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Capitalism on Trial?

How the BBC rigged capitalism’s acquittal.

Lord Reith, the founder and Director General of the BBC, famously gave the wink that “[the British establishment] know they can trust us not to be really impartial”, a policy that he and his successors have pursued with great consistency ever since.  The BEEB may veer politically a little to the left or to the right, but it never deviates from promoting the interests of the British capitalist class.  Interestingly, though, it has always trusted its highbrow radio stations, Radios 3 and 4, to debate political and economic issues a little more frankly than its mass-market television news programmes.  This may be because Radio 3 and 4 listeners are relatively few in number and are assumed to be properly on-message (On profile, they have been through the mill of higher-education and professional training.)  It was no surprise, then, to find that in the summer of last year, Radio 4 put out a two-part series called ‘Capitalism on Trial’ – though the verdict it would deliver was, of course, never in doubt.  

To make the programme, the producers invited a group of professional philosophers, historians, economists and journalists to the studio to deliver their opinions (presumed to be ‘evidence’) on the subject of capitalism.  To these, they added a management consultant and hedge-fund manager, presumably to give what passes on Radio 4 for a “real-world” perspective.  Predictably absent from the discussion was anyone with a view from the sharp-end of capitalism during this time of crisis – anyone, that is, who could have punctured this little Radio 4 bubble of lofty intellectualism in a trice.  If this was a trial, then the jury was rigged, the witnesses carefully ‘vetted’ and the judge nobbled.  The council for the defence (who also happened to be the presenter of the programme) was that well-known and impartial commentator on current affairs, Michael Portillo.

Early in the programme Michael hinted at the purpose behind all this.  “As a former politician,” he said, “I think about whether we can maintain public support for a system that many associate with inequity and unfairness.”  This was the task then: to defend capitalism from its critics and re-establish its credentials in the minds of an increasingly doubtful and hostile public.  How was this to be achieved?  Simply: by sleight of hand, misdirection, omission and fraud.   In Portillo’s final summing up, he announced for instance, that capitalism had been put on trial and “compared to the alternatives, favourably and unfavourably….”   This claim was very revealing.  It was simply false.  No meaningful comparison had been made during the one-and-a-half hours of the series. Like many Radio 4 programmes, the producers and editors had stitched together a series of sound-bite opinions with commentary from the presenter to lull the audience (and possibly those taking part as well) into thinking it all added up to a coherent analysis.  In this rapid jumble of opinions how many actually believed that they had heard capitalism being compared with alternatives, once they had been told they had?

It would have been foolish for the BEEB to deny or skirt round the current recession and national debt kerfuffle.  The programme’s strategy was, therefore, to come clean on the credit crunch and then to try to explain it away.  This, as sometimes happens on talk radio, led to several interesting admissions.  There was an eager and unseemly rush by the contributors to tell us, for example, that capitalism was necessarily a very unequal society.  We learned, in fact, that capitalism needed to create ‘victims’.  We learned that, its economic downturns such as we are currently experiencing, are normal and inevitable. We learned also from one Crispin Odey, a hedge-fund manager who pocketed £23 million by betting on the crisis happening (a small personal detail omitted from the programme) that to function properly, capitalism needs both ‘trust’ and a profitable banking sector, something; he opined that “may not be popular news to the public.” Presumably he perceived a distinction, between “the public” and Radio 4 listeners who were, of course, sophisticated enough to understand his point. Or maybe he didn’t care – you got the feeling at least that when he referred to ‘us’ or ‘we’ he was not talking about you or me.

Despite all this we discovered, that all these unfortunate-sounding features of capitalism were really rather good and necessary things.  Inequality was an excellent motivator, we were told, without which capitalist enterprise could not function.  Downturns in the economy, though inevitable were positively to be welcomed as part of a cycle of “creative destruction.”  And even capitalism’s need to create victims can, fortunately, be legitimised by ensuring that those “who do badly out of it don’t suffer too much” – a great gladness to all those who are currently having to rely on the ‘generosity’ of the state or to keep the landlord at bay.   

We heard further that the credit crunch was not actually capitalism’s fault.  What had happened in 2008 was a “departure” from capitalism; or was an “extreme” or “very dysfunctional” form of it.  Alternatively, the crisis had resulted from the system not living up to its “principles”.  “Capitalism” we heard, “in a very fundamental sense [had] stopped working.”   Voice after voice was raised to assure us that the actions of the bankers were, in some mysterious way, aberrations; that they were somehow not driven by the engine at the heart of capitalism itself: the remorseless pursuit of profit.  No-one raised the possibility that capitalism itself might be dysfunctional.

Some of the most fantastically pixilated opinions came from Jamie Whyte, an extreme free-marketeer, introduced to us by Michael as ‘a philosopher’ but currently working as a management consultancy researcher. Jamie told us with disarming frankness that within capitalism there could be no equal opportunities.  The idea was “nonsensical,” he said, “a myth”.  But then he let us in on a secret.  Though the idea was a myth, it was a most valuable myth, because if you really believed it, it might give you a “good shot at the top [and] increase your chances.”  He didn’t add that, in a competitive world without equality of opportunity, the majority would remain helplessly stuck at “the bottom” whatever they believed.  Nor did he add that such myths delude working people into falsely believing that there is a realistic chance of capitalism fulfilling their social needs, a belief that works much to the benefit of their employers, whose own ample needs are met by the appropriation of wealth created by their employees.  
And the fairy dust just kept on falling...

“Abject poverty is… dreadful”, claimed Jamie, mustering in his voice all the conviction of a telephone answering service.   “And of course one would want to eliminate that.”  (Indeed one would!)  “Capitalism”, he argued, “has proved over the centuries to be the best economic arrangement for getting rid of abject poverty.”  Clearly Jamie’s cloud has not touched earth recently.  He hasn’t been out on the streets of Britain speaking to the increasing number of workers learning to cope with homelessness, or to the women fleeing domestic violence who are being forced, now in significant numbers, onto the streets through hostel closures, or to the rising numbers of those predicted to die this winter because they cannot afford adequately to heat their homes.  What Jamie principally objects to, though, is not abject poverty, but the irritating concept of relative poverty:  “I see [the concept of relative poverty] as a threat to the market mechanism that creates the wealth that stops people actually being materially poor.”  Perhaps someone should tell him that it is not the ‘market mechanism’ that creates wealth but the productive labour of the working class.  

As workers, we have always been patronised by those like Jamie Whyte who embrace a utopian vision of capitalism but who cannot quite grasp the idea that we might aspire to something slightly better than a life of relative poverty (even if, in his view, it is “not bad”).  Some of us might even be attracted by the idea of a life of “equal opportunity” and economic security in which we are able to make a genuine contribution to the world in which we live and have the freedom to make real choices.  

These characters live in an ideal, intellectualised world where economic cycles of boom and bust are “to be welcomed, because in the downturns, bad companies go out of business and entrepreneurs with new ideas take over or elbow aside the weak performers - what some call Creative Destruction.”  In other words, recessions are really just the necessary means by which capitalism cleanses itself of inefficient companies, restores profitability and makes possible the next boom. This is true, and to Michael and Crispin this is an exciting, elegant and intellectually satisfying idea.

To most of us, on the other hand, recessions load our economically insecure lives with ever more pressing problems and threats: loss of livelihood, dignity, home and maybe even family.  At a time when many of us are facing redundancy and there is little on offer but insecure, part-time, low-paid work; when claiming benefits is becoming an increasingly hard and humiliating experience; when many of us are cutting down on basic food items to pay their rising rents; when lives are going down the pan, it is possible that some of us will perhaps fail to appreciate the elegance and regenerative power of “creative destruction”.  We might regard a society which cannot remain efficient except by periodically raising the normal levels of poverty and misery to greater than usual levels as not worth supporting.  We might even be antagonistic to the idea of efficiency when it turns out to mean the efficient exploitation of our own labour.  It might be that we want to turn our backs on capitalism and consider an alternative.

As Michael picked his way among his witnesses’ contributions, introducing and reflecting on them, or ignoring them sometimes when they raised an inconvenient point or two, his line of argument became gradually clearer: it may be that capitalism creates victims; it may actively create inequalities; and it may visit both relative and abject poverty upon working people, but against these minor inconveniences (and many others we could add) there is one outstanding fact: capitalism is the most fantastically successful way of creating wealth humanity has so far evolved.

And we can wholeheartedly agree with this.  But to it we would add that capitalism’s purpose, and only purpose in creating all this wealth is to fill the few but ample pockets of the capitalist class into which much of it flows.  For capitalism creates poverty just as inevitably as it has creates wealth, and the wealth it creates does not drive out poverty but merely towers above it and makes it intolerable. We would also add a certain emphasis to Michael’s claim: that capitalism is the most fantastically successful way of creating wealth humanity has evolved – so far.

As every radio producer knows, a programme’s conclusion is all important because the last thing listeners hear will be the idea they take away with them.  In his summing up, Portillo speaks of capitalism and its current state of contraction: “my guess is that it will emerge, however bedraggled from its battering.  But maybe that’s just because I cannot imagine the alternative.”  And so, finally, we come to the big message, the one that the series has been warming up to.  And this is it: THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE.  After all the odd and insubstantial claims that capitalism actually does meet our needs, this is the system’s keystone argument.  No wonder, the producers avoided making comparisons.

And it is at this point, too, that we are allowed to see clearly the spectre that has been hovering indistinctly over the programme throughout, the spectre of Karl Marx, whose writings are for the first time in many years showing signs of generating popular interest.   We know that we are about to be warned.

That warning comes in the final contribution from Gareth Stedman Jones, academic and reformed leftist: “…when Marx came to trying to think out how would you have an efficient and productive society without a market this is where I think he got stuck.”  That’s it then: there is really no use in looking for an alternative to capitalism - like it or not, you are stuck with it, chum, because even Marx couldn’t find a way out.  But to socialists listening (those that were still awake by this time) this claim will have come as something of a surprise.  Marx was not foolish enough to try to make detailed predictions of a future society (it is, of course, impossible to predict in detail what any society will look like even a few years ahead, even a capitalist one) but he was far from “stuck” for an explanation.  As a disillusioned Leninist who formerly placed his faith in the very unMarxist Soviet regime, it’s understandable that Gareth Stedman Jones would be unable to admit this.  

Marx, in fact, derived from his analysis of capitalism some definite conclusions.  To be sustainable, a post-capitalist society would need to abolish the source of class conflict: private ownership of the means of production.  Because of this, a post-capitalist world, he argued, would necessarily be classless and stateless.  And without private ownership there could be no money or exchange.  Such a society would also necessarily be global – just as capitalism is now.   

When Portillo and the BBC shut down discussion on an alternative to capitalism, it is worth considering whose interests they are protecting, especially since, by their own admission, we live, at present, in a structurally unequal, victimising world - one incapable of meeting human need.