A Stake through the Heart of Old Simplicities

Article excerpt

The dismissive mockery with which Michael Portillo and Ken Livingstone greeted Tony Blair's Singapore call for a stakeholder economy is more revealing than the applause it evoked in other quarters.

Not for the first - or the last - time, the New Right and the Old Left are at one. Neither understands what Blair is saying, but both sense that he spells death to the old politics in which both are mired. Both are afraid of him; and both clothe their fears in a world-weary superciliousness.

For the New Right and Old Left are prisoners of a mind-set which has dominated political discourse for the greater part of this century, and to which the very idea of moving towards a stakeholder economy is alien. That mind-set was both child and parent of the great ideological contest between socialism and capitalism which began in the closing decades of the 19th century, and which lasted until the closing decades of this.

The view of the world that it engendered was Manichaean: light against darkness, good against evil, progress against reaction. For Manichaeans, the notion that reality consists of different shades of grey is at once inconceivable and terrifying. But the Manichaean ascendancy has ended with the end of the Cold War. On the economic plane, though only on the economic plane, the contest between socialism and capitalism has resulted in a conclusive victory for capitalism. The socialist ethic of solidarity and fellowship is as compelling as ever. In some ways, it is even more compelling now than it was 100 years ago, for it alone offers an answer to the deadly cocktail of Sixties social individualism and Eighties economic individualism that threatens to drown us all.

The economics of socialism, on the other hand, have been fatally discredited. The primordial socialist assumption that central planning and public ownership were, by definition, more efficient than market co-ordination and private ownership - an assumption held as fervently by respectable British Fabians as by ruthless Russian Bolsheviks - has turned out to be the reverse of the truth. If productive power is the test of a social system, then the capitalist market economy is the most successful social system ever known.

But this is only the beginning of the story. The neo-liberal triumphalists of the early Nineties, who confused the economic victory of capitalism with the end of history, were premature. What we have in fact entered is a new historical chapter, enormously richer and more confusing than the last, in which the terrible simplicities of the past 100 years no longer have meaning.

The question is no longer whether capitalism should be replaced by socialism, or the market by the state. It is what kind of capitalism we should embrace, where the boundaries of the marketplace should lie, how and by whom markets should be regulated. Behind these questions loom more fundamental ones.

Granted that capitalism has won the economic battle and granted, too, that the socialist ethic is even more sorely needed than it used to be, what form of capitalism is most congruent with that ethic? Granted that the production of most goods and services should be governed by market criteria, what kind of market economy is most likely to sustain a vibrant public domain, strong enough to nurture the community values which make a healthy civil society possible and governed by the principles of citizenship and solidarity?

For now that we have emerged, eyes blinking, into the post-Cold War daylight, we can see that capitalist market economies are not all of a piece. No doubt they all spring from the same fundamental propensity to truck, barter and exchange which Adam Smith thought intrinsic to human nature. But, like all the great universalist simplifiers, from Plato to Marx to Hayek, Smith obscured as much as he illuminated. Sexual desire is also intrinsic to human nature. …