Tuesday, July 01, 2014

capitalists spread prosperity only when threatened by global rivalry, radical movements and the risk of uprisings at home

guardian |  Back in the 90s, I used to get into arguments with Russian friends about capitalism. This was a time when most young eastern European intellectuals were avidly embracing everything associated with that particular economic system, even as the proletarian masses of their countries remained deeply suspicious. Whenever I'd remark on some criminal excess of the oligarchs and crooked politicians who were privatising their countries into their own pockets, they would simply shrug.

"If you look at America, there were all sorts of scams like that back in the 19th century with railroads and the like," I remember one cheerful, bespectacled Russian twentysomething explaining to me. "We are still in the savage stage. It always takes a generation or two for capitalism to civilise itself."
"And you actually think capitalism will do that all by itself?"

"Look at history! In America you had your robber barons, then – 50 years later – the New Deal. In Europe, you had the social welfare state … "

"But, Sergei," I protested (I forget his actual name), "that didn't happen because capitalists just decided to be nice. That happened because they were all afraid of you."

He seemed touched by my naivety.

At that time, there was a series of assumptions everybody had to accept in order even to be allowed to enter serious public debate. They were presented like a series of self-evident equations. "The market" was equivalent to capitalism. Capitalism meant exorbitant wealth at the top, but it also meant rapid technological progress and economic growth. Growth meant increased prosperity and the rise of a middle class. The rise of a prosperous middle class, in turn, would always ultimately equal stable democratic governance. A generation later, we have learned that not one of these assumptions can any longer be assumed to be correct.

The real importance of Thomas Piketty's blockbuster, Capital in the 21st Century, is that it demonstrates, in excruciating detail (and this remains true despite some predictable petty squabbling) that, in the case of at least one core equation, the numbers simply don't add up. Capitalism does not contain an inherent tendency to civilise itself. Left to its own devices, it can be expected to create rates of return on investment so much higher than overall rates of economic growth that the only possible result will be to transfer more and more wealth into the hands of a hereditary elite of investors, to the comparative impoverishment of everybody else.