Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Things about capitalism (2010)

Book Review from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Ha-Joon Chang (Allen Lane)

Three things Ha-Joon Chang doesn’t tell you about capitalism. As a form of society it’s only a few hundred years old. It won’t last forever. And it will be replaced when a majority of the world’s people stop supporting it and organise a better alternative.

The author makes no bones about supporting capitalism: 
“This book is not an anti-capitalist manifesto…my criticism is of a particular version of capitalism that has dominated the world in the last three decades, that is, free-market capitalism…there are ways in which capitalism should, and can, be made better.”
It takes two pages to list the headings of the 23 ‘things’, in no particular order. Four are on the market: no such thing as a free market; free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich; we are not smart enough to leave things to the market and financial markets need to become less efficient. Three are on economics: greater macroeconomic stability has not made the world economy more stable; we are living in planned economies and good economic policy does not require good economists. Three are on the US: it does not have the highest living standard in the world; its managers are overpriced and what is good for GM is not necessarily good for the US. The 13 remaining ‘things’ can be filed under miscellaneous’.

Ha-Joon Chang knows a thing or two about Marx and Marxism. He understands that Marx “argued that the fundamental problem with capitalism was the contradiction between the social nature of the production process and the private nature of ownership of the means of production”. Unfortunately he equates Marxism with central planning, which he says led to the unravelling of ‘communism’ in the late 1980s.
In his concluding chapter the author offers eight mostly disputable points:

  • 1. “The profit motive is still the most powerful and effective fuel to power our economy and we should exploit it to the full.” No – the profit motive applies to and benefits only the tiny capitalist class at the expense of exploiting workers.
  • 2. We should build our new economic system on the recognition that human rationality is severely limited.” No – this is too pessimistic an assessment of human rationality.
  • 3. “We should build a system that brings out the best, rather than the worse, in people.” Yes – capitalism certainly doesn’t.
  • 4. “We should stop believing that people are always paid what they ‘deserve’.” Yes – socialists never started believing that.
  • 5. “We need to take ‘making things’ more seriously.” Yes – a system based on making things is better than one based on making money for the minority.
  • 6. “We need to strike a better balance between finance and ‘real’ activities.” No – we need to get rid of finance as an impediment to real activities.
  • 7. “Government needs to become bigger and more active.” No – government of persons needs to give way to administration of things.
  • 8. “The world economic system needs to ‘unfairly’ favour developing countries.” Yes – but not in the way the author means it. The world socialist system may at first need to favour populations which have the greatest deprivations.
  • Stan Parker

    THAT Student Demo

    Cross-posted from the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog


    On Wednesday 10 November, a demonstration, long planned and organised jointly by the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, took place in central London to protest against the government's cuts in education funding. The demonstration was expected to be the usual poorly attended, tame and boring affair – marching from one spot to another, waving placards, and chanting slogans.

    The reality was somewhat different. Around 52,000 university workers and students attended, and the demonstration quickly turned into "something resembling a Mardi Gras carnival", as a reporter for Red Pepper magazine put it. "The young faces and large grins, combined with incessant whistle-blowing, trumpet blasting and drum beating, all mixed together to form … a fun-filled, party-like atmosphere." A breakaway from the march, 200 strong according to a reporter from the Guardian, then broke into and occupied 30 Millbank, the Conservative party's campaign headquarters. Once inside, the demonstrators quietly staged a protest – alongside some minor scuffles with the police and a broken window, ludicrously blown up out of all proportion by the mainstream media – and issued some inspiring propaganda:

    "We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning."

    Commentators from both the Leninist and anarchist left predicted that the day marked the beginning of a new politics – another Poll Tax-style rebellion, according to some; a mass revolutionary insurrection a week Wednesday, according to others. Did the English revolution begin that day at Tory HQ?

    We in the Socialist Party are more cautious. We welcome any upsurge in the militancy and resistance and organisation of our class. But we also know, from bitter experience, that work of an altogether quieter, patient, more political kind is also needed. The skirmishes in the class war must be fought if we are not to be reduced to beasts of burden. But as human animals capable of rational thought and long-term planning, we must also seek to stop the skirmishes by winning the class war, and thereby ending it. This is only possible if the capitalist class is dispossessed of its wealth and power. That means that the working class as a whole must understand the issues, and organise and fight for these ends themselves – by organising a political party for the conquest of state power that will convert the means of production into the common property of the whole community.