Capitalism frequently embarrasses its more thin-skinned defenders: a group that, I kid you not, can include leading Conservative politicians. I’m sure Ted Heath, the Tories’ first non aristocratic leader, really meant it when in 1973 he castigated a sanctions-busting Lonhro, its pirate in chief Tiny Rowland, and what he famously called “the unacceptable face of capitalism”.
And I’m sure Theresa May really is ticked off at property speculators “who profit from building expensive properties rather than the quantities of new homes [Britain] needs” (Independent, March 5, 2018). You’d be ticked off too, in her shoes. What with the likes of Carillion showing the ugly mug of privatisation, and Jezza riding high on a public sensing it’s been royally shafted on a Share Owning Democracy, the last thing she needs is a building sector – up there with her party’s most generous backers – putting, gasp, profits before people. Or to be strictly accurate, being seen to put profits before people in ways that show up Mrs Thatcher’s vision of a Home Owning Democracy for the cruel fantasy it always was.
Because here’s the thing. In the main, capitalists aren’t the lying, top-hatted, scheming cads and bounders of comic villainy. The Tiny Rowlands of this world aside (a significant minority but a minority all the same) they believe capitalism delivers the best of all possible worlds. True, that belief is often self-serving when, as Upton Sinclair drily observed, “it’s hard to get a man to see a truth his salary depends on him not seeing”, but it is sincerely held nonetheless.
(What’s more, capitalists don’t much like corruption. The state most reverent of ‘free markets’ is also the one with the most swingeing penalties for its wrongdoers. Ask the aptly named Bernie Madoff, currently doing triple life1 for what in Britain would have earned him – assuming a jury savvy enough to comprehend what he’d been up to – a year or two tops. This truth was well put years ago when Chomsky told Andrew Marr that our rulers “don’t want society to be corrupt, they want it run in their interest. That’s a different thing. Corruption interferes with that.”)
In their faith in capitalism as overridingly beneficent, Ted and Theresa are as one with captains of industry and even, though this takes more of a stretch, with rentier capital. As one also, for all their seismic differences, with the left-liberals who detest them. The common denominator? All fail to see that capitalism is inhuman not because its agents and beneficiaries – the odd rotten apple in the eyes of Theresa May, the whole barrel in the eyes of left-liberals and parliamentary socialists – are Bad People. It’s inhuman because it’s beyond human control.
The reason they don’t get this is simple. They don’t understand its workings. This sounds daft but it’s true. At the heart of capitalism is profit. Few would dispute this, yet none of the groups I’ve mentioned understand how profit arises, far less where the logic of its origins takes it.
Each group has its reasons. Capitalists (industrial or financial) don’t need to understand profit. Would studying Smith, Ricardo and Marx enhance the ability of a George Soros or Bill Gates to amass even larger fortunes? Understanding profits, and maximising them, are poles apart: the one a social science, the other – if we’re feeling generous – an individual art form.
For their part economists can’t afford – pace Upton Sinclair – to understand profit when to do so must lay bare a truth neither Smith nor Ricardo (genuine inquirers, for all their errors) shied from: that at the heart of capitalist production, woven into the very fabric of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”, is the expropriation of value from the one commodity capable of producing it in quantities over and above its own. That commodity being human labour-power.
That same Sinclairian driver, stripped of the fancy and increasingly far-fetched obscurantism of economists from neo-Keynesian to Chicago School, applies to mainstream media. Journalists who know what’s good for them please editors. Editors who know what’s good for them please proprietors. Proprietors crave honours and need advertisers. Chomsky to Marr again:
They’re selling privileged audiences. These are big business, big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations. Now the question is, what picture of the world would a rational person expect to come out of this structure?
But what of left-liberals? What prevents them from grasping the origins of profit? What stops them understanding its laws of motion, in particular an inbuilt tendency – offset only by crisis, privatisation and wholesale destruction of capital through warfare – for average rates of profit to decline? 2
I don’t want to get sidetracked too far here into what’s become a minor obsession of mine: why I disagree – most painfully on Syria and Russia, Brexit and Obama/Clinton – with good friends, left-liberals whose values, principles and aesthetic sensibilities I share. But there’s a connection to be made before I get back to Theresa’s builders. Few of these friends are fond of capitalism. Fewer still, however, grasp its full and chilling logic. If they did, they wouldn’t be quite so quick to damn Assad and Putin, nor to credit the EU with a scintilla of internationalism, nor yet to see in Donald Trump some new and horrifying departure from civilised values, as espoused by his predecessors at the helm of the planet’s most rapacious capitalism.
Those left-liberal friends, you see, also have reasons for not getting it. For one thing it can be daunting work, with few career pay-offs. (Even academia, where one can make a decently paid career as a marxist, tends to favour its ‘cultural’ forms rather than the radical political economy at its heart.) Another is that they, like me, have prospered tolerably well under an unusual stage of its development as Western imperialism. Disliking capitalism on ground of its unfairness to others is one thing. Detesting and fearing it because its military wing death-bombed your once advanced middle east economy back into the middle ages is another.
But for whatever reason, few left-liberals understand capitalism, and that failure leads them to serious misunderstanding. It’s true most will groan at May’s rebuke to Big Builders: stop right now or I’ll say ‘stop’ again! But they’ll groan either because they don’t think she really is cross, or because they know her words are empty. On one thing we can be sure: if Britain’s housing crisis could be put right without serious offence to really existing capitalism, the silver bullet would have been fired long ago.
A smaller group of left-liberals really do get that, were those property developers to act as May would have them act, they’d be in breach of legal obligations – competent stewardship and all – to maximise shareholder returns. Seeing this is a step in the right direction but the reason few link this realisation to wars hot and cold, and to reckless disregard for our natural environment, is a failure to generalise.
In some this manifests in narrow sectionalism, for example the limited outlook of much – not all – trade union consciousness. In the intelligentsia, where left-liberalism is strong, it takes the form of prioritising identity politics and failing to see that privatisation is privatisation – a shot in the arm for profits by transferring wealth from the many to the few – be it in the UK’s NHS, a dismantled USSR or an Iraq in smoking ruins.
But back to Theresa’s dressing down of those Rude Builders. She wants them to behave better. She may even believe – I doubt it but must leave room for the possibility – she can make them behave better, without taking measures that would threaten the holy market forces she and the party she has the unenviable task of leading have dedicated their existences to facilitating. If so, then Theresa May – like those who think the chances of a more caring America were lost at the ballot box in November 2016 – is sadly deluded.
- After pleading guilty to eleven federal felonies, including securities fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, false statements, perjury, theft from an employee benefit plan, and false filings with America’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Madoff was sentenced to 150 years.
- This despite, if not aggravated by, interventions of both neoliberal and Keynesian stripe when both are premised, for all their oppositionality, on an ideologically driven failure to act on the reality that profitability drives production, not vice versa.