in Singapore.  Photo: AFP / Ministry of Communications and Information of Singapore

“We actually critique every president, from Carter on, in the book … and I think this is completely warranted. 

“The Democrats and the Republicans both share some blame.”

“Rhetoric of the neoliberals aside, it’s not necessarily the case that capitalism and democracy are completely compatible and always work towards each other. 

“Look at China right now: what’s become a very capitalistic nation and not a lot of successful moves towards democracy.”

Gonick says talking about Trump and capitalism is complicated, because he "tends to say one thing and do something else". 

“I think his rhetorical appeal is tribal - it’s not economic. He plays on resentment and he plays on race and he plays on national identity. 

“The one great thing he’s accomplished - and I use ‘great’ sarcastically - is the round-up of immigrants. 

“There’s that - which plays on tribal fears and resentments - and there’s this gigantic tax cut, that went to the super rich, by and large. 

“So on the one hand he appears to be a populist and on the other hand he’s giving the owners what they want.” 


Gonick says he’s not sure exactly what kind of system should replace capitalism. 

“An old leftist of my acquaintance once confronted me in my neighbourhood walking around and he said ‘Gonick, you … social democrat!’ that’s the worst he could come up with. 

“I guess that’s where I am, I admire the Scandinavian countries, The Netherlands. The people are happy, they grow to substantial height, which is a good measure! 

“I’d like to see us move in that direction, restore a sense of public good, public responsibility and not this ‘every man for himself’ ethos that seems to be prevalent.” 

Kasser agrees, and says the second half of the book is really all about trying to create that better system.

“Trying to create the system that hasn’t been created yet - one that organises our communities, that organises our business,  and organises our local, provincial, state and federal governments around a very different set of values, around these intrinsic values." 

He says the process is already taking place to some extent already. 

“They’re already going out there and doing these things in their lives, there are lots of policies that have been proposed and implemented in certain places that seem to work pretty well.”