Saturday, September 04, 2010

“23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism” is a slightly misleading title: for capitalism we should really substitute Neo-liberalism, and as a sustained demolition of the economic orthodoxies of the past thirty-plus years it’s a peerless piece of work. It is Neo-Keyensian, arguing for a large and economically intrusive state, especially a strong welfare state as fundamental to past and current economic success stories.

There’s no point in me paraphrasing Chang’s arguments and examples here, they’re clear and copious enough and he effectively condensed them all into an excellent Guardian leader a week or so ago. Suffice to say Chang’s future Capitalism looks a lot like old-style, post-war Socialism.
There are a couple of things of incidental interest in the book, the first one is the use of the Spanish expression “mas papista que el Papa”, “more papist than the Pope himself” to identify people who take and apply the authoritative doctrine more seriously than those authorities themselves. I couldn’t help but think of this in the context of the last 30 years of Neo-liberalism in the UK (the inglorious thirty years), not so much in regard to our fervour for the free-market surpassing that even of the States, but rather of each successive government’s attempting to outdo the previous incumbents in terms of their free market radicalism. Looking at both Major and Brown, it’s hard not to regret in some ways that they lost: there was in both a relative (I emphasise relative ) concern about the social cost of their economic policies. They had both been in politics for along time before they got their moment as PM, possibly losing their early zeal, both were succeeded by “mas papistas, keen to “modernize” as rapidly and as deeply as possible. Is it any surprise that Thatcher approved of Blair, who basically approves of Cameron. That each has seen the indirect successor as continuing their project?

The other is an implicit distinction in Chang’s book between specialized knowledge and general intelligence. Economic success, he argues, doesn’t really require economists but generally intelligent people of any background. We might add a third category to this: “common sense”. One of the frustrations of the past thirty years has been the friction between “general intelligence” and “common sense”. In a sense here I’m going to argue that general intelligence is non-ideological (or at least has yet to solidify into ideology) whereas “common sense” is the vulgarisation/popularization of “specific intelligence”, it’s the incorporation of “authoritative discourse” into everyday life. General intelligence is pitted against the follies both of specific intelligence and common sense, a kind of productive aporia between the two.
You would have to say Chang’s book is a spectacular victory on two fronts. The question is still, being pro-capital as he is (“least worst system” and all that) how he deals with David Harvey’s simple, pointed question as to where the future growth Chang believes a more mixed economy can deliver is going to come from? No insuperable limits to capital? This is perhaps the 24th point Chang doesn’t quite get round to addressing.

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