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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Mood Music - how the intellectuals have made sense of our system

In the decade after the 1929 Great Crash, capitalism had been in such deep trouble that its very legitimacy was being questioned. Almost 90 years on, we seem back in the same place….
The destruction wrought by the Second World War, however, supplied a huge boost to European economies - supplemented by the distributive effort of Marshall Aid and the new role of global agencies such as The World Bank and the IMF – let alone the role of American Capital… ….
In Europe, Governments replaced key private monopolies with public ownership and regulation; and earned legitimacy with social provision and full employment. The “mixed economy” that resulted brought the power of unions and citizens into a sort of balance with that of capital.

By the mid 50s, therefore, Labour politician CAR Crosland’s seminal The Future of Socialism could argue to some effect that managerial power was more important than ownership – an analysis with which economic journalist Andrew Shonfield’s original and detailed exploration of European Modern Capitalism – the changing balance of public and private power (1966) concurred. And which was already evident in the 1959 German SDP’s Bad Godesburg programme.

And. by 1964, the British PM Harold McMillan expressed the ebullient European mood when he used the phrase “you’ve never had it so good” – the growth of the core European economic countries being one of the factors which encouraged the UK’s membership of the Common Market in 1973 – although even then there were voices such as that of EJ Mishan warning of The Costs of Economic Growth (1967) and of…. The Limits to Growth (Club of Rome 1972).
Daniel Bell was another important voice questioning the brash confidence of the post-war period – with his Coming of Post-industrial Society (1971) and Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976)

But most people by then were convinced that governments, science and big business had found the answers to the problems which had plagued the 20th century. The ending of American dollar convertibility (to gold) and the first oil crisis of the early 1970s may have raised questions about the “overload” of state capacity - but privatization seemed to give the economy new energy if not a new era of greed. James Robertson’s The Sane Alternative – a choice of futures (1978) may have been the last voice of sanity before Thatcher took over……
There’s a nice little video here of Charles Handy reminding us of the discussions in which he participated in the 1970s about the purpose of the company - and the casual way people such as Milton Friedmann and his acolytes introduced the idea of senior managers being given “share options” as incentives. Handy regrets the failure of people then to challenge what has now become the biggest element of the scandal of the gross inequalities which disfigure our societies in the 21st century.

The 1980s and 1990s was – despite that - a celebration of a new spirit with even social critics apparently conceding the irresistibility of the social and technical change taking place - Charles Handy’s “The Future of Work” (1984); James Robertson’s Future Work – jobs, self-employment and measure after the industrial age (1985); Casino Capitalism  by International Relations scholar, Susan Strange (1986); The End of Organised Capitalism by sociologists Scott Lash, John Ury (1987) and the columns of Marxism Today – the journal expressed the mood.

One of the latter’s contributors, Andrew Gamble (a Politics Professor), wrote the most clear and prescient analyses of the key forces - The Free Economy and the Strong State – the politics of Thatcherism (1988). 
It’s taken 25 years for the power of that analysis to be properly appreciated….

For the Common Good; Herman Daly and John Cobb (1989) gave us a sense of how things could be organized differently, Herman Daly being one of the few economists in those days willing to break ranks against the conventional wisdom….. 

Then came the fall of communism – and triumphalism. Hayek (and Popper) were wheeled out to inspire central European intellectuals – I encountered so many well-thumbed copies of the former’s (translated) Road to Serfdom (written during the second world war) as I travelled around Central Europe in the 1990s on my various projects …..

But, by then, western academics were getting wise… .. and a deluge not only of critiques but of alternative visions began to hit us….. I can’t pretend this is exhaustive – but these are some of the titles which caught my eye over the next decade….


- The State We’re In; Will Hutton (1995); after Michel Albert’s book on different sorts of capitalism, this was the book which showed us Brits what we were missing in the Seine-Rheinish variant

- The Future of Capitalism – how today’s economic forces shape tomorrow’s world; Lester Thurow (1996). Always ahead of himself, it’s significant that this book never got a serious review

- Political Economy of Modern Capitalism – mapping convergence and diversity; ed C Crouch and W Streeck (1996). Gives the Hutton thesis a much more technical gloss

- “Everything for Sale – the virtues and limits of markets” – Robert Kuttner (1996). The first majot blast across the bows of neo-liberalism

- Short Circuit – strengthening local economies in an unstable world” - Ronald Douthwaite (1996). Very practical – but also inspirational….21 years on, it hasn’t really been bettered

- Making Sense of a Changing Economy – technology, markets and morals; Edward J Nell (1996) delightfully-written and unforgivably neglected book – since it went against the grain of the celebratory claims for economics at the time

argues the case for “associational democracy” in both the public and private sectors. It has a powerful beginning – The brutalities of actually existing socialism have fatally crippled the power of socialist ideas of any kind to motivate and inspire. The collapse of communism and the decline of wars between the major industrial states have removed the major justifications of social democracy for established elites – that it could prevent the worse evil of communism and that it could harness organized labour in the national war effort. Those elites have not just turned against social democracy, but they almost seem to have convinced significant sections of the population that a regulated economy and comprehensive social welfare are either unattainable or undesirable


- Natural Capitalism – the next industrial revolution; Paul Hawken (1999). A persuasive vision of how green technology could revitalize capitalism….

- The cancer stages of capitalism; John Mc Murtry (1999). A much darker vision….. 

- “The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century” – Susan George (1999). A satirical piece which forces us to think where present forces are taking us….

- The Great Disruption – human nature and the reconstitution of social order; Francis Fukuyama (1999) An important book which passed me by until 2017 – it is a critique of the loosening of our social fabric since 1965…..

- Economics and Utopia – why the learning economy is not the end of history; Geoff Hodgson (1999) a clear and tough analysis by a top-class economic historian of why socialism lost its way – and exploration of what it will take for it to restore its energies. If you want to get a sense of the range of arguments which have convulsed economists and activists over the past century, this is the book for you – despite the dreadful academic habit of supporting every statement with brackets containing 3-4 names of academics).     

- CyberMarx – cyles and circuits of struggle in high technology capitalism; Nick Dyer-Witheford (1999). It may be a PhD thesis – but it’s a great read…..

- The New Spirit of Capitalism; L Boltanski and E Chiapello (1999). Surprising that others have not attempted this critical analysis of managerial texts since they tell us so much about the Zeitgeist…..these are mainly French (and a bit turgid)….The only similar analyses I know are a couple of treatments of managerial gurus by Brits (one with a Polish name!)….

- Capitalism and its Economics – a critical History; Douglas Dowd (2000) Very readable

- Anti-capitalism – theory and practice; Chris Harman (2000) A Trotskyist take….

Globalisation and its Discontents; Joseph Stiglitz (2002) is probably the best on the subject - exposing the emptiness of economics orthodoxy….

- “We are Everywhere – a celebration of community enterprise” (2003) 

- Another world is possible Susan George (2004) – one of the great critical analysts of global capitalism

- Why Globalisation Works; Martin Wolf (2004) – one of its most powerful defenders

- A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism – David Harvey (2005). One of the world’s experts in Marxist economics – so a bit heavy going…..

- Knowing Capitalism; Nigel Thrift (2005) A geographer turned turgid post-structuralist, this book requires considerable perseverance!   


- Models of Capitalism; Colin Crouch (2005)…. It was in the 1990s when the variety of different types of capitalism were properly appreciated 

- Capitalism 3.0 (2006) by Peter Barnes - an entrepreneur repulsed by "free-market" ideologues 


- Global Capitalism – its fall and rise in the twentieth century; Jeffry A Frieden (2006)…an exceptionally well-written account of a subject which, at the time it was being written, was not a popular one!!

- The Culture of the new capitalism; Richard Sennett (2006) - who remains one of the few intellectuals capable of matching Bell in the lucidity of their exposition (and breadth of reading) about social trends…..

- Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias (2007) which instances the amazing Mondragon cooperatives but is otherwise an incestuous academic scribble.

- Theorising Neoliberalism; Chris Harman (2007)

- New Capitalism? – the transformation of work; K Doogan (2009) A sound academic treatment of key issues...

And that’s all before the crash – the next post will try to give you a sense of the post-crash writing… 

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