Cooking the Books 2: Back to the seventies?
Back to the seventies?
Last year the Oxford economist Andrew Glynn brought out a new book called Capitalism Unleashed. Thirty-five years ago he was the co-author of a Penguin Special that came out in 1972 called British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze. In it he and his fellow author (Bob Sutcliffe) argued that capitalism, at least in Britain, had been brought to a life-or-death crisis because working class militancy, on the one hand, and international competition, on the other, had squeezed profits, the life-blood of the system without which it couldn’t survive. One more push from the workers, they suggested, and capitalism could be overthrown.
We ourselves were sceptical about the whole analysis, suggesting that they were greatly exaggerating trade union “power” and that the crisis was not a life-or-death one but just a phase of the ordinary business cycle which capitalism goes through and from which it would recover sooner or later (see our review in February 1973 Socialist Standard). Actually, it turned out to be a bigger turning point than we thought, as capitalism has never since returned to the “full employment” days of the 50s and 60s.
In any event, capitalism did survive. So what does Glynn think now? Modern-day, “unleashed” capitalism, he says, has its problems (financial turbulence, corporate corruption, etc) but cannot be said to be in a state of crisis in the sense of the Oxford Dictionary definition of “the point in the progress of a disease when an important development or change takes place which is decisive of recovery or death” that he believed it to have been in in the 70s. In fact, his view is that there is now no alternative to capitalism on the horizon, so all we’ve got is a choice of different kinds of capitalism.
“The longer-term objective of socialism was always to facilitate the development of people’s lives in a more fulfilling direction”, he writes, and asks: “Is it possible to make serious moves in this direction even within what is still a predominantly capitalist economy?”.
His answer is, perhaps surprisingly from someone who was associated with Militant for a while, “yes”, in the form of the scheme proposed by the Belgian social thinker, Philippe Van Parijs, for paying everyone a Basic Income as of right and irrespective of whether or not they work, referring to an article by him in a book with the revealing title of Redesigning Distribution: Basic Income and Stakeholder Grants as Designs for a More Egalitarian Capitalism. Or, as Van Parijs himself has put it:
“In classical Marxism, socialism is just an instrument for achieving the society in which people can work freely according to their abilities but still get enough according to their needs. If socialism doesn’t work, because of threats to freedom and problems of dynamic efficiency, then why not harness capitalism to achieve the same objectives?” (The Bulletin, Brussels, 19 July 2001).
It’s a pipedream of course and a bit currency cranky (though to give Van Parijs his due, he did come up with a brilliant title for one of his books in What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch?). A Basic Income paid as of right would have to be funded (even squeezed) out of profits and would either undermine the wages system (why work for a capitalist employer if the State is paying you whether you work or not?) or make no difference (since wages would fall by the amount of the State wage subsidy that a Basic Income would represent). Or it would be fixed at so low a level as to be just another name for “Income Support”.
The simple fact is that capitalism can’t be reformed, humanised or made more egalitarian. It must be ended not mended.