18 May 2022

Sir Paul's book on capitalism — part 2

I am finding Paul Collier's book The Future of Capitalism readable and thought-provoking. Unlike most other books in its subject area, it displays some sympathy for the opposition. But given that the book aims to be a blueprint for socialism, this sympathy is unlikely to run very deep. It behoves readers to remain on the alert for the standard assumptions and devices of anti-capitalist ideology.
   Readers also need to be aware that a socialist canny enough to highlight the flaws of other socialists is not necessarily going to avoid falling into the same traps. There is something irresistible about socialism for many intellectuals; the fact that Collier himself draws attention to some of the features of this phenomenon early on doesn't mean he is necessarily going to eschew the standard tropes further down the line. For example, he criticises use of victim-ideology, but is not immune himself to the temptation of representing people as the passive casualties of circumstance, desperately in need of help from the state. He talks of the less-well educated being in crisis, stigmatized as the white working class; of a collapse in the sense of a purposeful life among the American working class; and of redundant over-fifties drinking the dregs of despair.
   Crisis, incidentally, is a standard trope of socialist ideology. Well before the Great Depression, early twentieth-century socialist pioneers such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb were talking about the supposed crisis of capitalism, and the trope has remained in the intellectuals' top ten ever since — to a large extent regardless of rises and falls in economic fortunes.
   One of the standard devices of anti-capitalist ideology is to be vague about what the word 'capitalism' means, and to treat it as a bucket concept. Roughly speaking, the term refers (or ought to refer) to a society in which there is minimal state involvement beyond maintaining personal and property rights; in other words, a society where interactions between individuals depend predominantly on what those individuals agree between themselves. With advanced capitalism, the state may issue and enforce more complex rules that facilitate relatively sophisticated interactions, such as credit rules for banking, or the existence of corporate entities which are treated as legal individuals.
   We, by contrast, live in a world in which the state spends nearly half the national product. The state intervenes massively in employer-employee and consumer-vendor interactions. Most of education and medicine are provided via the state. In other words, we do not live under capitalism, but under a mixed system of 50:50 capitalism and socialism. This 50:50 condition has prevailed for many decades. Thus in talking about some supposed current problem of society, one ought to at least pause for thought before rushing to the conclusion that 'capitalism' is to blame. This, however, would complicate the narrative; hence most commentators on 'capitalism' — academic or otherwise — ignore the issue.
   It's easy to produce a knee-jerk reaction against capitalism — socialism is supposed to be about 'helping' (controlling?) other people, so it must be 'nicer' than capitalism; this reaction is readily exploited by authors who want to induce the standard head-shaking and breast-beating responses. Hence 'capitalism' becomes a bucket concept: it's the obvious villain when discussing social problems.
   This bias — that capitalism is automatically on trial, assumed to be guilty, and has to justify itself before 'we' (the elites) will allow it — already makes an appearance in the first chapter of TFOC. Collier argues that
capitalism's core credential of steadily rising living standards for all has been tarnished: it has continued to deliver for some, but has passed others by.
Having accused others of preaching ideology that deviates from normal people's values, Collier here appears to be doing the same thing. Surely only a socialist intellectual would demand that capitalism must deliver "steadily rising living standards for all" in order to avoid being ditched in favour of state control of the economy (probably involving management by socialist intellectuals).
   With further reading of chapter 1, the apparent underlying message of TFOC begins to emerge. The tone is patient, parental even. 'Dear voters, yes you have been right to resent the leftist elites, but their arrogance is not a failing of socialism per se. We need to give emphasis, not to the individual's supposed rights against the collective (such rights do not exist), but to the communitarian values that we had under the type of socialism that prevailed in the 1950s and 60s.' (my paraphrasing)
   The theme there is too much individualism, we must have more community — very popular among intellectuals of both Left and Right — appears to be another theme of TFOC. But what Collier means by 'community' may simply equate with collectivism — in the sense of control by the state, even if a state ostensibly endorsed by the majority. A nostalgia for community of the voluntary kind, perversely expressed by trying to impose 'community' from above, is another standard trope of socialist ideology. Collier seems not to understand the difference — or else he is being disingenuous. He approvingly describes the rise of cooperative societies in the nineteenth century.
Through recognizing that they had a common attachment to the place where they grew up, communities such as Sheffield's built co-operative organizations ... that reaped the benefits of reciprocity ... From its crucible in northern England, the co-operative movement rapidly spread across much of Europe.
From there the book jumps to state socialism as being similarly benign, one of those sleights-of-hand popular with political philosophers.
By banding together, these co-operatives became the foundation of the political parties of the centre-left: the parties of social democracy. The benefits of reciprocity within a community were scaled up as the community became the nation. Like the co-operatives, the new policy agenda was practical, rooted in the anxieties that beset the lives of ordinary families. In the post-war era, across Europe many of these social democrat parties came to power and used it to implement a range of pragmatic policies that effectively addressed these anxieties. Health care, pensions, education, unemployment insurance cascaded from legislation into changed lives.
There is a big difference between a genuinely cooperative movement, based on the consent of all its members, and 'cooperation' imposed by the state. Presumably some of the citizens actually want to cooperate in the way commanded from above, perhaps even the majority, but others will inevitably be coerced, giving the venture a very different character from the original voluntary communities.