From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog
Went to hear Will Hutton speak last night on “Them and Us: how capitalism without fairness is capitalism without a future”. It was a lecture at the London School of Economics in the “Ralph Miliband series on the Future of Global Capitalism” (yes, he is related to the two Labour Cabinet ministers; he was their father though he’d probably disown their political views). Former Guardian and Observer journalist Hutton has converted himself into a left-of-centre political philosopher. He started by claiming that all humans have an in-built concept of fairness and that present-day capitalism didn’t live up to it.
The whole idea of a “fair capitalism” is of course a contradiction in terms since capitalism is based on the exploitation of those forced to work for a wage or salary. And as the chairman of the meeting pointed out, even if humans did have an “instinct” for fairness this tells us nothing about what any particular group of humans considers to be fair. In fact Hutton himself criticised the arrogance of the “financial oligarchs” (the “Them” of the title of the talk) for considering themselves to be the “deserving rich” and that it was therefore unfair that they should be taxed and not be allowed big bonuses.
He’s one of the “blame the bankers” school. His version of a “fair capitalism” is one where the banks are broken up into smaller units and where the state intervenes to ensure highly competitive markets so that no enterprise or non-financial entrepreneur gets too big an income for too long. Their profits would be fair because they would have been earned - they would be getting “due deserts for discretionary effort”. He claimed that the “early Marx” supported this and proceeded to quote from his Critique of the Gotha Programme - which was in written when Marx was 57 and eight years before he died. An elementary mistake for a would-be political philosopher who wants to be taken seriously.
Hutton’s claim was that Marx thought that “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” would not be realisable for “decades and decades and decades” and that in the meantime people should be rewarded “according to their contribution”. It is true that Marx did envisage, had socialism been established in 1875, that there couldn’t have been distribution according to needs and went along with the view that in the meantime there’d have to be distribution according to hours worked. But this was because he considered that the means of production weren’t then developed enough, not because this was what humans instinctively considered to be fair. And there is no evidence that he thought such a system would have to exist for a hundred years. As a matter of fact, that was Stalin’s distortion of the Critique of the Gotha Programme when in the 1930s the rulers of state-capitalist Russia officially relegated free distribution according to needs to the distant future and insisted on payment according to work done and praised piecework and high salaries for managers (and themselves). But of course Hutton wouldn’t have wanted to call in Stalin to defend his position.
If this is the best that left-of-centre champions of a reformed capitalism can come up with, it confirms that it’s just not possible to put up a credible intellectual defence of capitalism. It’s the idea of a fair capitalism, not of a socialist society where people would have free access to what they need, that’s unrealistic.