“The culture in this country has become so overwhelmingly conformist that any alternative to capitalism is considered outlandish.”
Tariq Ali October 2009

Winston Churchill once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He might have said the same about the primacy of capitalism compared with all other forms of macroeconomic management of nation states. The history of the Twentieth century can be seen unquestionably as the proof of the maxim that free markets, private enterprise and competition advances societies whereas totalitarianism, whether of the right or the left, sets them back. Command economies can of course achieve extraordinary things – the Soviet Union was only just behind the free enterprise United States in the race to the moon and China built huge scale projects, such as the Gezhouba Dam, under Mao Tse-tung’s malignant brand of Communism. But in the twenty-first century almost every country is substantially liberal in its economic model – even those previous temples of communism Russia and China.      

But whilst the primacy of the capitalist model should not be doubted the idea that untrammelled capitalism, a society within which virtually everything is left to the market, has surely now lost whatever credibility it ever had. Even in the United States, capitalism’s most extreme example, there has never really been a totally free market for all goods and services. The state has intervened both in providing a safety net for the most disadvantaged in society and by substantial interventionist polices in times of extreme economic trauma – in the 1930s with Roosevelt’s New Deal and most recently as a response to the meltdown of the financial markets. 

In his 2008 election campaign Barack Obama never questioned the broad merits of capitalism – not just because it would have been political suicide to do so but because, I am sure, he was like the vast majority of Americans, convinced that America is and must always be a liberal democracy – economically anyway. This has not stopped some on the loony right from recently branding him a socialist. Obama’s policies are “one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.” House minority leader John Boehner has said and onetime Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.” Conservative commentator Sean Hannity has also derided the President’s agenda as “socialism you can believe in.”  Perhaps these gentlemen haven’t travelled much or read much history for if they had then they would have seen the failures of doctrinaire socialism around the world and they would also have seen that nothing that Obama proposes bears the slightest resemblance to that socialism!

What President Obama is doing is trying slightly to shift the social/democratic balance in the United States a bit away from the market and a bit in the direction of greater justice and utility for all – especially in his healthcare proposals. By European standards it is pretty unexceptional stuff – the creation of national health services happened just about everywhere in Europe in the second hall of the twentieth century, and they work – not perfectly perhaps but in general they are one of the main pillars on which civilized western societies are built. The same applies to America’s northern neighbour Canada and to many other parts of the rich world. If you look at the world’s thirty richest countries in GDP per capita the United States is the only one without a substantial degree of free healthcare for all.

So the debate about economic systems is not really about polarised beliefs in vastly different alternatives – as was once the case. Tariq Ali’s quote at the head of this article is rather wistful – there is no alternative to capitalism and he knows it. But what he is getting at, and I agree with him, is that whilst the capitalist system is immutable in principle it must be open to change in practice. Some things cannot be left to the market and it is seeking the balance between control and centralised systems on the one hand and freedom and more local solutions on the other that is the challenge for politicians and for those who advise them.  A few years ago there was a term for the middle ground suggested in this search for balance – the “Third Way” – and it was particularly trumpeted by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as being a new form of politics. In reality both of these politicians were no less liberal free marketers and hands off than their nominally more conservative predecessors. The dysfunctional corporate management which led to the collapse of Enron happened on President Clinton’s watch and the underlying causes of Britain’s financial meltdown happened under Prime Minister Blair.

In October 2005 David Cameron made a speech in which he sought to secure the leadership of Britain’s’ Conservative Party. It was a speech full of soundbites and not a little fury. But within it he stippled out his personal philosophy and offered it to his Party, successfully as it turned out, as his mandate to be leader.  It is worth quoting a brief extract from this peroration because recent history has shown it to be the absolute opposite of the truth:

“Everyone knows that business needs deregulation to compete with India and China. Who’s standing in the way? The great regulator and controller, Gordon Brown”. And who were Cameron’s heroes? “A new generation of business men and women, who are taking on the world, creating wealth and opportunity for the future”.

This was 2005 remember and Labour had been in power at that time for nine years. Can there be the slightest doubt that the problems in Britain’s financial systems, in banking and in the economy at large were not as Cameron believed attributable to the need for deregulation but in fact to the failure of too little regulation? Far from being a great “Controller” Gordon Brown as Chancellor was in fact far too laisser-faire! And the same applied even more so in the United States – would the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the failures in the mortgage markets have happened had regulation been more effective? Of course not. And many of the “new generation of business men” in the City of London that Cameron so hailed were driven by personal greed to cut corners, take unacceptable risks – and many of them brought their companies to their knees whilst paying themselves ever more obscenely high salaries and bonuses.

David Cameron has not budged much from his simplistic and wrong-headed belief that too much regulation is the cause of Britain’s economic woes. Indeed despite the evidence all around him he persists in trying to convince the electorate that too much government is the cause of all our problems.  That Britain and the United States and most of the countries of the rich world have turned the corner with their economies, whilst still fragile, on the mend is attributable not to deregulation but to intervention – on a massive scale. And the Cameron-derided Gordon Brown has been in the forefront of this success story – indeed he led the way and gave others the courage to follow.

But what of the future? Perhaps here we may suggest that the “alterative to capitalism” that Tariq Ali sought has now actually arrived? It comes from two main stimuli – firstly that at last there has to be, whatever David Cameron might say, an acknowledgment that whilst our core model is a capitalist one the checks and balances must be tightened not loosened. The dysfunctionality of an ill-regulated financial sector has been laid bare and lets hope that this time (unlike after Enron and WorldCom) permanent legislative and regulatory action is taken. Secondly, for Britain at least, there is the benefit that being part of the European Union (EU) brings. When things have gone as dramatically wrong at a national level as has happened recently one must surely welcome the fact that the EU will bring not just common standards but international benchmarks and rules that will hopefully mean that such things don’t happen again. And on this subject as well the Eurosceptic Cameron is on the wrong side. In that same 2005 speech he criticised the passing of “…powers to a European Union that nobody trusts” – well these powers didn’t work very well did they Dave – any more than Gordon’s regulations did!

In the United States President Obama has a herculean task ahead of him to try and unravel the errors of the venal Bush administration on the economy. This challenges the free-enterprise worshippers – not least those who run around the capitalist temples in Enron land in Houston and blame Washington for everything!  But in Britain the likely electoral swing in 2010 will bring to power a man who is deluded enough to adhere to a set of Thatcherite, Reagonomic and Friedmanesqee economic beliefs that recent times should have seen discarded to history. Fasten your seatbelts – it will be a very rough ride and we might need President Obama’s cavalry to rescue us!

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