An unpopular confession

It isn’t often I give up on a book, still less one that has arrive garlanded with praise, and which I’m predisposed to agree with. However, I can’t manage another word of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

From what I’d gathered from early reviews, her argument is that Google and Facebook have become too big, deploy great power unaccountably, pose grave threats to democracy and accumulate for profit masses of data about all the individuals using their services. It’s rather hard to disagree with this, and indeed legislators and regulators around the world are gearing up to respond, albeit more slowly than would have been ideal. Only this month Germany’s Bundeskartellamt banned Facebook from connecting data about individuals from different sources, and India forbade Amazon to sell its own products on its platform. Those with powers to fine and to put people in prison are coming for the digital usurpers.

Having read a few chapters, this is still what I take the argument to be. You just wouldn’t know it from the extraordinarily impenetrable language. For example:

“Surveillance capitalism rules by instrumentarian power through its materialization in Big Other, which, like the ancient tyrant, exists out of mankind while paradoxically assuming human shape.”

Or:

“As for the Spanish Data Protection Agency and the European Court of Justice, the passage of time is likely to reveal their achievements [with regard to the right to be forgotten] as stirring an early chapter in the longer story of our fight for a third modern that is first and foremost a human future, rooted in an inclusive democracy and committed to an individual’s right to effective life. Their message is carefully inscribed for our children to ponder: technological inevitability is as light as democracy is heavy, as temporary as the scent of rose petals and the taste of honey are enduring.” [italics hers]

There are over 500 pages of this, and it was too much when I found myself having to read everything several times to work out the meaning. What’s more, there are some analytical lacunae – no Bentham, no Foucault in a book about surveillance? And Zuboff clearly believes what the digital titans claim about the effectiveness of their data gathering in selling us; yet we’ve all had the experience of being followed by ads for the thing we just bought or being creeped out by evidence of such joining up in a way that will make us never shop at a certain outlet again. They have become conduits for alarming shifts in people’s beliefs and behaviour, for sure, but in an accidental way. I don’t know if it would be more or less scary if they were actually in control of the social trends they’ve unleashed.

Mine is a minority view, as all the reviews of the book I’ve seen have been almost adulatory. No doubt you should believe those who had more patience than me and read the whole damn thing.

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State, market – and community

Raghuram Rajan is best known for publicly warning of an impending financial crisis in August 2005, at the annual Jackson Hole conference, for which he was mocked by some of the big names present. He then wrote one of the best books about the underlying causes of the crisis, Fault Lines, still well worth reading. Subsequently he was the highly respected central bank governor of India. Not surprisingly, I was very much looking forward to his new book, The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind. The subtitle says it all, and I couldn’t agree more. There is a false dichotomy in much public debate, the claim that organising the economy is a matter of either the state or the market, whereas it is impossible to disentangle the two. But more than this, other non-market, non-state institutions are part of the economic system too. This includes businesses – as Herb Simon once pointed out – but also the kind of institutions Rajan considers in this book, civic and above all local organisations responding to specific local need.

He opens by stating: “In my adult life, I have never been more concerned about the direction our leaders are taking us than I am today.” Surely this sense that capitalism and liberal democracy are fundamentally broken is widespread. The argument here is that part of the solution is to recognise the importance of the neighbourhood and include it as part of the balance of a mixed economy. In a sense community and market are at different ends of a spectrum – from personal relationships to anonymity, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Rajan argues for some decisions to be taken at the level of the community, rather than the remoter processes of market and state.

The first part of the book is a concise historical survey looking at the emergence of the state and the market. The second part turns to the context of modern capitalism, driven toward the goal of shareholder value maximisation, and fuelled by technological innovation and automation. Rajan is highly critical of the shareholder value mantra – and it’s interesting to see a growing chorus of criticism of Milton Friedman’s toxic contribution to capitalism, such as Colin Mayer’s recent Prosperity. Rajan points out: “When an enormous source of independent power, the private sector, is passive or, worse, rendered suspect in the eyes of the community because its every action has to be in pursuit of corporate profits, there are fewer checks on the arbitrary power of the state.” He argues that the “enormous gamble” states took in the early years of the 21st century – that borrowing in deregulated financial markets would be the source of broad-based sustainable growth – utterly failed. Populism is thus the legacy of the financial crisis.

The book then considers some of the manifestations of the failed gamble, and this echoes a now sadly all too familiary genre studying the decline of communities around all the western economies, such as Janesville and The Unwinding. Rajan advocates the devolution of power, “from the international sphere to nations, and within nations from the federal to the regional to the community level.” The Third Pillar needs to be reinvigorated. There needs to be more scope for people to fill in gaps left by formal economic structures, to experiment with structures of political and economic governance, to create meaningful, non-market local work. I agree with this, again, but the book wisely accepts that this is not easy and local success will be slow. There is a bootstrapping process to get localities onto a virtous circle.

Rajan does not offer specific proposals, and in a way could not because it’s in the nature of local solutions not to be easy to generalise. It would be well worth trying to understand more systematically what kinds of decisions are best taken at what level of governance – as far as I know there is relatively little social science on this, although it’s easy enough to see that, say, climate change policy or digital competition policy needs international co-operation, whereas public services could be far more devolved and differentiated. The issue of Victorian institutional innovation also intrigues me: among the responses to the Industrial Revolution were the emergence of trade unions, mutual savings societies, working men’s literary and philosophical clubs, co-operatives…. is there any comparable social innovation today, and is anybody tracking it and sharing the lessons?

The Third Pillar is published in a couple of weeks, available for pre-order now. It’s author was very right in 2007. He’s very right again now.

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The future of capitalism?

The Future of Capitalism, Paul Collier’s new book, is not a small subject. In fact, the first half of the book is largely retrospective, looking at how capitalism got into today’s mess. There is a particular focus on the loss of moral compass in the organising structures of collective life – the family, the firm, the state. This echoes a number of authors identifying growing individualism, fed by the ideology of ‘the market’, as a corrosive force progressively undermining the conditions that enable it – Bell’s phrase ‘the cultural contradictions of capitalism‘ encapsulates it neatly.

Collier – a distinguished economist whose career has centred on developing economies –  expresses this critique with eloquence and conviction. He has a particular focus on the role of economic theory in validating self-serving behaviours such as bosses paying themselves hundreds of times more than their workers, and sketches an alternative approach to economics which embeds social norms and social influences on preferences. He blames the utilitarian and Rawlsian approaches to ethics, and advocates the communitarian alternative. I’m not persuaded by communitarianism, but surely you have to be pretty obtuse – a banker, maybe – to disagree with the diagnosis. Nobody thinks capitalism is doing just great at the moment.

It is of course harder to address the challenges than to diagnose them, and in a short book like this you can’t expect a detailed policy agenda. The book identifies three divides to be tackled: between successful global cities and ‘left behind’ places (although he deoesn’t use this term); between the skilled, well-paid, globe-trotting elite and the rest; between the rich and poor countries. It ends with the observation that capitalism is the only economic order capable of creating mass prosperity, but that it has not worked to do so since the 1945-70 period. This skates over the evident failings of postwar capitalism, which created the conditions for the ideological turn of the 1970s: inflation, shoddy nationalised industries, insider-outside labour markets and so on. Still, the suggestion here is that what’s needed is a combination of a rediscovery of ethics by political leaders (I’m not holding my breath on this front) and the shaping of identity around a shared sense of belonging to a place (rather than the more abstract ‘nation’ or identity-politics groupings).

This left me feeling a bit depressed. I can’t shake the feeling, despite only listening to the news while hiding behind the sofa these days, that it will take some cataclysmic event to reset current political dynamics. Another aspect of the turn to individualism in the 1970s was the existence of an intellectual framework on which to hang the political transformation, and I don’t see as yet a sufficiently broad and consistent alternative to the isolated individual, self-interested, rational choice model. Something for us economists to work on – as indeed Collier and others have started to do.

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Morals and economics

Every time I read something about Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation – and it’s in vogue now – I go back to my copy and confirm how much it annoys me. It’s the over-statement or pomposity that does it, rather than the broad outlines: markets mean inevitable cataclysm. “Our thesis is that the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.” He goes on to argue that the social crises and conflicts of the early 20th century were caused by the disruption to the market and economy caused by the reactions to the market forces leading to social annihilation.

Similar arguments have been made by many others, from Daniel Bell (The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism) to any number of left-leaning authors. The Moral Economists by Tim Rogan puts Polanyi in the context of a succession of critics of capitalism, preceded by R.H.Tawney and succeeded by E.P.Thompson, whose common territory was a rejection of utilitarianism: “The moral economists argued that the solidarities they found in Lancashire, Red Vienna and Yorkshire harbored unique promise: here social interaction was more meaningful than utilitarian analyses allowed, without becoming regimented in the way of so many contemporary social experiments.” They shared a more rounded sense of human personality than homo economicus in the utilitarian analyses, as well as a conviction about the role of social interaction and solidarity in economic outcomes. Tawney, for instance, opposed Fabian socialism because of its dry utilitarianism.

Rogan gives Polanyi a sympathetic reading, noting that he regarded Adam Smith as a moral economist, with the decline into ‘economism’ coming later – this is a reading of Smith, and emphasis on The Moral Sentiments, that has become more prominent in the past decade or so. The Moral Economists argues that the Tawney/Polanyi intellectual agenda was stymied, however, by the postwar turn away from religion in particular and traditional moralism in general. For this reason, it argues, E.P.Thompson was unable to reinvigorate the moral critique of capitalism. However, Rogan asks, surely the critics of contemporary capitalism need to restore a role for morality or virtue in a secular world?

The book ends with a section on the inadequacy of modern welfare economics based on the Pareto optimality idea, and is sympathetic to Sen’s approach. I agree about this. Rogan ends: “Politics pervades commercial societies, frustrating technocratic visionaries of the 21st century [Bell would agree about this too] just as it confounded the goat-and-greyhound utilitarians of the 19th century. … In an age of extremes, the moral economists discovered in their midst the elements of humane, solidaristic, low-key and non-authoritarian politics of reform.” Can we do the same in today’s context of extremes and the all-too-apparent flaws of the current version of capitalism?

It’s an interesting book, and I agreed with much of the argument about putting virtue back into economics, although I find ‘capitalism’ (without further explanation) an unhelpful abstraction looking across such a long and eventful timespan.

(But I’m still not going to change my mind about Polanyi.)

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There is no alternative?

Is Capitalism Obsolete by Giacomo Corneo is framed as an exploration of alternatives to capitalism by an economics professor father to his idealistic daughter. The Prologue is an email exchange between them, in which she writes: “Your economic system is wasteful, unjust and alienating. And wastefulness, injustive and alienation are not the result of some natural law. They are the result of particular social rules, the rules of capitalism. And keep in mind that the capitalist economic system is the product of a relatively short period in history. Just as it once emerged, it will one day decline and be replaced with a better set of rules.”

Set up in this way, the book explores some of the alternative models posited at various times, from Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia through anarchism and socialist planning to modern variants including ‘shareholder socialism’ (state ownership of key industries) and the currently fashionable cure-all, Universal Basic Income. At the end of this journey, the economist concludes: “There is, at present, not really much else on offer.” However unfair, wasteful etc capitalism is, there is no convincingly superior alternative. Instead, the author proposes a range of reforms – cracking down on cross-border tax avoidance/evasion, investing in infrastructure & public services etc – concluding, “A pluralist market economy with an effective and generous welfare state represents the best economic system that is currently available to us.” An appendix contains a more detailed specific reform proposal, the idea that the state should invest in quoted companies to build up a socially responsible sovereign wealth fund paying a social dividend to citizens.

I have never found the abstraction ‘capitalism’ a helpful term when it encompasses societies as contrasting as Norway and the United States, and have always quite liked the slightly out-of-fashion ‘varieties of capitalism‘ approach. Even if you think the term useful, though, looking at the news this past week, Corneo is surely rather optimistic here in seeing any possibility for reform. Capitalism might be declining, as the daughter asserts, but it looks more likely to be replaced by something worse, call it plutocracy, than by something better.

This is a slighly odd book. I guess it’s meant to be pedagogical, taking students on a tour of historical thinking about economic systems, but this makes the framing material about the current day rather perfunctory, and then the actual reform proposal is stuck in an appendix. Although a mildly diverting read, I’m not sure it works well either as a history of thought book or as a current affairs one.

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