judging capitalism

This post by my friend Adam Roberts is precisely right about the total disappearance of anything that might plausibly be called conservatism from the Anglo-American political scene. But of course I mainly want to argue with him, focusing on two points.


First, regarding Adam’s reading of Burke. He quotes a passage from Burke’s book on the French Revolution – “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors” – and comments that “This is more like the caricature ‘conservative’, hostile to innovation not on a case-by-case basis, but on principle.” But I don’t think that’s right. Burke is not hostile to innovation but to the spirit of innovation, which (for him) is a very different thing. It is the disposition to innovate that Burke deplores, a thoughtlessness in change, choosing the Innovate setting as the default, like Times New Roman.

After all, in the very same book Burke asserts that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.” Innovation then is sometimes necessary because circumstances alter – as Adam notes, Burke thinks a lot about circumstances – but also because politics is just fiendishly difficult. “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.”

Moreover, our ancestors were not perfect in wisdom. Burke never suggests otherwise! But he does insist that our ancestors “handed down” certain good things to us – else we would not be here – and that we owe them a debt for that. The past for Burke is “hallowed,” as Adam says, but in this specific sense: We are here because of it, so we ought to reflect seriously on what we have been given and not allow a “spirit of innovation” to blind us to our debts. This is really just Chesterton’s Fence avant la lettre. As Chesterton wrote in his essay “The Drift From Domesticity,”

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Note that the destruction of the fence is not forbidden – it may be, indeed, that the fence needs to be torn down – but “the more modern type of reformer,” possessed by the spirit of innovation, is not in a position to know Yea or Nay. He is the embodiment in practical action of the attitude Mill, in On Liberty, deplores in thought: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” Until the Modern Reformer knows why the fence is there, he has no grounds for either tearing it down or leaving it up.


Immediately after noting Burke’s comment on the spirit of innovation, Adam continues,

the biggest differences between most people in 2020 and most people in 1820 are the advantages innovation has bestowed: better technologies and agricultural knowledge so we’re all better and more cheaply clothed and better (more nutritously) and more cheaply fed; better medical knowledge and technology; and a panoply of labour-saving devices and machines have freed us — the last type of innovation has disproportionately freed women, a group in whom Burke seems, simply, uninterested — from gruelling and sometimes deadly bondage.

All fair, I would say. But how to reconcile this with something Adam writes earlier in the essay?

As a leftie what I sometimes hear is: ‘Communism is a fine idea in principle; but we tried it, in practice, and it doesn’t work.’ The thing is, and speaking ex cathedra as a Professor of 19th-century Literature and Culture, I can say: we also tried full capitalism and it absolutely does not work. We tried it in the UK from the middle of the 1700s (and especially from the New Poor Laws of the 1830s) through to the Liberal government’s introduction of welfare reforms in the early 1900s. It made a tiny fraction prodigiously wealthy and it impoverished or starved the majority.

The very period of unbridled capitalism that Adam so powerfully denounces is, strangely, the one in which the innovations he celebrates were either achieved or initiated or dramatically forwarded. And if Deirdre McCloskey is right, that era did not impoverish or starve the majority, but rather increased their well-being to an almost inconceivable degree, though at a much lesser degree than it enriched the captains of industry. Surely the real picture is far more complex than Adam suggests.

I am reminded here of a critic of the most recent form of capitalism: John Lanchester, in his book How to Speak Money. In the book’s first section, Lanchester describes the trade-off involved in adopting a neoliberal economic policy, as someone like McCloskey would see it:

In a free market system, the rich will always accumulate capital and income faster than the poor; it’s a law as basic as that of gravity. The promise of neoliberalism is that that doesn’t matter, as long as the poor are getting richer too. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the cliché has it. It lifts the rich boats quicker, but in the neoliberal scheme of things that’s not a problem. Inequality isn’t just the price you pay for rising prosperity; inequality is what makes rising prosperity possible. The increase in inequality therefore isn’t just some nasty accidental side effect of neoliberalism; it’s the motor driving the whole economic process.

Lanchester makes it clear, repeatedly, that he thinks this is a completely unsustainable philosophy. But then, near the end of the book, he poses a little thought experiment: “I’d like you to take a moment to think about what you think is humanity’s greatest collective achievement: the single best thing we have all done together.” His answer:

On 29 February 2012, the World Bank announced that the proportion of the planet’s population living in absolute poverty – less than $1.25 a day – had halved from 1990 to 2010. That rate of poverty reduction, driven by economic growth across the world from China to Ghana, is unprecedented in global history. Just imagine: in 20 years there are half as many absolutely poor people. And the success story of improvement in our collective living conditions doesn’t stop there. Consider child mortality, which for any parent is the most important number there is. (It’s pretty important for any child, too.) This has been the subject of a precipitate decline. In 1990, 12.4 million children were dying every year under the age of five. Today that number is 6.6 million. That’s obviously 6.6 million child deaths too many, but it is 16,438 fewer child deaths every day…. that’s 11 children’s lives being saved every minute. Does any other achievement in human history match that?

It’s important to note that this improvement has happened during precisely the period during which Lanchester says that the neoliberal order has “unraveled” and even “fallen apart.” So here’s my question for Lanchester: if the greatest achievement in human history has been accomplished under the reign of the neoliberal economic order, then why shouldn’t we be enthusiastic proponents of the neoliberal economic order?

In the last words of the book, Lanchester writes,

It may be that we have to settle for a world that is mainly getting richer, whose citizens are living longer, and whose richest countries are enjoying slower growth, but also a more equal, more satisfying, more mindful way of life. When people say, “it can’t go on like this,” what usually happens is that it does go on like that, more extendedly and more painfully than anyone could possibly imagine; it happens in relationships, in jobs, in entire countries. It goes way way past the point of bearability. And then things suddenly and abruptly change. I think that’s where we are today.

A world that is mainly getting richer and who citizens are living longer and healthier lives is also, somehow, at the same time, going on past the point of bearability? What’s unbearable about the world in which poverty is dramatically decreasing and child mortality dramatically declining? Lanchester goes from saying in one sentence that things are improving remarkably to saying in the next sentence that our condition is unbearable. You can see his confusion in how he begins that paragraph by suggesting that we “may have to settle” for a world more-or-less like the one we have now, but ends the paragraph by suggesting that we won’t settle and that therefore some abrupt change is coming. Which is it?

In any case, I think both Lanchester and Adam exhibit a similar contradiction in their account of what life has been like under capitalism.

As for me: I don’t like capitalism, just as I don’t like state socialism. All of my sympathies are with some version of anarcho-syndicalism, with endeavors like the Mondragon Corporation. But how am I supposed to ignore the astonishing increases in standards of living, health, life expectancy, and so on that have precisely coincided with the dominance of global capitalism? That’s not the whole story, but surely it is a big part of the story. How to factor that in without losing sight of the contributions of (for instance) social solidarity and intact and functioning families to human flourishing? That’s the question that I think both Adam and Lanchester let slip.

I think those of us – whether socialist or anarchist in orientation – who would like to see a social and economic order that eliminates plutocracy, that features more equality, that does not depredate families or fray the bonds of affection among fellow citizens, need to acknowledge that any structural moves in that direction will almost certainly impede innovation, including some very valuable innovation. A price will be paid, and, if we were to get our way, we would surely often wonder whether that price is too high.

This is why there’s no political thinker I admire more than Ursula K. Le Guin. In, for instance, The Dispossessed – about which I wrote a bit here – she shows an anarchist society in practice, and in addition to showing what’s beautiful about it she shows what doesn’t work, she shows the problems that anarchism doesn’t know how to solve, perhaps because they are insoluble. The people on Anarres would love to think that all of their problems are caused by the asperities of their environment and the selfishness of Urras, but Le Guin compassionately yet sternly reveals that that is not true. Yes, their environment and their powerful planetary neighbor limit their flourishing; but so too do their own decisions, and, at times, a social system which is powerless to alter those decisions. (A similar story could be told about the society of the Kesh in Always Coming Home.) Le Guin is a lefty anarchist and in no way a conservative, but in certain key respects her themes rhyme with Burke: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.”