From the archive: Enemies of capitalism – Not the marchers, but the millionaires

Michael Harris /   November 6, 2015 at 3:05 PM 2,790 views


Two events this week – one outside of the political class, one very much inside:

The former generated the predictable headlines: ‘Police chief condemns ‘unacceptable’ violence’. But Vice summed it up pretty well I thought:

“[S]everal thousand people in identical Guy Fawkes masks milling awkwardly and not saying very much. …The demands were appropriately incoherent. …While the cops and the newspapers treat it as a political protest, it’s worth pointing out that the Million Mask March is actually an attempt to re-enact the final scene from the awful 2005 film V for Vendetta …Unlike many protest groups out there, Anonymous’s model for political revolution isn’t based on Marx and Lenin or Laclau and Mouffe, but on Warner Brothers and the Wachowskis. It’s cosplay, not politics…”

The launch of Prosperity for All included much less cosplay but did include a speech by George Osborne, who praised the report, written by Tim Montgomerie, as “a brilliant piece of work”.

Reflecting on the report, Osborne suggested two “great paradoxes of our age”. The first of these is that, despite experiencing “a spectacular failure of capitalism” in the financial crisis starting in 2007, the world has continued to elect centre-right governments and there hasn’t been a widespread revolt against capitalism. The second is that (to Osborne), even though free trade has done much to lessen poverty around the globe, people support “protectionism and [are] sceptical about the benefits of free enterprise”.

For the pro-capitalists, it’s actually much worse than that. As polling conducted as part of the project reveals, across seven nations surveyed there is a remarkable lack of trust in ‘free markets’, to wit:

  • People believe that big business has cheated and polluted its way to success, with barely ten per cent of respondents thinking that big businesses are “clean”;
  • Substantial majorities in all seven countries think that the poor get poorer in capitalist economies;
  • People in Britain, Brazil, Germany and the US don’t expect their children to be richer, safer and healthier;
  • Majorities in the US, Brazil, India, Thailand and Indonesia support protectionist measures to defend their manufacturing industries from low cost imports, and pluralities support restrictions in Britain and Germany;
  • Anti-capitalist feeling is strongest in the US, with deep pessimism about the future combining with suspicion about big businesses’ ethics and strong support for protectionism.

(The latter of course helps to explain the ‘year of the outsider’ in US politics.)

In this context, Montgomerie’s argument is that capitalism is the best means to social justice but that it needs reform – in particular that fairness needs to be emphasised and ‘crony capitalism’ countered. Montgomerie’s 40,000 word report will apparently be published in sections over the next week or so, but among his apparent recommendations are compulsory voting, more investment in infrastructure and in particular housing, and support for ‘the family’. How these add-up to a ‘reformed capitalism’ though isn’t clear.

What’s interesting though is the need for the project at all, given the victory of capitalism over other economic thinking and systems and, as Osborne noted, the electoral success of right-wing parties since the financial crisis. To Montgomerie: “If capitalism’s excesses can be tackled, a clearer picture of its successes might be established in the public mind.”

But of course these excesses are unlikely to be tackled without there being a much greater pressure on elites to act (and not just because a few people play dress-up). As Montgomerie has noted himself elsewhere, capitalism’s most dangerous enemies are actually on the right:

“If you behave badly enough, not even the inadequacies of the anti-capitalist movement will be enough to save you. Capitalism’s biggest enemies aren’t the Corbyns, Sanders or Pikettys. They are the apologists within capitalism and within capitalist-friendly parties who are complacent and do nothing do combat cronyism, corporate greed and inequality. They, not the revolutionaries, could yet bring the system to breaking point.”

I wonder whether George Osborne was listening as he tries to find a way out of his self-created tax credit cuts crisis. Perhaps instead of hitting the working poor, he could reverse his handouts for the richest. But don’t bet on it.

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