Book Reviews: ‘Karl Marx – Hero or Zero?’, ‘Capitalism and Its Economics – A Critical History’, ‘On the Edge – Living with Global Capitalism’, & ‘The Age of Access’
A sixth form essay
‘Karl Marx: Hero or Zero?’ By Professor Colin Francome. (Carla Francome publications, 2000)
It’s almost trendy to write about Karl Marx these days and Francome’s book is an example of this genre. However, quite why this particular book was written and moreover who it was written for, is anyone’s guess. It fails to break new ground, has a weak sixth-form-esque narrative and contains a number of factual errors and omissions. It truly reads like a book without any real sense of purpose or originality.
This said, Francome gives Marx a favourable reassessment and this is to his eternal credit as, unlike many seasoned ‘experts’, he does not hold Marx’s ideas as being responsible for those tyrannical so-called ‘Marxist’ regimes which:
“did not have the kind of lifestyle that Marx proposed”(p8).
“it is ironic that a person whose work was directed towards producing freedom became identified as the enemy of freedom”(p6)
However, some of Francome’s mistakes are quite glaring. Perhaps from our point of view, the most significant one is the quote on page 1 allegedly from this very journal – only do not get too excited, it is actually from another organisation.
Another example includes the rather pathetic discussion of contemporary British ‘socialist’ history. He cites “four distinct major Marxist groups” (Communist Party, International Socialism/Socialist Workers Party, Workers Revolutionary Party and the International Marxist Group) completely omitting Ted Grant’s Militant group.
Francome then refers to the WRP splits which one should definitely never do unless painstaking research has been undertaken. Clearly this was not the case and in the throes of confusionism, Francome manages to mix up the notorious Redgraves of the Marxist Party with the faction still producing the Newsline paper. Not the crime of the century, but even so – do your homework Professor!
At the risk of labouring the point, his account on the rise of Trotskyism in the USSR borders on the banal and in discussing the destinations of certain sixties radicals it would be more accurate to describe a one Chris Harman as the editor of Socialist Worker rather than just glibly saying that he now ‘writes books’.
Indeed, this is a very disappointing book.
When Keynes met Marx
‘Capitalism and Its Economics: A Critical History’. By Douglas Dowd. (Pluto Press, 2000)
Douglas Dowd is a radical American political economist who has written extensively about both the development of modern capitalism and its shortcomings. This, his latest book, presents a radical critique of the capitalist system and of the economists who have sought to understand it over the last two centuries and more. Dowd uses some of the analytical tools of Marxism to pursue his critique but in other respects he more closely occupies the territory of left-Keynesianism than Marxism, being something of an acolyte of the late Joan Robinson, who was a key figure in the post-war “Cambridge School” of economics combining Marxian phrases and concepts with a radical Keynesian and interventionist outlook.
Because of this there is a sense that Dowd’s radical critique has been refracted too much through the distorting prism provided by Robinson and other writers like Paul Baran. Some of Marx’s key concepts which would have served him well enough-on matters such as inflation, credit and taxation-have been superseded by a more Keynesian framework of analysis to which economic history has, frankly, been rather less kind.
To the extent that he does utilise Marx and the Marxian critique of political economy there can be little doubt that Dowd is at his best as a cogent critic of “conventional” economics and he does a particularly good job exposing some of the ridiculous assumptions bequeathed to the latter-day practitioners of the dismal science. In this sense his book can be seen as a useful companion to Paul Ormerod’s insightful work, The Death of Economics, from 1994.
One of the best sections of the book sees Dowd describing what he calls “The New World Order [of] Globalization and Financialization” and the “Decadent Economics” associated with it. This really is a tour de force through the recent history of the global economy with its heightened concentration of capital, massive trans-national corporations and US economic (and cultural) hegemony. But well-written as this particular section is, it is Dowd’s general preoccupation with the economic history of global capitalism which paradoxically causes the text as a whole to lose some of its focus. Sometimes political economy and economic theory are lost in a potted History of the World-type discourse with large swathes of text on phenomena such as the rise to power of the fascist parties and on the Second World War. This is a shame, for what could have been a useful adjunct to a critique of the economists becomes instead the main focus of attention-and there are already more than enough books about with this type of theme.
Despite this particular shortcoming there is no denying that Dowd is an entertaining enough writer and all things considered there is probably more here for socialists to agree with than to excoriate him for. His analysis of the state of the world economy at present is especially praiseworthy and is prescient indeed given the recent turmoil on the financial markets. In addition, his concern for the wider environmental damage that the market economy is doing to the planet is both justified and relevant. The only great problem with all this-and he is not alone here-lies in his lack of a coherent answer to the apparently insurmountable problems the capitalist economy creates. He calls for a lessening of global inequalities and for “a movement toward economic, political and social democracy” but his readings of Marx should have told him that there can be no such thing if the dictates of the profit system are allowed to hold sway. Unfortunately, when it comes to tackling the problems that capitalism creates, Keynes and Robinson obviously carry more weight in his mind than does Marx, and the solutions he hints at amount, unfortunately, to little more than their own failed suggestions from the last century.
‘On the Edge: Living with Global Capitalism’. Edited by Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens, (Vintage 2001)
This is a collection of essays by various “lefty” and centrist writers on aspects of global capitalism. The essays are sandwiched between an opening dialogue between the editors and a concluding chapter curiously titled “Fighting Back” (against whom or what?-certainly not global capitalism).
Manuel Castells outlines three sources of unsustainability for what he calls info-capitalism. One of these is “the social, cultural and political rejection by large numbers of people around the world of an Automaton whose logic either ignores or devalues their humanity”. Unfortunately he follows this by suggestions for taming the Automaton (global capitalism), not for getting rid of it.
Vandana Shiva is scathing about global capitalism and its effects on poor people and the environment: “Instead of getting rid of pollution, systems are being evolved which allow the rich to sell their pollution to the poor . . . The proposal to give market values to all resources as a solution of the ecological crisis is like offering the disease as the cure”-good diagnosis, pity about the lack of treatment.
Arlie Russell Hochschild describes how a Philippines mother-of-five migrates to the US to work as a nanny to the young son of a wealthy Beverly Hills family. The family pay the nanny the going rate, and the nanny pays her domestic worker the going Philippines rate. The nanny would have preferred staying home to look after her own children. The Beverly Hills family are satisfied with the deal. So Hochschild asks: are that family getting emotional surplus value?
In the face of this and much other evidence that global capitalism is destroying or severely damaging human relationships and values, you would expect the editors to condemn the system and urge its replacement. Not a bit of it. Hutton does not go beyond recognising the driving force behind global capitalism: “Its overriding objective is to serve the interests of property owners and shareholders, and it has a firm belief . . . that all obstacles to its capacity to do that-regulation, controls, trade unions, taxation, public ownership, etc-are unjustified and should be removed.”
Giddens, seeking to magnify the minuscule differences between himself and Hutton, claims that “Capitalism, at least for the moment, has hardly any critics.” Not true. Capitalism has plenty of critics, but none of them (except socialists, of course) carries their criticisms to the point of advocating the removal of the system whose deficiencies they eloquently describe. Instead they accept the myth that There is No Alternative.
The editors say in their concluding chapter “the task, surely, in the absence of alternatives, is to keep the current system going and improve it.” It doesn’t seem to occur to Hutton and Giddens that this “task” is effectively to condemn us to endure some form of capitalism for ever. Echoing Fukuyama, we really have, according to this scenario, reached the end of history.
‘The Age of Access: the New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life is a Paid-for Experience’. By Jeremy Rifkin, (Penguin-Putnam, 2000, New York)
Rifkin is a writer, teacher, president of the Washington Foundation on Economic Trends, and has the reputation of being a trenchant critic of capitalism. The reputation is undeserved. He reports many unsavoury features of capitalism much as any capitalism-compliant journalist reports a natural disaster or an accident. He clearly has his preferences for, and aversions to, different types of capitalism, but he nowhere expresses any opposition to it as a system.
Rifkin’s main theme, briefly, is that markets are giving way to networking, sellers and buyers are replaced by suppliers and users and virtually everything is accessed at a price. Spelling this out, he writes:
“We are making a long-term shift from industrial production to cultural production . . . commerce in the future will involve the marketing of a vast array of cultural experiences rather than of just traditional industrial-based goods and services. Global travel and tourism, theme events and parks, destination events and centers, wellness, fashion and cuisine, professional sports and games, gambling, music, films, television, the virtual worlds of cyberspace and electronically mediated entertainment of every kind are fast becoming the center of a new hypercapitalism that trades in access to cultural experiences.”
Much of this isn’t new. Rifkin spends a good deal of his book quoting the findings of others detailing the trends. But, like most reformers, he makes a show of seeking to set limits to the penetration of capitalism into every nook and cranny of our lives. He does this by inviting us to envisage what will happen if we don’t “imagine a world where virtually every activity outside the confines of family relations is a paid-for experience”. The way capitalism is going, this doesn’t take a lot of imagination because in many ways it’s already here.
Rifkin piles on the flesh-creeping pressure a bit more. “Think of waking up one day only to find that every aspect of your being has become a purchased affair, that your life has become the ultimate shopping experience.” Again, we don’t have to think too hard. Examples are all around us-thus a “common-interest development” (gated community) in South Carolina charges non-members $3 for the right to walk on its streets.
With all the chapter and verse of a nasty system that is getting even nastier, Rifkin could have outlined a plan for something fundamentally better. But he doesn’t. He anticipates an Age of (paid-for) Access which in many ways is already here. Socialists look forward to the Age of Free Access, which unfortunately isn’t here, but could be if enough of us resolved to work for it.