Hive Mentality: The Conflicts of Ethics and Politics
Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)
The Locast and the Bee: Predates and Creator in Capitalism's Future
Princeton University Press, 344pp, [pounds sterling]19.95
"Capitalism.' writes Geoff Mulgan, "is not so much an aberration as a step on an evolutionary path, and one that contains within it some of the answers to its own contradictions" In thinking of capitalism in this way, Mulgan voices a contemporary consensus. As advances in biology and genetics have promoted the belief that economic and political development can be understood in evolutionary terms, hundreds if not thousands of books have appeared in recent years claiming to explain the rise and development of capitalism as part of an ongoing process of social evolution.
This is not the first time that the idea of evolution has been invoked in this way_ Owing more to Engels than Marx, who knew too much about history to imagine that it could be understood in Darwinian terms, there has long berm a Mandan tradition that sees capitalism as a stage in social evolution. The current fashion for evolutionary theories of society has much in common with this view and quite a few of those who promote these ideas-including Mulgan-were influenced by Marxian thinking at an earlier stage in their careers.
Yet there is an important difference between the Mandan view and the prevailing consensus. Whereas Marx and Engels understood capitalism as being only one in a succession of economic systems and certainly not the last, today capitalism is seen as the end-point of social evolution.
The Locust and the Bee illustrates this shift. Mulgan is aware of the contingencies of history, pointing to a range of realistically possible futures, "from a future 'pax Sinica' overseen by a hegemonic China, to a more fractured global apartheid, or a world where the older powers of Europe and North America revive like phoenixes". He recognises that capitalism is continuously mutating: "All real capitalisms are impure hybrids, mongrels mixed with other strains." The book's first chapter is entitled "After Capitalism" and there are many suggestions that capitalist economies might evolve into something different. However, will what evolves be something other than capitalism or simply another version of it?
The assumption underlying Mulgan's analysis is that, for practical and political purposes, capitalism is the only game in town. At a global level, this may be right. Despite the financial crisis, there are no signs of any serious rival to capitalism emerging in the foreseeable future. Plainly Mulgan agrees but he seems reluctant to admit this. For him, capitalism is protean to the point of being indefinable in material terms: "It is at root an idea, an imaginary, a way of seeing the world. This idea is the single-minded pursuit of growth in value, or more specifically of growth in representations of value that can be exchanged with others."
I'm not altogether sure what that means but it's clear that capitalism is being detached from any particular mode of production. Using Mulgan's definition-which says nothing about property ownership or market forces-pretty well every economic system since the Renaissance has been capitalist. If the conquistadores aimed to increase value within the Spanish empire, Stalin's Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were equally committed to adding value in their respective systems. True, they had divergent conceptions of value and limited the scope of exchange in different ways but all three fit Mulgan's idea of capitalism as "the relentless pursuit of exchangeable value".
You might think the fact that virtually any modern economy would count as capitalist would limit the usefulness of such a definition. In the small world of British politics, however, the opposite is the case. As with Tony Blair's "third way" and David Cameron's "big society", an elastic understanding of capitalism allows governments to condemn the market's excesses while continuing to entrench market forces in every corner of society. …